Over the past 75 years, couples have been acting more like single people

Bella DePaulo

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While researching my book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I discovered something interesting about how coupling has been practiced over the past three-quarters of a century. In some significant ways, couples have been acting more like single people. It started with couples living together and skipping over the part about getting married. Those who did marry have ended up doing so at later and later ages. From 1980 through 2000, married couples began to do things separately from each other a bit more often. Now, a nontrivial number of couples are deciding not to live together at all, even though they are totally committed to their relationship.

Here are 10 things you may not know about how coupling has been practiced over the past 75 years. All of them are documented in How We Live Now.

The beginnings of cohabitation

1. When the trend toward living together without marrying first started, no one knew what to call it. For a while, cohabiting couples were called POSSLQs – persons of the opposite sex sharing living quarters.

2. For a long time, cohabiting couples were described as "living in sin."

3. In 1950, there were only 50,000 cohabiting couples. By 1960, there were 400,000. In another decade (by 1970), there were a half-million, and in one more decade (by 1980), there were over a million. By 2012, there were more than 7 million unmarried-partner households.

4. In the early days of cohabitation, it was mostly younger people who lived together without marrying. A decade or so into the 21st century, nearly half were 35 or older and 13 percent were 55 or older.

Putting off marrying longer and longer

5. In 1956, the median age at which Americans first married (among those who did marry) was as young as it has ever been: 22.5 for men and 20.1 for women. Since then, Americans have waited longer and longer to get married (if they marry at all). By 2021, the age at which Americans first got married was 30.4 for men and 28.6 for women.

From very enmeshed to less so

6. In the year 2000, married couples were less enmeshed than couples from two decades earlier. They were less likely to have their main meal together, work around the house together, or have as many shared friends as the couples studied in 1980.

From living apart by circumstances to living apart by choice

7. The assumption that couples would live together under the same roof began coming apart when wives, in growing numbers, wanted their jobs to count as much as their husband's, but they could not always find work in the same place. In earlier times, women would typically follow their husbands to wherever their jobs took them; but after second wave feminism, couples sometimes lived apart rather than pressuring wives to sacrifice their jobs. These were commuter marriages, in which couples lived apart because of external constraints.

8. Now, a non-trivial number of couples are Living Apart Together, and often by choice rather than circumstances. They are committed to their relationship, but they also want to live in places of their own.

9. Living Apart Together (LAT) is less popular among older adults. The proportion of couples living apart from each other decreases steadily from around age 30 on.

10. Seniors, though, have the most enduring living-apart-together relationships. For example, a study of LAT couples between 55 and 79 years old found that nearly half of them had been living apart together for more than 9 years.

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Expert on the profound rewards of single life. Author of “Singled Out.” Popular TEDx speaker. Harvard PhD.

Summerland, CA
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