Cohabitation, an alternative to Marriage?

When I told Atala about the recent news about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, he asked; "I thought they were married?" No, they aren't, and even with this engagement, marriage is not assured. It's interesting that it is their children who are very keen for their parents to get married, probably from what they see around them, from friends, classmates and other sources.

Now Atala is not alone in thinking Pitt-Jolie are married, what with them having been together for seven years and having six children, both by birth and by adoption. At the same time, the couple are not the only people who fore-go legal marriage and go for co-habitation.

This type of cohabitation goes beyond just living together for a few years as a test-run for marriage, or with the goal of getting married and then starting a family. In this type of cohabitation, some couples just rule out marriage in the short term and dive straight into making a home and having children together. They either do not believe in marriage as is, or they think it will harm their relationship.

This is in contrast with one or two older couples I know who got married in their forties and fifties when they already had grown up children. Their own stories were along the lines of, "we simply couldn't afford a marriage when we were younger" or "My family did not accept her/him and we just eloped." These group of people are not flat out against marriage like the previous ones.

But they all still make me wonder, is it really necessary to get married? After all, there is what is known as common-law marriage where after living together for a number of years, a couple's arrangement can be legally protected. In some places like the UK, I hear co-habitation is becoming more common, either as a matter of convenience for some, or as a pathway to marriage for others.

Whatever the reason for cohabitation, I think it's imperative to have a conversation with one's partner about what it means for both. If the goal is marriage, as it often is for many women who cohabit, then this should be reflected, with a conversation on goals, expectations, etc. A recent article on the New York Times pointed to lack of such a conversation as the major downside of cohabitation.

Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.

WHEN researchers ask cohabitors these questions, partners often have different, unspoken - even unconscious - agendas. Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage. Source

The article above believes that cohabitation is here to stay, and suggests things that couples intending to live together can do "to protect their relationships from the cohabitation effect". However, while commitment may have gotten a new definition for some people who choose to live together first, I think it will be a while yet before marriage is overtaken by cohabitation.