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By Belinda Luscombe
November 6, 2019
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Luscombe is an editor-at-large at TIME and the author of Marriageology: The Art and Science of Staying Together.

More Americans have lived with a romantic partner than have married one, a new study from Pew Research shows. And only a small minority of people now see unwed couples living together as anything to get upset about. Despite this, married people still report more satisfaction with their relationship, more closeness to their partner and a lot more trust in them.

These two seemingly confounding trends — a societal acceptance of not marrying alongside a personal preference for being married — mirror much of what is happening to the institution in the U.S. It’s having an identity crisis. While marriage is no longer a must-do, it’s not quite clear what it’s becoming instead — a reward? A luxury? A parenting arrangement? It’s almost as if America and marriage haven’t had that Define The Relationship talk yet. A marriage certificate ranks low on the things people think are necessary for a fulfilling life and yet the number of Americans who are currently married (53%) completely dwarves the number of unmarried people who currently live together (7%).

Pew’s study, which uses data from a nationally representative survey of nearly 10,000 Americans over 18 as well as from the National Survey of Family Growth, heralds a turning point in the makeup of the American family. As recently as 2002, those who had lived with a romantic partner (54%) were outnumbered by those who had married one (60%). Now those proportions are almost reversed, with 59% of Americans having ever cohabited and only half having ever married.

Unsurprisingly, this change has been accompanied by a marked shift in attitudes toward the different kind of household arrangements. Almost seven in ten people see nothing wrong with lovers living together even if they don’t intend to get married. The remaining 30% are split; half think it’s O.K. if the duo intend to get married, and half find it unacceptable under any circumstances.

However, the U.S. hasn’t gone completely Scandinavian. A slight majority (53%) agreed that “society will be better off” if those who have shacked up do eventually tie the knot (probably because they consider it a more stable environment for raising children). “Even among young people, a substantial share still say it’s desirable for society if people get married,” says Juliana Horowitz, associate director of research at Pew and one of the authors of the report. Evangelicals and African Americans are more likely to express that view, according to the survey, but they were hardly the only ones.

Why do people still make it official when the stigma attached to unwed cohabitation is all but gone? One possible answer the report provided: security. The survey’s respondents, 57% of whom were married and 9% of whom were cohabiting, had notably different levels of trust in their partners. Two-thirds of the married individuals trusted their partners to tell them the truth; only half of the unmarried did. About three-quarters of married folks trusted their partner to act in their best interest; fewer than 60% of the unmarried felt the same way. And while 56% of married partners believed their partners could be trusted to handle money responsibly, only 40% of cohabiters felt the same way. (Those numbers are still quite low, which may explain the rise of the couples’ financial therapist).

Of course, people are more likely trust those with whom they have a history, but this assurance was not necessarily the product of time and experience. “We did control for duration of relationship,” says Horowitz. Even among those who had been together for the same amount of time, “being married was still correlated with having high levels of trust.”

Scott Stanley, a research professor and co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, Colorado, who was not involved in this study but has researched cohabiting extensively, suggests that’s because “marriage has a high signal value as to intention.” Married people are advertising their commitment. “When somebody tells you, ‘That’s my spouse,’ you know a ton of information about the relationship and the level of commitment,” he says. “But you could have 10 different couples tell you they’re cohabiting and for some of them it’s like dating with a lot of sleepovers, for others it’s a lot like marriage in terms of their intention, and for another few, which is the worst deal, it’s one person thinking it’s one thing and the other person thinking it’s not. Cohabitation doesn’t force clarity like marriage does.”

Pew’s researchers also found that married couples were more satisfied with the way their partners handled most of the usual couple chafing points: parenting, chores, work-life balance and communication. In the matter of sex, it was too close to call and a tad depressing: 36% of married Americans and 34% of those living together are very satisfied with their sex lives. This finding surprised the researchers. “Cohabiters tend to be younger and therefore more satisfied with their sex lives,” says Horowitz. “But that’s not what we found — and that was interesting.”

While nearly all of those surveyed named love and companionship as one of the major reasons for their shared residence, those who were not married were more likely than wedded couples to cite financial pressures, convenience and pregnancy as big motivations for moving in with each other. About a quarter of cohabiters said they had moved in together in part to test the waters for marrying each other. But more than a third (38%) shared an address partly because it made financial sense.

And just as money plays a role in pushing people together, it can also work to keep them from getting married. More than half of those who were cohabiting cited either their partners’ finances or their own as a reason they were not yet engaged. That’s more than those who said they weren’t ready, their partner wasn’t ready, their career wasn’t far enough along or they were not sure if their partner was The One. Those with a college degree were more likely to see moving in together as a step toward marriage than those without a college degree.

And, as Stanley points out, money also keeps some people in cohabiting relationships when they don’t want to be. “In particular we find that when women say they’re moving in for reasons of financial convenience, that’s associated with negative characteristics of relationships,” he says. “It’s like, ‘I wouldn’t be here if I could afford to live on my own.'” His research suggests that the commonly expressed view that people should live together to test the relationship is ill-founded. “Over seven published studies, we’ve found that living together before you’re engaged is just riskier,” he says.

In terms of partnering arrangements, there are three basic choices — alone, living informally with someone or married. They all have their upsides and downsides and there’s a lot of variations within each category. Plenty of cohabiting relationships have more commitment and clarity than plenty of marriages. But the Pew study suggests that if it’s commitment you’re looking for, being married is a pair of hiking boots and living together is a pair of stilettos. Both can get you where you want to be, but only one is designed with that in mind.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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