The myths of living together before marriage

In the movie "You've Got Mail," a thirtyish character named Joe Fox describes a thoroughly modern domestic scene. "My father is getting married again," he says. "For five years he's been living with a woman named Gillian." They have a young son.

When the senior Fox tells a colleague about his forthcoming wedding, he explains, "Matt is four years old. It would be nice for him to know his parents are married."

Young Matt has plenty of company these days. As of 1997, slightly more than 4 million couples were living together, and a growing number of them are raising children, according to the US Census Bureau.

"You've Got Mail," in fact, perfectly illustrates the broad acceptance of cohabitation. Both main characters - Joe Fox, played by Tom Hanks, and Kathleen Kelly, played by Meg Ryan - live with a partner. Not a wedding ring in sight.

Yet such blithe arrangements hardly guarantee marital success. A study released today at Rutgers University in New Jersey finds that living together, rather than strengthening an eventual marriage, actually increases the risk of divorce by 46 percent. It also increases women's risk of domestic violence and children's chances of physical or sexual abuse.

The report, "Should We Live Together? What Young Couples Need to Know About Cohabitation Before Marriage," offers the first in-depth look at such living arrangements. Authors Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe reviewed nearly 50 cohabiting studies spanning more than a decade.

"When blushing brides walk down the aisle in the 1990s, more than half have already lived together with a boyfriend," they write. In addition, the longer an unmarried couple lives together, the less likely they are to tie the knot. People who cohabit, the study finds, "are more oriented to their own autonomy" and less likely to be committed to a relationship.

To a generation disillusioned by their parents' divorces and wary of marriage for themselves, living together appears to offer a positive alternative. Like test-driving a car before buying, they want to test-drive a relationship, checking out compatibility before signing on the dotted line.

Yet such practices can be particularly hard on women, who face the risk of pregnancy. "Liberation" can impose new forms of bondage.

And then there are the children. In 1997, 36 percent of couples in unmarried households included at least one child under the age of 18. "Fully three-quarters of children born to cohabiting parents will see their parents split up before they reach age 16, whereas only about a third of the children born to married parents face a similar fate," the report states. Only 44 percent of cohabiting mothers eventually marry the father of their child, down from 57 percent a decade ago.

Four-year-old Matt in the movie serves as a prime example. His mommy and daddy never make it to the altar before they separate. So much for commitment.

What to do to make marriage more attractive? The Rutgers researchers recommend intensive education for young people to help them make better decisions about living together. They also want to encourage more egalitarian relationships in marriage.

Everyone is aware of the high divorce rate. But as these figures on the failure rate of cohabitation show, the risks of marriage, whatever they may be, could be less than the risks of not being married and living together. A week before Valentine's Day, that almost counts as good news.

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