Cohabitation and its Effect on Marital Stability in the US
Unmarried heterosexual cohabitation has increased sharply in the recent years in the United States. It has in fact become so prevalent that the majority of marriages and remarriages now begin as cohabiting relationships, and most young men and women cohabit at some point in their lives. It has become quite clear that understanding and incorporating cohabitation into sociological analyses and thinking, is crucial for evaluating family patterns, people’s lifestyles, children’s wellbeing and social changes more broadly. This essay presents some common explanation for cohabitation’s dramatic rise and identifies some analytic questions as to how cohabitation is increasingly a major barrier in the marital stability in the United States.
Cohabitation, over the last two decades has gone from being a relatively uncommon social phenomenon to a commonplace one and has achieved this prominence quite quickly. A few sets of numbers convey both the change and its rapidity. The percentage of marriages preceded by cohabitation rose from about 10% for those marrying between 1965 and 1974 to over 50% for those marrying between 1990 and 1994 (Bumpass and Lu 1999, Bumpass & Sweet 1989); the percentage is even higher for remarriages. Secondly, the percentage of women in their late 30s who report having cohabited at least once rose from 30% in 1987 to 48% in 1995. Given a mere eight year tome window, this is a striking increase. Finally, the proportion of all first unions (including both marriages and cohabitation) that begin as cohabitations rose from 46% for unions formed between 1980 and 1984 to almost 60% for those formed between 1990 and 1994 (Bumpass and Lu 1999).
Various aspects of long-term social change can be used to explain the above figures. Some aspects may be labeled cultural. Rising individualism and secularism are reflected prominently in this category. The former refers to the increasing importance of individual goal attainment over the past few centuries and the latter to the decline in religious adherence and involvement. A second set of factors may be marked as economic. This set ranges from broad conceptualizations of the massive social changes created by industrialization (Goode 1963) to narrower ones focusing on women’s changing roles in the labor market commitment shifts in values and attitudes about gender roles. More proximate and direct sources of cohabitation’s rise are also recognized; an important one being the “sexual revolution”. This revolution destroyed the main grounds for earlier disapproval of cohabitation (that unmarried persons were having sexual relations). Once this stigma was removed, cohabitation was free to escalate.
One other very important idea is that of the “feedback loops”, which are particularly important for understanding recent trends in family patterns (Bumpass 1990, Rindfuss & VandenHeuvel 1990). The idea is straightforward; the various...