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Looks like marriage, but lacks the 'I do'

In Hillsborough County, the number of unmarried families increased 73 percent in the past decade.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 25, 2001

In Hillsborough County, the number of unmarried families increased 73 percent in the past decade.

TAMPA -- Like a married couple, Amie Devero and Tony More celebrate an anniversary, dream of growing old in each other's arms and share a bank account as well as a home.

The Tampa thirtysomethings refer to each other as life partners and have no plans to tie the knot now or in the future, perfectly content with unmarried bliss.

When asked by friends and family about getting married, the south Tampa couple, who have lived together for more than two years, often reply, "Why?"

"I don't see this as a trial marriage," said Devero, a 37-year-old management consultant. "I see this as something other than a marriage. It's a different way of conducting a relationship."

Devero and More, who have never been married, are part of a growing number of people who are living together out of wedlock, either as an alternative or precursor to marriage.

Whether you call it shacking up, living in sin or cohabitation, being an unmarried couple has become a societal norm.

"Codes are being broken," said Chris Ponticelli, assistant professor of sociology at the University of South Florida. "It's not taboo anymore."

Researchers attribute much of the increase to the consequences of a liberated society.

There's a wider acceptance of cohabitation. Women no longer rely on men and marriage for financial security. And many couples fear divorce and view living together as a better, safer option.

"The concept of that piece of paper keeping couples together, they don't believe it anymore," Ponticelli said. "We all know someone who has been divorced. It's a sticky thing to go through."

Nationally, new U.S. census figures show the number of unmarried couples increased 72 percent from 3.1-million households in 1990 to 5.5-million in 2000. In Florida, the number of unmarried households increased 77 percent in the last decade.

In Hillsborough County, the number of unmarried families increased 73 percent to 26,314, making it the fourth largest population of cohabiting couples in the state, with Monroe County taking the lead.

Unmarried households, including same-sex partnerships, represented 6.7 percent of all households in the county, up from 4.6 percent in 1990. The largest grouping in Hillsborough was married families, at 47.7 percent, followed by singles, at 26.9 percent.

Some conservatives equate the boom in cohabitation to serious societal ills.

"Marriage is the foundation of the family," said Bridget Maher, marriage and family policy analyst at the conservative Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. "If we have strong and healthy marriages, we'll have a stronger society."

Kevin Miller, a minister at Idlewild Baptist Church, said few people seem willing to stand up and do what's right, putting their spiritual lives at risk.

The large north Tampa congregation allows couples that live together to attend, but not join as members because of the message it sends.

"We teach on biblical marriages," he said. "God said one man for one woman."

Brought up a Baptist, Holly Anglen doesn't believe living with her boyfriend, Robert Earle, is wrong. She dismisses the thought with, "To each his own."

High school sweethearts, both in their early 20s, they have lived together for four years. Unlike Devero and More, Anglen and Earle plan to marry someday.

Anglen, a 22-year-old administrative assistant at Hill and Knowlton, said she already lives like a married person and is no less committed to Earle than a wife would be.

"I recommend anybody live together," said Anglen, whose parents divorced when she was in sixth grade. "It lets you know the idiosyncrasies of people. If you get married, you don't know anything about a person's living habits. It's too much starting fresh."

Increasingly, cohabitation is becoming like marriage, according to Judith Seltzer, sociology professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. As it becomes more common, couples have fewer incentives to walk down the aisle and say "I do."

"Marriage, as an institution, is increasingly defined as a short-term relationship," Seltzer wrote in a November article in the Journal of Marriage and the Family. "Divorce is more acceptable now than in the past.

"The meaning of cohabitation is shifting, in part because the meaning of marriage has shifted."

Devero and More, the 31-year-old owner of a St. Petersburg marine business, couldn't agree more.

Initially, they saw living together as temporary, until More got a job in the area after relocating from Miami to be with Devero here.

"At some point, the trial issue of living together just became moot," said Devero, who admits to being cynical about marriage because of her parents' divorce when she was 12. "At some point, we decided we were committed as we could be."

They believe the sacrament of marriage is often taken without sincerity, causing life-shattering divorces that forever affect the lives of children. It's not a place they want to be unless they decide to have children.

Even then, they're not sure.

"We don't feel the need for marriage," said More, with little hesitation. "We'd rather be in a committed partnership."

- Times staff writer Bill Coats contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400.

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