When Marc Rabinowitz was growing up, he equated a committed relationship with being married.
These days, in his practice as a licensed clinical social worker at Psychotherapy Associates of Ghent in Norfolk, Va., Mr.Rabinowitz sees more and more couples who are living together but not married.
When a problem comes up that threatens the relationship, they take it to counseling just like married folks do.
"They want to work things out rather than wait, which I think is a rather enlightened approach," said Mr. Rabinowitz.
"A lot of people want premarital counseling, but a lot of folks are living together as a couple who have no intention of marrying," said Connie Weet, a licensed clinical psychologist at Associates at Hilton in Newport News, Va. "I don't think not having a license keeps people from discussing things."
"There's less stigma about coming in, whether you're married or not," said Bonnie Kelly, a licensed clinical social worker at Riverside Center for Psychological Services in Newport News.
Many of these couples have not ruled out marriage. For a variety of reasons, they prefer to stay unattached.
They may see their parents' marriage as a failure, or it may be more financially practical not to get married. One member in the relationship may be going through a complicated divorce.
"They may be afraid to trust or they're not good at intimacy skills," said Ms. Kelly.
Often, Mr. Rabinowitz's clients are older couples who were married before and don't want to make the same mistake again.
"People these days are more aware of how complicated marriage is," he said.
Unmarried couples take the same issues to counseling as married couples, said Ms. Kelly.
"People I see have the same problems: handling anger appropriately, negotiating a sexual relationship and other routine couples things," she said. "Once they have a sense of commitment, they look at counseling as a solution."
Still, there can be variations. In general, unmarried couples handlemoney matters better than married ones; they usually maintain separate accounts and each pays half the expenses, said Mr. Rabinowitz.
Problems in the money area can crop up when one individual makes more.
"If the incomes are drastically different, those making the least may expect the others to pick up the tab," said Ms. Weet.
Touchier areas that may occur in an unmarried relationship are different levels of commitment and feelings of insecurity.
Sometimes, one partner will want more of a commitment than the other, said Mr. Rabinowitz. When he treats unmarried couples, he said, "I treat them pretty much the same, but might want to question their level of commitment more."
"Psychologically, relationships are getting closer or growing apart," said Ms. Kelly. "There's a lot of pressure in our society to get married. One member may be pressing for a commitment."
Planning for the future also can have an impact on commitment, especially if one member of the couple wants to have children or if one member wants to accept a job in another city.
Couples living together may be more insecure, said Ms. Kelly, and this insecurity gets expressed wrongly.
In unmarried relationships that are less stable, one member may feel uneasy about their partner's seeing members of the opposite sex in social situations, said Ms. Weet.
The fact that these couples aren't married may cause them to work harder toward a solution.
"Because of that slight sense of instability, they're more willing to air things," said Ms. Weet.
"They work harder because the back door is always open," said Mr. Rabinowitz.
nTCHD: Unmarried couples need counseling at times, too