Allison Linn

More older couples shacking up, skipping marriage

April 25, 2012 at 7:22 AM ET

Mike Blake / Reuters /
A pair of elderly couples view the ocean and waves along the beach in La Jolla, Calif. More couples over 50 are living together (minus the marriage certificate) and for many money is a big factor.

Shacking up. It's not just for the kids anymore.

The number of people over age 50 who are living together romantically has more than doubled in a decade, from 1.2 million in 2000 to 2.75 million in 2010, according to an analysis of government data done by Bowling Green State University.

The 50-plus group represents nearly one-third of the approximately 7.5 million people of all ages who were living together in 2010, the researchers found.

But while young people tend to be testing the waters for marriage, experts say older people aren’t necessarily living together as a step toward tying the knot. They're doing it for the money.

“(They want to) enjoy many of the benefits of marriage without the burdens,” said Susan Brown, a professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who led the research.

Older couples may want to protect their individual nest eggs so they can pass the inheritance down to their kids. They also may not want to jeopardize a pension, Social Security payment or other benefit they are receiving because they are divorced or widowed. And they may not want to be financially responsible for the other person’s health care bills.

Some also may have a “been there, done that” mentality about marriage, Brown said. Her research found that 71 percent of older couples living together were divorced, and another 18 percent were widowed. On the other hand, she found, older people who end up remarrying are disproportionately widowed. (Brown has done other research looking at the surging divorce rate among older Americans.)

Tom Blake was 53 when his third marriage ended, and after the divorce was finalized he knew he wanted to start dating again. But he didn’t want to get married for a fourth time.

“I wasn’t looking for marriage, but I definitely wanted a relationship that was comfortable, enjoyable and non-confrontational,” he remembers.

Blake, who owns a deli in Dana Point, Calif., found that dating after age 50 was much harder than he had expected. His experiences eventually became fodder for a column and website that he’s been writing for almost 18 years.

Now 72, he’s been living with a woman for 11 years. They split their expenses evenly but keep their finances separate, an arrangement that he says has served them very well.

“What I learned for my own self was that I did not need to be married to be happy,” he said.

Some people prefer to keep their financial lives even more separate. Blake said he also hears from a lot of older people who are in long-term, committed relationships but don’t live together. He said some do that to keep the peace with their kids or grandkids who don’t like the idea of a live-in relationship.

Brown, the sociology professor, said the “living apart together relationship” is one she also knows exists but has had trouble quantifying.

“They’re very committed to each other (but they) don’t want to give up the autonomy that they have,” she said.

Although economics play a major role in these late-in-life relationship decisions, Brown said there are also noneconomic reasons older couples aren’t getting hitched.

Brown said some older women want a live-in relationship, but there’s something about actually getting married that seems stifling.

“They’ve taken care of one husband and raised one family, and they don’t want to do that again,” Brown said. “And they feel that if they get married that’s the underlying expectation.”

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