As a stand-up comic who has lived on and off with my parents throughout adulthood, I sometimes tell this joke: “So I’m weird because I’m 30 and live with my parents, but you’re normal because you’re 30 and live with your wife and kids? You still live with your family, loser.” It speaks to a common insecurity among my generation, but an insecurity that does not reflect household trends: Millions of American adults have moved in with one or both of their parents during the pandemic. These returning masses, however, might empathize with my occasional embarrassment around one aspect of this new norm: dating.
I once referred to my mom by her first name—I usually just call her Mom—when she walked in on a FaceTime date. I’ve stopped talking to Hinge matches who asked about my living situation. Other times, I’ve stopped dating altogether simply to avoid the conversation. My shame is not ungrounded. For this story, I spoke with adults residing in their family house who told me that they, too, felt like they weren’t taken seriously by dates. I also spoke with adults who wouldn’t go out with someone who lived with their parents.
I don’t begrudge these daters—personality extrapolation based on arbitrary criteria is just part of the courtship process. But I worry that America’s obsession with individualism obscures people’s actual romantic aims. Many Americans want independence for themselves as well as for their partners; they don’t need a codependent relationship. Yet even the most self-sufficient person comes with a context: friends, family, values, history. When society stigmatizes people who live with their parents, it’s usually because of a misconception of what it means to be independent, and how much this value even matters.
Long before the pandemic, young adults were already returning to the nest at increasing rates. In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that more young adults in the United States were living at their parents’ home than at any time since around 1940. By April 2020, more than half of people ages 18 to 29 lived with one or both of their parents. This age range seems to intersect with adults’ prime dating years: The median age at which people first marry in the U.S. is about 28 for women and 30 for men, according to the Census Bureau’s 2020 Current Population Survey.
I understand why the prospect of dating someone who lives at their family home can be unappealing—a lack of privacy creates real logistical downsides. Some people I interviewed mentioned using a car or hotel room for sex; others monitored their parents’ schedules for a free night. This can make casual hookups near impossible.
But a common viewpoint that I heard about people whose roommates raised them is that their home life reflects stunted development and a lack of financial stability. “It can be hard to date someone who isn’t in the same stage of life as me,” Andrew Bernard, a 29-year-old chemical engineer in Houston, told me. Shruti Shekar, a 32-year-old tech reporter in Toronto, Canada, told me that to date someone seriously, she’d want to eventually cohabit with them exclusively—and the presence of parents made the prospect seem distant. Others mentioned exes who regressed to their high-school personalities when they moved home.
Meanwhile, people who have lived at their family home as adults feared adding the weightiness of parental ties to a nascent relationship. “There is zero chance I want to date again while living at home,” Nick Bayliss, 32, a banker in Millis, Massachusetts, told me. He moved back during the pandemic and started dating a childhood friend. The bad breakup was particularly tricky: His parents saw it all happen in real time, and were themselves close to his ex, having known her for decades. “I have zero interest in bringing another person back to the house, having to introduce them to my parents, and then having [my parents] go through the ups and downs of a relationship,” Bayliss said. The implicit acknowledgment of sex under a parent’s roof can be awkward too. “My father is very relaxed, but my partner comes from a more traditional background and had a lot of stress about accidentally running into him after spending the night,” Emily Duke, a 32-year-old comedian in New York City, told me.
I have always tried to avoid introducing new men to my parents, believing it was something for serious partners only. Bringing someone back to a childhood home offers context that not everyone wants to give on a third date. People typically dispense their personal history in increments, depending on how much trust they’ve built. Introducing a new partner to parents yields control of that narrative.
Many of the adults I spoke with who had moved in with parents were quick to offer an explanation—a loved one’s health issues, a desire to be near family—to separate themselves from people who had to live with their parents. Of the adults who moved home because of the pandemic, one in five reported that they simply wanted to be closer to their family.
“A lot of co-residence is by choice,” Karen Fingerman, a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, told me. Financially, at least, living away from parents isn’t necessarily a sign of independence, nor is living with them a sign of freeloading. Most adult children living with parents contribute to the household expenses—84 percent of women and 67 percent of men, according to a 2012 Pew study. Conversely, about 40 percent of adults ages 22 to 24 living away from family received rent help from their parents in 2017.
But even those who have moved back home out of necessity shouldn’t be disqualified from the dating arena. For many young adults, the events of the past 20 months have reinforced the notion that few things—not a housing situation, a job, or even the ability to leave the house—are certain, and so to seek help from loved ones is not a weakness. “In many ways, the pandemic has leveled the playing field. Everybody understands how many jobs were cut or why some singles preferred to be with family during a lockdown,” Andrea Syrtash, a relationship expert, told me via email. Prospective daters felt the same way. “I would be more willing to date someone who moved back with their parents to help out during the pandemic,” said Bernard, who initially told me he was unwilling to go out with someone who lived in their family home. Perhaps finding someone with whom one can survive life’s toughest events is more important than finding someone who has their own lease.
This understanding is already common in other places and communities. “In some countries, like India, Egypt, or Italy, it’s seen as normal to live with your family before marriage,” Syrtash said. “Not only is there no stigma in certain cultures; it can be more taboo to move away.” Even within the U.S., the stigma varies by demographic. Living with your parents “is more acceptable in all American ethnic groups” than among white people, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a professor at Clark University and the author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties, told me. According to Pew, 58 percent of Hispanic, 55 percent of Black, 51 percent of Asian, and 49 percent of white adults ages 18 to 29 lived with their parents as of July 2020. The same report said that the fastest-growing racial demographic of adults who live with their parents is white.
Relationships—romantic and otherwise—are essentially about offering support. No one is truly independent, but when someone resides with their parents, their support system becomes visible. Seeing this system doesn’t necessarily change someone’s level of dependence; it simply makes it known. Although many Americans consider courtship to be primarily an act between individuals, dating someone is a process of gradually fusing with their habits, their values, their community. When that person lives with their parents, you just encounter that context sooner and more intensely, until you become part of it. Ultimately, if you are serious about dating, it doesn’t matter if you move back home or find a partner—either way, you might end up living with family.