One day about eight years ago, Patricia* found a pair of unfamiliar panties in the New Jersey townhouse she shared with her live-in boyfriend. She tried to convince herself that maybe they were her own. But after much prayer, she was able to look beyond her man's good looks and charm to admit to herself that their relationship wasn't working.
Shortly afterwards, Patricia moved out the house, ending the two-and-a-half-year affair. She promised herself that she would never again live with a man unless she was married to him.
Though she's now against cohabitation, Patricia's initial decision to live with a man without marriage is on par with what visitors to ESSENCE.com said. When asked, "Would you live with a man without being married?" 52 percent of respondents said "yes," narrowly edging out the 48 percent who replied "no."
Dr. Joyce Morley-Ball, a marriage and family therapist who co-hosts a radio talk show about relationships on Atlanta's V-103 FM, says the willingness to cohabitate is increasing among Black women.
"In the past, you weren't seen as a good girl if you lived with someone. Your body and life was dirty," Dr. Morley-Ball says. "Now it's different. This is the age of permissiveness."
But living together isn't exactly a guarantee that the couple will tie the knot. In a study released in 2000, researchers from the University of Michigan and University of Massachusetts-Amherst reported that African-Americans couples are more likely to separate than marry their live-in partners. And cohabitation compensated for an 83 percent decline in marriage by age 25 for Blacks as compared to 61 percent for whites.
So why do sisters do it? Living together is an option for women who want to give the relationship a trial run before going to the altar. It's also, decision women make when they are afraid of commitment, Dr. Morley-Ball says.
And some sisters agree to be a live-in love because they think it's as close as they'll get to being married. But sisters also do it to save money, Dr. Morley-Ball says, and to assert their adulthood.
Deata Oliver, 21, a bank teller in Detroit chose to move in with her boyfriend three years ago so they could be together on their own time. Deata had been living with an aunt, who thought Deata's boyfriend was spending too much time at their home.
"We're young, but we can handle it," says Deata, who plans to marry in 2003. "The hardest part is learning to understand each other's points of view. You have to listen -- and compromise."
Dr. Morley-Ball advises women to carefully consider their reasons for moving in with a man. Consider your religious teachings, she says, weigh the financial and emotional benefits, and make sure your self-esteem is strong so that your needs and wants don't get lost in couplehood. Also take time to get to know his habits, friends and family.
Now married, Patricia agrees. She and her husband dated for about three years before they married and shared a home. "We never left stuff at the other's house," she says. "By keeping everything separate, we took our time to get to know each other.
"Try to do some clear-headed thinking," she says. Living together is "easy to get into it, and if it's not going well, it's hell to get out."
(* not her real name)