No longer taboo, living together has become a more common arrangement than marriage for American couples who become pregnant while dating.
Soon-to-be-released government figures show a major cultural shift since the days of “shotgun weddings” aimed at avoiding family embarrassment. With marriage on the decline, the shift is helping redefine the traditional notion of family.
“The emergence of cohabitation as an acceptable context for childbearing has changed the family-formation landscape,” said Christina Gibson-Davis, a sociology professor at Duke University. “Individuals still value the idea of a two-parent family but no longer consider it necessary for the parents to be married.”
In all, the share of unmarried couples who opted to move in together after a pregnancy surpassed “shotgun marriages” for the first time over the past decade, according to the National Survey of Family Growth conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s the latest demographic tipping point as cohabitations turn mainstream – a far cry from the days when the father of a pregnant daughter might use coercion, such as a shotgun, to make sure the boyfriend followed through on a wedding.
“I want to marry when I’m ready, not because I’m being forced into it. Whenever I see couples do that, things don’t work out,” said Amanda Leigh Pulte, 22, of Austin, Texas, as her 11-month-old daughter, Zoey, cooed in her arms.
Pulte had delayed moving in with Matthew Gage, a 29-year-old shipping manager and her boyfriend of three years, wishing to wait until she could earn a bachelor’s degree and start a full-time job.
An unplanned pregnancy quickly changed that. Completing an associate degree, she agreed to have Gage move in so the couple could work and save on rent while raising Zoey together.
Though they didn’t see marriage as a serious option for now – in part to avoid the stress of planning and paying for a wedding, she says – neither was having Pulte live on her own as a single mother.
“For a while, my father was kind of shocked about the whole thing, but ultimately he was just excited to be a grandfather,” she said.
About 18.1 percent of all single women who became pregnant opted to move in with their boyfriends before the child was born, according to 2006-2010 data from the National Survey of Family Growth, the latest available. That is compared to 5.3 percent who chose a post-conception marriage. As recently as the early 1990s, 25 percent of such couples got married.
About 60 percent of all births during the 2000s were to married mothers, compared to 24 percent to cohabiting mothers and 16 percent to non-cohabiting mothers. That was the first time that cohabiting births exceeded births from single mothers who weren’t living with their child’s father.
Sometimes called the “poor person’s marriage,” cohabitation is growing fastest among couples with the least education.
Between the 1997-2001 and 2002-2009 periods, it grew from 23 percent to 32 percent among mothers with only a high school degree, according to Sheela Kennedy, a researcher at the University of Minnesota. For mothers with some college attendance, it grew from 15 percent to 23 percent, while it changed little, from 3 percent to 5 percent, among those with four-year college degrees.
“Because marriages are becoming more polarized by economic status, I don’t see the trend of shotgun cohabitations reversing any time soon,” said Casey Copen, a demographer at the National Center for Health Statistics, which administers the government survey.
Researchers at Harvard and Cornell universities have found that only about half of mothers who were cohabiting when their child was born were still in relationships with the biological father five years later.