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In economic downturn, an uptick in couples living together before marriage

By Jeremy Olson
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 6:34 PM

MINNEAPOLIS - Jessica Peltier and her boyfriend sure look like a married couple - they live together, drive their 3-year-old daughter to dance class at the YMCA and bicker over laundry or empty cans sitting around.

The only thing missing, it seems, is the marriage.

"We plan on getting married," Peltier said, "when money permits."

It's a common story growing more common in the economic downturn. New U.S. Census Bureau estimates show that the number of unmarried couples living together spiked nationally during the recent recession.

Demographers believe the increase is due to couples delaying marriage because of the cost, avoiding marriage altogether or moving in without a long-term plan because of short-term financial pressures.

While cohabitation has increased over 30 years, the uptick surprised experts. The Current Population Survey showed an increase nationally from 6.7 million unmarried couples living together in 2009 to 7.5 million couples in 2010. Census researcher Rose Kreider figured the 13 percent jump was a mistake.

"Usually when you see a big change like that," she said, "we've done something wrong."

Kreider verified the increase and found a likely explanation: Couples who recently moved in together were less likely to have jobs than couples who lived together more than a year.

Joblessness "might be one of the push factors getting these couples to say, 'Okay, do we really need two addresses? Maybe it's just time we moved in,' " she said.

The "living in sin" stigma is less than it was 30 years ago, when landlords denied apartments to unmarried couples, said Steven Ruggles, director of the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota.

But it hasn't disappeared.

After Jenifer Wical moved in with her boyfriend in Andover, she learned that her church wouldn't perform their wedding ceremony unless they first got legally married or moved apart. The middle-age couple instead hired a pastor to marry them at a Wisconsin vineyard. The savings from living together made it affordable.

Most unmarried couples who live together will split up or get married within two years, said Sheela Kennedy, a University of Minnesota demographer who studies cohabitation. Only 14 percent are unmarried and living together five years later.

Beyond economics, more cohabitation is because of couples who have children but don't get married, Kennedy said.

For others, moving in is a "natural extension of dating," she said. "First you leave a toothbrush, and then maybe some clothes, and then eventually it doesn't make sense to pay rent on two apartments."

Natalie Lemke moved in last year with her boyfriend, David, after he needed surgery and wasn't strong enough to work. "At first he was just 'staying' with me," Lemke said. "After a few months, it just seemed right to move in together."

They married last month.

Peltier and her boyfriend, Andrew Demeny, pay rent to live in her mother's basement.

Eventually, the couple plan to marry and move out. Peltier, 22, is a nanny, and her boyfriend is a security guard at Menards. He plans to train as an auto mechanic, and she is on a waiting list for dentistry school.

Census data can't discern whether couples living together will marry when the economy and job outlooks improve.

"People could be deciding, 'We've got to put off the marriage because we don't have a job,' " Ruggles said. "That seems very plausible. We could have pent-up demand then if we get out of the recession."

However, delays in major life events can become permanent. Births typically decline in recessions, for example, and don't fully rebound when the economy improves, said state demographer Tom Gillaspy. That might prove true for delayed marriages.

Another concern is whether couples thrust together because of anxiety or economic distress are even compatible.

"It reminds me of . . . the start of World War II, when couples rushed to marry because they didn't know if the soldier would return," said Judy Watson Tiesel, a marriage counselor in Edina. "After the war the divorce rates spiked to an alarming level, due in part to couples who rushed to the altar out of fears or before they really knew each other."

On the other hand, moving in together can be a boost for healthy couples, said the Rev. Frank Nelson, a pre-marriage counselor in Woodbury.

"Couples who have lived together are far more ready for marriage, because they've lived together," he said. "They've seen what their partners look like at their worst and their best, and they still love them."

- Star Tribune

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