Study finds more young people are living with partners than getting hitched

The factors behind the big shift include changing social norms, avoiding divorce and delayed adulthood

BOSTON — Skylar and Kyle Young have a beautiful home in Westwood and three beautiful kids. Kyle has a successful career in wealth management. They travel and love to take the family on outdoor outings. But what they didn’t have until a few months ago was a marriage certificate.

"We were just continuing our life," Skylar explained.

A new study by the Pew Research Center found 59% of millennials and Generation X’ers have lived with an unmarried partner, surpassing the 50% who have been married. It’s the first time cohabitation has topped marriage in the United States.

"Although marriage was important to us someday, it wasn't something that needed to happen immediately," Kyle explained.

So after 11 years together, they finally tied the knot last fall. “Our families and friends were supportive and some of my siblings even did the same thing - waited to get married,” Skylar said.

Lasell University psychology professor Sarabeth Golden says many factors have led to the shift.

“Social norms have been shifting for a while,” said Golden. "They’re probably continuing to shift. We’ve got the issues surrounding costs. We also have society becoming more secular. Up to three-quarters of Catholics do not oppose cohabitation now. That is wildly different than a few decades ago.

Golden also theorizes young couples may be trying to avoid divorce, which they may have witnessed their parents and older generations go through. We asked her if she foresees society moving to a stage where, someday, marriage is from a bygone era -- a quaint notion of something we used to do. Golden said no.

"You know, I don't think people are going to just throw away marriage, but I think it's just - it's going to be more and more accepted for people to live together with even no expectation for ever getting married," she said.

For some, marriage isn't just about the relationship though. It's also about the legal structure marriage provides.

"There are lots of reasonable reasons why people decide not to marry but still want to have a marriage-like relationship," said Suffolk University Law School Family Law Professor Maritza Karmely.

But she says marriage does provide tax benefits and the benefit of sharing expenses, as well as safeguards if couples decide to split up.

Karmely explained unmarried fathers have fewer rights than married fathers when it comes to custody, at least until a judge gets involved.

"The presumption with parties who are married and living together…is the child has a relationship with both parents but with an unmarried couple, who knows what the relationship's been like," said Karmely.

Karmely has several recommendations for couples who are living together. Put your name on all assets. Hire an attorney for four important documents: your house deed, will, power of attorney for financial decisions, and a health care proxy.

Karmely also said common law marriage is not recognized in Massachusetts. Common law marriage allows a court to consider a couple who have been living together to be married after a number of years.

As for the Young family, we asked them about one of the most important considerations. Were they happier living together or married?

"I think in the moment, marriage for sure. That was such a special day," said Skylar.

A feeling they hope lasts a lifetime.

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