The biggest social revolution of our time is the changing nature of the family. The lack of distinction between living together and getting married is part of this ongoing tectonic shift.

To say modern relationships are uncertain is an understatement. Never before in history have so many people been so unclear about what their most intimate partnerships actually mean. The questions and anxiety start in adolescence and extend into adulthood, where they remain — except that two, three or four decades later it all begins to wear thin.

State of the Unions: Why marriage may be better the second, or third, time around

Oscar Wilde once said second marriages represent the triumph of hope over experience. Most divorced Canadians are siding with experience and saying once was enough.

Two thirds, or 66%, of divorcees told Statistics Canada in 2011 that they don’t intend to remarry. That represents a steep rise from 1990, when just 49% of divorced Canadians said they did not intend to get hitched again. Marriage has been an embattled institution for decades thanks to the rise of the modern divorce, but what about marriage for the already-divorced? If divorcees souring on the idea of a second (or third or fourth …) trip down the aisle, perhaps it’s in need of saving, too.

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The reality is that in failing to distinguish between two separate relationship forms — marriage and common-law — we heighten confusion, lower expectations and increase instability over the life course. This is true for men and women, both of whom fare better in married relationships. It’s very true for any children involved. As a result, it’s also true for the communities we live in.

The basic story goes something like this: We removed stigma from living together because stigma is a bad thing and because we think more choices equals greater freedom. Marriage might be nice, but it’s unnecessary. With greater freedom we achieve greater happiness.

The point is not to bring back stigma, though real rebels might bemoan that nothing is actually rebellious anymore. Rather, the point should be to ask whether the ability to licitly live common law has added any richness to the fabric of our intimate relationships. We have every indication that the answer is no.

The promise of lasting commitment remains popular; relationships that last are the dream that refuses to die. No one is (yet) purchasing Valentine’s Day cards professing “I will always love you… until I don’t.”

When we marry, rather, we promise ourselves to our beloved “‘til death do us part.” Yet this is precisely what is missing in common law relationships — by design. Sadly, marriages in Canada today fail at a rate of about 40 percent before the 30th wedding anniversary. Yet those living common law, who didn’t want to make the promise, break up sooner and more often.

Research shows relationships starting with cohabitation are nearly twice as likely to dissolve as those beginning with marriage. Insecurity rises. Sociologists Michael Pollard and Kathleen Mullan Harris found 52% of cohabiting men were not certain their relationship was permanent, where only 39% of cohabiting women said the same. By contrast, the rate among married couples was much lower, at 19% — and the same for both men and women.

Children’s outcomes in common law families are also weaker. Sociologist Brad Wilcox reports that “children in cohabiting homes are more likely to fail in school, run afoul of the law, suffer from depression, do drugs, and — most disturbingly — be abused.” Children in “intact married homes” did best.

Certainly there are many happy, safe, long-lasting cohabiting relationships. Still, given the clear statistical evidence that there are more problems associated with living common law than married, we should be less concerned about offending those for whom it is working then helping those for whom it is not.

A bigger problem might simply be that our culture, with its emphasis on limitless personal freedom, fails to see that relationships of any kind are not about this. Marriage, in particular, constrains. Marriage tells you to call when you are late and to ask before making significant purchases. It tells you where you will sleep at night.

The flip side is that through this self-imposed, freely chosen constraint we flourish. We must call when we are late, but we can call when we have a flat tire. We can’t buy everything we want, but when we lose a job, someone else can help carry the burden. We can’t sleep around, but we can know and be known in a manner that transience never affords. We can rest in stability, knowing that it’s less likely our partner has one foot out the door.

Living common law — a family form gaining traction today — is both cause and effect. It is the result of the marital breakdown we have all seen and experienced and it leads to further cynicism as we endure the travails of serial monogamy. Fear of “settling down” denies us both the stability of marriage and the freedom of singleness. It’s an uncomfortable bed to lie in.

Marriage isn’t for everyone. This doesn’t make common law the answer, however. As we consider love and commitment this Valentine’s Day, rising common law rates in Canada are nothing to celebrate.