Marriage is losing ground to a grinding economic slowdown that has prompted more couples to live together without tying the knot.
The share of couples who are not married has risen in many places but is highest in areas that offer many people grim prospects for a better financial future: old industrial cities and the Mississippi Delta.
Unmarried couples made up 12% of U.S. couples in 2010, a 25% increase in 10 years, according to recently released Census data.
"Couples whose employment opportunities are more precarious tend not to marry," says Stephanie Coontz, sociologist with the Council on Contemporary Families. Many "are hedging their bets — waiting to see if they can improve their long-term odds by making sure they're economically and emotionally secure with each other."
Couples at both ends of the economic spectrum are opting to live together rather than marry, largely because women increasingly rely less on men to take care of them financially.
Women who earn good incomes have more choices "about how they arrange their private lives,'' says Virginia Rutter, sociology professor at Framingham State University in Massachusetts. "You will find more unmarried couples in larger cities, both because of heavier concentrations of poverty and because cities attract young, educated people who are not yet prepared to marry."
The Census shows higher shares of married couples in middle-class and upscale suburban areas, the bastions of traditional American families with children.
The bad economy may be contributing to the increase in unmarried couples. "Often, they live together not just for the companionship and to test their relationship but because it's cheaper than maintaining two households,'' Coontz says. "But unlike the past, they are unwilling to marry for economic security because they are well aware how precarious both jobs and relationships can be."