Intimate Strangers


When I reach James, 32, he’s on the way home to the two- bedroom condo in Spanish Harlem that he purchased in November with his partner, Dean, 34. They’ve been registered as domestic partners with the state of New York for four years and cohabiting for the same amount of time. “We’re at the same level as any of our siblings who are married,” says James—meaning, for example, that when they go home to visit, they share a room.

For James, who works in advertising, and his partner, an architect, their relationship provides both emotional and financial stability. “We have each other for support financially. We have a joint savings account. We put our names on the mortgage together, so the taxes are a lot better.” In fact, they’re just about as economically secure as an unmarried couple can be. And therein lies the problem.

While cohabitants, gay or straight, save on rent, they miss out on many of the financial benefits that come with an official union.

The number of unmarried opposite-sex couples increased 1,100 percent from 1960 to 2002, to nearly 5 million. According to the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, half of all women aged 25 to 39 are living or have lived with a partner, and over half of all first-time married couples live together for some period before marriage.

Amy Morganstern, a 23-year-old law student in San Francisco, is typical of younger cohabitants. She met her boyfriend, Charles, 22, in college—he was at Columbia and she at Barnard. When he decided to follow her out to the West Coast, moving in together was “a natural step.” “Money’s tight,” she says. “I’m in school right now so I don’t have a source of income, and he just got his first paycheck not too long ago. He has his student loans,” around $180 a month. “It’s definitely better that we’re able to live together in a smaller apartment,” a $1,100 studio.

Amy doesn’t have health insurance and is not eligible under her boyfriend’s employer-based coverage. This is a common problem for cohabiting couples, says Dorian Solot of the Alternatives to Marriage Project. Together with her unmarried partner, Marshall Miller, Solot advocates for a “more accurate definition of family.” “Unmarried couples are often considered legal strangers. This has a huge impact on their ability to get certain kinds of benefits,” such as health care, hospital visitation rights, or even housing.

Yet that lack of official ties, Solot says, can work the other way too. “I’ve heard couples say they decided to delay marriage because one partner has a lousy credit rating. The one with good credit can then buy a car or house.”

Ryan Conly, 32, of Indianapolis, declared bankruptcy earlier this year because of credit card bills, but it didn’t affect the credit of Tara Gimber, whom he’s lived with for the past four years. Conly works around 60 hours a week at a restaurant and as an apprentice in the local stagehands’ union. “We’re no different than most married couples, except that we don’t have that piece of paper. We want the same things, like a house. We want to escape being in debt, and we don’t want to bring each other down with our personal problems.”

Conly and his “hetero lifemate,” a patients’ financial coordinator at a hospital and part-time nursing student, are opposed to marriage on philosophical and practical grounds. Even so, Conly acknowledges, they are missing out on some things. “Tara has health insurance. If we were married she could put me on there, but as it is we can’t do that.”

Studies indicate that married couples save more, invest more, and wind up more financially secure on average than those without that explicitly long-term commitment. This is, of course, more of a concern for unmarried couples closer to 30. They face obstacles not only because of society but also the way they themselves see their relationships.

Conly and Gimber, like James and Dean, do contribute to a joint savings account and help each other control their spending. But many other couples don’t, like Aisha Burnes and Lanka Tattersall, who lived together in Long Island City before Tattersall began her Ph.D. at Harvard. Burnes, 30, is an artist and self-employed graphic designer with about $5,000 in credit card debt, while her girlfriend, 27, lives on loans. They have kept their finances separate, but they share a weakness for good food and wine. “It’s a problem. We have to be like, OK, we can’t go out for any more nice dinners. I actually think she’s worse about it than I am.”