Moral and religious issues aside, there are metaphorical questions illustrating the cases both for and against living together before marriage. The case for cohabitation: "Would you buy a pair of shoes without trying them on first?" The argument against it: "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" Apparently both perspectives have considerable appeal -- cohabitation precedes 37% of all marriages in the United States today. More and more Americans are choosing to live together rather than jump right into traditional marriages. In the year 2000, according to the U. S. Census Bureau, nearly 4.75 million couples were living together, up from less than half a million in 1960. Demographers cite several reasons for this dramatic shift: couples marrying later, the high divorce rate, and the rapid growth in (and acceptance of) single-parent households, among others.
Last week, the Gallup Poll asked, "Did you and your [husband/wife] live together before you got married, or not?"*
But moral considerations cannot be discounted from an analysis of Americans' attitudes toward cohabitation. In 2001**, only a slim majority (52%) told Gallup that it was morally acceptable for an unmarried man and woman to live together, while 41% thought it morally unacceptable. According to the 2002 National Marriage Project report on cohabitation Should We Live Together? by David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe-Whitehead, the moral argument pits a religiously inspired view against a secular-based view. The religiously inspired side views living together as an "assault on the sanctity of marriage." The secular-based side maintains it is unrealistic to expect sexual abstinence from puberty until marriage. "Therefore, it is better that they cohabit during that time with a few others than be promiscuous with many."
A person's values strongly influence his or her views of unmarried couples living together. For example, 75% of ideological liberals say cohabitation is morally acceptable compared to just 33% of ideological conservatives who say the same. Somewhat related to this, just 27% of those who attend church on a weekly basis see cohabitation as acceptable, compared to 71% of those who seldom or never attend religious services.
Men are slightly more likely than women to say they think living together before marriage is morally acceptable (56% versus 49%, respectively). Greater differences are apparent by age, with younger Americans most accepting of cohabitation. Sixty-eight percent of 18- to 29-year-olds believe an unmarried man and woman living together is acceptable, compared to 60% of 30- to 49-year-olds, 42% of 50- to 64-year-olds, and only 29% of those age 65 and older. Also, those with higher levels of educational attainment tend to believe that unmarried couples living together is acceptable -- 64% of college graduates believe it is acceptable compared to 48% of those with a high school education or less.
According to Popenoe, at a single point in time, 8% of all couples living together in the United States are unmarried, but cohabitation is much more common in the United Kingdom (15%), and northern Europe, particularly Scandinavia. Almost 30% of all Swedish households consist of unmarried couples. Sweden and Denmark are the world leaders in cohabitation, where it appears to be a substitute for traditional marriage, rather than a preamble.
With the global rate of cohabitation on the rise, will living together inevitably become the social norm in America? Perhaps not. The high degree of religiosity in this country compared to that of other developed nations may keep the rate lower, especially if churches and government intervene to not only protect, but promote, traditional marriage.
*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 522 married adults, aged 18 and older, conducted July 22-24, 2002. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±5%.
**These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,010 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 18-20, 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3%.