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5 States Where "Living in Sin" Is Illegal? America's Irrational Love Affair With the Institution of Marriage

Believe it or not, cohabitation is still illegal in five states. Why is the law so behind, and what's at stake?

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Cohabitation is actually very visible in popular music, because popular music is music of young people and young people were doing it. There’s a Bon Jovi song about it and Joni Mitchell sang about it. It was on “Soul Train.” A few movies by liberal filmmakers in the early ’70s showed countercultural people living together. In the late ’70s there were movies like “Rocky” and “Annie Hall” where it was taken for granted. TV is another story because in the late ’60s or early ’70s series would show an age gap where the parents were offended and the parents’ values were eventually affirmed. It was only in the middle ’70s with this Norman Lear TV show “All’s Fair,” that we got a positive view of cohabitation.

People that you quote in the book talk about the “marriage cure,” the widespread belief among lawmakers that marriage is the solution to a variety of social ills. Does the marriage cure work?

So, for example, a judge will have a young couple coming to him. They’re living together and the guy is unemployed or on probation and he’ll say he won’t punish them in any way if they get married. The state is coercing couples to get married with the idea that then you have cured the problem. Some people want to cure poverty by doing this, others want to cure crime, some immorality. But it turns out you can’t cure these things in these ways. One major reason is you can’t make people stay put once you marry them off; they often don’t stay married.

The marriage promotion movement — which consists of conservative social scientists, especially in the ’90s, engaging in anti-poverty policy, welfare reform, abstinence education at schools — has a very strong belief in this. The idea is that marriage is the ultimate poverty program. I quote extensively from the research in the book to show there’s very little evidence that this works.

It’s very interesting that marriage is seen in the U.S., unlike in Western Europe, as the magic bullet that’s going to cure all kinds of ills. Why are their attitudes so different over there?

[In Western Europe, their ideas are] based on recognizing reality: “This is the way people are living, and we’re not going to be able to change it very much so we should be able to recognize this is what’s going on and treat people fairly given that.” In the U.S. it’s, “This is what’s going on, and this is something we don’t approve of, and maybe we can’t really stop it but we should use our law and our policy to make a broad statement that we believe in marriage and stand behind it even if we know in our hearts that it might not be able to work.”

It’s an expression of these very schizophrenic elements of American culture. On one hand the U.S. celebrates individualism and on the other hand it has these moral policies that are very paternalistic.

That’s a great way of putting it. I think there is a schizophrenia or a divide and some people tend to emphasize one and not the other but they’re both there and tugging at each other — I think that’s called the culture war. It’s a very important part of American history especially since the 1970s.

There was a recent, very popular  New York Times articlethat argued that premarital cohabitation was bad news for marriages. What did you make of it?

I actually wrote a letter to the editor in response to this. First of all, that writer quoted social science as if it is the bible on this. The various statistics about cohabitation on the whole tend to show that engagement cohabitation is more likely to lead to a marriage that does not end in divorce. But all studies of cohabitation are studying a moving target; last year’s findings are not this year’s findings. But the reason the article is interesting to me is that it became a cultural phenomenon. It was the most emailed article of that week, I believe, as it seemed to be for all “what leads to divorce” articles.

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