The past few decades have brought dramatic changes in the residential arrangements of romantically involved unmarried adults. Indeed, as sexual activity has become uncoupled from marriage, growing numbers of young couples have begun sharing a home and a bed without the legal sanction of marriage. Cohabitation, as this type of living arrangement is commonly known, has become a normative part of the adult life course.
Determining the prevalence of cohabitation is a challenging task. Given the nature of today’s dating and mating patterns, measuring trends in cohabitation is a highly subjective undertaking. Legal marriages are officially recorded via state licenses; no such formality is imposed on cohabiting couples. The process of entering into cohabiting unions can be rather indeterminate. Some couples may first spend a night or two together, but then find themselves staying overnight several times a week before ultimately acknowledging that they ‘‘live together.’’ During this process, individuals may retain their separate addresses, even if they rarely sleep there, yet remain unwilling to tell family and friends that they cohabit. Other romantic couples proceed quickly and quite consciously into coresidential relationships, but without specific plans to marry. For others, cohabitation is a stepping stone to marriage – a way to test for compatibility or cement their relationship.
The indeterminacy of this process is reflected in how surveys attempt to capture the cohabiting population; there is no consistent definition of what cohabitation entails. Whereas some studies ask if a partner sleeps there most of the time, others rely on a more subjective measure and allow respondents to determine if they are cohabiting. Still other surveys rely on information from a household roster and include partners only if they are there at least half the time or more. The US Census Bureau enabled the identification of household members as ‘‘unmarried partner’’ in the 1990 and 2000 Census. Measures of cohabitation may therefore include those who share a home, along with those who reside together part time, or who are together every night but maintain separate residences. Conflating these definitions is most problematic
for minority populations, who are most likely to be part time cohabitors. The imprecise nature of how cohabitation is defined may therefore exaggerate or understate its prevalence as a living arrangement, or hide variations across groups.
While living together without being married is far from being a new phenomenon, it first drew serious attention in the 1970s and has since been a topic of great interest. It has become increasingly prevalent over the past three decades. In the US, initial estimates from the Current Population Survey (CPS) of 1980 revealed that approximately 1.6 million unmarried couples were cohabiting, more than triple the number that did so in 1970. By 1990 the number of cohabiting couples had grown by another 80 percent, to almost 2.9 million couples. A total of 4.9 million households consisted of heterosexual cohabiting couples in 2000. Despite the dramatic increase in cohabiting couples, at any one point in time the proportion of all co residential couples who are unmarried is rather small. Cohabitors accounted for only 8.4 percent of all couple households in the 2000 census. Other western countries have also seen rapid growth in the numbers of people cohabiting.
Although cohabitors account for only a small fraction of all households, experience with living together outside of marriage is far more prevalent and has increased dramatically. In fact, cohabitation has become a normative experience. In the late 1980s one third of all women between the ages of 19 and 44 in the US had ever cohabited in their lives; by 1995, 45 percent of similarly aged women had done so. By 2002 well over half of all women ages 19 to 44 (57 percent) affirmed that they had lived with a romantic partner. Cohabitation remains most common among those in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties. Almost half of all American women aged 30 to 34 (49 percent) in 1995 had lived at some point with a romantic partner without being married, and by 2002 this figure had risen to 62 percent. Living together has also become the modal pathway preceding marriage. Again relying on information from the
1995 NSFG, Raley (2000) found that over half of all women born between 1965 and 1969 (55 percent) had lived with their partner prior to marriage. Marriage records in Great Britain and other European countries also indicate that the large majority of people now cohabit prior to marrying. Furthermore, considerable numbers of adults have cohabited without subsequently marrying their partner.
Despite its increased popularity, cohabitation is still more commonplace among particular subgroups. Living together historically served as the ‘‘poor man’s’’ marriage; even today, the least educated continue to lead the growth in cohabitation. In the US over half of women with less than 12 years of schooling had ever lived with a romantic partner as of 1995, compared to about 37 percent among women with at least a Bachelor’s degree. Nonetheless, cohabitation has become common even among college graduates. By 2002, 47 percent of women who were college graduates had lived with a partner at some point, compared with 62 per cent for women aged 19 to 44 who were high school graduates and 68 percent for those with less than 12 years of schooling. Racial differences in living together have narrowed far more than have educational disparities. Whereas cohabitation used to be more widespread among African Americans, recent increases in the proportion of people cohabiting have been greater among non-Hispanic whites. Both groups were more likely to cohabit than Hispanic women of similar ages in 1995. Nonetheless, given distinctive differences in marriage rates across these racial groups in the US, these results suggest that the role served by cohabitation may increasingly differ by race. Marriage rates are considerably lower among African Americans than for either whites or Hispanics. For blacks, then, living together may serve as a marriage alternative, whereas for whites it is still more likely to be a precursor to marriage. Living together has also been more prevalent among the previously married than the never married. In fact, it is increasingly replacing remarriage, even among those with children.
Cohabitation differs rather dramatically in its prevalence, as well as its role in childbearing, in Canada and Western Europe. In countries that have the highest proportions of cohabiting unions – Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and France – family law often views married and cohabiting couples similarly. In these countries, most non marital births are to cohabiting couples, in contrast to the US where greater shares of such births are to women living without a partner. But there is considerable variation in the prevalence of cohabitation in Europe, as demonstrated in the research of Kiernan (2004a, b) and Heuveline and Timberlake (2004). Countries such as the UK, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Belgium have intermediate levels of cohabitation, and the shares cohabiting in most Catholic countries (Italy, Spain, and Ireland), while substantial, are even lower. The extent to which children are born into cohabiting unions or live with cohabiting parents also fluctuates widely, though in most of the Northern and Western European countries the shares of cohabiting couples living with children are similar to those in the US.
Most cohabiting unions are of relatively short duration, lasting on average only a year or two. A small fraction continue to cohabit indefinitely or represent an alternative to marriage. In the US roughly half of all cohabiting unions end within the first year. In contrast, only about 1 in 10 lasts 5 or more years. Because cohabiting appears to be such a transitory arrangement, many argue that it is not usually an alternative to or a substitute for marriage. Yet the purpose of cohabitation appears to be changing over time. As living together has become more prevalent it has become less likely to serve as a staging ground for marriage. Among those who entered cohabiting unions in the early 1980s, about 60 percent eventually married. The share of those entering cohabiting unions in the 1990s that subsequently married declined to about 53 percent (Bumpass & Lu 2000). Using more recent data from the NLSY for young women for the years 1979 through 2000, Lichter et al. (2006) found that cohabiting unions were more likely to end in dissolution than in marriage.
One possible explanation for this change comes from new evidence that young adults often do not have explicit plans to marry at the time they decide to cohabit. Sassler (2004), in a qualitative study of New York cohabitors, reported that marriage was not discussed seriously prior to entering into shared living arrangements, and in fact was generally not raised in any serious fashion until after a considerable length of time. This finding is being replicated in other qualitative studies con ducted on a wider array of social classes in various locations in the US. A growing body of research is reporting that rather than an explicit testing ground for marriage, many cohabitors live together for financial reasons or because it is more convenient. As cohabitation becomes normative, it increasingly appears to serve as an alternative to being single.
Despite common beliefs that living together is a good way to assess compatibility for marriage, couples that lived together prior to marriage have elevated rates of marital dissolution. Cohabitation therefore does not appear to reduce subsequent divorce by winnowing out the least stable couples from marriage. However, the association between cohabitation and relationship disruption has not been firmly established. Using data from the 1987 National Survey of Families and Households, Schoen and Owens (1991) reported finding no connection between premarital cohabitation and subsequent divorce among women born in the early 1960s, though cohabitors from earlier birth cohorts did have a higher likelihood of experiencing a divorce. It remains unclear whether the relationship between cohabitation and divorce has weakened or strengthened among more recent cohorts of cohabiting women. The relation between repeat cohabitation and subsequent union dissolution is more clear cut. Those who have lived with multiple partners in informal living arrangements do experience increased relationship instability.
As mentioned above, those who choose to live together tend to be different from adults who marry without first cohabiting, in that they tend to have lower levels of education, more unstable employment histories, and less traditional orientations towards the family. Another way in which cohabiting couples differ from those who are married is in their divergent backgrounds. For example, cohabiting couples are more likely to consist of partners from different racial backgrounds than are married couples, suggesting that living together is more acceptable than is marriage for interracial partnerships. Cohabitation is also less selective than is marriage with respect to education (Blackwell & Lichter 2000). Finally, several factors increase the likelihood of cohabiting instead of entering into marriage, further differentiating the two groups. Recent work by Qian and colleagues (2005) finds that women who experience non marital births, for example, are substantially more likely to enter into cohabiting situations than marriage. Less is known about men who enter into cohabiting unions, and how they differ from those who marry, though recent research using data from the Fragile Families study shows that men who have fathered children with multiple partners, and who therefore may have child support obligations that extend across several families, are less likely to wed their current partner with whom they share a child. In general, cohabiting partners tend to differ more than married couples on a range of dimensions; further research is required to determine the effect that such differences may have on the quality of their match.
Evidence on the domestic labor performed by cohabitors indicates that their patterns are in many ways similar to married couples. Cohabiting men do about as much domestic labor as do married men. While cohabiting women spend far less time on domestic labor than married women, they continue to do more than cohabiting men do (Shelton & John 1993). Furthermore, in a study of transitions in the domestic labor of single adults, Gupta (1999) reports that single women who move into cohabiting unions increase the amount of domestic labor they perform, while cohabiting men do not. These results suggest that cohabiting couples ‘‘do gender’’ in ways that are quite similar to married couples.
A substantial proportion of cohabiting couples reside with children. Some of these children are the result of previous marriages or relationships. But cohabitors are increasingly bearing children without marrying. In the early 1980s in the US, for example, an estimated 29 percent of all births to single mothers were to cohabiting women; by the early 1990s, 39 percent of all non-marital births were to cohabiting women, and estimates from the final years of the twentieth century suggest that births to cohabiting couples accounted for close to half of all births to single women in cities of over 200,000 persons (Bumpass & Lu 2000; Sigle Rushton & McLanahan 2002). In Britain, some 60 percent of all unmarried mothers are cohabiting at the time of their child’s birth. Living together has largely replaced what used to be referred to as ‘‘shotgun’’ weddings, as single women who become pregnant are now just as likely to move in with their partners as they are to marry (Manning 1993; Raley 2001). These developments provide additional fuel to those worried about the effects that the increasing prevalence of cohabitation is having on marital unions.
While an increasing proportion of children are born into cohabiting families, a substantial number of children will spend time in cohabiting families following the divorce or breakup of their parents’ relationships. As a result, a rising proportion of cohabitors are residing with children under the age of 15, both biological children and those that might be considered ‘‘stepchildren.’’ The proportions have increased from over a quarter of all cohabitors in 1980 to over 40 percent by 2000 (Fields & Casper 2001). Furthermore, children’s likelihood of living with a cohabiting parent is even greater. Although estimates vary somewhat, Graefe and Lichter (1999) report, using data from the NLSY, that over a quarter (26 per cent) of children born prior to 1992 could expect to live with a cohabiting mother some time by age 14, while Heuveline and Timber lake (2004) found that about one third of American children can expect to live with a cohabiting parent.
Since cohabiting unions are less stable than marriages, a growing body of evidence has sought to document how children fare if they spend time with a cohabiting parent (or parents). While we still do not conclusively know whether spending time in a cohabiting family rather than with married parents or an unmarried parent is more or less beneficial to children, cohabiting families do break up more often than do married ones. The preliminary evidence suggests that spending time in cohabiting families can have detrimental effects for children, often because of the transient nature of the relationship. In other words, children who spend time with a cohabiting parent may fare worse developmentally than children raised in stable two parent families, and even children raised by single parents who do not cohabit, largely because cohabiting parents tend to experience multiple transitions in and out of relationships. It is these multiple transitions that are detrimental to children (Brown 2004).
The dramatic increase in cohabitation has stimulated a great deal of research exploring who cohabitors are, suggesting what role cohabitation serves in the union formation process, and assessing the impact of cohabitation for the wellbeing of adults and children. Religious leaders and policymakers are increasingly questioning the impact that living together has on marriage and parenting. The growing acceptance of cohabitation among the general population, in conjunction with its increasing prevalence as a staging ground for parenting, presents new challenges to those concerned about growing inequality across family types. Yet the role cohabitation will play in patterns of family formation in the US and other western countries in the future is still unknown, and will require further study of its impact on individuals and families in differing circumstances and life course stages, how its meaning changes over time, and the impact that living together has on the institution of marriage.
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