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Cohabitation nation

Sharon Jayson USA Today

Testing the marital waters by living together is a common practice among today’s marriage-wary 20-and-30-somethings. The number of unmarried couples living together increased tenfold between 1960 and 2000, the U.S. Census says, with about 10 million people living with a partner of the opposite sex. That’s about 8 percent of U.S. coupled households.

The data show that most unmarried partners who live together are between ages 25 and 34.

“In some sense, cohabitation is replacing dating,” says Pam Smock, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan.

She’s among researchers bringing greater attention to a living arrangement that is almost a foregone conclusion for many singles.

What’s more evident, she suggests, is a likely increase in “serial cohabitation,” or living with one partner for a time, then another. High housing costs and tight budgets often spur young couples to cohabit because it “makes sense to young people if they’re serious about each other at all.”

Arlington, Va., natives Janine Sproules, 21, and Ian Million, 23, have known each other three years and have dated two years. Two weeks ago, they moved in together, with the support of both sets of parents.

“We were paying rent in two places and living in one,” he says. “It seemed financially reasonable and we’re pretty compatible.”

They live in Blacksburg, Va., where Sproules is a senior at Virginia Tech University. Million graduated in May and works as a bicycle mechanic.

They say marriage is not on their minds right now, since both are barely out of their teens. New data from the Census’ 2004 Current Population Survey reflects the trend toward waiting. Women’s median age at first marriage rose from 20.8 in 1970 to 26 in 2004; men’s rose from 23.2 to 27.

Although most research suggests cohabitation before marriage increases the risk of divorce because couples are less committed to one another, Smock says newer studies may dispute those findings, except in the case of serial cohabitors.

She and psychologist Scott Stanley have been particularly interested in couples who “end up spending more and more time together until finally all the stuff gets moved into one person’s place,” she says.

Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver and author of “The Power of Commitment,” says it’s relationship “inertia:”

“People who are cohabiting might end up marrying somebody they might not otherwise have married,” he says. They’re “sliding, not deciding.”

Marshall Miller, 31, of Albany, N.Y., co-founder of the national nonprofit Alternatives to Marriage Project, which advocates for the rights of the unmarried, agrees that couples who cohabit shouldn’t do it because “your lease is up.”

“If one sees it as a way to save on rent and the other sees this as an engagement of sorts, then you’re going to be headed for trouble,” he says.

Such misperception is at the heart of new findings that Smock presented earlier this month at a meeting in Stockholm of the International Institute of Sociology.

Stanley found similar results. Men who live with women they eventually marry aren’t as committed to the union as those who didn’t live with their mates before tying the knot.

The most recent state-by-state breakdown of household composition comes from the Census Bureau’s 2003 American Family Survey. The District of Columbia has the greatest number of unmarried heterosexual partners living together at 13.5 percent. Vermont is second with 12 percent, followed by Maine, with 11.9 percent. Utah and Alabama have the smallest percentages, each with 4.4 percent.

Couples who live together average about two years, generally leading to either marriage or a breakup. Cohabitation research published in the journal “Population Studies” in 2000 found that within five years of a live-in relationship, about half of couples married, about 40 percent split up and the rest continued to live together.

“People want what marriage signifies — that sense of ‘us with a future,’ “says Stanley. “But because of the high rates of divorce for the last few decades and many other circumstances, including decreased rates of marriage, there is really a crisis in confidence about the institution of marriage. People still want the ‘us with a future’ as much as ever, but they are suspicious about marriage.”

Kym Hoversten and Travis Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., both 32, have known each other more than three years. They’ve been engaged just over a year and plan to marry March 3. They have lived together about 21/2 years.

Anderson’s parents are divorced and “he definitely didn’t want to be the person who had to tell a child that he was moving out,” Hoversten says. “So we took our time in getting engaged. We wanted to make sure it was right. Living together can always be undone. The marriage part of it we see a little differently.”

Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage,” says that view is common because couples look at marriage as an ideal.

“For many people, marriage is now like the best relationship, and is highly valued as a relationship,” she says. “It’s ‘Wait until we know the relationship is good and solid and we’ll get married.’”

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