The trends in romantic relationships have been changing dramatically over the past few decades in the United States. Divorce rates increased steadily over the past 40 years and are finally leveling off at just less than 50%; marriage rates have similarly declined, with the average age of first marriage increasing; and the number of cohabiting couples has increased sharply. Census data from 2000 indicated that 5.5 million households (4.9 million different-sex couples and 0.6 million same-sex couples) identify themselves as unmarried relationship partners living together, representing more than 5% of all households in the United States. Although this arrangement may seem to represent a small proportion of households in the United States, the number of cohabiting couples has increased 1,000% since 1960 (while the general population increased by around 60%). More than 40% of women have lived with a romantic partner without marriage at some point in their lives, and the majority of married couples today lived together before marriage.
Cohabiting couples tend to be younger, more likely to be employed, and more racially diverse than married couples living together. Relationships between partners of a different race are uncommon for both unmarried and married partners living together, but this arrangement represents about twice as many cohabiting households as married households. People who enter cohabiting relationships are more likely to be in college, have divorced parents, and have parents with higher education than those who do not enter cohabiting relationships. Frequent religious attendance is a negative correlate of cohabitation. Finally, cohabiting couples are slightly less likely than married couples to have children younger than 18 living in their household.
Similar to the general population distribution, cohabiting couples are much more likely to live in or near an urban area than a nonmetropolitan area, with nearly 60% of cohabiting couples living in the Southern and Western United States. Alaska has the highest proportion of cohabiting couples of the 50 states (primarily due to the high Native American population in the state), with San Francisco, California, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, having the greatest proportion of cohabiting couples among major U.S. cities.
Factors Affecting Cohabitation Trends
On an individual level, people cohabit for a number of reasons. Cohabitation may make the most financial sense for a dating couple strapped to pay for separate living arrangements. Cohabitation may be a matter of convenience for couples. Cohabitation may serve as a trial marriage for couples and allow for easier dissolution if the relationship ends. Cohabitation may be an alternative to marriage for couples that do not believe a more formal arrangement is necessary or optimal. Finally, unmarried cohabitation is the only option for homosexual couples in many states although gay couples in Massachusetts, parts of Canada, and some European countries can be legally married. But it is yet unclear as to who can fully enter into a legal married union. These reasons, though, do not address the growing trend of cohabitation.
Although it is difficult to point to any one factor causing the societal boom in cohabitation, the improved status of women certainly plays a role. Before the 1960s, few women in the United States worked outside of the home and marriage was the primary means of economic subsistence for women. Today, 95% of women will work outside of the home at some point in their lives, 60% of women at any given time are working for pay, and nearly 60% of college entrants are women. Marriage is no longer the only option for financial security for women (and their children). Further easing the pressure toward marriage for women is the availability of reliable contraception and the subsequent demise of the “shotgun” marriage. Cohabitation may be seen as a comparable alternative to marriage for women who do not need the security that a more formal union may have provided in the past. Cohabitation may also be seen as an acceptable precursor to marriage while one finishes school or establishes a career.
Another explanation for the increase in cohabitation and decrease in marriage is that the social mandate for marriage has weakened. In 1950, 67% of men and women over 15 were married; in 2002, only 55% of men and women over 15 were married—and this percentage typically reflects an older segment of the population. Only 7% of American households represent the “traditional” family of a married heterosexual couple with children.
There is a general sense among adult men and women that marriage is not necessarily the culmination of a long-term dating relationship. Religious doctrine has been the long-standing force against unmarried cohabitation (primarily due to sanctions against sex outside of marriage). As attitudes in the United States shift toward greater adherence to individual desires than religious teachings, attitudes toward premarital sex and cohabitation have become more permissive. Fifty percent of college students say that they would live with a romantic partner under the right circumstances (and 25% already do).
Cohabitation And Culture
Attitudes about cohabitation have varied greatly over time and across cultures. Today, trends similar to those in the United States can be seen in other industrialized nations. Cohabiting couples represent about 7% of households in the Netherlands, 13% of households in France, and 25% of households in Sweden. Relationships in Sweden may have moved the farthest of any industrialized nation from the “traditional” nuclear family (with 55% of 25to 34-year-olds cohabiting). However, cohabitation may have different meanings in these European countries. In Northern European countries, cohabitation may represent an alternative to marriage, whereas cohabitation is more likely to act as a precursor to marriage in Western Europe. In Southern Europe and Ireland, cohabitation is much rarer than in other areas of Europe.
Although the cohabitation trend is more noticeable in industrialized nations than in the developing world, there are some notable exceptions. Economically, Japan is very similar to Western industrialized nations, but cultural differences (e.g., importance of the traditional family) translate into different practices as far as marriage and cohabitation are concerned. Although noting similar increases in divorce and later marriage as many Western countries, Japan has not had a comparable increase in cohabitation, with less than 2% of households in Japan made up of cohabiting couples.
In the developing world, cohabitation rates vary greatly depending on cultural norms. In Latin America and the Caribbean, where cohabitation is more normative, 54% of women are in unmarried cohabiting partnerships. However, in Arab cultures, societal and religious norms strongly sanction any type of relationship that suggests premarital sex. Similarly, in South Asia, cohabitation is very rare and trends do not seem to mirror those in Western cultures.
The impact of culture is notable even within the United States. More than 17% of Native American households are cohabiting couples compared with 4.6% of Latino households, 4.1% of Black households, 3.6% of White households, and 3.1% of Asian American households.
Relationship Satisfaction, Marriage, And Divorce
Changing trends in an institution as ingrained as marriage lead to questions about the quality of cohabiting relationships. For years, well-meaning parents have warned their children against the evils of cohabitation, citing the oft-reported finding that people who cohabited (not necessarily with their eventual marriage partner) were 50% more likely to get a divorce than noncohabitors. The problem with this correlation is that it is often misrepresented as a causal association. People with nontraditional attitudes are more likely to cohabit and more likely to have permissive attitudes about divorce. Furthermore, research has shown that cohabitation changes a person’s attitudes in favor of nontraditionalism, so it is not cohabitation but rather the more favorable attitudes toward divorce that lead to divorce. Suggestions that people who enter into cohabiting relationships are simply less likely to be successful at relationships in general have not been supported by research.
Fifty percent of different-sex cohabitors get married within 5 years of moving in together, 40% break up within 5 years, and around 10% remain in unmarried relationships for more than 5 years. The difference in relationship satisfaction between cohabitors who plan to marry and those who do not is significant, with those who plan to marry having greater relationship satisfaction than those who do not plan to marry and having essentially the same relationship satisfaction as those who are married. Those who cohabit and go on to marry their cohabitation partner have marriages that are of comparable length to those who do not cohabit before marriage. It is important to note that cohabitors are no less likely to get married than noncohabitors. They are just not necessarily going to marry the person with whom they currently live.
Cohabiting couples who do not officially marry sometimes enter into a common law marriage (by choice or circumstance). Formally recognizing cohabiting relationships has been common practice for hundreds of years. In pioneer times, when formal marriage was precluded by poverty or an unavailable officiant, the idea of common law marriage was born. Fifteen states currently recognize common law marriages (although a number of states specifically outlaw common law marriages). Common law marriages are usually defined by a couple’s prolonged cohabitation and presentation of themselves to others as a married couple. Common law marriage typically affords a couple all of the rights of marriage (including necessitating a divorce upon dissolution). It should also be noted that, although rarely enforced, seven states currently outlaw cohabitation of unmarried relationship partners.
As relationship freedom expands for men and women and the stigmas against cohabitation break down, more couples are opting to enter into unmarried cohabiting relationships. Cohabitation allows many of the once exclusive perks of marriage—convenience, increased time spent together, legitimized sex, financial savings—to couples who are not ready for, interested in, or are barred from marriage.
- Alternatives to Marriage Project. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.unmarried.org/statistics.html
- Brown, L., & Booth, A. (1996). Cohabitation versus marriage: A comparison of relationship quality. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58, 668–679.
- Center for Reproductive Law and Policy. (1997). Women of the world: Laws and policies affecting their reproductive lives: Latin America and the Caribbean. Available from http://www.crlp.org
- Kiernan, K. (2003). Cohabitation and divorce across nations and gener London: Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion. Retrieved from http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/ case/cp/CASEpaper65.pdf
- Laumann, O., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago.
- McGinnis, L. (2003). Cohabitation, dating, and perceived costs of marriage: A model of marriage entry. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 105–116.
- Murstein, B. I. (1986). Paths to marriage. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Smock, P. (2000). Cohabitation in the United States: An appraisal of research themes, findings, and implications. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 1–20.
- Spanier, G. B. (1983). Married and unmarried cohabitation in the United States: 1980. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 45, 277–288.
- S. Census Bureau. (2000). Current population reports: America’s families and living arrangements. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam.html