STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Kim McClellan and Josh Bugbee act like any other couple navigating the ropes of sharing the same living quarters – they cook dinner together and squabble over who does the dishes. But there is one discernible difference: They’re not married.
And they’re increasingly not alone.
About 7.7 million couples cohabited in 2010, making up about 6.6 percent of the population nationally and 6.2 percent of Colorado’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s a substantial increase compared with the 5.5 million couples, or 5.2 percent of the population nationally, that cohabited in 2000.
Cohabiting – living together outside of marriage – has increased since 1970, but some experts say it isn’t a good idea.
Couples who cohabit before getting engaged or married do not have as strong marriages as those who don’t, said Scott Stanley, a research professor of psychology at the University of Denver.
McClellan said she isn’t worried.
“We’re comfortable enough in our relationship that living together has helped us. It’s a sneak peek before we’re tied down and married,” she said. “Living with someone before getting married is a trial run.”
It just makes sense
McClellan, 27, and Bugbee, 29, have always wanted to live in Colorado, and they finally made the move to Durango a few months ago after McClellan got a job as a librarian at Fort Lewis College.
“We moved here to be together, so it wouldn’t have made sense to live in separate places,” McClellan said. “(Marriage) is definitely in the future, but right now … we’re both really happy with the way things are, and financially, it doesn’t make sense for us to do it. We’d rather be financially in a good place where we can afford a wedding and a honeymoon.”
Lauren Collett and Scott Price have been living together for about 3½ months and decided to make the move so they could spend more time together rather than constantly commute between each other’s homes.
Price bought the home they now share. Collett, 24, says the monthly mortgage is about the same amount they’d pay per month renting a home.
“We’d just been dating for a while, and we like spending time with each other,” Collett said. “It seemed like the right next step.”
Younger generations no longer seem to face the traditional stigma associated with living with a significant other outside wedlock, but that doesn’t mean grandparents and parents are on board.
Indeed, cohabitation was illegal in every state until about 1970, according to a U.S. News and World Report article.
Dana Haug’s family was less than thrilled when she moved in with her boyfriend and now husband, Jeramie Haug, when they were 19, she said.
The two were best friends in high school before dating after graduation, she said. They decided to make the move rather than continue sneaking into each other’s rooms at night.
“My parents were not supportive because of my culture,” said Dana, who is a Buddhist. “His mom didn’t like the idea at all, but then she got over it because we proved to her that we could do it. She didn’t think we could financially do it.”
Collett’s parents warned her that cohabiting is a big step to take in the relationship, but they were not against the idea, which came as a bit of a surprise, she said.
“My parents were married before they moved in together, and I think that they got married because they wanted to move away and go to school and live together,” Collett said. “That was just a different time. They got married very young.”
Research shows couples are waiting until they are older to get hitched. The average age of marriage for both men and women has risen almost every year since 1970, according to census data. The average age at first marriage for a male in 1970 was about 23, and the average age for a woman was about 21. In 2011, the average age for a man was about 29 and about 26 for a woman.
McClellan, who has been dating Bugbee for about a year and a half, said she believes couples should live together before tying the knot because “there’s so much that goes into it.”
It makes sense for people to have a trial period before jumping into a marriage, said FLC associate psychology professor Brian Burke, who lived with his wife for about three years before they married.
“There is a very large difference between living together and dating. If you don’t get through it, it’s a sign that you’re maybe not compatible,” he said. “You learn things about each other when living together that you wouldn’t have known otherwise. We all have quirks that you try to hide as much as possible when you’re dating.”
Cohabiting: A couple’s downfall?
Most couples do not talk about what moving in together means for their relationship, DU professor Stanley said. That’s why couples who move in after they are engaged tend to do better in their marriage because both individuals are on the same page for where the relationship is headed.
“Cohabiting makes it harder to break up. You’re buying stuff together, you may have a child together even though you never decided to start building a family or a life together ” he said. “Those things take on weight or inertia that keeps some (couples) together longer than they otherwise would have, and for some people, it propels them all the way into marriage.”
Local psychotherapist Nicole Fuller, who counsels couples, says she disagrees that cohabiting before getting engaged or tying the knot leads to an unhappy marriage.
“The fact that a marriage either succeeds or fails has to do with a lot more than just living together,” she said. “Couples that live together prior to getting married have a far better chance in longevity in marriage because they know what to expect.”
Like many couples living together, the Haugs decided to combine their finances into one joint account when they first moved in together, and Dana Haug said it has never been an issue.
“It was very comfortable because we knew each other really well before we dated,” she said. “We didn’t have any problems, and he honestly let me have the control over (the money) and trusted me to do that.”
McClellan and Bugbee also combined bank accounts when they moved to Durango, where they currently live rent-free as caretakers of a house.
Others, though, may realize their incompatibility while still locked in a lease, Burke said, and that’s when things get tricky.
If a suddenly single cohabitant can sublet a room and make it work financially, that’s the best thing to do.
“Otherwise, you have to make it work. You can come up with schedules, especially if you’re fighting, and that can minimize contact,” he said.