Academic journal article Family Relations

Class Differences in Cohabitation Processes

Academic journal article Family Relations

Class Differences in Cohabitation Processes

Article excerpt

Despite the burgeoning cohabitation literature, research has failed to examine social class variation in processes of forming and advancing such unions. Drawing upon in-depth interviews with 122 working- and middle-class cohabitors, we examine the duration between dating and moving in together, reasons for cohabiting, and subsequent plans. Transitions to cohabitation are more rapid among the working class. Respondents often cohabited for practical reasons-out of financial necessity, because it was convenient, or to meet a housing need. Regardless of social class status, few couples move in together as a "trial marriage." Nonetheless, middle-class cohabitors were more likely to have become engaged than their working-class counterparts. Our findings indicate the need to reassess common beliefs regarding the role served by cohabitation and suggest that cohabitation has become another location where family outcomes are diverging by social class.

Key Words: cohabitation, engagement, relationship tempo, social class, union formation, young adult transitions.

Over the past few decades there have been unprecedented changes in American's union formation patterns. Many young adults are deferring marriage and the majority have cohabited with a romantic partner by their late twenties (Chandra, Martinez, Mosher, Abma, & Jones, 2005; Schoen, Landale, & Daniels, 2007). In fact, cohabitation prior to marriage is now normative (Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008). Yet the function that cohabitation serves is poorly understood, in part because its role may differ by cohort, social class, or racial and ethnic group membership. Although cohabitation was once considered mainly a stage in the progression to marriage (Manning & Smock, 2002; Rindfuss & VandenHeuval, 1990), changes in the resolution of cohabiting unions and increases in the proportion of births to cohabiting couples suggest that its meaning may be shifting (Lichter, Qian, & Mellott, 2006; Mustek, 2007).

Even as cohabitation has become a normative step in the transition to adulthood, little attention has focused on class variation in young adults' likelihood of forming cohabiting unions, their reasons for doing so, when in their relationships such a transition occurs, and the consequences for subsequent union behavior. Cohabitation has become widespread across all social classes (Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008). Yet its increase has been greatest among those with a high school degree or some college. Between 1987 and 2002, the proportion of women with a high school degree who had ever cohabited increased 115%; among women with some college schooling (but no degree) the proportion grew by 93%. Growth in cohabitation among college-educated women was considerably smaller - only 45% (Chandra et al., 2005). Class differences in transitions from cohabitation to marriage also appear to be widening, with living together more likely to serve as a springboard to marriage for nonpoor women than for those who are disadvantaged (Lichter et al, 2006).

Research has begun to explore what meanings cohabitors assign to their living arrangements (Manning & Smock, 2005; Reed, 2006; Sassier, 2004), but to date these qualitative studies have not examined whether the processes underlying the formation and progression of cohabiting unions are similar across the social class spectrum. Our study addresses this gap, focusing on cohabiting couples where both partners generally share being moderately educated (having obtained either a high school degree or attended some college classes but not having completed a 4-year degree) or are highly educated (having at least a college degree). As of 2006, the moderately educated accounted for about 58% of the population aged 25 and older, whereas the highly educated comprised 28% of those in their mid-twenties or older (National Center for Education Statistics, 2009). We examine variation in the tempo of entrance into cohabiting unions, explore reasons cohabitors give for entering into shared living arrangements, and assess the extent to which future plans were discussed upon moving in together and subsequently, particularly those centered on engagement and marriage. …

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