Get your grandma her fan and smelling salts: More and more couples are living in sin. The report of the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau survey found that married-couple households in the U.S. are now outnumbered. A hair more than half — 51.6 percent — of households are headed by unmarried people, and 32 percent of American children are being raised in unmarried homes.

No offense to those against cohabitation without marriage, but “these numbers suggest that couples living together can’t be scandalous,” says Nicky Grist, executive director of the Alternatives to Marriage Project (unmarried.org). “It’s hard to scandalize when you’re the majority.” Sure enough, the number of people reporting themselves as part of unmarried couples increased 40 percent since 2000, according to the U.S. Census data.

Unmarried couples seem to be part of Hollywood’s old guard — Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Tim Burton and Helena Bonham-Carter, Oprah Winfrey and Stedman Graham. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, meanwhile, seem to be carrying the torch for a younger generation — and despite being currently engaged, the couple has yet to announce any official plans to marry.
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As much as the Jolie-Pitt relationship may inspire new couples to forge long-term relationships without taking a trip down the aisle, they’re really just a reflection of a trend that’s already in place — as the 2010 U.S. Census survey showed. These statistics have been covered everywhere from The New York Times to The Colbert Report to those maddeningly irresistible factoid screens in elevators, and anyone in a long-term unmarried relationship probably greeted the news with a resounding yawn.

“Unmarried long-term relationships are absolutely more accepted than they were a generation ago,” says Elana Katz, MSW, a psychotherapist specializing in family therapy and divorce mediation in New York City, and a senior faculty member at the Ackerman Institute for the Family. “These relationships are also popular with different age groups for different reasons. They’re an alternative for people who were divorced and don’t want to be married again. They also allow 20-somethings to dress-rehearse for either civil or religious commitments.”

Becky, in New York, was one of those 20-somethings. Nine years later and still with her partner, she says, “I have not felt any real pressure to get married, and no one has made me think that our relationship is less stable. Before we had kids, I imagine some people wondered if there was a fundamental problem, and we probably did have some commitment issues, but now, with two kids, no one questions it.”

A world with no divorce…
As Grist points out, one of the greatest benefits of being part of an unmarried relationship is that “people are happy about defining themselves outside an institution and all its baggage,” she says. After all, unmarried relationships tend to defy the stereotypes that plague marriage and keep the sitcom writers busy. “There’s a real sense of independence separate from how marriage gets defined.” It’s not such a trivial concept, considering that Oprah Winfrey — the very woman behind the worldwide brand — essentially admitted to not marrying Stedman Graham for fear of losing her own identity and devoted an entire show to “unmarriage.”

For some unmarried couples, there is concern about “What will happen if we break up?” Those who marry don’t have to wrestle with that. As Grist notes, marriage is a legally binding agreement that has no written contract spelling out all the stipulations, but it does spell out what happens when the relationship ends — which is among the greatest advantages marriage has to an unmarried partnership. “Whether it’s by death or divorce, when a marriage ends, the partners’ rights are clearly defined by law. Some people see that as a big protection,” Grist says. “Some people in unmarried couples are embarrassed to admit that they worry about their rights in a breakup, but the law [with partnership agreements] is slowly catching up to that.”

At the same time, for some couples, there’s comfort in knowing that breaking up — without a messy divorce — is an option. “My girlfriend and I have been together for almost seven years, and we’ve broken up for very brief periods at least four times,” says Frank, in New York. “But now, I think knowing we can do that at any minute keeps us together and then brings us back together in a way I don’t think we’d reconcile if we were married. I know it’s a little crazy and a lot about semantics, but it works for us.”

…And maybe no health insurance
For a while, Frank and his partner even worked at the same large company, and each always had his or her own health insurance. Access to partners’ health care and work benefits are, understandably, a top priority for those in unmarried relationships. “That’s the single most frequent complaint we hear on our website — that they can’t get benefits,” Grist says.

In fact, it’s often those very privileges that inspire long-term couples — opposed to marriage in principle — to get hitched nonetheless. “I remember calling my partner in tears because I took a job and couldn’t get him health insurance unless we were married,” recalls Catherine Newman in Northampton, MA, mother of two and author of Waiting for Birdy: A Year of Frantic Tedium, Neurotic Angst, and the Wild Magic of Growing a Family and the “I do. Not.” essay in the best-selling anthology, The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage. “And he said, ‘Is this your idea of a romantic proposal?’”

She hastens to point out that their wedding — which she treated much like an errand; she wore yoga pants and then went to the drug store immediately after to buy yeast infection medicine — “didn’t change our relationship, although my parents were thrilled to be able to call Michael their son-in-law instead of, er, their daughter’s, um, special friend — which always made it sound like he was a little impaired or something,” Newman says. “I admit that when I call the plumber, I like saying ‘I think you already talked to my husband.’ It’s much less exhausting.” Besides, Newman says that she and her partner Michael had made a commitment much larger than marriage when they had their first kid. “Talk about ’til death do you part,’” Newman says. “A kid is totally forever.”

A wedding, on the other hand, “is one day that can cost between $25,000 and $100,000,” Becky says. Indeed, the preparation and thought involved in planning a wedding can scare couples off the prospect. “We decided we wanted a baby and didn’t want to plan a wedding before the baby,” Becky says. “So we put off the wedding. Then we were too busy after the first kid to plan, and then we had another kid.”

And so their unmarried life looks a lot like a married one. Which is true of so many unmarried couples: As Michael, in Westchester County, New York, says of his 13-year relationship, “We are among the most conservative middle-class couples we know, in terms of, we live in the suburbs and have two kids and two cars and the kids go to public school. We have retirement plans and we spend the weekend driving the kids to dance class.” (When they went to City Hall to get married five years into their relationship, she had an anxiety attack and couldn’t go through with it.) And — Grandma, cover your ears — “We live as though we’re married,” he says with a smile, “in every sense of the word.” If you believe Michael, then that’s another benefit to avoiding the “I do’s.”

Rory Evans is a writer and editor in New York City. She contributes to such publications as Allure, Glamour, and Blueprint.