Living Together in Australia: Qualitative Insights into a Complex Phenomenon

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This paper mines data from in-depth interviews on family formation with 115 women, men and couples of family-forming age in eastern Australia to examine aspects of the complex phenomenon of living together unmarried. Sixty-five percent of interviews yielded evidence of one or more such relationships entered over approximately a 20-year period. Informants had rarely made considered 'decisions' to cohabit. Moving in had rather 'just happened', often after couples were 'sort of' living together anyway through regularly staying over with one another. What tended to be transitions rather than datable events were widely perceived to be 'natural progressions', and motives for them were typically more pragmatic than emotional. The notion of cohabitation as trial marriage did not resonate widely among cohabiters, but did appear to have aided increasing parental acceptance of the lifestyle. Non-cohabiters mostly cited religious beliefs, a desire not to offend parents or a view that by marrying directly they had shown greater commitment as reasons for not having lived together. Youthful entry to cohabiting relationships seems frequently to presage their dissolution as 'growing up' relationships in a climate that increasingly eschews serious family formation until some years later in life. Transitions to marriage, which remains a highly symbolic act of commitment despite being seen in some quarters as irrelevant, have a variety of triggers. Prominent among them are decisions to have children (notwithstanding widespread childbearing within cohabiting unions) and the age-old prerogative of a male to propose marriage as the mood takes him.

Keywords: cohabitation; living together; complexity; pragmatism; parental influence; alternative to marriage; relationship dissolution; transition to marriage

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As they have in other developed countries, couples who live together unmarried have become a common feature of the social landscape in Australia since the late 1960s (Carmichael 1995; Carmichael & Mason 1998; Kiernan 2004). An account of the battery of interlocking demographic trends over this period of which this one has been a part can be found in Carmichael (1998). There was initially in Australia a tendency to brand all cohabiting relationships 'de facto marriages', and internationally demographers, preoccupied with using event history techniques, have been apt to accord entries into them marriage-like status by combining them with so-called 'direct marriages' under the rubric 'union formation'. To do either thing, though, loses sight of the complexity of a phenomenon that has:

   Captured in significant measure not only traditional
   engagement and what might otherwise
   have been the early years of marriage (and
   in some instances the whole of marriage), but
   also earlier, less committed stages of the dating
   and courtship process. (Carmichael 1995: 78)

Undeniably many couples move in together these days ('form unions') when they would not contemplate marriage. Their relationships are 'going steady' or 'boyfriend-girlfriend' in nature, with comparable propensities to founder. In Australia living together has become integral to the marriage process for all but Mediterranean and Asian birthplace groups and the strongly religious (McDonald 2003); in 2005, 74% of first marriages followed cohabitation with the spouse (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006). By the same token, however, first cohabiting unions have over time become less likely to result in marriage and more likely to dissolve (Qu & Weston 2001; McDonald 2003), suggesting wider experience of multiple living together relationships before marriage. Moreover, whereas in the 1960s and 1970s 40% of couples cohabiting before marriage did so for 6 months or less and just 5% for 3 years or more, by the late 1990s these figures had respectively fallen to 12% and risen beyond 30% (de Vans, Qu & Weston 2003). …