This article originally appeared on NYCityWomen.com.
John and I met 20 years ago through a personals ad at least a decade before the virtual avalanche of online dating sites. On paper, we couldn’t have been more different: I’m Jewish, was raised in western New York, lived in New York City, and had never been married or even engaged. John, a Catholic, hailed from Little Falls, Minn., and was the divorced father of three grown children.
I had just published a book about women who married for the first time after 40 — the result of a highly publicized cover story I wrote for New York magazine. In the course of my research, I’d obviously worked through whatever blocks I’d experienced and was finally open to a serious relationship.
At least our schedules melded. A news correspondent with ABC radio, he had a constantly changing work schedule. I created my own routine, and we managed to date regularly from the start, spending holidays together and taking one long trip each year.
I got to know his children and traveled to Minneapolis and San Francisco to be introduced to his three older brothers. He traveled to Rochester, N.Y., to meet my family. After giving his seal of approval, my brother invited him to go sailing; my sister confided right away, “He’s a keeper.”
Eight years after we met, John retired, moved into my place (which was larger than his) but hung on to his apartment, which he sublet, “just in case.” It took me awhile to adjust, since I had lived alone for 30 years. John, on the other hand, adapted right away. But when talk turned to marriage, one of us always got cold feet. It was so comfortable this way — why rock the boat?
This arrangement was also economical, plus it comes with a sense of freedom. We share expenses, chores and cooking. But we can each spend our money — and large chunks of our time — as we wish. (Of course, this is also true for many married couples.) Two years ago John surprised me with a white-gold commitment ring from Tiffany and a bouquet of red roses. That clinched the deal. We were unofficially a couple with a ring to prove our mutual loyalty.
(MORE: Why Some of Us Reject Marriage)
Benefits of Not Being Hitched
According to a recent study, John and I are in good company. Some 2.75 million Americans over 50 were cohabiting in 2010 — a 50 percent increase over a decade earlier, according to a study by Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
In her research Brown discovered that older people who cohabit have more stable and longer relationships than younger people, who often live together to test out a relationship or as a prelude to marriage. (They also divorce more frequently than contemporaries who marry without first cohabiting.)
One of the primary motivations for 50+ couples to cohabit is finances. Widows under 60 who remarry have to give up their survivor benefits, the Social Security payments widows inherit from their deceased husbands, but there’s no penalty if they cohabit. (Widows who remarry may keep the benefits if they’re over 60.) If both partners are working, filing separate income tax forms is often more advantageous than filing jointly.
Cohabiters have other advantages as well. They are not responsible for the medical debts or expenses of a domestic partner. It’s easier to protect individual assets: A partner’s children have no legal access to your money, though you can, of course, elect to provide for them in your will.
Another reason to live together is that, because strictly speaking it’s a non-legal union, it’s far less complicated and expensive to end it. (It’s also more difficult to win a lawsuit against an unmarried partner if he or she has been unfaithful.) Also, in certain states (including New York), cohabiters may register as domestic partners. This allows you to visit your partner if he or she winds up in the intensive care unit of a hospital, a right that is often reserved only for the nuclear family.
Such status sometimes helps you get onto your partner’s health insurance policy — this varies from company to company — and it will typically allow you to live in co-ops that do not allow unmarried couples to share apartments. (Believe it or not, this antiquated rule still exists in some buildings.)
Of course, there are a few down sides to cohabitation, mostly revolving around breakups. Non-married couples are not governed by the same laws — specifically, the non-owner of a home (i.e., whose name is not on the deed) has no rights to it, even if he or she put a substantial amount of money or sweat equity into it.
Similarly, you cannot generally sue for alimony, even if you raised your partner’s children and contributed significantly to his or her financial success. Nor can you easily win alimony if your partner leaves you for someone else. You would also have a tough time contesting a will if your partner has not legally assigned assets to you and your children.
Money Is Not Always the Issue
For many cohabiting couples, however, the primary motivations are not economic but psychological. “I was married for more than 30 years and we had two children,” says one woman in her 60s who still turns heads when she enters a room. “But as years passed, we had less and less in common. He expected me to be a traditional wife, cooking for him and doing everything his way. I wanted a career, but he wasn’t at all supportive.”
Once her children were out of the house, she filed for divorce. A few years later she met someone new. “We became friends and eventually lovers,” she says. “He asked me to move into his apartment, but he made it clear that marriage was not on his agenda. He had been married before and didn’t want to ‘fail’ again. Neither did I. We have an intimacy that works without the stresses of bringing up children. We just enjoy each other. I’m freer in this relationship, and I can’t imagine living without him.”
This is exactly how I feel about John. Soon after he moved in with me, his son Stephen arrived from Hawaii with his wife, Loretta, and their 2-year-old daughter, Gwen. We helped them settle here and, in one fell swoop, I became a mother-in-law and a grandmother.
I can’t imagine how getting married would improve on this contemporary Norman Rockwell picture. John, who is kind and supportive, says that even though I’ve never been a mother, I’m an excellent grandmother.
My eldest grandchild tacitly agrees, yet a few years ago she asked me why her Grandpa and I weren’t legally married. (She also asked John’s ex-wife why she had three grandmothers. To which the quick-thinking woman replied, “Well, aren’t you lucky!”)
I had a tougher time coming up with my answer, but I figured what she really wanted was some assurance that I wasn’t going to leave them. So I took her hand and looked her in the eye. “I can’t really say, but don’t you worry,” I told her. “Grandpa and I are both here to stay. Whatever happens, I am always going to be your Grandma. Forever and ever.”
Then I gave her a pearl bracelet I’d had since childhood and told her it would be a symbol of our forever union. She hasn’t raised the issue again, and she seems confident that I’m here for the long haul. So I am.
Barbara Lovenheim, a newspaper journalist and an author, is the founding editor of NYCitywoman.com.