This study contributes to the understanding of the low level of non-marital cohabitation in Poland at the beginning of the XXI century. We employ an interpretative analysis of semi-structured interviews in order to capture the meanings and attitudes associated to non-marital cohabitation by a selected sample of young Poles. The results indicate that although cohabitation has begun to be interpreted as a testing period leading to marriage, attitudes towards it are still very ambiguous. The idealization of marital commitment hinders the spread of informal unions. Understanding the determinants of low cohabitation in Poland enables us to advance grounded hypotheses on its evolution in the near future and, more generally, to illustrate the ways in which local cultures influence the diffusion of behaviors.
Ever since the 1970s, consensual unions have become an increasingly attractive option for young people in many European countries. Before then, marriage was universal and took place at a relatively young age. Non-marital cohabitation3 was limited to marginal sections of society, with informal unions having been a more likely form of living arrangement among people belonging to the lower strata of society (Trost 1978, Villeneuve-Gokalp 1991). Suffice it to mention widows who did not want to lose their pensions (Nazio and Blossfeld 2003) or separated individuals who were not able to remarry for legal or religious reasons (Haskey 2001). Only in a few cases did non-married cohabitants belong to some avant-garde groups formed in opposition to the establishment, whether identified with the Church or more general with social norms (Lesthaeghe 1995). Preceding the 1960s, though, these groups had been marginal (Kiernan 2002).
The picture has changed in recent years, however. More and more frequently, individuals enter cohabitation at early ages, and increasingly they remain unmarried for the rest of their lives.
The spread of non-marital unions has occurred at different pace across Europe (Carmichael 1995, Kiernan 2000, 2002, Nazio and Blossfeld 2003). In the Nordic countries, such as Sweden and Denmark, consensual unions are currently as common as marital unions. In the Mediterranean region (Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain), by contrast, the share of cohabitations is substantially lower. Nevertheless, in recent years Southern Europe has witnessed a growth in the number of consensual unions faster than ever before, and demographers now openly discuss whether or not we see an extension of the Nordic Model to the southern European region (e.g., see Rosina 2004, Rosina, Fraboni 2004).
The evolution of cohabitation in Poland, a country that records one of the lowest levels of cohabitation in Europe, is even less clear. According to National Census data, informal unions accounted for 1.3% of all cohabiting unions in 1988; this compares to 1.7% in 1995, a figure that has climbed to a mere 2.2% in 2002 (Slany 2002). The absolute figures still are very low, and although the cohabitation rate has doubled within 14 years, this is not a remarkable development compared to the rapid diffusion of this type of union elsewhere. If we consider cohabitation in Sweden of the 1960s, we observe that in a comparable time period of 14 years, the share of informal unions climbed from 1% in 1960 to 12% in 1974 (Kwak 2005).
A simple reading of these trends suggests that in Poland, couples who want to live together also want to marry beforehand, and they seem to adopt alternative living arrangements only very reluctantly. Why do they do so? The question calls for an investigation of a relatively unexplored domain: the cultural meaning of cohabitation and marriage in Poland. This paper breaks the path focusing on the meanings and the attitudes related to cohabitation among young Poles living in the capital city of Warsaw. Meanings and attitudes associated to marriage and cohabitation are in constant dialogical tension, and they can hardly be defined independently from each other. …