Chapter 1 – First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage
Rachel was one of the trainers at the gym where I worked out, and I often asked her for exercise advice. She would say such things as, “Tuck that tummy. Get your elbows in. Your breathing is backwards!” And my favorite: “How long have you been working out?” My progress has not always been evident to the masses.
While exercising, Rachel and I would often carry on conversations about anything and everything. Over the course of our three-year “gym friendship” we had many interesting discussions about school, careers, money, marriage and God—you name it, we probably talked about it. Rachel was an easy person to chat with, and she must have felt safe around me. She often opened up, sharing a lot about her personal life.
At 23, Rachel was near the end of her college years. She was still living at home with her parents, and she was looking forward to the day when she would be out on her own.
On one particular day when I asked, “How ya doin’?” Rachel initially gave me the stock reply, “Great!” That is what people usually say when someone greets them with that question. But then Rachel added an unexpectedly emotion-filled statement.
“Dave,” she said, “I’ve been dating my boyfriend now for almost two years.”
“Wow, it’s been that long?”
“Yes,” she replied. “He’s a wonderful person, and I’m hoping we’ll get married someday.”
I casually added, “Great! I’d like to meet him.”
I went back to another agonizing set of bicep curls. Just as I pulled up my last one (every curl is painful for me and it always feels like my arms are about to fall off!), Rachel spoke again. “It’s still kind of hard to believe, but my boyfriend and I have decided that we are going to live together.”
The enthusiasm in her voice projected how thrilled she was. She wanted me to be one of the first to know.
Rachel explained that neither of them had ever planned on living together. But after talking about it for quite a while, it just seemed like the right thing to do. In her mind, it was a surprising new direction for their lives.
To be honest, I was surprised, too. Really surprised. Given what she had said all along about marriage, I had no idea she would even consider living with someone before walking down the aisle.
You might think, Whew, are you out of touch, Dave! OK, I am no longer a wide-eyed youth; but I am a Baby Boomer, I lived through the 1960s, and over the years I have talked with literally hundreds of couples. I certainly had clues about the trend but was surprised to discover just how common the to-live-together-or-not quandary had become.
Before 1970 it was illegal in every state for a man and a woman to live together if they were not married. It is no wonder Linda LeClair and Peter Behr made newspaper headlines in 1968.
Linda was a sophomore at Barnard College. Peter was a Columbia University undergraduate. These two unwed 20-year-old college students did something that millions of Americans found newsworthy. They admitted they were living together. Newspapers and magazines relayed the shocking news. They were shacking up in an off-campus apartment in violation of Barnard College’s regulations.
If Linda and Peter’s living together were to occur today, most people would probably say, “So what. Lots of people live together.” What was once uncommon has become commonplace. Barnard College no longer has a regulation that prohibits unmarried couples living together off campus. As you can probably guess, the state of New York no longer has a law that prohibits unmarried couples from living together anywhere. However, the surprise today is that eight states still do.1
New Mexico is one such state. For nearly 150 years, a state law has prohibited unwed couples from cohabitation. But in April 2000, when a woman tried to impose that law on her ex-husband—who was living with another woman—the authorities would not charge him. District Attorney Mike Runnels said, “It’s not in anybody’s best interest to have the courts clogged with this kind of a case.”2 He was saying that times have changed. The law is old. If they were to start charging people for this crime, the courts would be packed with couples who live together.
What used to be, no longer is. Things have radically changed over the
last 30 years. Before 1970, most couples married before they lived together.
Today most couples live together before they marry. And now many couples
who live together never even intend to marry. As shown below, the number
of unmarried couples who live together is increasing at an alarming rate.
Since 1970 the number of unmarried-couple households has increased 952 percent.4 The numbers grew by 204 percent between 1970 and 1980, 80 percent from 1980 to 1990, and 93 percent from 1990 to 2000. Today almost everyone can say they know people who are unmarried and living together.
A Typical Neighborhood
Nearly two decades ago, my wife and I moved into a home in a typical middle-class Southern California suburb. Because we lived there for so long, we saw neighbors move in, stay for a while and then move away. Throughout the time we lived in that neighborhood, one thing never changed. There was always at least one unmarried couple living in one of the houses immediately around ours.
Recently I was speaking with a friend who is a psychiatrist. He is 68 years old.
“Doc,” I said, “how ya doin’?”
His reply was typical. “Great,” he said. “I just finished playing two hours of tennis.”
I was impressed. I would have been lying on the floor after playing that long, but he was invigorated and ready to meet the day. Then he added, “Singles.” He had played two hours of singles tennis at 68 years old! I would love to be able to do that when I am 68. In fact, I would like to be able to do that now!
“Where do you get all your energy?” I asked. I was thinking he had a secret diet or supplement that my wife would just love to start me on!
He said, “It seems to be genetic. Or maybe it just goes back to my days when I grew up on a farm. Being tired was never an excuse. You just had to keep going from sunrise to sunset.”
Doc is a fun guy to be around. He jumps at the chance to make a difference with his life. Even now, after all these years, he still enthusiastically sees up to eight clients a day. He loves what he does. Moreover, he always seems to be clued in on what is happening in couples’ lives. Having now practiced psychiatry for more than 40 years, he’s been able to see firsthand how family life has changed in America.
Doc asked me what my Palm Pilot was telling me I would be doing that day. I told him I was going to spend some time writing this book. His reply gave me a firsthand window of insight into his experience with couples.
“Dave,” he said, “almost all of the couples I see in my practice today are unmarried couples living together. Things have really changed. It’s just the way things are now. They live together before they marry; that is, if they ever do marry.”
Doc’s observation can be supported by the facts. Today, most couples who marry live together first.
These numbers are not surprising when you poll today’s teenagers. Although 90 percent of them say they believe in marriage, 74 percent say they would live with someone before marriage or instead of marriage. They say, “If things don’t work out, we can chalk it up to experience and move on. At least we will have learned something about ourselves and marriage.”7
I remember singing a nursery rhyme when I was a child. We usually pulled it out at a time when we wanted to inflict emotional harm on one of our friends who showed any interest in the opposite gender. Perhaps you sang it, too. It went like this:
Bob and Bettie sitting in a tree
This rhyme was more than just child’s play. It was descriptive of the way things used to be. First love, then marriage, then a baby. Most couples used to marry before they had children. What used to be, no longer is.
Are you ready for another big surprise? For the first time in sixty years of data collection, the United States Census Bureau found that the majority of firstborn children are now born out of wedlock.8 Back in the 1930s the figure was only 18 percent.9
Today there are more than 1.4 million unmarried couples living together with children under the age of 15.10 This number has been steadily rising since 1980.
Of these couples living together with children:
Among adults ages 25 to 34 who are living together but are not married,
the percentage of homes in which children are present rose from 34 percent
in 1980 to 47 percent in 1990.13
The way things were is no longer the way things are. Today it’s love first, then child-bearing and then marriage—maybe.
Perhaps the most surprising change among unmarried couples is found among those who claim to be religious or born-again. Now two, and sometimes three, out of every five couples who claim to be religious are living together unmarried.
One Michigan pastor in an urban ministry said, “Every single couple that has come to me for premarital counseling over the past five years has already been living together.”14 My own pastoral experience throughout the past 20 years has paralleled the two out of five ratio. Twenty years ago I rarely saw a couple that was living together come to me and ask me to marry them. Now one out of every two or three couples that come to me for premarital counseling is already living together.
While the percentage of couples living together is higher when the pair does not have strong religious beliefs, the gap is narrowing. According to national researcher George Barna, the percentage of couples living together encompasses:
Today more couples are living together than ever before. It does not matter whether or not they hold religious beliefs. Nor does it matter whether they have children or intend to marry someday. All kinds of people are living together before marriage.
When Rachel told me that morning at the gym that she was going to be moving in with her boyfriend, I asked her why they had made that decision.
While we halfheartedly continued our workouts, she talked about her reasons for moving in with her boyfriend. For the next 10 minutes, Rachel’s enthusiasm gushed out. She could hardly wait to make the move.Her reasons were the same as those given by many cohabiting couples, including Ryan and Amy, whom we meet in chapter 2.