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Why More Older Couples Are Shacking Up

Understanding the reasons behind a growing demographic trend

By Shayla Thiel Stern

Having their kid move in — or shack up — with a partner, rather than getting married, was many parents’ nightmare 30 or 40 years ago.

Shacking Up
Credit: Adobe Stock

You know the old (and frankly, pretty offensive by modern standards) saying: “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

But considering how social mores and parents' voices can haunt people, a recent finding from the Pew Research Center was particularly attention-grabbing: The number of unmarried adults living with a partner in the U.S. leapt 75 percent in the over 50 age group between 2007 and 2016.

So, times have changed. (Or we no longer hear Great-Grandma's disapproving voice in our heads.)

“It was a striking finding,” Renee Stepler, a Pew research analyst, told The New York Times in its story about the rise in cohabiting couples over 50. “We often think of cohabiters as being young.”

The Times notes that this fact may reflect the size of the boomer generation, but the shift may also be connected to the cultural explosion of the “gray divorce,” a phenomenon noted in the landmark 2012 study, “The Gray Divorce Revolution” that found the divorce rate of people over 50 had doubled from 1990 to 2010. (Next Avenue covered the phenomenon when The Captain & Tennille announced their divorce in 2014.)

More single spouses over 50 are simply available for new relationships, in other words.

For Many: More Benefit, Less Baggage

Later life cohabitation with an unmarried partner has benefits, The Times points out. For example, partners can find a broader social circle and sexual intimacy at a point in life that all too often brings isolation.

Unmarried partners also are not required to take on one another’s debts, including children’s college loans or mortgages. Another reason not to tie the knot: Social Security survivors benefits end when widows and widowers remarry before age 60. (They keep the benefits if the remarriage occurs at 60 or later.)

One key, if sad, difference between cohabiters and spouses who live together? Caregiving — who cares for an ailing or dying partner. According to research on the topic, older adult cohabiters are less likely to provide care than spouses (who The Times points out, “explicitly vow to care for one another”), and when they do participate in caregiving, they devote less time to it than married people.


A More Open-Minded View of Relationships

American culture has changed its views of cohabitation over the past few decades and The Times notes that divorced older adults have also likely changed their views. They are able to see possibilities beyond a traditional marriage.

“People who’ve divorced have a more expansive view of what relationships are like,” said Deborah Carr, the Rutgers University sociologist who served as chairwoman of the Population Association panel, in The Times story. “The whole idea of marriage as the ideal starts to fade, and personal happiness becomes more important.”

The opposite trend — older adults being part of a committed relationship but living apart — has also taken effect in recent years.

Research professors, Benson and Marilyn Coleman, from the University of Missouri Human Development and Family Science program, interviewed adults who were at least 60 and in committed relationships but lived apart. They learned that the couples were motivated by desires to stay independent, maintain their own homes, sustain existing family boundaries and remain financially independent.

Perhaps the same spirit underlies the trend of being unmarried and living together. Many couples maintain some financial independence while owning or renting a home together, for example. They also continue to maintain existing family relationships (often with separate sets of grandchildren to visit), and see less risk because there is no potential for divorce.

Karen Kanter, who was interviewed for The Times story, had been divorced twice after long marriages before meeting her partner on

“Getting divorced gives you so much to untangle,” she said. “Our life is good together, so why disturb it? I just don’t see the importance of that piece of paper.”

Shayla Thiel Sternis the former Director of Editorial and Content for Next Avenue at Twin Cities PBS. Read More
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