By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/2/2010 12:30:33 PM ET 2010-03-02T17:30:33

MaryAnne Lopes of Windham, Maine, had no intentions of pulling threads from the nation’s social fabric by living with her then boyfriend, Joe. She just wanted to save some money.

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The couple, who celebrated their sixth wedding anniversary on Sunday, moved in together because it was cheaper and because she was living with her parents following a divorce from her first husband. “You try telling my father, the Reverend Dr. Young, I will not be home tonight!” she said, laughing about dates with Joe.

But while Lopes, now 40, considered her protestant minister father’s possible discomfort with overnighters, he raised no objections to her moving in with Joe, and happily presided over the couple’s wedding less than two years later.

According to a new report being issued today by the government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most Americans share Lopes’ experience of moving in with a lover before marriage, and most couples — 51 percent according to the CDC data — who do move in together wind up married within three years, just like Lopes. About two-thirds of cohabiters get married within five years.

The report, "Marriage and Cohabitation in the United States," shows that more people than ever are living together without being married. And, it also shows that marriage itself is doing just fine, thanks. Contrary to past dogma, the study also shows that there is no longer a meaningful divorce gap between those who live together first and those who didn’t.

The report, which is based on data collected in the 2002 round of the National Survey of Family Growth, finds that “from 1987 to 2002, the percentages of women between ages 35 and 39 who had ever cohabited doubled, from 30 percent to 61 percent. Cohabitation is increasingly becoming the first co-residential union formed among young adults.”

Since the data used in the report was gathered in 2002, suggested Pamela Smock, a family demographer and professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, “I think that data would be higher today. Now, in 2010, I would think the number [who had ever cohabitated] would be 70 percent, given the young adults I talk to.”

Victoria Maire, 29, of Fairlawn, N.J., lived with her husband Theodore before marriage both to “to pull finances together and not have to spend on two apartments, but I also believed you needed to get to know the person before a lifetime commitment.”

Such stories prove “Americans still love marriage,” said Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist and author of “The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and Family in America Today.” “They still think marriage is a first class way to live your personal life, but they are reluctant to marry until they think they have their lives in order.”

Exactly, said Jackie Gerhardt, 25, of Utica, N.Y., who celebrated her first anniversary yesterday. She lived with her husband before marrying, she explained, “because I could not imagine marrying somebody, making a lifelong commitment,” without living together first. “I see no negatives about it.”

Many do, however. A statement from the Princeton, N.J.,-based Witherspoon Foundation, a conservative think tank, called “Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles,” identifies “Four Threats to Marriage,” including cohabitation arrangements which, it says, “are not a good alternative to marriage but a threat, and they surely do not provide a good environment for the rearing of children.”

Two-parent home
Married or not, having two parents who stay together does seem to make a difference in whether girls get married later on, according to the report.

The data show that overall, women who do not live with both parents at age 14 (a cut-off age used in demographic studies), “were less likely to be married at the date of interview (36 percent vs. 48 percent) and more likely to be cohabiting (14 percent vs. 8 percent) than those who grew up with both parents. Women who lived with both parents at age 14 were more likely to be married at the date of interview than those who did not…”

But Smock, the University of Michigan sociologist, says that a lot more factors than whether a child's parents remain together go into whether they'll get married — or stay married — later on.

“I like to underscore that education, money, income, differences related to how old you were when you got married, you have to put all these together,” Smock said. “To focus solely on whether your own parents were living together when you were 14 does not capture what is going on.”

It is also possible that some children of divorce, having experienced it, are less afraid of divorce when they themselves face an unhappy marriage. They may have seen a “successful” divorce between their parents and realized that it’s not the end of the world and so be more willing to do it.

Most importantly though, the data show that those who live together have just as good a chance of staying married as those who do not live together first.

“I think the gap in divorce rates between those who live together and those who do not is narrowing,” Cherlin said. Cohabitation has become such a standard part of the eventual transition to marriage, he said, that the old argument that cohabitation is risky for a future marriage “doesn’t hold water any more.”

Part of the problem Americans have with such discussions is definitional, experts agreed. By referring to divorce as a failed marriage, or a cohabiting relationship as a “failure” if there’s a breakup, we’re creating potentially misleading perceptions.

“Before I met my current husband, I had a fiancé I lived with,” recalled Maire. “I learned a lot about him by living with him.” The couple broke up, but she considers the relationship a resounding success since the whole point of living together was to avoid what she called “nasty surprises” once married.

Similarly, marriages full of conflict have repeatedly been shown to be harmful for children. So while growing up in a happy two-parent home is best, a divorce can be a success, too, if it saves a child from constant turmoil.

“I do think we talk about this in all the wrong ways,” said Kelly Raley, a University of Texas sociologist. “We are too quick to point to moral failure” when the real issues are economics, education, and class.

Brian Alexander is the author of the book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction," now in paperback.

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