The price of exit influences the terms of intimate relationships—and constitutes an important factor in distinguishing committed from contingent relationships. With or without legal recognition of the relationship itself, the dissolution of an intimate relationship requires disentangling any joint assets, determining who stays and who leaves a joint residence, and arranging the terms of continuing involvement with any children. Marriage establishes bright-line rules for these determinations and a formal legal process for administering them. Unmarried relationships involve different default terms and no automatic legal process for resolving the terms of exit. The terms of exit, however, may frame relationship choices.

This Article will argue that, inside or outside of marriage, the critical choice couples make is between committed relationships, with a high degree of financial and emotional interdependence, and contingent relationships, in which the parties keep their identities, assets, and arrangements separate. Committed relationships inevitably entail high exit costs as the practicalities of splitting shared assets or determining the new terms for emotionally charged relationships such as childrearing can exact a high toll. Contingent relationships in contrast are easier to end precisely because of their contingent nature; couples often see each determination, whether about how to share rent or who picks the child up after school, as a separate transaction. Perceptions about the price of exit often shape the nature relationship choices and while today’s relationships exist on a continuum between those which are so interdependent that the parties effectively function as one, and so independent that an intimate couple may have no greater entanglements than college roommates, the distinctions between committed and contingent relationships often fall on the fault lines of class, race, and gender.

The typical unmarried relationship in reported decisions is a committed one, in which the parties have substantial assets and a degree of interdependence that makes existing law appear inequitable. These relationships differ, however, from the more numerous but less visible contingent relationships in which the parties have relatively few assets and a less equal and less intertwined assumption of relationship responsibilities.

This Article, prepared for a symposium on nonmarriage, explores the price of exit as an analytical factor. By examining how the cost of exit influences family decision-making, the Article remakes understandings about the law that governs nonmarriage. Expectations about exit profoundly influence decision-making concerning partnering, regardless of socioeconomic class, yet expectations often differ by socioeconomic class. The legal frameworks applicable to conventional married families presume interdependence and shared parenting, which reflect terms that the couples would presumably choose themselves. These terms, however, are ill-suited to many nonmarital families.

Accordingly, the Article concludes that conflicting norms, particularly in the communities in which cohabitation is most common, complicates the imposition of uniform rules that presume dependency—or the obligations associated with it.

Eleanor Brown, Naomi R. Cahn & June Carbone, The Price of Exit, 99 Washington University Law Review, 1897 (2022).