First Comes Love, Then Comes Mortgage

American couples increasingly say yes to home ownership before marriage.

by Cornela King

The number of unmarried couples who are first-time home buyers has tripled in the past six years according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). Why are American couples increasingly more willing to saddle themselves with 15-to-30 year mortgages than with marriage? What is the rationale for making one commitment without the other?

The underlying explanation is that young couples are waiting longer to get married. Since the 1970's the average age at first marriage has been rising steadily across the industrialized world, states Kingsley Davis, editor of the book Contemporary Marriage: Comparative Perspectives on a Changing Institution.

Why the wait?

To get to the bottom of this trend that has our Victorian ancestors spinning in their graves, I interviewed three couples, all in their mid-twenties, who recently purchased houses out of wedlock.

Joe & Lulu

Joe and Lulu had been in a committed relationship for two years before purchasing their two-bedroom ranch house on the lake. Joe was ready for marriage, but Lulu had already suffered through the trauma of one abusive marriage that drained her psychological and financial resources. She wasn't about to risk repeating that mistake anytime soon. She was, however, willing to make the commitment of buying a house together ... and Joe was willing to settle for that level of commitment. After living together in their jointly owned house for three years, Lulu was confident in the relationship and ready to start a family, so the two were married.

Collin & Camille

Collin and Camille had been dating for six years, living together for four, and engaged for two. The couple had no specific wedding plans, primarily because of the expense of staging a wedding. At the same time they felt they were throwing away on rent what money they did have, and decided it would make better financial sense to buy a house. A year and a half after closing, Collin and Camille were married at the local courthouse. Shortly after, they became the proud parents of a baby boy they affectionately refer to as "Lump."

Alex & Renee

Alex and Renee had been dating off and on for about four years. Their relationship had weathered some rockiness and was stabilizing with age. Both were still living at home when Alex' mother announced her plans to remarry and sell the family house. Alex couldn't afford to buy his mother's house on his own, but Renee's parents were willing to help with the downpayment. Thus, Alex and Renee made the big purchase together. They seem to be enjoying their new found stability, but a year later both still claim to be adamantly opposed to marriage for the indefinite future.

Together these three stories illustrate the major reasons for waiting to get married: a high divorce rate, society's increased acceptance of cohabitation, the idea that marriage is necessary primarily for having children, and the financial burdens of securing adequate housing.

But the postponement of marriage could also mean that young people are taking wedding vows more seriously. Let's investigate.

Scared of a sky-high divorce rate?

The divorce rate in the United States is somewhere between 50 percent and a shocking 67 percent. Expectation of success is a strong motivator for doing most anything. But statistics like these can give couples a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Psychologists Rae Dezettel Perls and Stephen R. Perls, in their article ‘...Ever Ever After: A Non Scientific Look at Longterm Relationships,' suggest that couples may expect less of marriage today. Movies, books and even the nightly news have all 'overexposed every possible hurt and magnified every pimple on the face of marriage.'

'...for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in a dream.'
-- Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

According to psychiatrist Donald Lathrop in the book Coupling ... What Makes Permanence?, 'Being in love, romantic love, is a delusional state in a normal, healthy human being.' This state is composed of 90 percent projection of one's own inner idealized version of oneself and 10 percent perception of the other, including the other's undeveloped potential. Lathrop says that most people get married in this possessed state and then suffer horrible feelings of betrayal when the ‘honeymoon is over.' 'If there is enough glue of any kind to hold them together, and if both are willing to ‘grow up,' the possibility of developing a love relationship exists.'

The Honeymoon's Over and We're Not Even Married Yet

That American Couples are aware of Lathrop's theory of romantic love is evident in their hesitancy to get married. In fact, they seem to be ‘growing up' before marrying instead of after. Like Lulu, many prefer to test the waters before jumping in, to test their abilities to weather the end of the honeymoon before they ever get married.

Perls and Perls say that perhaps couples 'cut their losses and invest less of themselves, because they know going into the agreement that the statistics indicate a 50 percent chance the marriage won't last.'

On the other hand, perhaps couples are simply not entering into the agreement at all, or are waiting until they feel confident that they have a better chance of success than the statistics indicate.

Is society to blame?

With the American no-fault system, divorce has become easy and commonplace. A case could even be made that such legislation trivializes the institution of marriage, transforming what was once sacred into a union that can be entered and abandoned practically on a whim.

A rise in cohabitation accompanies the rise in the divorce rate. In the United States between 1970 and 1983, the number of heterosexual couples living together increased by 262 percent. Today, according to Larry Elkin, CPA, in his book Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples, some three million households are headed by unmarried couples.

Young Americans are playing the odds by putting marriage off.

Historically, two of the top reasons for marrying young were to have sex and, hence, children. But with more women enjoying careers outside of the home today than ever before, bearing children is often put on the back-burner indefinitely. Given new found sexual freedoms -- the widened separation between sex and reproduction, and between sex and marriage -- cohabitation grants postponement of marriage without the loss of convenient sex, while providing some semblance of stability and security.

Essentially, for many couples, living together has taken the place of the traditional honeymoon period, or the first few years of marriage.

How does buying a house fit into all this?

Married or not, couples are still growing up and growing older together. And with maturity they feel the familiar need to put down roots and to make intelligent financial decisions.

Because couples are marrying later in life, they are renting for more years. With age, spending a thousand dollars a month with nothing to show for it becomes increasingly undesirable. People are settled into their jobs and know where they want to live; the next logical step is to buy a house.

Buying a house is part of the American Dream ... and it's a great investment.

However, buying a house is also cost prohibitive. According to NAR President Art Grodi, 'The first-time buyer affordability index is nearly 50 percent below the composite index, clearly indicating that the first-time buyer continues to be locked out of the market as home prices and interest rates remain on the rise.'

NAR Chief Economist John Tuccillo states that 'Rising mortgage interest rates and difficulties in raising the necessary down payment to purchase a home remain the two greatest challenges facing many first-time purchasers trying to enter the home ownership circle.'

As the story of Alex and Renee shows, couples often need to pool both their own resources and those of their parents to buy a home. And, as with Collin and Camille, many couples prefer this investment over the costs of a wedding which comes with the high risk of failure. You can hire an inspector for your potential home to get a pretty good idea of what type of adventure you're about to embark on. Unfortunately, there's no such safeguard for your potential marriage.

Where do we go from here?

For all the pessimism -- or, should we say, realism -- of unmarried American couples today, the future is not as bleak as it might seem. People are resisting the statistics and trends and insisting on treating marriage as a goal.

As Davis says, 'Curiously, at a time when cohabitation, divorce ... and low fertility are prevalent -- when, in fact, marriage as an institution seems on the skids -- surveys reveal that the public views marriage with strong approval, faith, and satisfaction.'

In spite of the statistics, most young couples tend to view themselves as the exception to the divorce rule, as immune from the statistics. And for many couples, living together ... even to the point of buying a house together ... has become a valuable step in the ever complex dance of courtship.

Given the odds, why do couples continue to strive for success in their relationships?

The answer is in the revelation of Malcolm Muggeridge, the English social critic who in his autobiography and after his sixth marriage said that his 'only life regret was in not sharing a life history with another person.' Late in life he realized that it was 'in sharing a life history, in journeying together, that marriage makes sense.'