For well over a year, I campaigned for my boyfriend and me to wed. "I don't see what the point of marriage is," he'd say. Public avowals of love, I suggested or presents? "Le Creuset?" I'd ask, mostly joking.
Eventually I gave up and moved on to the next topic: babies. Absolutely, he replied. We'd been together for 2½ years by that point, and while he didn't want to bother getting married, a family was something he could happily commit to. (See pictures of couples who are famously unmarried.)
It turns out he's in good company. More than 5 million unmarried couples cohabit in the U.S., nearly eight times the number in 1970, and a record-breaking 40% of babies born in 2007 had unmarried parents (that's up 25% from 2002). Sure, there are plenty of baby-daddies in the Levi Johnston vein, i.e., young and accidental. But nonmarital births have increased the most among women ages 25 to 39, doubling since 1980, thanks in part to a small but growing demographic a sociologist has dubbed committed unmarrieds (CUs). These are the happily unwed think Brad and Angelina, Oprah and Stedman, Goldie and Kurt whose commitment to their partners is as strong as their stance against marriage.
Celebrities, gay-marriage bans and fear of divorce are helping fuel the rise in unwedded bliss. "We love each other far, far too much to ever actually get married," says Raymond McCauley, 43, a biotech engineer in Mountain View, Calif., who has twin 2-year-olds with his partner of five years, Kristina Hathaway. His opposition to marriage is political, in solidarity with gays who can't legally wed in most states, and personal he and his partner both got divorced in their 20s, an experience that has led McCauley to liken marriage to food poisoning: "You don't want to eat that thing again, even if you know it's perfectly fine this time." (Read "A Gay-Marriage Solution: End Marriage?")
In lieu of a marriage license, he and Hathaway have drawn up legal documents that grant them rights automatically afforded married couples, covering everything from child custody to property. And yet this arrangement still gives him some sense of freedom. "Every day we're making this decision and this commitment anew," he says. "I'm not with you because there would be legal speed bumps to get through if we weren't. I'm with you because this is where I want to be."
Is marriage on its way to becoming the relationship equivalent of our appendix (in that it's no longer needed but can cause a lot of pain)? "You're looking at the vanguard," sociologist Andrew Cherlin says of CUs like McCauley and Hathaway. A Johns Hopkins professor and author of The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today, he notes that unmarried parents in Europe stay together longer than married parents in the U.S. "Marriage is a more powerful symbol here," he says. "It's the ultimate merit badge of personal life." And if it doesn't fulfill people's (often overwrought) expectations, they leave.