All but the Ring: Why Some Couples Don't Wed

More couples are deciding to live together and raise a family. Why bother getting married?

  • Gabriela Hasbun for TIME

    Raymond McCauley says he loves his lady (here with their kids in Silicon Valley) too much to marry her

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    Indeed, a study published in the December Journal of Marriage and Family found that a man's involvement in his partner's pregnancy — trips to the doctor, childbirth classes, etc. — was the best way to secure his long-term dedication. Lead author Natasha Cabrera of the University of Maryland says, "It is the decision that couples make to strengthen commitment and move in together that is important, rather than marital status per se."

    Marriage can always end, and the protection it once offered offspring is now covered by child-support laws. Add that development to the gains made by the domestic-partnership movement, and, Cherlin says, "the legal advantages of marriage, the benefits that one would get, are eroding." This is one reason CUs like Charles Backman, 44, a commercial real estate developer in New Hampshire, see marriage as outdated at best. Backman wants no part of what he calls "the government stamp" of approval on his relationship to his partner of 15 years. "People mistake the government sanctioning your marriage for commitment," he says. The father of three girls ages 1 to 7, Backman finds marriage not only unnecessary but also tarnished by commercialization. By not marrying, he says, "I saved $50,000 on a wedding, money I can use to help pay for the kids' college." ( See pictures of the college dorm's evolution. )

    But while Backman saved a lot of money by withstanding the pressure to have a lavish wedding, over time it is costing him a bundle to remain unmarried: since he is not covered by his partner's company health-insurance plan, he pays $12,000 a year for his own policy. "As I get older and sicker, I'm much more likely to get the rubber stamp," he admits.

    Of course, unmarriage isn't a guarantee of love everlasting any more than marriage is. According to Rutgers University's National Marriage Project, cohabiting couples are at least twice as likely to break up as married couples are. Long term, notes Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Washington's Evergreen State College, unmarriage works only if both people are equally committed to the lack of legal commitment. If they're not, to borrow a phrase from Beyoncé: If you like it, then you should have put a ring on it.

    The majority of cohabitants either break up or marry within five years, says Alison Hatch, a grad student at the University of Colorado who is doing her dissertation on committed unmarrieds, a demographic to which she and her partner of six years belong. She and Coontz have found that many of them end up marrying because they face the same discrimination as gay couples regarding insurance, taxes and other legal issues. Having kids can also change things. David Letterman didn't say what prompted him in March to wed his partner of 23 years, who is also the mother of his 5-year-old son. I know that in our case, the plus sign on my pregnancy test led my boyfriend and me to marry in April, which has made our relationship feel more committed, but maybe a little less cool.

    See pictures of the founders of wedding website The Knot.

    See pictures of Americans in their homes.

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