Couples find bliss in staying unwed
By ALINE McKENZIE / The Dallas Morning News
They've got the home. They've got the kid. They've got nearly two decades together.
What they don't have is a marriage license. And that suits them just fine.
"We don't really believe that the government should be able to regulate a private contract between two people," says Stacey Slaughter, who has been in a relationship with Mel Johnson for 17 years. "I don't want anybody to have the right to say 'You do this, so if you break up you have to do this.' "
The DeSoto couple feels strongly enough about this that they've joined the Alternatives to Marriage Project, a grass-roots project so that unmarried couples could share stories, fight for the same rights that married couples get, and lobby legislators about such issues as welfare programs that try to promote marriage.
The Project was started in 1998 by Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller, a Boston-area couple, after they found little support for long-term unmarrieds.
They had encountered several obstacles - they couldn't get health insurance for Mr. Miller through Ms. Solot's job at an adoption agency, a landlord refused to rent an apartment to them, and so on.
"Marshall and I went to a local bookstore - we were looking for information," Ms. Solot says. "Eventually we got so frustrated that we decided we'd have to write something on this ourselves."
The result is Unmarried to Each Other: The Essential Guide to Living Together as an Unmarried Couple ($15.95, Marlowe & Company, www.unmarriedtoeachother.org
The 2000 census showed that about 11 million people - 5.5 million couples - are cohabitating, whether before marriage or instead of it. That was a jump of 72 percent from 3.2 million couples in 1990.
"Cohabitation has become a very normal life stage for most people today," she says.
Still, there are many reasons that a couple might not want to marry, or might be unable to, say Ms. Solot and Mr. Miller:
They plan to marry, but are saving for a big wedding or a house beforehand.
They fear falling into conventional "husband" and "wife" roles that wouldn't suit them.
They are a same-sex couple.
One or both partners will lose a pension or other source of income if they marry.
They have philosophical objections to the government regulating who can and can't get married.
They may choose to live apart while one or both finish raising children.
The book spans the gamut from tips on how to argue productively, how to deal with pressure to get married (one sample tongue-in-cheek answer: "The government has asked me to stay single until I finish my assignment"), how to handle joint property, how to avoid inadvertently creating a common-law marriage, and so on.
Interspersed with advice are stories from the couples, telling their experiences in their own words.
One woman, in a nine-year relationship, said her mother was so upset about the cohabiting that the daughter couldn't visit her, except at holidays. "She pretty much had to cut off contact with her mother because this was such a big issue between them," Ms. Solot says.
"We just love the story from one woman who told us that her partner - they'd been dating only a short while - got down on one knee, and she thought to herself, 'Oh no, if this is what I think it is, then it needs to stop.' " Ms. Solot says. "And she said to him 'If you're about to propose to me, we haven't known each other long enough.' And she pulled him back up next to her, and decided that they weren't ready for marriage, but they wanted to cohabit for a while first and then address that question."
"You can just picture the awkward moment," she says. They decided they weren't ready for marriage but stayed together.
The most important advice for a cohabiting couple is to communicate, Ms. Solot says.
"I think the most important thing that couples can do is talk to each other about what living together means to them," she says. "We hear so many sob stories from couples where one person thought that they were just living together to save on rent, and the other one thought that they were practically engaged. This leads to some real heartache and drama as time goes by. So much of that could be prevented if couples are having those conversations, ideally before they live together or at the very least, early in their cohabitation.
"People seem to make assumptions that the person they love understands the world the same way they do ... and hopefully that's true, but the assumptions are certainly not safe to make, since living together can mean different things to different people," she says.
Ms. Slaughter, 31, a paralegal, says she and Mr. Johnson, a 36-year-old production specialist, met through mutual friends when he was finishing high school and she was just starting.
"It was one of those first-sight things," she says. At first, their parents were concerned because of the age difference between the teenagers, but as they grew older, that became less of a concern.
They talked about marriage, "we decided we weren't ready for it, and then it wasn't an issue any more ... it's working, why mess with it?" Ms. Slaughter says. "I'm not 20 and on welfare with three kids. We're well-educated adults who chose that path in life."
Their unmarried status hasn't been an issue to their 10-year-old daughter, either.
"She's never confused - she knows exactly who's who," Ms. Slaughter says. And with so many of her friends coming from divorced families, she could be in the minority in having a two-parent household.
Ms. Solot says that she sees some progress in making life easier for unmarried couples.
"I think that the growth in domestic partnership benefits is a really exciting sign, because it allows unmarried couples access to health insurance, which is a real basic human need," she says.
"But I think for the most part, the laws in the United States ignore the existence of this huge population of people, and that can be really dangerous, unless people take steps themselves to protect themselves," she says. "Get a lawyer, or at least a self-help legal guide and do it yourself. But one way or another, think through some of these issues if you're going to be together unmarried for any length of time."