All but the Ring: Why Some Couples Don’t Wed

6 minute read
Lisa Selin Davis

For well over a year, I campaigned for my boyfriend and me to wed. “I don’t see what the point of marriage is,” he’d say. Public avowals of love, I suggested — or presents? “Le Creuset?” I’d ask, mostly joking.

Eventually I gave up and moved on to the next topic: babies. Absolutely, he replied. We’d been together for 2½ years by that point, and while he didn’t want to bother getting married, a family was something he could happily commit to. (See pictures of couples who are famously unmarried.)

It turns out he’s in good company. More than 5 million unmarried couples cohabit in the U.S., nearly eight times the number in 1970, and a record-breaking 40% of babies born in 2007 had unmarried parents (that’s up 25% from 2002). Sure, there are plenty of baby-daddies in the Levi Johnston vein, i.e., young and accidental. But nonmarital births have increased the most among women ages 25 to 39, doubling since 1980, thanks in part to a small but growing demographic a sociologist has dubbed committed unmarrieds (CUs). These are the happily unwed — think Brad and Angelina, Oprah and Stedman, Goldie and Kurt — whose commitment to their partners is as strong as their stance against marriage.

Celebrities, gay-marriage bans and fear of divorce are helping fuel the rise in unwedded bliss. “We love each other far, far too much to ever actually get married,” says Raymond McCauley, 43, a biotech engineer in Mountain View, Calif., who has twin 2-year-olds with his partner of five years, Kristina Hathaway. His opposition to marriage is political, in solidarity with gays who can’t legally wed in most states, and personal — he and his partner both got divorced in their 20s, an experience that has led McCauley to liken marriage to food poisoning: “You don’t want to eat that thing again, even if you know it’s perfectly fine this time.” (Read “A Gay-Marriage Solution: End Marriage?”)

In lieu of a marriage license, he and Hathaway have drawn up legal documents that grant them rights automatically afforded married couples, covering everything from child custody to property. And yet this arrangement still gives him some sense of freedom. “Every day we’re making this decision and this commitment anew,” he says. “I’m not with you because there would be legal speed bumps to get through if we weren’t. I’m with you because this is where I want to be.”

Is marriage on its way to becoming the relationship equivalent of our appendix (in that it’s no longer needed but can cause a lot of pain)? “You’re looking at the vanguard,” sociologist Andrew Cherlin says of CUs like McCauley and Hathaway. A Johns Hopkins professor and author of The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today, he notes that unmarried parents in Europe stay together longer than married parents in the U.S. “Marriage is a more powerful symbol here,” he says. “It’s the ultimate merit badge of personal life.” And if it doesn’t fulfill people’s (often overwrought) expectations, they leave.

See pictures of the busiest wedding day in history.

See pictures of fathers protecting their daughters’ virtue until marriage.

Indeed, a study published in the December Journal of Marriage and Family found that a man’s involvement in his partner’s pregnancy — trips to the doctor, childbirth classes, etc. — was the best way to secure his long-term dedication. Lead author Natasha Cabrera of the University of Maryland says, “It is the decision that couples make to strengthen commitment and move in together that is important, rather than marital status per se.”

Marriage can always end, and the protection it once offered offspring is now covered by child-support laws. Add that development to the gains made by the domestic-partnership movement, and, Cherlin says, “the legal advantages of marriage, the benefits that one would get, are eroding.” This is one reason CUs like Charles Backman, 44, a commercial real estate developer in New Hampshire, see marriage as outdated at best. Backman wants no part of what he calls “the government stamp” of approval on his relationship to his partner of 15 years. “People mistake the government sanctioning your marriage for commitment,” he says. The father of three girls ages 1 to 7, Backman finds marriage not only unnecessary but also tarnished by commercialization. By not marrying, he says, “I saved $50,000 on a wedding, money I can use to help pay for the kids’ college.” (See pictures of the college dorm’s evolution.)

But while Backman saved a lot of money by withstanding the pressure to have a lavish wedding, over time it is costing him a bundle to remain unmarried: since he is not covered by his partner’s company health-insurance plan, he pays $12,000 a year for his own policy. “As I get older and sicker, I’m much more likely to get the rubber stamp,” he admits.

Of course, unmarriage isn’t a guarantee of love everlasting any more than marriage is. According to Rutgers University’s National Marriage Project, cohabiting couples are at least twice as likely to break up as married couples are. Long term, notes Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Washington’s Evergreen State College, unmarriage works only if both people are equally committed to the lack of legal commitment. If they’re not, to borrow a phrase from Beyoncé: If you like it, then you should have put a ring on it.

The majority of cohabitants either break up or marry within five years, says Alison Hatch, a grad student at the University of Colorado who is doing her dissertation on committed unmarrieds, a demographic to which she and her partner of six years belong. She and Coontz have found that many of them end up marrying because they face the same discrimination as gay couples regarding insurance, taxes and other legal issues. Having kids can also change things. David Letterman didn’t say what prompted him in March to wed his partner of 23 years, who is also the mother of his 5-year-old son. I know that in our case, the plus sign on my pregnancy test led my boyfriend and me to marry in April, which has made our relationship feel more committed, but maybe a little less cool.

See pictures of the founders of wedding website The Knot.

See pictures of Americans in their homes.

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