A “shotgun wedding” refers to a couple getting married because the woman had gotten pregnant. (The term conjures up the image of her father pointing his shotgun at the groom.) That doesn’t happen so much anymore. Instead, according to a recent study, we are having “shotgun cohabitation,” in which getting pregnant becomes the impetus for the couple living together.
Now this is bad, but it also is a testimony to something good. The mother and the father need to be together to raise a child. That is, in fact, one of the natural foundations of marriage. But even when marriage is dismissed and even when this ideal is often not realized, the impulse remains for parents to take care of their child. And at least half of the cohabiting parents are still together after five years.
The study also shows that cohabitation has become the “poor person’s marriage.” Only 5% of college graduates with children are just living together instead of getting married. But 32% of high school graduates with children are going that route. Marriage has become a middle class phenomenon, with working class and poorer folks choosing cohabitation instead.
But I would argue that long-term cohabitation, especially with children, is marriage. Historically, culturally, and even Biblically, marriage did not depend upon a religious or civil ceremony, as such. Rather, sexual relations plus living together plus what the canon lawyers called “intent” constituted a legal marriage, even in the absence of a marriage contract. We should bring back the concept of “common law” marriage.
Poorer folks have entered into this type of marriage for centuries. Having common law marriages recognized by law would giving stability to these relationships, preventing the couple from breaking up without a divorce, legitimizing the children, requiring both parents to support them, allowing the couple to share property, establishing inheritance rights, and giving fathers, mothers, and the children the same protections as every other married couple.
Would this be a good idea?
The share of unmarried couples who opted to have “shotgun cohabitations” — moving in together after a pregnancy — surpassed “shotgun marriages” for the first time during the last decade, according to a forthcoming paper from the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The trend was affirmed by three demographers who conducted separate research on the topic.
It’s the latest demographic tipping point as cohabitations turn mainstream — a far cry from the days when the father of a pregnant daughter might coerce the baby’s father into marriage.
The numbers are based on the government’s National Survey of Family Growth, typically issued every four years. It provides the only government data on cohabiting mothers by asking questions on a woman’s relationship status before and after conception and childbirth. Women who say they were single before conception and then married before childbirth are counted as someone who had a post-conception, or “shotgun” marriage; those who moved in with their boyfriends after pregnancy had a post-conception or “shotgun” cohabitation.
Demographers say the cohabiting trend among new parents is likely to continue. Social stigma regarding out-of-wedlock births is loosening, and economic factors play a role. Many couples, especially those who lack a bachelor’s degree, are postponing marriage until their finances are more stable. But because of globalization, automation and outsourcing, good-paying middle-income jobs are harder to come by.
“Because marriages are becoming more polarized by economic status, I don’t see the trend of shotgun cohabitations reversing any time soon,” said Casey Copen, a demographer at the government’s National Center for Health Statistics, which administers the government survey.
About 18.1 percent of all single women who became pregnant opted to move in with their boyfriends before the child was born, according to 2006-2010 data from the government’s National Survey of Family Growth, the latest available. That is compared with 5.3 percent who chose a post-conception marriage.
As recently as the early 1990s, 25 percent of such couples got married.
Cohabiting mothers are spurring increases in out-of-wedlock births, now at a high of 41 percent. In all, about 60 percent of all births during the 2000s were to married mothers, compared with 24 percent to cohabiting mothers and 16 percent to non-cohabiting mothers. That was the first time that cohabiting births exceeded births from single mothers who weren’t living with their child’s father.
Since the early 1990s, the share of out-of-wedlock, cohabiting births has grown from 11 percent to 24 percent, while those to noncohabiting, single mothers has remained steady at 16 percent.
Sometimes referred to as the “poor person’s marriage,” cohabitation is growing fastest among high school graduates with children. Between the 1997-2001 and 2002-2009 periods, it grew from 23 percent to 32 percent, according to Sheela Kennedy, a researcher at the University of Minnesota. For mothers with some college attendance, it grew from 15 percent to 23 percent during that period. Among those with four-year college degrees, the share has changed from 3 percent to 5 percent.
Daniel Lichter, a Cornell sociologist and past president of the Population Association of America, said the government needs to do more to reflect increasing cohabitation in statistics. Cohabitation status is not on birth certificates, and that can skew policy debates over the government safety net for poor households. It also means a growing trend of fragile families in which cohabitating parents may be more likely to break up can be neglected, he said.
Researchers at Harvard and Cornell have found that about half of mothers who were cohabiting when their child was born were still in relationships with the biological father five years later.
“The latest results seem to indicate that marriage, as a context for childbearing and childrearing,” Lichter said, “is increasingly reserved for America’s middle- and upper-class populations.”