50 years ago a student was expelled from Barnard College for living with her boyfriend. In March 1968 an article published in The New York Times discussed a young unmarried couple that was living together but not married, sparking a national scandal and debate about morality. It was quickly discovered that the woman in question was Linda LeClair, who was later expelled from Barnard College over the matter; this incident was later dubbed “The LeClair Affair.”
In the years after The LeClair Affair, premarital cohabitation became trendy, and by the early 1970s every women’s magazine had published articles about celebrities living with unmarried partners. Rates of cohabitation skyrocketed; in the late 1960s less than 7% of first marriages among young women aged 18-35 began in premarital cohabitation. By the early 1980s over 40% of first marriages in this group were among couples that lived together beforehand, and rates rose to nearly 70% in the early 2010s*.
In the 1980s concern grew over this increase and debate raged over whether cohabitation was the reason for a recent increase in divorce. Some said it was the type of people who cohabited that had a higher divorce rate because of their lower levels of financial preparedness, lesser religiosity, and higher likelihood of having divorced parents, while others argued it was the act of living together itself that caused couples to later divorce. More recently, research (including mine) has found cohabitation is not associated with a higher risk of divorce once factors like the ages at which they form their unions are taken into account, and that this is true even if couples have a child prior to marriage.
But even though it doesn’t cause divorce, there is still a problem with premarital cohabitation: as cohabitation went from new trend to the new normal, it has also increasingly been undertaken by those who don’t have the financial means to marry directly. Gaps in education between premarital cohabitors and couples that marry directly have been growing steadily since the 1970s. In 2010-2015, nearly 50% of young women marrying their first husband without living together first had a college degree; this rate was only 34% among women marrying after living together first*.
This growing gap positions cohabitation as a new facet of family inequality. Young adults want to pay down debt and become financially stable before entering marriage; this is an increasingly elusive goal, especially for those who do not complete a degree, so they enter cohabitation instead of marriage while waiting for more financial stability. Those with less education also are more likely to rush into cohabitation to make ends meet, some before they are ready, or with a less-than-ideal partner that a longer courtship would have revealed.
Today’s Linda LeClair wouldn’t be living with her boyfriend because it is trendy, but because she is up to her eyeballs in student loan debt, driving an Uber to survive, and struggling to establish herself in a career that could bring some stability and health insurance. After decades of disinvestment in public higher education by state governments, a minimum wage that has not kept pace with inflation, and an increasing number of young adults working in the “gig economy” that offers no stability and few benefits, it’s no wonder that young adults today have the highest rates of premarital cohabitation in U.S. history – and also have the lowest rates of marriage and childbearing. More affordable public higher education and more stable job opportunities that pay a living wage for young adults at all levels of education would allow more to shape their relationships according to their desires, instead of out of financial necessity.
*Numbers based on author’s analysis of the 1988 National Survey of Families and Households (N=3594) and multiple waves of the National Survey of Family Growth (1995, 2002, 2006-2010, 2011-2015, N=9420), examining women who married between age 18 and 35.