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Cause and Effects of the Rise in Cohabitation

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Published: Thu, 11 Jan 2018

Recent decades have witnessed a dramatic rise in cohabitation in much of Western Europe including the United Kingdom (Ermisch 2005; Ermisch and Francesconi 2000a; Haskey 2001; Kiernan 2001; Murphy 2000). This rise has taken place against a dramatic decline in marriage rates. A so-called “golden age” of marriage that prevailed in the United Kingdom from the 1950s up to the 1970s (Festy, 1980), has been eroded. Marriage is no longer the exclusive marker of first union nor the pre-eminent context within which children are born; (Kiernan, 2001). The decline in the popularity of marriage indicates that ‘no longer is marriage seen as the only organizing principle for relationships’ (Hall, 1993: 8) and therefore legal marriage has ‘given way to a variety of optional non-traditional forms of ”living together” (Boh, 1989: This essay will seek to examine whether the rise in cohabitation will witness a decline in marriage to a point where marriage is a rare phenomenon. This will entail an analysis of statistical evidence on both cohabitation and marriage and the explanations that have been provided. These include notions of selfish individualism (Morgan, 2000), notions of the democratic, consensual and “pure” relationship (Giddens, 1992; Beck-Gernsheim, 2000), Becker’s (1973, 1981) model of marriage, the common-law marriage myth, commitment in cohabiting partnerships, and the use of ‘lived law’ to create a DIY variety of marriage (Duncan et. al. 2005).

The 1960s and the early 1970s was a golden age of marriage in the United Kingdom during which marriage was highly popular among the young ages (Kiernan & Eldridge 1987) and a record peak of 480,285 marriages was recorded in 1972 (ONS, 2008). However, since the 1970s there have been considerable changes amounting to a structural shift in individuals’ demographic behaviour and societal norms (Haskey, 2001) and among these are increases in divorce and in cohabitation, that is, in couples who live together in intimate relationships without being legally married. Similarly, Ferri et al. (2003) have documented several demographic changes which led social commentators to lament the ‘end of marriage’. These include significant rises in cohabitation, divorce, lone parent families, single parent households, children born out of marriage and age of marriage.  These changes, it was assumed, led to the disintegration of traditional structures and codes and ultimately to the end of marriage.

Statistical evidence indeed shows that there has been a long-term decline in marriage rates and a significant rise in cohabitation. From 1971 to 1995 first marriage rates fell by 90% for teenage women and 80% for women aged 20-24. Median age at first marriage rose from 23.4 to 27.9 yrs for men and 21.4 to 26.0 years for women (Murphy and Wang 1999). The decline in remarriage rates has been even more pronounced. For divorced men, the remarriage rate has fallen by 75% since 1971 (Murphy and Wang 1999). There were 311,000 marriages in the UK in 2004 and this figure fell to 270,000 in 2007. This represents almost half the number of marriages that took place in 1972 when marriage peaked (ONS 2009).

On the other hand, cohabiting is the fastest growing family type in the UK (with the proportion of cohabiting couple families increasing from 9% to 14% between 1996 and 2006), (ONS, 2009). Among single women marrying during the latter part of the 1990s, 77% had cohabited with their future husband, compared with 33% of those marrying during the late 1970s, and only 6% of those marrying in the late 1960s (Haskey 2001). During the 1960s, 40% of remarriages were preceded by a period of cohabitation; and this figured had soared to around 85% in 2000. (Murphy 2000). The 2001 Census recorded just over 2 million cohabiting couples in England and Wales (a 67% increase from 1991). When the new form of cohabitation arrived in the 1970s it was mainly a child-free prelude to marriage. Increasingly, children are being born to cohabiting couples. In 2006, 56% of births in England and Wales were outside of marriage compared with 8% in 19z71. (ONS, 2009). Between 1996 and 2006, the number of cohabiting couples in the UK increased by over 60%, from 1.4 million to 2.3 million, ONS, 2009). The number of cohabiting couples in England and Wales is projected to almost double to 3.8 million by 2031 (which will be over one in four couples on this projection). (ONS, 2009).

Social theorists have conceptualized these trends in terms of individualization theory. The theory which includes notions of the democratic, consensual and “pure” relationship (Giddens, 1992; Beck-Gernsheim, 2000) and notions of selfish individualism (Morgan, 2000), has emerged as the dominant contested theoretical approach in explaining whether the rise in cohabitation means ‘the end of marriage.’ According to the former, modern society is viewed as having entered a ‘late modern’ epoch of ‘de-traditionalisation’ and ‘individualisation’ in which traditional rules and institutional frameworks have lost ground, only to be replaced by more modern and rational rules (Beck, 1992 and Giddens, 1992, 1994). Institutional forces such as education, the modern economy and the welfare state have freed individuals from externally imposed constraints, moral codes and traditional customs, a development which Beck (1994) says is a disembedding of individual lives from the structural fabric of social institutions and age-specific norms.

According to Brannen and Nilsen (2005), social class no longer has the same structuring role that it once had.  Individuals who used to have a standard biography no longer have pre-given life trajectories but are instead compelled to reflexively make their own choices and hence create their own biographies. At the same time, the ‘project of self’, with an emphasis on individual self-fulfillment and personal development, comes to replace relational, social aims. This results in ‘families of choice’ which are diverse, fluid and unresolved, constantly chosen and re-chosen (Weeks 2001) and which Hardill, (2002) refer to as the ‘postmodern household’. In ‘families of choice’ all issues are subject to negotiation and decision making (Beck and Beck- Gernsheim1995, Beck-Gernsheim 2002). Individuals are seen as preferring cohabitation to marriage because they wish to keep their options and their negotiations open ( Wu, 2000).

The individualisation theory sees modern relationships as being based on individual fulfillment and consensual love, with sexual and emotional equality, replacing formal unions based on socially prescribed gender roles. Sexuality is largely freed from institutional, normative and patriarchal control as well as from reproduction, producing a ‘plastic sexuality’, which serves more as means of self-expression and selfactualisation rather than as a means to reproduction and cementing institutionalized partnership (Giddens, 1992). Giddens argues that that such plastic sexuality as part of the ‘project of self’ is realized in ‘pure relationships’ an ‘ideal type’ that isolates what is most characteristic for intimacy in reflexive modernity, ‘Giddens (1991, 1992).  This is ‘pure’ because it is entered into for its own sake and for the satisfaction it provides to the individuals involved. The pure relationship must therefore be characterized by openness, involvement, reciprocity and closeness, and it presupposes emotional and sexual democracy and equality, ‘Giddens (1991, 1992). According to Cherlin (2004:853), the pure relationship is not tied to an institution such as marriage or the desire to raise children. Rather, it is ‘free-floating’, independent of social institutions or economic life’.

The individualisation theory asserts that these changes in relationships contribute towards the ‘decentring’ of the married, co-resident, heterosexual couple. It no longer occupies the centre-ground statistically, normatively, or as a way of life (Beck-Gernsheim, 2002; Roseneil and Budgeon, 2004). Instead other forms of living such as cohabitation, living alone, lone parenting, same-sex partnerships, or ‘living apart ‘ have become more common and are both experienced and perceived as equally valid.

However, most English-speaking commentators (e.g. Morgan, 1995, 2000, 2003; Bellah et al., 1985; Popenoe, 1993; Dnes and Rowthorne, 2002) have developed a pessimistic view of family change. In cohabitation they have seen a moral decline and its harmful effects on society, a loss of family values, individual alienation, social breakdown, rise in crime and other social ills and social, emotional and educational damage to children. For them, the trend in statistics is clear evidence of selfish individualism and have thus advocated for ‘turning the clock back’ by promoting marriage among other things. Morgan (1995) for instance, argues that without the traditional family to socialize children and in particular to provide role models and discipline for young men, delinquency and crime will escalate and society as a whole will be at risk. To avoid this social policy should seek positively to support marriage and promote traditional gender roles for men and women. According to Morgan (2003), cohabiting relationships are fragile. They are always more likely to break up than marriages entered into at the same time, regardless of age or income. On average, cohabitations last less than two years before breaking up or converting to marriage. Less than four per cent of cohabitations last for ten years or more. She also believes that cohabitation should be seen primarily as a prelude to marriage but increasingly it is part of a pattern which simply reflects an ‘increase in sexual partners and partner change’ (Morgan, 2003:127). Morgan (1999) also argues that cohabitation is concentrated among the less educated, less skilled and the unemployed.

The individualization theory in its various versions, has been seen as having its merit in terms of indicating trends in post-modern societies, but has been criticized for lacking reliable methodologies and for lacking empirical and historical evidence. According to Thernborn (2004), individualisation theory should be seen as a geographically and historically limited exaggeration among the variety and long durées of socio-sexual systems. Individualisation theory is seen as largely resting on the evidence of qualitative work using purposive samples of particular social groups in particular contexts and localities. They do not often use representative samples or total population figures which can accurately portray overall social patterns. According to Sayer (1992) individualization theorists have used ‘intensive’ research design which are indeed in-depth and able to access social process more directly, and understand its context but points out that such work needs to be complemented by ‘extensive’ research on patterns and distributions, using representative survey for example. Duncan and Edwards (1999) share the same view that the use of both intensive and extensive research designs will enable generalizations to be made. In addition intensive work will enable better interpretation of the representative patterns revealed by extensive work and to link process to pattern directly rather than depending upon post-hoc deduction, (Duncan and Edwards 1999).

Critics of the individualisation theory have argued that the theory underplays the significance of the social and geographical patterning of values and behaviour and neglects the importance of local cultural and social contexts. According to Duncan and Irwin structures of economic necessity, social groups and moral codes have not gone away, although they may have changed. Family forms are still deeply influenced by local structural conditions or contexts and although people might be less constrained by older traditions, this does not necessarily mean individualisation. The ‘traditional’ structures of class, gender, religion and so on have a continuing importance, (Duncan and Irwin, 2004, 2005).

Individualisation theory assumes that individuals can exercise choice and shape their lives. However, the theory has been criticized for taking insufficient account of the context in which individuals make their choices. Critics of individualisation have pointed out, people’s capacity to make choices, for example in respect of separation and divorce, must depend in large measure on their environment, whether for example, on the constraints of poverty, social class and gender, or, more positively, on the safety net provided by the welfare state (Lasch, 1994; Lewis, 2001a). In addition, the context in which people are making their choices is constantly shifting. Thus the meaning of what it is to be married, or to be a parent has changed and continues to change. Actors will in all likelihood be affected by these changes over their own life course and must expect to have to re-visit the decisions they have made, for example in respect of the division of paid and unpaid work, especially at critical points of transition such as parenthood. Charles and Harris (2004) have argued that choices regarding work/life balance are different at different states of the lifecycle.

The individualization theory in its various versions, has been seen as having its merit in terms of indicating trends in post-modern societies, but has been criticized for lacking reliable methodologies and for lacking empirical and historical evidence. According to Thernborn (2004), individualisation theory should be seen as a geographically and historically limited exaggeration among the variety and long durées of socio-sexual systems. Individualisation theory is seen as largely resting on the evidence of qualitative work using purposive samples of particular social groups in particular contexts and localities. They do not often use representative samples or total population figures which can accurately portray overall social patterns. According to Sayer (1992) individualization theorists have used ‘intensive’ research design which are indeed in-depth and able to access social process more directly, and understand its context but points out that such work needs to be complemented by ‘extensive’ research on patterns and distributions, using representative survey for example. Duncan and Edwards (1999) share the same view that the use of both intensive and extensive research designs will enable generalizations to be made. In addition intensive work will enable better interpretation of the representative patterns revealed by extensive work and to link process to pattern directly rather than depending upon post-hoc deduction, (Duncan and Edwards 1999).

Critics of the individualisation theory have argued that the theory underplays the significance of the social and geographical patterning of values and behaviour and neglects the importance of local cultural and social contexts. According to Duncan and Irwin structures of economic necessity, social groups and moral codes have not gone away, although they may have changed. Family forms are still deeply influenced by local structural conditions or contexts and although people might be less constrained by older traditions, this does not necessarily mean individualisation. The ‘traditional’ structures of class, gender, religion and so on have a continuing importance, (Duncan and Irwin, 2004, 2005).

Individualisation theory assumes that individuals can exercise choice and shape their lives. However, the theory has been criticized for taking insufficient account of the context in which individuals make their choices. Critics of individualisation have pointed out, people’s capacity to make choices must depend in large measure on their environment, whether for example, on the constraints of poverty, social class and gender, or, more positively, on the safety net provided by the welfare state (Lasch, 1994; Lewis, 2001a). According to Lupton and Tulloch, (2002), people’s choices may depend in part on the consideration they give to the welfare of others, and on how far others influence the way in which they frame their choices. In addition, the context in which people are making their choices is constantly shifting. Thus the meaning of what it is to be married, or to be a parent has changed and continues to change. Charles and Harris (2004) have argued that choices regarding work/life balance are different at different states of the lifecycle.

Scholars have examined public attitudes towards marriage and cohabitation in order to assess whether the trends in statistics confirm the deinstitutionalisation of marriage (Cherlin, 1994), in which an increase in the acceptability of cohabitation can be interpreted as evidence for weakening of the social norms.

Using data from a number of British Social Attitude Surveys, Barlow et. al. found clear evidence of changing public attitudes. More and more people in the United Kingdom were accepting cohabitation both as a partnering and parenting structure, regardless of whether it is undertaken as a prelude or alternative to marriage. In 1994, 70 per cent agreed that ‘People who want children ought to get married’, but by 2000 almost half (54 per cent) thought that there was no need to get married in order to have children; cohabitation was good enough. They found increasingly liberal attitudes to pre-marital sex, with the proportion thinking that it was ‘not wrong at all’ increasing from 42 per cent in 1984 to 62 per cent in 2000. By 2000 more than two-thirds of respondents (67 per cent) agreed it was ‘all right for a couple to live together without intending to get married’, and 56 per cent thought it was ‘a good idea for a couple who intend to get married to live together first’.

Studies by Dyer (1999) and Barlow et al. (2005) found there was a clear difference in attitudes towards cohabitation from young and old generations, indicating a shift in social viewpoint to an acceptance of cohabitation. The younger age groups were more likely to find cohabitation acceptable than older age groups, but all age groups had moved some way towards greater acceptance of pre-marital sex and cohabitation. Barlow et al. argue that over time there is a strong likelihood that society will become more liberal still on these matters, although particular groups, such as the religious, are likely to remain more traditional than the rest. This change in public attitude is echoed by former Home Secretary, Jack Straw who was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying ‘the important thing is the quality of the relationship, not the institution itself’ (Daily Mail, 16th June, 1999). This acceptance in politics as well as in society is probably one reason why people drift into cohabitation. Barlow et a!. suggest Britain will ‘probably move towards a Scandinavian pattern, therefore, where long- term cohabitation is widely seen as quite normal, and where marriage is more of a lifestyle choice than an expected part of life’.

Barlow et al, however, do not interpret the public attitudes to indicate the breakdown or ‘end of marriage’ as a respected institution. In the 2000 survey, 59 per cent agreed that ‘marriage is still the best kind of relationship’. A mere 9 per cent agreed that ‘there is no point getting married – it is only a piece of paper’, while 73 per cent disagreed. Despite the increasing acceptance of cohabitation, Barlow et al. therefore argue that, ‘overall, marriage is still widely valued as an ideal, but that it is regarded with much more ambivalence when it comes to everyday partnering and  parenting’. While only 28 per cent agree that married couples make better parents, just 40 per cent disagree – figures virtually unchanged since 2000, (Barlow et al, 2005)

According to Barlow et al. (2005), there is a body of  qualitative research that shows that for many cohabitants, living together is seen as a form of marriage rather than an alternative. Moreover, just as the majority think that sex outside marriage is wrong, the same applies to sex outside cohabitation: the large majority of cohabitants, over 80 per cent, think that sex outside a cohabiting relationship is wrong, (Erens et al., 2003). These findings give little support to the notion that many people cohabit outside marriage because cohabitation is more congruent with a project of the self, as individualisation theory would have it (Hall, 1996). Instead research seems to indicate that many traditional norms about relationships still hold true and cohabitation is seen as the equivalent of marriage. According to Barlow et al, (2008), cohabitation is socially accepted as equivalent to marriage and whilst marriage is seen as ideal, social attitudes show great tolerance to different styles of partnering and parenting relationships.


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