When I was 8, my grandparents came home one evening after spending the entire day out—a rarity for them. I asked them what they had been doing.
“We got married,” she said matter-of-factly.
“You and Grandpa weren’t married?” I asked incredulously. My grandmother shook her head.
Imagine how confused I was, a senior at an all-girl Catholic high school girl, sitting in my religion class, where our teacher was telling us during a “Marriage and Family” lesson, that the only romantic union recognized by God—the only one that mattered—was sanctioned by holy matrimony.
“Living together,” she said, “is an illegitimate relationship. Any man who lives with a woman without marrying her does not love or respect her.”
If I were to buy into that ideology, I would have to believe that my grandparents’ decades-long relationship was loveless. That my grandfather had no respect for my grandmother. And there was no way: Not only did I find my teacher’s statement preposterous, but outright offensive.
I would eventually learn my grandparents’ story. In the 1950s, my grandmother had gotten pregnant when she was 17, and she did what a good Catholic girl did back then: She married her baby’s father. But her husband turned out to be an abusive drunk. Several years and another child later, she fled. In those days, divorce was difficult on women—she lost everything by leaving him. While separated from her first husband, my grandmother got involved with a childhood friend—the man who would become my grandfather. But she refused his marriage proposals, even after she became pregnant with my mother.
“I wanted to wait till my children were grown and the times had changed to allow women more freedom in marriage,” my grandmother told me when I was a teenager.
My grandparents were together for 20 years before moving in together, and another ten before finally tying the knot. By the time my grandparents got married, my mother—their daughter—had already divorced my father and separated from her second husband, who’d disappeared for several years.
All this to say, I’ve learned a very different lesson from my family than what was taught to me in that religion class: Marriage is not a reliable litmus test of loyalty or of love.
Of course my grandmother was way ahead of her time. More couples are living together before—or even instead of—getting hitched than ever before, with reasons ranging from the philosophical to the financial.
According to a study conducted earlier this year by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University, the percentage of women who have lived with their romantic partners has nearly doubled over the past 25 years. One-third of women ages 19 through 44 had lived with a romantic partner in 1987. By 2013, that number was almost two-thirds. In particular, 65 percent of partnered women ages 19 through 24 reported being in a cohabiting relationship in the years spanning from 2011 to 2013.
“It is becoming increasingly rare to not cohabit,” says Dr. Wendy Manning, a professor of sociology and co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research. “Yet it doesn’t seem like [living together] is necessarily a substitute for marriage, but instead part of the pathway to marriage, a way to test the waters.”
That was certainly the case for me when I moved in with my boyfriend after six years, shortly after I turned 30.
But over the next few years, my boyfriend acted increasingly noncommittal, much more so than when we were involved in a long-distance relationship. I was growing increasingly insecure, stoked further by his lack of communication, like when he wouldn’t check in to let me know he’d be several hours late from work, or not consulting me before making plans to spend his third weekend in a row away from home.
“It’s not like we’re married,” he’d say when I acted annoyed.
Up until that point, marriage was regarded as something inevitable, like arthritis—a marker of aging set somewhere future. But suddenly, the future was now. We were no longer in our tumultuous twenties, living in separate cities and states, constantly moving around the country in pursuit of graduate degrees and internships. I didn’t want a wedding. I didn’t want to wear a white gown (which would make me feel like I was pretending princess in a ball or a virgin again and I had no illusions of either) and I didn’t want my man’s last name or his money. I just wanted a solid commitment and a sense that we were a real family. Marriage seemed to me the only way I’d ever get it from my fickle boyfriend. So I asked him about it.
After a year of his hedging, I offered an ultimatum. He balked. We broke up. And while it was hard to untangle myself from a near-decade-long relationship, I’m sure it was much easier than a divorce would have been later on.
However, while I once considered cohabitation a possible stepping-stone toward a greater kind of commitment, some women I spoke to simply didn’t believe in the institution at all and viewed living together as the end goal.
“My partner has always been open and interested in marrying, but I’m not,” says Jennifer Carter, 35.
In a relationship for nearly a decade, Carter and her partner have been living together for seven years. Five years ago, they had a child together.
“We made a commitment to dedicate our lives to each other,” says Carter. “I have never felt that a legal document signified trust or commitment.”
While Carter’s position is not so rare, Manning believes most women choose to put off marriage temporarily for reasons relating to their career or their finances. But for some women, there may be no significant improvement in sight regarding their economic status.
Dana Gillepsie, 45, a widow from Chattanooga, Tennessee, doesn’t feel she can marry her current live-in partner of three years due to financial constraints.
“From what we’ve seen, we’d pay much more in taxes, more in health insurance premiums and more in our monthly student loan payments as a married couple than we do on our separate single incomes,” says Gillepsie.
Unfortunately, Gillepsie’s situation is a relatively common one.
“For the affluent, marriage is basically a luxury good, but for the poor, it is more or less a social welfare program,” says Sarah Wright, board chair for Unmarried Equality, a nonprofit that advocates for equality for unmarried people. “When two poor people tie the knot, they usually share each other’s debt burdens and often become poorer.”
And it seems like Gillepsie is also part of an increasing trend: Manning’s research found that while women in all age groups experienced an increase in cohabitation, the greatest increase occurred for women in their early through mid-40s. One reason for this may be many women have often experienced a divorce by this age—which can be both emotionally traumatic and a drain on personal finances—making them reluctant to enter a second marriage. Other women may simply feel like they’ve outgrown societal expectations.
“I kept thinking that I wanted to do the traditional route: marriage, kids, a house in the burbs. Until a year or two ago, I wondered if I missed out by not settling down,” says Alex, 44, who has been with her current live-in partner for three years. “But I passed that 40-something milestone where you just accept your life and yourself as you are.”
In Alex’s case, it helps that her partner has a well-paying job and his employer allows her to be on his health insurance. Having access to these kind of benefits can be crucial in dictating a woman’s choice to get married or not—a choice that up until recently very recently was only available to women in heterosexual relationships in most states.
Jill Johnson-Young, a social worker from California, was with her first wife for 23 years and was able to marry her when same-sex marriage was legalized in California before Prop 8 temporarily annulled their marriage.
“We still faced federal discrimination, including not being allowed to have her interred at the local National Cemetery because I was only married to her in California,” says Johnson-Young. “When we lived in Florida and she had breast cancer I couldn’t put her on my insurance so she had to work all through being on chemo.”
Johnson-Young was widowed twice with both her long-term partner and in a briefer marriage with her first wife’s former hospice nurse after she passed. Unfortunately, her second wife was already in the final stages of Lewy Body Dementia by the time they married. Now in her third marriage, Johnson-Young can finally enjoy the unfettered rights and privileges married heterosexual women may take for granted.
“With the SCOTUS decision we can, for the first time, go anywhere in our country and be recognized. That, alone made marriage our only choice,” says Johnson-Young, who is now on her wife’s health insurance.
Lisa, 34, of New York City also mentions nationwide recognition and a general sense of acceptance as a result of the SCOTUS ruling. “The SCOTUS decision gave our marriage not only validity in the eyes of the law,” says Lisa, who moved in with her partner when marriage seemed imminent. “I feel like it took away the taboo in many ways. Now I know that we can live in any state and not fear having hospital-visitation rights [to my wife and our daughter] denied.”
Yet, Wright believes that these kind of rights should be enjoyed by committed couples of all orientations, regardless of their marriage status.
“Although gay marriage won at the Supreme Court, domestic partnership policies have lost out,” says Wright, who notes that some large national companies like Delta, IBM, and Verizon have since scaled back on inclusive domestic-partnership policies.
In the case of my grandparents, they ultimately got married only so my grandmother could access his pension and social security benefits if he died before her, something to which all their shared years, as well as having a daughter together, would otherwise not entitle her.
As for me, shortly before my grandmother passed she asked me why boyfriend and I hadn’t married yet. I told her I thought she didn’t believe marriage was important. She answered in a way that has stayed with me.
“Well, I knew your grandfather wasn’t going anywhere, but I’m not so sure about that boy of yours,” she said. “It’s not marriage that matters, but commitment. Commitment is what counts, and you either have it with someone or you don’t.”