Premarital Cohabitation and Housework: Couples in Cross-National Perspective

Article excerpt

The authors examine the effect of premarital cohabitation on the division of household labor in 22 countries. First, women do more routine housework than men in all countries. Second, married couples that cohabited before marriage have a more equal division of housework. Third, national cohabitation rates have equalizing effects on couples regardless of their own cohabitation experience. However, the influence of cohabitation rates is only observed in countries with higher levels of overall gender equality. The authors conclude that the trend toward increasing cohabitation may be part of a broader social trend toward a more egalitarian division of housework.

Key Words: cohabitation, cross-national comparisons, division of labor, gender, housework.

Since the beginning of the 1970s, social changes have led to a remarkable diversity of living arrangements emerging in different countries at various speeds and intensities. The increase in cohabitation was one of them, promoting sociological and demographic research devoted to explaining the meaning, patterns, and implications of cohabitation for gender equality and for family and kinship systems in general (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983; Bumpass & Lu, 1999; Gupta, 1999; Prinz, 1995; Seltzer, 2000; Smock, 2000; Wiersma, 1983).

Whether cohabitation is an alternative to marriage, a trial period for marriage, a dating type of relationship, or an alternative to being single is a matter of academic and often political contention (Casper & Sayer, 2000). According to Cherlin (1991, p. 14) there is no need to be concerned: For a majority of young Americans, cohabitation is not a lifelong alternative to a marital union "but rather a stage of intimacy that precedes (or sometimes follows) marriage." For other researchers, the proliferation of cohabitation, like increased women's labor force participation, presents a serious challenge to the marriage institution and the well-being of children (Popenoe, 1993; Waite & Gallagher, 2000). Lesthaeghe and Surkyn (1988) find that cohabitation may be an attractive option for those who share liberal gender attitudes. In fact, several studies find that those who choose to cohabit are on average more liberal, less religious, and more supportive of egalitarian gender relations and nontraditional family roles (Clarkberg, Stolzenberg, & Waite, 1995; Lye & Waldron, 1997; Thornton, Axinn, & Hill, 1992).

We focus on the implication of cohabitation for gender equality in married couples. In particular, we examine the effect of premarital cohabitation on the division of housework labor in married couples. Changing patterns of the household division of labor have been linked to changing attitudes and roles of women and men in the workplace, family and society (Bianchi, Milkie, Sayer, & Robinson, 2000). Brines and Joyner (1999) and Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) maintain that, unlike marital unions that are bound by joint utility maximization, cohabiting unions bond on egalitarian individualism. Cohabitors are less likely than married people to adhere to traditional gender ideology (Lesthaeghe & Surkyn, 1988) and tend to value more individual freedom within marriage (Thomson & Colella, 1992). We thus may expect that living in a premarital union increases the likelihood of adopting a more egalitarian division of labor after cohabitors marry.

Despite the considerable attention paid to housework in cohabiting and married couples, however, there has been little research comparing married couples that did and did not cohabit before marriage (Gupta, 1999). Comparing cohabiting couples with married couples (e.g., South & Spitze, 1994) may not reveal the effect of the cohabitation experience on subsequent marriages. Therefore, our first goal is to explore the premarital cohabiting experience in relation to the gender equality of task sharing in married couples.

In addition, the relationship between housework and cohabitation across countries is relatively unexplored. …