Shacking Up for Better, for Worse

Living together before marriage is the new normal. And socioeconomic class can spell the difference between cohabitation bliss and blues.

Photo of a young man and woman surrounded by moving boxes

Summertime brings with it countless newspaper items about couples meeting, falling in love, getting engaged and making wedding plans. These engagement stories, you may have noticed, are almost always about college-educated professional couples. That’s because college-educated couples are much more likely to tie the knot than are couples in which one or both partners lack a bachelor’s degree.

These days, the most common route to marriage is through cohabitation. Before saying their vows, most young people have set up house, often several times over. Yet, although living together has become the statistical norm, it is far less likely than it was in years past to lead to marriage. And this is especially true among less-educated couples.

To better understand the widening class divide in cohabitation and marriage, my colleague Amanda Miller and I interviewed more than 60 unmarried couples who were living together. Then we contrasted the relationships of college-educated couples with those lacking a college degree.

We found that socioeconomic class fundamentally shaped the romantic experiences of American couples, often in unexpected ways. What stood out was how the gender revolution has seemingly bypassed those without a degree, America’s new service class.

College-educated women were more assertive about asking for help — with chores, buying contraception, even setting an engagement date — than less-educated women, who struggled with achieving equal partnerships. College-educated men were far more amenable to sharing the load.

Among the service class, men’s and women’s expectations and desires often conflicted, undermining their relationship. For example, service-class couples often moved in together quickly, many within a few months of beginning their romance. Unexpected financial strain — like a lost job, reduced work hours or housing needs — frequently prompted the decision to cohabit, trumping personal plans or goals.

Living together seemed to offer a quick fix. As Sherry, a 21-year-old waitress and student, sheepishly told us, “My main motivation [for moving in] — this is so bad — was money.” She lacked the first and last month’s rent and the security deposit many landlords required.

Simon, a 25-year-old disabled carpenter, said he and his girlfriend moved in together because “finances were very, very hard. I was laid off. I was actually in between jobs.”

College-educated couples generally followed a dating script, one that emphasized egalitarian decision making and forethought. Most were romantically involved for more than a year before moving in together.

Their reasons for cohabiting also differed, with more couples citing convenience or saying it was the economically rational thing to do. “I was basically living with him anyway and throwing money away,” explained Karen, a 25-year-old research coordinator who dated her boyfriend for more than a year before shacking up.

College-educated men often said living together was “the next step,” suggesting they were contemplating marriage even if they were not yet engaged. Evan described his reasons this way: “It was kind of a timing-slash-I-knew-this-was-the-girl-I-was-going-to-marry thing.”

When service-class couples moved in together quickly, relationship conflict, communication problems and contraceptive mishaps often resulted. These challenges seemed to highlight their incompatibility; they weren’t ready for cohabitation, much less a happy marriage.

Service-class couples often lacked access to health insurance (our interviews occurred prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act) or affordable copays. Unintended pregnancies were far more likely among less-educated cohabiting women, who less often used the most-effective methods of birth control.

In contrast, middle-class couples generally discussed contraception and the best ways to prevent pregnancy, and male partners were highly motivated to avoid mistimed pregnancies. College-educated couples also preferred to defer parenthood until they were ready, usually after marriage.

Middle-class couples described sharing housework more equally. Service-class women complained they had to “do it all,” and their partners complained that every little bit they did “seemed like a lot.” College-educated men, even when they did not share housework, were able at least to talk the talk, agreeing that they should do more — which female partners appreciated.

Compared to less-educated couples, middle-class couples also talked more frequently about their future together, including the “M word” (marriage). Having graduated college, obtained decent jobs and put away some savings, they were better-prepared for a committed relationship. They viewed marriage as a personal goal, if not necessarily for themselves, then for their partners or their parents.

The cohabiting experiences of service-class couples could best be described as discordant. Although tensions over money were ever-present, this was hardly the only source of conflict. Less-educated men resented the numerous challenges to their male prerogatives and balked at their partner’s desire to get engaged. When service-class women tried to promote change — putting up chore charts, suggesting condom use — service-class men often resisted. These struggles raised doubts about whether wedlock was the right move.

Is modern romance sitting atop emerging fault lines? Do these fissures suggest a decline in family values, changing sexual scripts or shifting morality? The short answer is no. Our respondents had similar aspirations for strong families and rewarding relationships.

Instead, these results suggest a failure of social policy and a lack of government responsiveness to unprecedented economic and social changes that have most affected less-educated couples. Access to stable jobs that pay a living wage, affordable housing and health care (including reproductive health) could temper rapid transitions into ill-suited cohabitations.

Though marriage is never a panacea, the gap between matrimonial aspirations and reality, especially among less-educated couples, may be making wedded bliss more elusive than ever.

Sharon Sassler is a professor in Cornell University’s Department of Policy Analysis and Management, and the author, with Amanda Miller, of “Cohabitation Nation: Gender, Class and the Remaking of Relationships” (University of California Press, 2017).