Why Do We Count Unmarried People In Relationships As Single?

This originally appeared on Alternet. Republished here with permission.

Our view of modern relationships is totally warped.

What makes someone “single”?

When it comes to official forms, news, and punditry, and even in fictional movies and TV shows, the world seems to be divided into two kinds of people: Married people and single people. But in people’s day-to-day lives in America, that simple formulation is changing. People may be marrying later in life, but that doesn’t mean they’re putting off love, commitment, or even having children. But the stereotypical belief that non-married means “single” persists in many circles. The conflation of “single” and “non-married” leads to many serious misunderstandings of how Americans are living.

Take for instance, the discourse around what is understood as “single motherhood” in America. The stereotype of the single mother that is pushed by the media is of a woman who gets pregnant without being in a committed relationship and who ends up raising her children all by herself, with little input or support from a male partner.

But new statistical evidence from the Centers for Disease Control shows how wrong that stereotype is. Four out of 10 births in the United States are to an unmarried woman, a statistic that tends to cause conservatives in the media to hand-wring about the dangers of “single” motherhood and “fatherless” children. But if you drill down into the numbers, you’ll see that, actually, 58 percent of the women giving birth without being married are cohabiting with the father of their baby, which is way up from 41 percent in 2002. Which actually means that fewer than 2 out of 10 children are born to a single mother, something you won’t be seeing in many headlines about these statistics.

Because of the hyper-focus on marital status, a serious shift in family structure in the past few years is being obscured. At first glance, it would seem that single motherhood rates have been holding steady compared to the overall birth rate. But if you look past wedding rings and instead count children being born to coupled parents who live together, what we’re seeing is that the rate of children being born into houses with both parents living there has surged in recent years. In 2002, 7 out of 10 babies were born into a household with two parents living together, and now it’s up to 8 out of 10 and rising. The hyper-focus on the wedding ring is obscuring the fact that Americans are becoming more, not less, interested in waiting until they’re in committed relationships to have children.

These statistics reflect a quiet revolution that’s been going on across America, a revolution in what Americans think of when they think of love and commitment. It’s not just that more Americans spend at least some part of their lives cohabitating. It’s also that the amount of time we spend cohabitating has expanded. It’s becoming normal and even expected these days for couples to spend years living together before they get married. In some cases, couples never even bother getting married, either because of a reluctance to involve the government or even just a general if-it-ain’t-broke attitude toward their relationship.

Because of this, the social and familial privileges that used to be marriage-only have been expanded in most cases to cohabitating couples and even to couples that haven’t moved in together yet. While some religious or conservative Americans still demand that couples put a ring on it before getting treated like a single social unit, most people nowadays don’t think twice about non-married couples acting and being treated with the same regard that used to be only for married couples.

In some circles, the wedding has slowly evolved from being something you do to start a commitment and is now something you throw to celebrate an ongoing commitment. Part of the problem is that weddings are really expensive. “Marriage is for people who have money and want to spend money just on the wedding itself,” Gail Wyatt, the director of the University of California Los Angeles’ sexual health program told Bloomberg News. While she was talking about the pressures that might convince lower income people not to marry at all, the expense of weddings subtly reinforces the idea that everyone of all income levels should probably not marry someone unless they’re really, really sure. Why would you spend all that money to celebrate something that hasn’t started yet when you could, instead, live as a couple for years? Then, when you get married, your wedding is more a celebration of who you already are as a couple instead of what you could be—a much safer bet.

Because of this shift in what a wedding means, many couples deliberately elect to have a child or two before they have a wedding—or even have children without ever bothering to get married at all. Half of all births to non-married but cohabitating couples started with an intended pregnancy, suggesting that people increasingly see the commitment of living together as good enough and see the wedding as merely a formality that may or may not be indulged in the future but certainly isn’t necessary to start a family now.

Like it or not, Americans en masse are deciding that couples who live together are just as good and deserve to have their commitments honored as much as couples who actually marry. Our government and media needs to catch up, starting with how we track and report on family life. The categories “married” and “non-married” aren’t doing it anymore, particularly when you’re lumping millions of couples whose emotional and financial lives more closely resemble those of married couples than of single people living without a partner.

We need to talk more about how the children that the conservative media often describes as “fatherless” are not, in fact fatherless: Most children born to unmarried women live with their fathers, and quite a few of the ones who don’t see their fathers on a regular basis anyway.

Hopefully, if the way we talk about families adjusts to reflect the new shift in how Americans view marriage and commitment, policies will finally start catching up, making it easier for people to do what they want, which is reap the benefits of commitment without necessarily marrying right now, or ever. But changing the way we talk about families and becoming more nuanced and flexible is the first step to getting there.

Amanda Marcotte co-writes the blog Pandagon. She is the author of It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.

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