Unmarried to Each Other: The Essential Guide to Living Together as an Unmarried Couple, by Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller (New York: Marlowe and Company, 2002, ISBN 1-56924–566-5) 320 pp. Paper $15.95.
The trouble started when Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller moved in together. First Solot couldn’t get Miller on her workplace’s health insurance because they weren’t married. Then came a run-in with a prospective landlord who demanded to know when they’d say “I do.” The two sought an organization for “cohabs,” or even a good reference book. Finding neither, in 1998 they founded the Boston-based Alternatives to Marriage Project. Now they’ve written the guidebook, and it’s a triumph. Unmarried to Each Other contains just about everything cohabs (and prospective cohabs) need to know.
Why should secular humanists care? Our movement played an important role in the 1960s sexual revolution, one of whose lasting effects has been a 1000 percent increase in the rate at which unmarried couples cohabit. (Though as Solot and Miller note, this isn’t as revolutionary as it sounds. America’s mania for early matrimony and household formation was a post-World War II anomaly; before the Leave It to Beaver years cohabitation was relatively common, if not as openly accepted as today.) Humanism has a proud history of challenging conventional sex roles and repressive family structures, and it’s a token of our victories that a cohabs’ guidebook is necessary.
Unmarried to Each Other is a brisk yet detailed how-to book for couples old or young, gay or straight. It covers the romantic, prosaic, and legal aspects of living together. There are self-assessment tools for guiding the couple’s decision to marry or cohabit, reviews of the options for structuring a couple’s finances, and thorough discussions of the thorny issues: securing joint health coverage, ensuring a voice in one another’s health-care decisions, establishing legal authority over one an other’s children, deciding when or whether to adopt, and arranging for the orderly transfer of assets from one unmarried partner to another at death. There’s a chapter on dealing with the inevitable query, “Why aren’t you married?” Another focuses on terminology: will you introduce your cohab to others as your life partner, your significant other, or your main squeeze? Helpful tables and sidebars abound. Though their tone is popular, Solot and Miller display able scholarship: one sidebar correctly traces cohabitation from Abelard and Heloise through ninteenth and early twentieth-century radicals like John Humphrey Noyes, John Stuart Mill, and Emma Goldman.
The only disappointment is that, in striving to portray cohabitation as non-threatening, Solot and Miller give modern-day radicals short shrift. Surely among America’s eleven million cohabs there are thousands who cohabit because they consider marriage and the family obsolete. For them cohabiting is less a lifestyle choice than a deliberate blow against repressive conventions. Reformers of this stripe tend to be vocal, but they are unheard among the many cohabs interviewed by Solot and Miller. Instead they assure readers, “We don’t think marriage is dead, nor do we have any interest in killing it” (p. 246) and advocate for broadening the definition of family so as to include a wider range of social and living arrangements. To activists who seek to break the family’s legal monopoly, the challenge is less to redefine family than to end the law’s unfair preference toward families by extending legal privileges formerly reserved for families to individuals and to frankly nonfamilial social structures.
Hardcore reformers will regret their caution, but anyone considering cohabitation or already engaged in a cohab relationship will find useful information in Solot and Miller’s book.
Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, and a longtime unmarried cohabitor.