Pregnancy is common in common-law arrangements. About 20 percent of women became pregnant in the first year of living with a partner, and went on to give birth. The probability for marriage for these women within six months was about 19 percent, lower than in 1995.
Women without a high school diploma were more likely to become pregnant, with a third of them reporting pregnancy in the first year of living together with a partner. Only 5 percent of women with a bachelor's degree became pregnant in the same time span. Those women who got pregnant were less likely to be married.
"People, especially women, make a distinction between childbearing and marriage," said Carole Joffe, a professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco's Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, in a telephone interview. "You can get the benefits of marriage without being married, but you have to have a child to have the benefits of a child."
The study's takeaway is that there are more statuses than married and unmarried, Joffe said. Some people are truly single, others are cohabitating, and some are married. The question is how best to support these different kinds of families, she said.
The percentage of first unions that were cohabitations rather than marriages increased 57 percent for Hispanic women, 43 percent for white women, and 39 percent for black women in 2006 through 2010, compared to a similar survey from 1995. Only Asian women weren't more likely to cohabitate before marriage.
"We have to prepare girls not to look for white dresses as the end-all, but to look at their financial opportunities and their careers," said Wyatt. "The same is true for boys."