Less Marriage, Less Divorce, More Cohabitation

I’ve been saying for years that we as a culture must figure out a way to make divorce less common, or less painful, or both. As you know, I work on the second goal. Now yesterday’s and today’s news is full of reports of the finding that we Americans have taken the first goal into our own hands. We marry less, divorce less, and cohabit more than we did 35 years ago.

The report that’s generating all this attention is called The State of Our Unions 2005, from Rutgers University. The ressearchers simply analyzed U.S. Census and other data and looked at the change from 1970 to more recent times.

The divorce rate has dropped slightly, from 22.6 per 1,000 married women in 1980 to 17.7 in 2004. The marriage rate has dropped more dramatically, from 76.5 per 1,000 unmarried women in 1970 to 39.9 per 1,000 married women in 2004. Now get this, the rate of cohabiting couples has increased by 1,200 percent since 1960, from 439,000 in 1960 to more than 5 million today.

The risk is not great to the men who are making these decisions. The risk falls on the women and on their children, because 40% of cohabitating households have children, and cohabitating partners are less likely to stay together than married partners.

This trend is a long-term negative trend for women, at least as long as women tend to be the ones who perform most of the household duties. Women have always been more likely than men to sacrifice their career to focus on children and household duties.

But now, without the protection of marriage laws on division of property and spousal support, those women and their children will be the most at risk if and when the relationships break up. Sure, the fathers will (usually) pay child support, but the women and their children in general will have a lower standard of living than they would if they had married. They will be less likely to enjoy division of marital property, including retirement plans, and they will be less likely to receive spousal support.