Cohabitation Replaces the Shotgun Wedding

Cohabitation is now the most common routine for America’s couples who become pregnant while dating.

In fact, the so-called “shotgun wedding” — a hurry-up trip to the altar before a birth — is rapidly becoming a relic in today’s more permissive society. Experience suggests that the forced rush to the altar often is a preliminary to a trip to the divorce lawyer.

Approximately 90 percent of marriages end in divorce within the first six years of marriage if the couple ‘had to’ get married due to pregnancy, according to Dr. John Silver. The responsibility of raising a child can become very stressful.

New studies by researchers at Cornell, Duke, Brown and Louisiana State universities and the Census Bureau and National Center for Health Statistics document the steep decline in forced marriages and how socio-economic, racial and ethnic differences affect relationships.

With marriage on the decline, the shift is redefining the traditional notion of family. However, the children in cohabiting households may face more difficulties growing up when their unmarried parents break up.

In the 1960s, about two-thirds of couples with a premarital pregnancy raced to the altar. By the 1990s, the share dropped to about a quarter. Recent analyses by researchers at the Census Bureau and National Center for Health Statistics suggest a drop to single digits as more expectant couples opt to live together rather than marry.

Such changes are the result of a variety of influences, from family and friends to characters on TV or in the movies and how celebrities start families. “A generation ago, having a child without being married was controversial,” suggests Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “Now the culture has proven there are lots of people out there raising children without being married.”

“When these things happen in mainstream popular culture, they send a signal to the society that this is normal,” Thompson says. “I’m talking less about celebrities because celebrities aren’t normal. But when it happens to characters on shows like Friends or Ellen or How I Met Your Mother, it sends the message this is now normal and something people do and an option you can decide upon. That is what I think popular culture’s biggest power is.”

Almost 60 percent of births are still to married parents, says Jonathan Vespa, a demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau and lead author of a study that finds living together as a reaction to an unexpected pregnancy now surpasses shotgun marriages by three-to-one.

His analysis of the most recent federal data — 6,187 women who had a premarital pregnancy that led to a live birth — concludes that the best odds for marriage come during the shotgun period, before the birth. A woman’s greatest likelihood of marrying during a premarital pregnancy is within 4-6 months of conception, according to Vespa. Women who don’t marry by the time their child is born may be unlikely to do so in the subsequent two years, the data show.

New research by sociologist Daniel Lichter of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., finds that unmarried pregnant women are three times more likely to cohabit than marry. Lichter’s focused on the pregnancy’s effect on a relationship — whether it “dissolved or deteriorated or whether it segued to a more committed relationship.”

The study Licther co-authored, published online in the journal Social Science Research, finds that among those living together at conception, 7% had split up by the birth; 14% had married and almost 80% were still living together.

Each of these new studies shows that more educated women are more likely to marry.

“A half-century ago, most women married first, then had children, regardless of how much education they had. Since then, most women — except those with a bachelor’s degree — have changed how they form families, and now have children outside of marriage,” says sociologist Christina Gibson-Davis of Duke University in Durham, N.C. “Women with a B.A. did not change their family formation behaviors — they still have kids within marriage — but since nearly everyone else changed their behavior, women with B.A. now look different from everyone else.”

“The emergence of cohabitation as an acceptable context for childbearing has changed the family-formation landscape,” she says. “Individuals still value the idea of a two-parent family but no longer consider it necessary for the parents to be married.”

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