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Thriving Without a License : Relationships: Many cohabitating Orange County couples just aren't interested in a wedding and remain happily unmarried, despite family pressures and tax disadvantages.


When Eric and Tricia are spending time with friends, it's not uncommon for someone to call them "Mr. and Mrs." or for Tricia to be asked what's new with her "husband."

Comments like that are laughed off; everyone in their circle knows that Tricia O'Toole, 25, and Eric Moe, 33, are unmarried although they have lived together almost two years. But to the group, they "seem" married.

"Our friends sometimes say we forgot to get married," says Moe. "The fact that we're living together without a marriage license just isn't an issue."

Renting a small house on Balboa Island, which is easier to do with two incomes than one, was a prime reason they decided to live together. They're comfortable planning a future that may include marriage one day, but it's a day that gets referred to most often when they're around their families.

"People are always asking about our plans, especially since my sister is getting married," says O'Toole. "But we're going to let her have her year; we don't feel like planning a wedding right now."

The statistics show that more couples like O'Toole and Moe are cohabitating than ever before in America. The Census Bureau reports that in 1970, about 523,000 unmarried couples lived together. In 1992, the number jumped to 3.3 million.

While some states recognize a common-law marriage for couples who live together seven years or more, California has no such statute. Cohab couples who want the protection the state gives married people have to buy the license and do the vows. "Not being married frees you from some entanglements, but it can hurt you in other areas," says family law attorney Carlos Cuesta of Fullerton. "Tax law favors married couples, as do insurance companies when you're shopping for life and health insurance."

"It's very rare for a couple to come to me who haven't lived together before getting married," says Judy Albert, a marriage, family and child counselor in Huntington Beach. "I never ask, 'How long have you been married?' I say, 'How long have you been together?' "

Most of the cohabitating couples Albert sees are open about their lifestyle. Whether their reason for cohabitating is economic, or if they just aren't comfortable with the formalities of the marriage bonds, the growing number of cohabitants may be a sign that living together is no longer something to hide.

When Cheryl Bowman and Rich Neary of Sunset Beach found their first apartment together, they wore bogus wedding bands. "It was 1973, and I think landlords felt that if you were cohabitating, you were probably into drugs and porno and who knows what else," says Bowman. "We just weren't into the whole wedding thing; we wanted to be 'together' rather than 'married,' and we still feel that way."

"For the first few years, I think we both thought we'd get married in the future. Now the future is here and we still haven't done it," says Neary. "I think living together lets us feel like we're still in our 20s. Being married means being an adult, (and) we still want to experience childhood."

Bowman and Neary, both 46, believe that cohabitation is more acceptable than ever and that few couples have to shield the truth about their home lives like they once did. "I've always been a grade school teacher, and a teacher's off-campus image is important," says Neary. "It was only about five years ago that I told my administrator that Cheryl wasn't my wife. I did this after realizing that most of the parents I deal with are either living with someone now or they have in the past."

Friends and family have "given up" in Bowman's words, any hope of the couple marrying, but both feel some family pressure. "We're treated like any other married couple at family gatherings, but there's often an edge. When we tell people we're planning a trip to Reno, they always ask if we're going to visit one of the little chapels."

While Bowman says her mother now loves Neary like a son, it wasn't always that way. "She was hurt that I had decided to live with a man I wasn't married to, and (my mother and I) had a very tense relationship the first couple of years, which was difficult because we had always gotten along so well."

"I've seen parents become a little more accepting of children who live with someone before marriage," says Albert. "Because of the trauma of divorce, they feel that a trial without the legal constraints of marriage might be good for a couple. It may go against their feelings of morality, but they want what's best for their children."


Family pressure to marry, whether it's good natured or harsh, can put an undue strain on a cohab couple. "When faced with that kind of resistance from a parent or other family member, people often feel they need to change that person's opinion," says Jackie Singer, a marriage, family and child counselor in Irvine. "But you have to try not to do this.

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