Who Needs Marriage? A Changing Institution

The state of marriage is shifting in unexpected ways. A TIME/Pew special report shows how income, age and experience alter our chances of wedded bliss

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Horacio Salinas for TIME

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Cohabitation is on the rise not just because of the economy. It's so commonplace these days that less than half the country thinks living together is a bad idea. Couples who move in together before marrying don't divorce any less often, say studies, although that might change as the practice becomes more widespread. In any case, academic analysis doesn't seem to be as compelling to most people as the example set by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Or as splitting the rent.

But cohabitation among the economically blessed is a whole different ball game than it is among the struggling. For most college-educated couples, living together is like a warm-up run before the marital marathon. They work out a few of the kinks and do a bit of house-training and eventually get married and have kids. Those without a college degree, says Cherlin, tend to do it the other way around — move in together, have kids and then aim for the altar. And children, as Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston discovered, change everything.

The Kids May Not Be All Right
Rarely is there a bigger chasm between what Americans believe to be the best thing for society and what actually happens than in the bearing and raising of children. Half or more of the respondents in the Pew poll say that marital status is irrelevant to achieving respect, happiness, career goals, financial security or a fulfilling sex life. When it comes to raising kids, though, it's a landslide, with more than three-quarters saying it's best done married.

Yet very few people say children are the most important reason to get hitched. Indeed, 41% of babies were born to unmarried moms in 2008, an eightfold increase from 50 years ago, and 25% of kids lived in a single-parent home, almost triple the number from 1960. Contrary to the stereotype, it turns out that most of the infants born to unmarried mothers are not the product of casual sexual encounters. One of the most extensive databases on such kids, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a joint project of Princeton and Columbia universities, which has been following 5,000 children from birth to age 9, found that more than half of the unmarried parents were living together at the time their child was born and 30% of them were romantically involved (but living apart).

Most of those unwed mothers said their chances of marrying the baby's father were 50% or greater, but after five years, only 16% of them had done so and only about 20% of the couples were still cohabiting. This didn't mean that the children didn't live with a man, however, since about a quarter of their moms were now living with or married to a new partner. That doesn't always work out as well as it seems to in Modern Family or Phineas & Ferb. Offspring from earlier relationships put pressure on new ones. For the least wealthy children, Mom's new boyfriend often means their biological father is less likely to visit and less likely to support their mother. Many stepparents are wonderful and committed, but a series of live-in lovers is not at all the same thing. "About 21% of American children will see at least two live-in partners of their mothers by the time they're 15," says Cherlin. "And an additional 8% will see three or more."

Would marriage really stop the conveyor belt of parent figures? "Marriage is still the way Americans tend to do long-term, stable partnerships," says Cherlin. "We have the shortest cohabiting relationships of any wealthy country in the world. In some European countries, we see couples who live together for decades." To this day, only 6% of American children have parents who live together without being married.

Cohabitation seems to have no negative effect on a marriage's chances if it's preceded by an engagement, no previous live-in lovers and no children. Who has the clout to put those conditions into place? Women with their own means of support and guys who don't need a woman to look after them: the wealthy and well educated. The others often are left in limbo — not able to get married and not able to move on. "Ironically, the very people who would benefit from a committed marriage the most are the people who have the toughest time locating reliable long-term partners," says Stephanie Coontz, a marriage historian who teaches at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

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