Marriage and cohabitation in America

I often hear or read Americans associate steady relationships and children with marriage. Even people like Dan Savage or a guy I know who’s a bisexual in a homosexual relationship equate them. How true is that in the US?
Children born out of wedlock seem to be seen as being in broken homes. Relationship progression seems to go from dating (no all that serious, seeing other people) to married.

I heard people say (on shows where people were exchanging serious opinions) that one means of alleviating poverty was people getting married.

How true is it that “long term serious relationship” and “marriage” are considered synonyms? How much opprobrium/embarrassment is there in being born out of wedlock?
If I’ve gotten the right impression, this rather surprises me. Over here in my Canadian province, more than 60% of children are born out of wedlock and many people stay together, have a house and children without getting married. Our best known prime minister wasn’t even married and had a girlfriend when he was elected in the late 60s.

It might be different elsewhere in the US (cough-the Bible Belt-cough) but around where I’m at (Phoenix, AZ) it really isn’t an issue. I know tons of people who have kids, live together and aren’t married. I was born out of wedlock- hell, my mom and my dad never even lived together and I only met my father twice- but I’ve never had anyone treat me differently because of it.

Most of the people I know personally who are married with kids only married when the woman became unexpectedly pregnant. This is especially common among the Catholic Hispanic population we have here. As my friend Luis has told me, he’s made a vow to be the first in his family to be married and then have kids.

It’s very true in the Bible belt and surrounding areas. If you have kids and aren’t married, it’s because the father (or rarely mother) is not in the picture. And if you have more than one kid, you were likely divorced.

Now, as Melon mentions. there are kids that were conceived out of wedlock, but if the parents stay together, they will generally get married before the baby is born. This is done specifically because it is assumed that, for someone to act like the kid’s father, they have to be married to the mother.

Now, that said, you probably won’t be treated differently if you are born out of wedlock. But you will be assumed to have come from a “broken home.” If anyone is treated differently, it’s usually the parents. (and, yes, I almost wrote parent. That’s how pervasive non-married parent == single parent)

Just want to point out the difference in areas again. Where I’m at, I don’t think people would assume a person with unmarried parents comes from a broken home, that is, that their parents aren’t currently together.

I never thought of my kids being born out of wedlock until my partner of 20+ years and I got married on New Years’ Eve. In the marriage ledger there was a section the children had to sign called “persons legitimized by this marriage” Never even thought of it before and no one in our circle ever made it an issue.

What province are you in, and can you provide a cite for this statistic?

I think going through an American divorce is so bad young people would rather stay single then endure one. I can’t blame them. My divorce was awful because my ex didn’t want it. Add two of the best lawyers and it turned into a mud slinging match of epic proportions. I knew it was going to be awful so I stayed married just to save for the divorce. I didn’t want it to hurt the kids but it did. I would have endured married life if my ex wasn’t so abusive.

Marriage is the leading cause of divorce. If divorce wasn’t so traumatizing more people would get married. My kids have not married and I really doubt they will after what they had to live through. I never wanted it to be so bad but if you marry a jerk with money it can become a dog and pony show. All it takes is one person with an ax to grind and unlimited funds to give a high powered lawyer. It isn’t fair and it isn’t right but it is the American way. It took 2 years to obtain the divorce and 10 grand and then another 5 grand to try and keep custody.

It should be illegal for kids to be used as pawns in a divorce. Still the justice system puts them through the wringer for cold hard cash. It wasn’t just me in the court room the kids may as well have been there too.

It’s not just a matter of where you are geographically, but what kind of people you hang around with.

I live in California, which is not in the bible belt, and I don’t know any couples-- at least anyone well – who has children without being married. And neither I nor most people I know are religous at all.

There are huge differences by race/ethnicity and class. I’ll see if I can find some useful statistics.

Race, from Child Trends (pdf):

The percent of children age 0-17 living with two married parents (includes stepparents):
White - 72.9%
Black - 34.5%
Hispanic - 64.2%
Asian - 83.5%

For black kids, living with two married parents is non-normative. It’s quite common for Asian and white kids.
Here’s a nice graph(also from Child Trends) with data on percentage of all births that are nonmarital. Again, you can see that more black and Hispanic kids are born to non-married mothers than to married mothers. A bit more than a quarter of white kids are born to non-married mothers. However, we should keep in mind that about half of those nonmarital births are to cohabiting couples. Also, I want to point out that part of the reason that the percent of births that are nonmarital has been climbing is because married women have been having fewer births (i.e., the denominator of the fraction has been decreasing over time).

I’m having a hard time finding a good source of data right now, but there a big education differences as well. People with college degrees typically take the marriage then kids route. People with less education are a lot more likely to have nonmarital births.

Generally, cohabitation seems to still be thought of in the US as a stage before marriage, at least among younger people. This is different in Europe. In the US, family demographers/sociologists/economists typically study single, cohabiting, and married people separately. In Europe, academics usually just look at two groups, the singles and the partnereds. There are high rates of nonmarital fertility in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean that those people don’t want to get married - they just aren’t ready to get married right now, for whatever reason. (If you’re interested in the details, I recommend Promises I Can Keep for further reading.)

Oh, and the reduction of poverty thing? This is a political idea that promoting marriage will help people become more stable economically. I have yet to see convincing evidence that this works, but I’m not really keeping up on that literature. I don’t think people are talking about marriage promotion much since welfare reform fell off the national radar.

Sources say that 100% of divorces were preceded by a marriage. I believe that’s an irrefutable proof of your assertion. :wink:

I think it was in the book “Freakonomics” that the authors stated that the best route out of poverty is finish high school, get and stay married, and get a job and keep it. I don’t have a hard time seeing how two incomes for basically the same expenses would help a family get out of poverty.

I’m curious about your 60% statistic too, MichaelEMouse. Having a baby out of wedlock is by no means a big deal in Alberta, but it isn’t the most common route, either.

In the Midwest, in the circles I move in, “long-term serious relationship” and “marriage” are indeed generally considered synonyms. I know many dozens of couples and only two have had kids out of wedlock. Of those, one broke up badly, with the woman seeking a protection order against her daughter’s dad; the other couple is still together and doing very well.

Lived in So.Calif. when my daughter was growing up. There was definitely a bit of a stigma at her school (80’s). I was definitely treated differently by other mothers.

One huge attraction to marriage is having benefits and rights that unmarried couples do not. That is slowly changing some, but if unmarried, your mate may have no say with medical issues; they cannot receive your SS benefits, other issues that make marriage “necessary.”

Having been divorced for many years, were I to meet someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, I would think long and hard before slipping a ring on my finger and saying “I do.”

I have a feeling that health insurance needs sometimes pushes American couples that are living together to marry a bit sooner than they might in other western countries.

To be clear, the US has virtually eliminated the “common law marriage” that is to say, no matter how many years you “live as married” you have no rights as a spouse. You can be excluded from hospitals, have limited or no right to share health insurance, have no automatic right to inherit from the other partner, etc. “Common Law Marriage” only exists in some form in 11 states, and the general trend is to completely eliminate it, not to expand it.

So “long term relationship” and “marriage” and not even slightly synonymous from a legal perspective. I understand in Canada the situation is reversed, so you might not have guessed that a long-term girlfriend is almost a legal stranger to you in the U.S. Socially, it is not as big a deal as it used to be, but some people consider it foolish due to the large number of rights and benefits you are forgoing for what seems to some like no particular good reason.

The glorious independent nation of Quebec.

Cite: I can PM you the email/phone number/web page of the family law teacher I heard it from in class if you want to check.

When people get married, do they usually believe it’s for life? Even when they’re in their early 20s? Or is it more of a “we’re in a serious relationship plus we want legal/medical/financial advantages linked to marriage”?

I know there can be sunstantial variation in that, but when (either in terms of time or events) do people usually choose to get married?

Culturally, you’re not supposed to get married, unless you feel sincerely it’s for life. 22 is pretty young to get married. Most people would think 22 year olds are, on the whole, too immature for marriage. Families, unless they are religiously conservative, would likely discourage it.

The median age for marriage in the US is 26 for both men & women at the moment.

To add to the above, when people have kids a lot of them see an advantage to having a bunch of added layers of legal security that comes with marriage; e.g. if your long-term partner is killed in an accident (either without a will, or with one and mean in-laws who decide to challenge it), and it’s not guaranteed that you inherit your partner’s assets – how easy is it going to be to feed your kids? If you have to fight in probate court, it’s going to be expensive. If there’s no need to fight, then a big hurdle doesn’t become an epic one.

To your question: I suspect the circles I generally run in are outliers, because I know an awful lot of people in their 30s who are still single (many never married, not divorced). I’ve seen/heard of remarkably few weddings, actually. Most of those happen when the couple is in their very late 20s to mid-30s. There’s a wedding coming up in June where he is 29, and she is 24. I know very few people who got married before age 28, though.

I do know some people who were married when I met them (and they’re early-mid 30s), but I don’t know how long they’ve been married. My impression is that the wedding was around the same time, though – around the age of 28ish.

Also, most people seem to think of marriage as a “for-life” thing – at least they weren’t expecting their relationship to end later when they got married. Divorces can and usually do get complicated and expensive. Why deal with that if you expect the relationship won’t last very long? I certainly wouldn’t, myself.

It is true that Quebec has a low marriage rate, and interestingly enough it seems that Quebec also offers very little legal protection to unmarried spouses. Many people are not aware of this, though, and I believe I remember a recent ad campaign (possibly by the government?) pointing out that if you’re cohabitating with a partner, even if it’s been many years, you could find yourself with no place to live and no money if ever the relationship turns sour.

The OP’s 60% figure seems plausible to me, but I’m not sure how I’d find a cite for it. I guess I can try anyway. I do know that my parents weren’t married when I was born, and today, nearly 28 years later, they’re still unmarried and living together.

ETA: One of my friends is soon to become a new father. He and his girlfriend aren’t married and I don’t believe they’re planning to (at least for now). That’s just anecdotal evidence, but it seems that marriage is in fact uncommon in Quebec.

It’s pretty common now for big companies to allow your partner to be on your insurance policy even if you are not married. I think this started for gay couples but it was extended to hetero couples too. In some cases you have to sign a statement saying it is a committed relationship.