Edmonton Sun

July 17, 2002

Living together replacing 'I do' for many

By MINDELLE JACOBS -- Edmonton Sun

How ironic that amid the tumult over the concept of gay marriage, increasing numbers of Canadians don't seem to care about the institution.

While homosexuals clamour for the right to marry, many Canadians just can't be bothered formalizing their partnerships. For gays and lesbians, marriage is seen as the final step on the road to equality. For skeptical heterosexuals, marriage is old-fashioned and unnecessary.

Conjugal life has shifted dramatically in the past few years, according to a Statistics Canada survey.

Close to 1.2 million couples were living in common-law relationships in 2001, up 20% from 1995.

In contrast, the number of married couples increased 3% from 6.2 million to 6.4 million.

Shacking up has become so popular that more than 40% of men and women ages 30 to 39 are expected to choose common-law as their first union, says the StatsCan report, released last week.

For women ages 20 to 29, just over half are expected to choose common-law over marriage.

By comparison, 90% of men and women ages 50 to 69 begin their conjugal life through marriage.

"Recent generations have seen a change," says StatsCan with typical academic understatement.

The move away from marriage has been even more marked in Quebec, where barely 26% of women ages 30 to 39 choose marriage as their first partnership - compared with 59% of women in other provinces.

Will the rest of Canada follow Quebec, where couples have disdained marriage for years?

It's hard to know, given Quebec's distinct culture. Since shrugging off the historical domination of the Catholic Church, Quebecers have come to consider common-law relationships as a substitute for marriage.

For other Canadians, shacking up is a prelude to marriage - a nod to the "weight of tradition," says Robert Glossop, executive-director of the Vanier Institute of the Family.

There may not be the same societal pressure to marry as there was in the past but, aside from Quebecers, most Canadians eventually do marry, says Glossop.

There may come a time, however, when tradition no longer exerts the same pull and Canadians are hard-pressed to find any reason at all to get married.

Let's hope that day never comes. There's already plenty of evidence that marriages are healthier than common-law relationships.

As the StatsCan study points out, first common-law unions are twice as likely to end in separation as first marriages.

Glossop notes, however, that people who are shacked up may simply have commitment problems and are "wired" for separation.

That kind of attitude also makes it harder on kids when relationships fail.

And what about the impact on women who play house with their boyfriends, believing that the union will lead to marriage?

Years can fly by and the wedding plans never get off the ground. While some women prefer informal relationships, I suspect most eventually want to marry.

I've heard more than one sob story over the years from female friends who wanted to formalize their relationships but couldn't persuade their partners to walk down the aisle.

One woman left her long-time boyfriend after he repeatedly refused to get married. He came crawling back months later and they wed.

But not every woman has the ovaries to insist on marriage - and then dump her man if he continues to demur. David Reed, professor of theology at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto, worries about the increasing popularity of common-law relationships. "Once sex was permitted outside of marriage, culturally that (marriage) incentive was taken away," he says.

"Many men become comfortable with the arrangement and have no intention of being married," says the former Anglican pastor.

If you are shacking up, keep it short and aim for a wedding date, he advises. His question to Canadian women: "What are your goals?" And are your boyfriend's in synch?

Mindelle can be reached by e-mail at mjacobs@edm.sunpub.com.
Letters to the editor should be sent to letters@edm.sunpub.com.

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