'Pop the Question' Takes on New Meaning Couples Latch on to Cohabitation

By Appelbaum, Binyamin | The Florida Times Union, September 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

'Pop the Question' Takes on New Meaning Couples Latch on to Cohabitation


Appelbaum, Binyamin, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Binyamin Appelbaum, Times-Union staff writer

Tracey McKay had been with many women, but Kira Knight was different. She was The One. So he decided to pop the question.

"Kira," he asked, "would you move in with me?"

And then, Kira said yes.

"You have to get to know the person, to know their ways," said McKay, a 29-year-old Jacksonville native who was married to Knight in June after they lived together for 18 months.

"It's just an easier transition. Getting married [without living together first] is just like two strangers getting together. What if you both like the same side of the bed?"

A generation of financially independent men and women, born to parents whose marriages failed more than half the time and living in a society that frowns on very little, is taking longer than ever before to say "I do."

In the interim, they are living together as a prelude to marriage, an alternative to marriage, or simply because it's better than living alone.

"It's a shift in the way we live and the way we think about living with each other," said Thomas Coleman, executive director of the American Association for Single People. "It's become a normal part of the decision-making process."

The Census Bureau has attempted to track the phenomenon, but because cohabitation generally is short-term -- 90 percent of couples either marry or move out within five years -- the decennial count captures the trend, but not the magnitude.

For example, Census 2000 reported 22,606 cohabiting households in Duval, Clay, St. Johns, Baker and Nassau counties, a mere 5.2 percent of the 432,627 households in the five-county area.

Far more indicative was the 90 percent increase in such households from the 1990 Census, which found 11,880 cohabiting households in the five-county area. Nationwide, the data pile showed a tenfold increase between 1960 and 2000, from 439,000 cohabiting couples to 4,736,000.

The trend is likely to intensify. A 1995 survey of U.S. high school seniors by researchers at the University of Michigan found more than 60 percent agreed, "It is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along."

That reason may not be a perfect one. Couples who live together before marriage are more likely to divorce than those who do not cohabit first, studies show.

BUILDING TRUST

The vast majority of cohabitation is potentially pre-marital. And, for the first time, the majority of married couples cohabit before exchanging vows.

A nationwide University of Wisconsin study found that 59 percent of couples married between 1990 and 1994 lived together first. That was up from 46 percent of couples married between 1980 and 1984.

Cohabitation's central attraction is that a commitment to the wrong person can be reversed with ease; a commitment to the right one, on the other hand, can be dialed up.

"They've grown up in a divorce culture where they're gun-shy about long-term relationships," said David Popenoe of the Rutgers University National Marriage Project. "They want to make absolutely sure that they marry the right person."

Cheryl Holland met Richard Blevins at a Virginia truck stop and fell in love. For six months, they trucked around the country, constant companions save for bathroom breaks.

Blevins had been twice divorced and Holland had been twice burned by cheating partners. Living together was a means of building trust.

"She was with me every day," Blevins said. "If you can stand to be with someone all the time, soon you can't stand to be apart."

Besides, Holland was pregnant. So the Jacksonville couple decided to make a marriage of it.

Sixty percent of pre-marital cohabiting couples end up at the altar. The other 40 percent -- presumably good candidates for divorce if they had married -- can go their separate ways without legal or religious sanction. …

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