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Holding out on Shacking up

Marriage is up, cohabitating isn't. Am I playing it wrong?

Jennifer Selk 16 Nov

Jennifer Selk is a Vancouver writer and culture editor of ION Magazine.

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What are the odds?

You know that saying, "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" Well apparently, I'm a cow. When I first moved in with my boyfriend (over two years ago) we talked about marriage all the time. Ever since shacking up, however, wedding plans have taken a back seat. I think they're in the trunk somewhere. Under the spare tire.

I'm not really complaining. Since we "shacked," as they say, my man's not the only one who's lost marriage momentum.

My friends think I'm crazy.

"Aren't you worried?" they ask. The idea that I may never officially wed freaks them out. And they're not alone. Alongside fashion's recent return to circle skirts, brooches and pearls, many women seem to be reverting to a more traditional value system when it comes to premarital cohabitation.

Marriage clawing its way back

While still on the rise, cohabitation rates in North America have slowed drastically since the '80s and '90s. According to The State of our Unions, an annual report issued by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, a "family turnaround" may be taking place. The report says, "Many of the family trends toward a weakening family structure in the past few decades have slowed dramatically, and in some cases levelled off."

That certainly seems to be the case in Canada. While marriage rates have fallen in the grand scheme of things (meaning, over the past 50 years), in the past five years, the drop has virtually stalled, indicating that marriage itself is making a comeback. According to Statistics Canada, since 2000, nationwide marriage rates have hovered in the 50 to 53 per cent range, and cohabitation rates, while still slightly on the rise, have jumped less than a single per cent in the last five years. The question is why?

In an article entitled "Always a Bridesmaid: People Who Don't Expect to Marry," that appeared in a 2005 Canadian Social Trends issue published by Statistics Canada, author Susan Crompton asserts, "Despite all our worries about 'fractured families' and declining family values, most Canadians still want to be husbands, wives and parents. A 2004 study of Canadians' opinions about family life found that the vast majority still hold very traditional views about love, marriage and having children."

'Bargaining power'

According to Dr. Steven Nock, a Sociology professor at the University of Virginia and the director of ongoing research entitled the "Marriage Matters" project, who I spoke to via e-mail, there are a number of contributing factors to consider when looking at the marriage comeback, but one stands out. "There was a time when people actually believed that living together would improve their marriages, help them anticipate life together and so on," he says. "But we now know that the opposite it true...For some, this may be why they are reluctant to move in together -- simply because they hope to eventually marry."

Ironically, other research suggests that women who do choose to shack up are also doing so out of a desire to tie the knot. Dr. Pamela Smock, associate director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, a family demographer who is currently authoring more than one paper on the subject, also interviewed via e-mail, says that "women see cohabitation as leading to marriage."

However, Smock says they also "express fears that by living with their boyfriend they will be losing some of their bargaining power and it will delay marriage." It's the cow/milk thing, apparently. Either way, regardless of whether they choose to shack up or hold out, getting hitched seems to be the ultimate goal.

'Totally over fooling around'

Kathryn Macdonald, 26, is a Richmond-area teacher who's been with her boyfriend for more than two years. She says she has been hoping for a proposal since their first date in the summer of 2004.

"We were driving to the restaurant on our first date and I proclaimed, 'So, I'm totally over just dating and fooling around. I'm ready to be in a serious relationship that will lead to marriage. If you don't have that intention with me, I don't think that we should continue here.' I don't know where I got the balls to say that. I guess I knew that he was a good one. He said, miraculously, that he felt the same way. He felt like he was ready to grow up. Two years later, I'm still waiting."

She says the same boyfriend started pressuring her to shack up in September of 2005, saying he couldn't be positive that he wanted to marry her until they did. He even gave her a book entitled, Shacking Up: The Smart Girl's Guide to Living in Sin Without Getting Burned, but Macdonald says while she's wavered somewhat in her commitment to continuing to live apart, she isn't really convinced.

"I just can't see why I need to live with my boyfriend for years and years before we get married," she says. "How will that help? What happened to friendship, love, trust and great sex? We have all of that. We can deal with the toothpaste cap when we get to it!"

Shacked out

Stacy Whitman, co-author of Shacking Up, agrees with Macdonald. From her home in Idaho, she told me, "You should really have a good idea of whether you're compatible before you move in together," she says. "You don't want to have a lot of surprises (like learning about his secret porn addiction or gambling problem) after you move in together. Take your time and get to know each other really well before taking the plunge."

Negative, unmarried living-together experiences are contributing to the holding out on shacking up trend.

In her previously mentioned "Always the Bridesmaid" article, Crompton writes, "Proportionally more won'ts (43 per cent) [people who believe they won't marry] than wills (33 per cent) [people who believe they will] have lived common-law, and it is possible that their reluctance to marry may stems in part from an unfavourable experience in such a relationship. Interestingly, women who don't expect to marry are more likely than men to have lived common-law (50 per cent and 37 per cent, respectively)."

Sarah Hutchinson, a 26-year-old Vancouver resident recently split from her second live-in boyfriend in the last five years, says her experiences have put her off shacking up altogether.

"I don't think I would move in with anybody again unless I knew -- absolutely knew -- we were going to get married," she says. "It's just too hard. It's too hard to merge your life and then unmerge it. Staying separate and maintaining your individuality is important. For me, it's a way of protecting myself.

"Even if I got engaged, I don't think I'd want to move in with someone again." She acknowledges that having recently dealt with a contentious split, her view may be "tainted."

Smart holdouts?

So what about me? Do women who are holding out respect me less for making what so many consider the cow/milk mistake? If so, they won't admit it.

"Women who move in with their boyfriends aren't asking to get burned, but they need to have a discussion about their expectations," says Macdonald.

Dr. Wilcox puts it a different way: "As you probably know, virtually every study conducted on cohabitation indicates that couples who cohabit without the benefit of a wedding ring are significantly more likely to divorce...So the women who are holding out are making a smart choice."

Indeed, in her report on Canadians, Crompton says, "Researchers still warn that despite their most honourable intentions, people who delay marrying may never walk down the aisle."

Yikes. Luckily, I may not need to worry. Dr. Bill Montgomery, a seasoned therapist with the non-profit group Council For Relationships, says women shouldn't focus about the statistics. He says, "What matters without a doubt is that a couple learns to talk and to listen in ways that truly express their inner feelings and needs."

Whitman says, "It all depends on your individual circumstances -- who you are, what you want, and where you are in your relationship."

In other words, the many women who are holding out may be on to something, but I may be too.

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