| Today I met the boy I'm not going to marry
For better or worse, the number of unmarried couples is on the rise
"I want to be with him forever, and I'm totally committed, but that doesn't mean we need to get married," Jenny Walty explains.
Walty is referring to her partner, Patrick May. The two started dating three years ago, when they were both students at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. They now live together in an apartment in Brooklyn, a former storefront that they have converted into their living quarters and a place to showcase the work of young New York artists.
"I think that marriage is mainly a sacrament of religion. Now that more and more people are less religious, marriage just becomes a piece of paper, a legality that's really not that important," says May. Although he and his partner share a home and consider their relationship a permanent one, they both say they have no plans to get married.
Theirs is a partnership that is increasingly common in America: committed, cohabiting, and unmarried. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there were 4.2 million unmarried couples living together in 1998--ten times the number four decades ago. Figures released in mid-May from the 2000 U.S. census show that the traditional nuclear family--married parents raising children--now accounts for less than a quarter of all households in America. Most of America's unmarried couples are people who plan to marry eventually, but want to live together unmarried first. Others, however, cannot or do not want to marry--same-sex couples, for instance, or people who are ethically opposed to the idea of marriage.
As their numbers grow, unmarried people are challenging the definition of the "American" family--that tradition of monogamous, heterosexual bliss that the June and Ward Cleavers of the fifties followed so unquestioningly. Their movement has been helped along by the nationwide drop in marriage rates and by the visibility of today's numerous unmarried celebrities. The growth of nontraditional households, however, is also prompting criticism: Some social scientists argue that cohabitation without marriage dooms relationships to instability and harms the children raised in such environments. To counter this trend, the Bush administration is now considering legislation to promote marriage through educational programs and even cash incentives to poor mothers.
"Generally, kids living with cohabiting parents are not doing too well," Susan Brown, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, told Newsweek. Such children are more likely to suffer from behavioral problems linked to "revolving-door boyfriends" or other sources of instability more common in cohabiting families than married ones, Brown and other researchers say.
Regardless of whether the trend bodes well or ill, marriage rates in the United States continue to plummet. Since 1960, the percentage of people between 35 and 44 who are married has dropped 19 points for men and 16 for women, according to census figures. More than 50 percent of couples who marry now live together first, up from just 10 percent in 1965. Elsewhere in the world, unmarried cohabitation is even more common: More than 90 percent of couples live together before marriage in some European countries. "They [Europeans] just have a more diverse, more progressive view of family than we Americans do," says Marshall Miller, co-founder of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, a group that supports the interests of unmarried people. "But the truth is, you see this trend everywhere: from France to Denmark to Japan. There's an overall shift worldwide where marriage is not central to the culture or domestic life."
To many of these cohabiting couples, marriage just seems like an outdated institution, a leftover vestige of the days when women were economically and socially dependent on men. With better education and the ability to support herself financially, the American woman no longer sees having a husband as a prerequisite for family or happiness. And for the most part, today's young men and women feel they are better off for the change. They do not mourn the passing of the idyllic domestic world of Leave it to Beaver, where everyone was perfectly happy to play his or her assigned role. Nowadays, they find role models in the self-sufficient, single seductresses of Sex and the City, with their endless string of beaus, or in willingly unmarried mothers such as Rosie O’Donnell and Calista Flockhart.
Today I met the boy I'm not going to marry