Recent changes in laws pertaining to intimate relationships in North America and Western Europe have produced contradictory trends. On one hand, states have increasingly revealed an interest in providing binding legal structures for intimate relationships. The political battles over same-sex marriage in Hawaii, Vermont, and Massachusetts and the creation of a “covenant marriage” in Louisiana (which marked the return of fault-based divorce) reflect the widespread desire for states to provide structure to intimate relationships. 1 Though covenant marriage legislation reflects more traditional family values than the politics behind the same-sex marriage movement, these examples are similar in that each reflects a desire for structural constraints for intimate arrangements.
Although a desire exists for the constraints that legal structures provide, there also appears to be a countertrend-a desire for more flexibility in intimate relationships than the legal structure of marriage can provide. For example, in the United States, people are marrying much later in life. In 1970, the median age of first marriage was 22.2 years for men, and 20.8 years for women. By 2000, this rose to a historic high: 26.8 years and 25.1 years for men and women, respectively. Cohabitation appears as both a precursor and alternative to marriage. In 1960, 1.1 percent of all households were comprised of unmarried cohabitants. By 2000, this rose to 3.7 percent of all households (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2000).