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Fewer Americans are getting married, and the number of couples living together out of wedlock continues to grow, according to a new study.

The number of unmarried couples is 12 times higher than it was four decades ago, according to a report Tuesday by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

“It is estimated that about a quarter of unmarried women age 25 to 39 are currently living with a partner and an additional quarter have lived with a partner at some time in the past,” said co-authors David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. “Over half of all first marriages are now preceded by living together, compared to virtually none 50 years ago.”

The study says for many, cohabitation is a prelude to marriage or an alternative to living alone. For a “small but growing number,” however, it is considered an alternative to marriage.

The marriage rate for women has dropped by nearly half since 1970. Seventy-seven of every 1,000 women got married sometime during the year 1976. In 2004, it was fewer than 40 per 1,000.

“It is important to note that the decline in marriage does not mean that people are giving up on living together with a sexual partner,” the authors report. “On the contrary, with the incidence of unmarried cohabitation increasing rapidly, marriage is giving ground to unwed unions. Most people now live together before they marry for the first time. An even higher percentage of those divorced who subsequently remarry live together first. And a growing number of persons, both young and old, are living together with no plans for eventual marriage.”

The trend, the authors say, tends to ignore “the surprising economic benefits” of marriage.

The institution of marriage “provides a wealth-generation bonus,” they say, by “providing economies of scale”—i.e. two can live more cheaply than one—and by encouraging “economic specialization,” where partners working as a couple can develop skills in which they excel, while leaving others to their spouse.

Married couples also save and invest more for the future, and “can act as a small insurance pool” against uncertainties like illness and loss of a job.

Beyond advantages for married couples themselves, the authors say marriage “has a tremendous economic impact on society.”

It is a major factor in higher family incomes, while research shows that both divorce and bearing children out of wedlock increase child poverty.

“Married couples create more economic assets on average than do otherwise similar singles or cohabiting couples,” the study says.

The decline in marriages has helped bring down the divorce rate, which peaked in the early 1980s but has declined modestly ever since. The lifetime possibility of divorce is still between 40 and 50 percent, the study says, but it is much lower for couples who are well-educated, who marry after age 21 and those who are religiously committed.

The authors challenged conventional wisdom that living together is a useful way to find out if a couple can get along before committing to a marriage. “In fact, a substantial body of evidence indicates that those who live together before marriage are more likely to break up after marriage,” the say.

That evidence is controversial, however, because it is unclear whether the experience of cohabitation leads to eventual breakup, or if those predisposed to live together first have characteristics different from those who marry right away.

The study notes the presence of children in America has declined significantly since 1960, when nearly half of all families included children. The figure now is one in three, and is projected to drop to 28 percent by 2010.

The decline, it says “has reduced the child-centeredness of our nation” and thereby “contributed to the weakening of the institution of marriage.”

The percentage of children who grow up in “fragile” families, typically without a father, meanwhile, “has grown enormously over the past four decades.” This is due to increases in divorce, out-of-wedlock births and unmarried cohabitation.

While the trend toward fragile families leveled off in the late 1990s, the most recent figures show a slight increase.

One reason is that the percentage of unwed mothers has increased six-fold since 1960. More than a third of all births, and two-thirds of black births, were out of wedlock in 2003.

“The trend toward single-parent families is probably the most important of the recent family trends that have affected children and adolescents,” the report says. “This is because children in such families have negative life outcomes at two to three times the rate of children in married, two-parent families.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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