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Why Are Mature Women Living with Their Partners Rather Than Marrying?

By Kathleen M. Rehl August 19, 2020 Family

According to a recent Pew Research Center report, the number of people age 50 and older who live together with their unmarried partner shot up by 75% between 2007 and 2016. That’s 4 million mature adults who live together compared to 2.3 million a decade ago.

These cohabiters represent almost a quarter of all adults who lived together in 2016. Most of these couples who now live together were previously married to a different partner but later divorced (55%) or were widowed (13%).

The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College reported that from 1992 to 2014, the percentage of years women spend married has dropped from about 70% to 50%.

A Gray Revolution in Living Arrangements,” published by the US Census Bureau, states that “The biggest unforeseen transformation has been the rise in older adults who are cohabiting, that is living with a romantic partner without being married. Older cohabiters have increased more than fourfold since 1967.”

Cohabitation Without Marriage

I’ve been with my partner for seven years. Charlie and I each enjoyed our marriages for many years before our spouses died. Indeed, a few weeks before he passed, my husband told me, “Find a new partner to share life with after I’m gone. You have a lot of love to give and shouldn’t stay alone forever.” What a profound gift he gave me!

When I started dating again in my early 60s, after my husband’s death, three men proposed marriage within three years. Nice guys, but I didn’t want to tie the knot. My firm “No, thank you” ended each relationship.

So, on my second date with Charlie, I told him I wasn’t marriage-minded. His response was perfect. He said he just wanted to go on bike rides together and enjoy social events with an interesting lady. No pressure. Just appreciated being together in good company.

However, seven years later, most people think we’re a married couple. We own a condo together, participate in family events with our kids and grandchildren, use a joint checking account and credit card, plan trips together, enjoy intimacy, love attending musical events and art festivals, and care for each other when we’re not feeling well. Charlie and I also have important legal documents in place for our situation.

“Our Life Is Great Together, So Why Change?”

I actually interviewed many mature widows who have also repartnered after the death of their spouse, as part of a large scholarly international study focused on widows, resilience, and money issues. Many of these women were in a committed long-term relationship but hadn’t remarried.

Several mature women I spoke with said they had discussed the possibility of marriage with their partner and subsequently decided simply to live together rather than remarry. Their reasons varied and include the following:

  • “Being married would change our relationship. We’re just better being partners.”
  • “We’ve already said our personal vows to each other and intend to be together for the rest of our lives. I don’t need a marriage license to make my pledge valid.”
  • “We want to keep our finances separate.”
  • “Our individual estate planning is complex, considering our own children and grandchildren. Better to keep our documents separate.”
  • “If I remarry, I’ll lose part of my income.”
  • “Been there. Done that marriage thing before. I don’t need to be legally hitched again.”
  • “If we were young and planning to have children, that would be different.”
  • “My partner shouldn’t be financially responsible for future expensive medical care I may need.”
  • “The adage about living more economically together rather than separately is true. But we can do this without a license.”
  • “I went through a terrible divorce early in my life, and I never want to do that again.”
  • “I don’t expect either one of us will apply for Medicaid, but if so, our eligibility would be impacted as a married couple.”
  • “He doesn’t have a clue about how much I’m worth. I don’t want to intimidate him with a full disclosure if we married.”
  • “We haven’t married because some of our adult children are nervous about the money situation. Worried they won’t inherit as much!”
  • “Most people assume we’re married, and we just let them think that.”
  • “I want to maintain a certain level of independence.”

What If Beliefs Don’t Sanction Living Together?

Some women I interviewed said they couldn’t live unmarried with their partner because of religious beliefs. Others thought it wouldn’t set a good example for young grandchildren. One woman spoke about the horror it would cause her deceased grandmother if she knew that she was “shacking up,” so to speak. These are important personal and meaningful reasons for some women, but not for others.

A friend of mine and her long-term partner compromised with a commitment ceremony with friends and family to celebrate their relationship. When they walked down the aisle, no laws or government agencies were involved. No license or certificate was necessary, and their legal status didn’t change.

A clergy person officiated at their joyful event, where the couple exchanged rings and the heartfelt vows they had written. Afterward, the joyful couple cut a beautiful cake and raised a glass of bubbly wine together with their guests at the reception. Everyone was happy!

Indeed, my late clergy husband had performed similar ceremonies for several later-life couples he knew, offering them his best wishes for their happiness. I like to think he’s smiling down on me now, too, with his blessing on my life and new partner.

If you fell in love again, would you remarry or just live together? Do you have friends in this situation? Have you considered living together with a partner without marriage? If you are in a cohabiting relationship, how is it going for you? Please join the conversation below.

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The Author

Kathleen M. Rehl, Ph.D., CFP®, wrote the award-winning book, Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows. She owned Rehl Financial Advisors for 18 years before an encore career empowering widows. Now “reFired,” Rehl writes legacy stories and assists nonprofits. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger’s, CNBC, and more. She’s adjunct faculty at The American College of Financial Services.

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