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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.
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 USA roughly half of all cohabiting unions end within the first year. In contrast, only about 1 in 10 lasts 5 or more years. 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.
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, D. L. & Lichter, D. (2000) Mate selection among married and cohabiting couples. Journal of Family Issues 21: 275—302.
- Sassler, (2004) The process of entering into cohabiting unions. Journal of Marriage and Family 66: 491—505.
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