Over sixty percent of first-time marriages are preceded by cohabitation, according to the University of Virginia's National Marriage Project, which reports a 17-fold increase in the practice since 1960.
Cohabitation has become so accepted and commonplace that for many couples it is not the result of a conscious decision or even a conversation. Instead, notes clinical psychologist Meg Jay, more often it "just happens," as a couple slides, ever so surely, from dating, to having sex, to sleeping over, to sleeping over a lot, to moving in together without discussing goals or expectations.
Today, nearly 50 percent of women aged 25-39 admit to living, or having lived, with an unmarried partner. Most do so in hopes that the relationship will move to marriage. For most men, it is a "test drive" that allows them to postpone commitment while enjoying the benefits of available sex.
Predictably, women who acquiesce to an unbinding relationship set themselves up for frustration, disappointment, and objectification. Take "Jennifer," who told Dr. Jay she felt that her boyfriend was never committed to her and that she "was on this multiyear, never-ending audition to be his wife." Although they were eventually married, a year afterward Jennifer was seeking divorce.
Counting the costs
Contrary to the hopes of most women, cohabitation actually decreases their chance of getting married in their prime childbearing years, as a 2012 CDC survey reported. For those who do reach the altar, like Jennifer, there are increased risks of marital dissatisfaction, marital problems and divorce -- especially if they cohabited before engagement -- which carry emotional, psychological, and financial costs that far outweigh any economic benefits that might have used to rationalize their "decision."
And there are social costs as well.
As the incidence of cohabitation shot up, the marriage rate plummeted (and is now at a historic low) and the out-of-wedlock birth rate skyrocketed (now at a record high). So, no longer can one assume that a pregnant woman is married or will be married.
Instead, after pregnancy, more couples are choosing cohabitation over marriage according to the National Center for Health Statistics. And that exacts a cost on their children, who, the National Institutes of Health reports, fare worse academically, cognitively, socially, and behaviorally than children raised by married biological parents.
What's more, the cohabiters’ increased risk of divorce transfers the increased risks to children of fatherless homes, poverty, neglect, child abuse, and delinquency. And that's for children whose parents want them. For the rest, it's adoption or abortion.
How did we get here? Continue reading here