Health & Family

Let’s not make it legal

Jay Tilyard, 40, and Tracie Nasta, 46, have been a couple for 11 years and lived together for nearly eight of those. They’re not married and have no plans to wed.
Jay Tilyard, 40, and Tracie Nasta, 46, have been a couple for 11 years and lived together for nearly eight of those. They’re not married and have no plans to wed. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Jay Tilyard, 40, and Tracie Nasta, 46, have been a couple for 11 years and lived together for nearly eight of those. They’re not married and have no plans to wed.

Yet they still occasionally get asked about their status as unmarried partners.

Tilyard owns The Chop Shop, the popular NoDa music venue. Nasta is the bar manager there. “We tell people we’re happy the way things are,” said Tilyard. “Why would we want to ruin a good thing?”

And they’re among a growing number of people who view life-partnering the same way.

“Americans have long been retreating from marriage,” a 2014 New York Times story reported. “The growth of unmarried couples is fastest among the older segment of the population.” Sometimes the reasons are financial. In other cases each has established a certain level of independence and a partnership just feels right.

But despite the changing viewpoints, the practice of living together still carries a whiff of stigma for some. Several Charlotte area couples told the Observer they’d only talk about their decision if the paper agreed not to use their names.

The trend not to wed often comes down to money. Women, who are more financially independent today than ever before, no longer need a spouse for financial security.

Plus, there’s less societal pressure (for men and women) to get or even stay married today.

And divorced people “may not want to take on the perceived risk of marrying again,” said Jeremiah Wills, chair of the political science and sociology department at Queens University of Charlotte who has studied marriage and modern family.

Wills said cohabitating couples of all ages generally either drift into it or come to a “mutual, rational decision” that the arrangement is what they want. Those couples who drift into the partner arrangement are more likely to drift apart and split several years down the road.

But couples who make the careful, purposeful decision to cohabitate are more likely to stay together. In fact, Wills said, they’re more likely to switch gears and wed down the road.

Amy Canevello, assistant professor of psychology at UNC Charlotte who has studied marriage, said while not getting married has become more socially acceptable over the past four decades, society still pushes couples into marriage.

“There’s an expectation that we’ll fall in love, marry and have babies,” she said. “When couples go against that script, it throws people off.”

Wills said Americans, on the whole, accept cohabitation. “But it gets more complicated if children are involved,” he said. “Attitudes on that topic are somewhat mixed.”

Society doesn’t always seem to know how we should treat cohabitating couples. “Our culture has a shared meaning of marriage,” Wills said. “But our societal obligation to unwed partners is less clear.” He cites workplace family policies as one example.

Society is also easier on men who choose not to marry. “Women catch more (grief),” Tilyard said. “Single guys my age are just ‘old bachelors.’ 

He said his partner’s parents used to subtly encourage them to tie the knot. But in the 11 years they’ve been a couple, Nasta’s brother has married, helped raise stepchildren and divorced.

Tilyard: “And we’re still together.”

Going the life-partner route

Middle-aged couples who choose not to marry have plenty of good reasons for making the choice. Some of them are financial.

Unmarried couples can keep their finances separate and maintain their credit rating. After all, you marry your spouse’s debts.

“If you’re divorced and chose to remarry, you could lose alimony, pension and Social Security benefits from your former spouse,” according to a 2014 CNBC report by Sharon Epperson. “If you’re widowed, you could also lose survivor’s pension benefits.”

Single parents may find it easier to get financial aid for a child going to college.

Those who want to make sure they can leave an inheritance to their children may wish to remain single.

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