Practice of 'living together' without marriage has long, complex history

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Practice of 'living together' without marriage has long, complex history

Elizabeth Pleck, author of 'Not Just Roommates,' reveals how history of cohabitation relates to race and class issues in U.S.

by Nicole Martin on Thursday, August 15, 2013 - 9:33am

In North Carolina, a sheriff told a cohabiting dispatcher that she would lose her job unless she got married. In Michigan, a judge denied visitation rights to a divorced father because he had a live-in girlfriend. In West Virginia, the state parole board added three months to the sentence of a prisoner because he told them he planned to live with his girlfriend when released.  

Pleck's book cover

While most people would assume these cases of discrimination took place decades ago, they actually all occurred between 2005 and 2010. Cohabitation is the untold story of the sexual revolution, according to historian Elizabeth Pleck, who recently spoke at Stanford.

In her new book, Not Just Roommates: Cohabitation after the Sexual Revolution, Pleck challenges the prevailing belief that the dramatic rise in the number of unmarried people cohabiting since the 1960s is largely a “white and well-off” phenomenon. Instead, she argues that cohabitation cannot be fully understood without examining the complex role of race and class in U.S. history. She also looks at the surprising relationship between heterosexual cohabitors and the modern gay rights movement. 

Although present-day critics decry cohabitation as the unraveling of traditional morality, the practice is nothing new. In early America, common-law and informal marriages were frequent and legally accepted. Cohabitation declined only after the Civil War.

Cohabitation has largely regained acceptance since the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s—but discrimination persists. According to Pleck, anti-cohabitation penalties have consisted of discrimination in housing, jobs, social benefits, parole, and custody battles. Other penalties have included forcing couples living together to marry, denying the right of privacy to cohabitors, and providing benefits to legally married couples that are refused to cohabiting couples.

Most cohabitors are not white and well-off, says Pleck

Cohabitation has increased dramatically, rising 35-fold from 1960 to 2010. Pleck demands that we look at this demographic explosion more closely, asking who exactly is cohabiting and why.

Currently, white middle-class and upper-class couples may practice cohabitation as a prelude to marriage, sometimes as a form of cost-sharing housing, and sometimes as a serious form of dating. But these cohabitors, who are often found in urban or university areas, are not the largest group, says Pleck.

Historically, interracial and poor couples have faced punishment and state surveillance for cohabitation

In fact, she explains, it is on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale that cohabitation has remained the most common. Cohabitation, writes Pleck, “has often been considered poor people’s marriage because it is more flexible than formal matrimony, separating a couple’s coresidence from considerations of support and division of property.”

Anti-cohabitation laws have historically targeted interracial couples and the poor

Historically, interracial and poor couples have faced punishment and state surveillance for cohabitation, explains Pleck.

In the South, anti-cohabitation laws have been closely intertwined with the legacy of racial segregation. In many states, interracial cohabitation and interracial marriage were illegal until the 1960s. When both practices became legal, race-neutral anti-cohabitation laws remained on the books. These laws have repeatedly been invoked as a way to police interracial and other relationships deemed a threat to the traditional family.

Poor cohabitors have fared no better. Pleck believes that poor people dependent on public aid have been subjected to “the single greatest infringement on the privacy rights of cohabitors in American history.” In the early 1960s, welfare recipients were subjected to the “midnight raid,” a mass search for a “man in the house” that targeted welfare mothers in order to throw the mother off the welfare rolls. The nationwide overhaul of welfare in the 1990s resurrected the surveillance of women on welfare in order to detect cohabiting boyfriends.

Marriage advertisement on NY subway

What else? The government has a new policy of federally funding the promotion of legal marriage, allocating up to $150 million per year since 2005.

Consider, for example, the federal government's New York subway ad showing a couple lying in bed, the man snoring with mouth agape while the woman lies awake. The wording reads:

“He may not always be charming. But he’s always your prince. Engagement ring, wedding ring, snoring….Find marriage and relationship tools to help you along your way to happily ever after.”

“The government is committed… to the belief that poverty can be reduced by the government walking the welfare mother down the aisle," writes Pleck.

Domestic partnership and the campaign for gay marriage

Today, the U.S. continues to associate more rights and benefits with marriage than any other Western nation. But cohabitors have not fought back against second-class citizenship, according to Pleck.

She believes that because cohabitors lack a strong group identity, they are unlikely to launch a social movement comparable to the modern gay-rights campaign. Even the recent legal category of "domestic partnership"—which benefits all cohabitors—was created with gay couples in mind.

For Pleck, the ultimate irony is that “advocates of welfare reform, social conservatism, and gay civil rights ended up being on the side of promoting marriage.”

Indeed, the relationship between cohabitation and gay rights is complex. Assessing the recent legalization of gay marriage in thirteen states at the latest count, Pleck ends her book on a note of warning—one that has only magnified with the Supreme Court rulings striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 this past June.

Pleck celebrates the attainment of gay marriage as a step toward full citizenship for gay and lesbian couples. But she reminds us that gay marriage will not benefit cohabitors. In fact, Pleck believes cohabitors' recent gains made through domestic partnership are at risk.

As some gay rights advocates focus on the the right to marry—rather than on the right to not have to marry—then their movement privileges marriage over cohabitation. For Pleck, the ultimate irony is that “advocates of welfare reform, social conservatism, and gay civil rights ended up being on the side of promoting marriage.”

Politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows.


  • From 1960-2010, there was a 35-fold increase in the rate of cohabitation.
  • Three states still treat cohabitation as a criminal offence today: Florida, Michigan, and Mississippi.
  • The U.S. government spends $75 million a year on marriage promotion.

More Gender News: Read The pill and the marriage revolution.


Elizabeth Pleck
Elizabeth Pleck
Professor Emerita of History and African American Studies

Elizabeth Pleck is Professor Emerita of History and Professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She specializes in twentieth century U.S. history and the history of women and gender. She is the author of several books, including Domestic Tyranny: The Making of American Social Policy against Family Violence from Colonial Times to the PresentCinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding, and Not Just Roommates: Cohabitation after the Sexual Revolution. Her lecture at Stanford was cosponsored by the Department of History, the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Program in Feminist Studies and American Studies.

Nicole Martin
Nicole Martin
PhD candidate

Nicole Martin is a PhD candidate in Stanford's Department of History, specializing in gender, feminism, and U.S. history.