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‘Shacking Up’ has its consequences

By Staff | Aug 20, 2010

“Shacking up” is the old term for cohabitation. But “shacking up” made cohabitation sound so crude we now call it “live-in”, a term that applies to 25,000 relationships in North Dakota.

While living together may sound like the ultimate in convenience, economics and happiness, it has serious consequences, especially for women and children. They become the victims when relationships go awry.

Hardly a week goes by in North Dakota when we don’t hear about some live-in who has seriously injured or even killed his partner’s children. The most recent event drawing statewide attention was a man who used a leash to drag his live-in’s 12-year-old daughter around the room. Then he beat up on her brother.

A few weeks ago, clinical psychologist Val Farmer wrote an article in the Friday supplement of the Fargo Forum in which he cited some insightful facts about live-ins – facts women, especially women with children, should take to heart before becoming involved in this sort of uncommitted relationship.

“Those who choose a living-together arrangement are high-risk individuals,” Farmer pointed out. He said they are the kind of people most likely to bring addiction or personality problems into the relationship. They have poor problem-solving skills so when interpersonal conflicts occur they take the easy route – walking out.

Because live-in couples don’t value long-term relationships, Farmer added, the individuals involved demonstrate less impulse control. Consequently, domestic violence for women in cohabitating relationships is twice that found in marriages. The risk is even greater for child abuse.

Desperate single moms often opt for a live-in relationship to help support their children and provide some semblance of security. But men who don’t care enough to make a commitment aren’t going to care enough to tolerate the challenges of raising somebody else’s children. That’s when abuse creeps in.

Before shacking up, a young woman ought to run her live-in prospect through a checklist. Is he earning enough to pay nonsupport if it comes to that? Does he have stable relationships with family and friends? How many live-ins and/or divorces has he gone through? Does he make impulsive decisions in fits of anger? Does he show respect for other people?

The North Dakota legislature legalized cohabitation in 2007 because the prohibition was not being enforced. From a practical point of view, such a law is unenforceable. During passage of the 2007 repeal, the bill’s sponsors argued that cohabitation was nobody’s business anyway.

Unfortunately, the issue isn’t that simple. Legally, cohabitation may be nobody’s business but this behavior is a concern of the public because the public ends up paying extra taxes for law enforcement, judicial proceedings and social programs to salvage the women and children deceived by the relationship. Private behavior that results in public costs is the public’s business.

Cohabitation may be here to stay but the state needs laws on the books to protect innocent victims. Those who want to remain uncommitted should still be held accountable for the consequences of their behavior.

Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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