Prelude to Marriage, or Alternative to Marriage? A Social Demographic Look at Cohabitation in the U.S.

Posted: 5 Jun 2001

See all articles by Renata Forste

Renata Forste

Brigham Young University - Department of Sociology


As a family form, cohabitation in the U.S. is relatively recent. Research on cohabitation in the social sciences is also relatively new, beginning largely in 1988 with the National Survey of Families and Households. Since the early 1980s, cohabitation rates have increased in the U.S., as has a growing body of research on this family form. This paper summarizes the primary social science research since the 1990s and provides a social demographic look at current cohabitation patterns in the U.S. Census estimates indicate that in 1977 there were 1.1 million cohabiting couples, about 1.5% of all households in the U.S. Twenty years later in 1997, the number of cohabiting households had grown to 4.9 million couples or 4.8% of all households. Demographic studies indicate that this increase in cohabitation has occurred across all education levels and race and ethnic groups. Cohabitation is now found in almost all segments of American society. Although more couples are cohabiting than in the past, cohabitation still remains a relatively short-lived family form. Most cohabiting couples marry or separate within two years. For those with plans to marry, cohabitation is an extension of the courtship process ? a prelude to marriage. More than half of first unions formed in the U.S. are now preceded by cohabitation. Some research suggests that cohabiting couples with plans to marry are similar to married couples in terms of the quality of their relationship. However, divorce rates are still higher for couples cohabiting prior to marriage than for couples that marry without cohabitation. Demographic studies estimate that almost half of cohabiting households have children and that cohabiting couples comprise about one fourth of all stepfamilies. Thus, cohabitation as a family form influences not only the adult couple, but in many cases, also the well-being of children. Children in cohabiting households are generally economically better off than children in single, female-headed households, however, they have much higher poverty rates than children in married families. Cohabiting couples account for much of the increase in nonmarital childbearing in the U.S., however this varies by race and ethnicity. A lack of permanence and commitment between partners are primary features distinguishing cohabitation from marriage. Several studies have concluded that cohabitation is selective of individuals with a lower commitment to the institution of marriage and who are more accepting of divorce. In addition, cohabitors are less religious than those who marry and express a stronger sense of individualism. Cohabiting couples report more violence than married couples, and cohabitors are less sexually exclusive then married partners. For many couples cohabitation provides an alternative to marriage. These cohabiting unions take various forms depending on economic well-being and ethnicity. Many couples choose cohabitation over marriage because they lack economic stability. Among the less educated and those with low-incomes, cohabitation is generally a substitute for the long-term commitment of formal marriage. Cohabitation, however, has also increased among the more educated. In particular women who highly value their careers and men who value leisure are more likely to cohabit than their counterparts. Studies indicate that couples in these types of cohabiting unions emphasize equality between partners especially in terms of income. Thus, cohabiting couples are more likely to embrace egalitarian individualism, as opposed to married couples that tend to emphasize collectivism and specialization.

Suggested Citation

Forste, Renata, Prelude to Marriage, or Alternative to Marriage? A Social Demographic Look at Cohabitation in the U.S.. Available at SSRN:

Renata Forste (Contact Author)

Brigham Young University - Department of Sociology ( email )

Provo, UT 84602
United States

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