A mere 50 years ago (which isn’t that long, really) everything was very different. There was still a huge stigma on couples who chose to live together “out of wedlock” as it was called, and parents whose children did so white-knuckled the social embarrassment until they could finally send out those wedding announcements. Aside from personal freedom, which many women, at least, had to give up in order to marry, there were few “practical” benefits to remaining single. All societal signals of approval for the institution of marriage were easy to pick up on. Even easier to grasp was the shame of singleness (especially for women). Luckily, we’ve come a long way.
Today, co-habitation either before, or in lieu of, marriage, is not only considered okay by most, it is becoming increasingly common, not only among twenty-somethings but also in the over 50 set. In fact the number of marriages has been declining for about 20 years.
Why is that? Young people are all too aware of the divorce statistics. In a group of five of the average 20 year old’s closest friends, two probably have divorced parents. They likely have witnessed firsthand the ugliness and upset of divorce. Many young people view marriage as not much more than a legal entanglement from which it is difficult and expensive to become extricated. Current numbers: 41% of first marriages don’t make it. The numbers only get higher for subsequent marriages, with third marriages having a 73% chance of failing.
So a certain percentage of young people understandably choose to just move in together, while others optimistically wed because they believe they will be part of the 59%.
What about the over 50 crowd? They are just as happy to fall in love, and find a meaningful relationship, as a younger person. Many in this group have been through marriage already, and are either divorced or widowed. Cohabitation is an increasingly popular choice among this set, as well.
Let’s look at the pros and cons – both practical and emotional — of marriage vs. cohabitation. Then, with eyes wide open, you can let your heart decide.
- Let’s face it. Human beings are romantic by nature. Not all of us, admittedly, but look at how many movies and books there are that end with the words “I do.” There is something powerful about making a commitment to the one you love in front of witnesses and even God. Commitment is nice. Is it only available through marriage? Of course not, but marriage has endured through the ages because of what it represents.
- In marriage, there are often financial benefits such as shared retirement benefits, or shared health insurance when one spouse has a superior policy. Car insurance companies tend to favor the married because statistics indicate that they are far less likely to get into car accidents (go figure). Single income couples are better off being married and filing jointly. Also, there is significant security if you split up. If you’ve been married more than 10 years you are eligible for the retirement benefits, pension, and social security rates of your spouse.
- The negative side of marriage is really a matter of what lens you are looking through. For some, the legal contract aspect of matrimony fills them with panic. Just as some people can’t imagine living on dry land with a roof over their head and would much rather live on a boat in the open sea, others of us like dry land just fine. These two groups can’t really relate to one another – they just see things differently. Decide if you are an open sea kind of person – in other words, just don’t want the formality of a legal contract limiting you. And then decide why. Is it just how you are or are there fears or anxieties based in your childhood or previous relationship history that are at play? Either way, only you can tell if marriage, per se, has personal negatives for you.
- Dual income couples are slapped with the “marriage penalty” in the new tax laws, unfortunately, so that it is actually better to be single when April 15 rolls around if you and your partner both work. If you marry a second time, you are likely to lose the financial benefits of your former spouse – such as pensions and favorable social security rates. In a divorce, the spouse with greater assets is more likely to take a hit than someone who never tied the knot. Finally, later in life, you can be financially responsible for the long term illness or care of a spouse. However – there are ways to plan ahead to avoid the worst of it, and in certain cases individual assets such as 401Ks can be protected.
- Living together can be very fun when a relationship is still somewhat new, or when both parties want to keep their options open. It is a way to check compatibility before getting married, and thus can be a stepping stone to potential matrimony. For many people, being close and committed without the obligations of marriage is just right.
- When it comes to money, the obvious benefit to moving in together is to save on regular expenses like rent and utility bills. You also avoid the financial entanglements of marriage that many see as being scary, especially in the case of a break up. Other than that, there are no specific benefits as it is the legality of the marriage contract that brings with it the specific tax, insurance, retirement, and other potential financial pros.
- As a free agent – i.e. someone in a non-married relationship – you have no guarantees. Of course there are no guarantees period when it comes to the question, “Will it last?” But without the legal paper in your filing cabinet that states you are a married person with the obligations and responsibilities that go along with that, only you can decide how secure you are. One word of caution, though, if there are children. In a (God forbid) acrimonious split, protecting the child’s future can be difficult if you are not married. There have been many cases, some rather infamous, of paternity tests being done and various parties not wanting to meet parental obligations…. Outside of marriage there is more risk of that happening.
- A word of caution about finances in cohabiting. Signing leases together, co-signing for loans, or making major purchases can be messy in a break-up because there are no clear laws stating who gets what. Consider creating an agreement with legal counsel that both parties sign before moving in together.
Some of the overall benefits of being in a committed relationship are, at this point, well documented. Studies tend to be done on married couples, rather than couples who have cohabited for many years. What they show is that there is greater health, longevity, and overall life satisfaction among the married. (These numbers tend to be slightly higher among men than women.) Specifically, as we age, we are less likely to develop dementia, heart disease, cancer, and many other ailments if we are married than if we are single. I can only assume that many of those benefits are shared by people who are in a committed, long term relationship, even without the “piece of paper.”
Only you can be responsible for your happiness, though. In your relationship, what are your expectations? What have you both agreed to? How secure do you feel? Whether married or not, security can vary widely among couples depending on history, temperament, and attachment. Check in with yourself and know your relationship goals. People can be very happy living together, whether married or not. Or they can be miserable, married or not.