October 8, 2014
Stephanie Coontz, a professor at The Evergreen State College in Washington state and director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families, has written widely on marriage and family life. A recent New York Times column, for instance, explored “the new instability” in family life due to rising socioeconomic inequality coupled with greater gender equality. In researching our recent report Meet the New Family, we talked to Coontz about some of the ways families around the globe are changing and what’s driving these shifts.
As more people forego marriage and long-term partnerships in some cases, do you see a rise in finding familial fulfillment through friends?
One of the things I think is important to understand about that is a lot of people are not eschewing romantic relationships, but people move in and out of romantic partners. You have a significant uptake in “living apart together.” A lot of the increase in solo living is because of the delay in the age of marriage and then later, divorce. But most people transition through several of these family archetypes. They’re not just set in stone.
What do you mean by “living apart together”?
About 7 percent of California couples are in this. It’s frequent enough in the Nordic countries that they have this phrase for it. It means that these people are in a committed relationship but do not live in the same house. They may take turns staying at each other’s house, but it’s different than just dating. It’s a very committed relationship, but they don’t feel like living together.
Because you’ve had the breakdown of this lockstep idea that people have to transition into marriage by a certain age, people have become much more free to follow their individual idiosyncrasies. And there are people, especially ones with a certain amount of capital or economic affluence, who can afford to live in separate houses and prefer to have their separate space and yet consider themselves committed couples. I don’t think this is going to become a majority trend, but it’s an interesting little niche that has developed and probably will continue to develop at a modest pace.
How do Millennials feel about pursuing different family models?
Along with this increased freedom to follow your own path is the increasing socioeconomic inequality that is occurring, not just in the United States but across many countries in the developed world. The decline of marriage among educated individuals is actually much less extreme than among low-income individuals and much more connected to choice and idiosyncrasies.
It is the culmination of women’s increased options, the increased tolerance for non-family relationships,—but also men’s declining ability to actually offer themselves as a stable partner who can contribute, who will hold down a job and will have rising real wages like they did in the ’50s and ’60s. The culmination is not purely choice. There’s a big element of necessity in the decline of marriage among less educated and low-income people.