Academic journal article Family Relations

Bound by Children: Intermittent Cohabitation and Living Together Apart

Academic journal article Family Relations

Bound by Children: Intermittent Cohabitation and Living Together Apart

Article excerpt

In this article, we examine variations in low-income mothers' patterns of intermittent cohabitation and the voluntary and involuntary nature of these unions. Intermittent cohabitation involves couples living together and separating in repeating cycles. Using Three-City Study ethnographic data, we identified 45 low-income mothers involved in these arrangements, 18 of whom resided with their children's fathers occasionally while saying that they were not in a cohabiting relationship. We term such relationships living together apart (LTA). Data analysis revealed that distinct patterns of voluntary and involuntary separations and reunifications characterized intermittent cohabitation and LTA and that these relationships were shaped by the bonds that shared parenting created and the economic needs of both parents. We argue that these dimensions may explain some disparate accounts of cohabitation status in low-income populations. They also demonstrate previously unexplored diversity in cohabiting relationships and suggest further questioning contemporary definitions of families.

Key Words: cohabitation, family diversity, homelessness and poverty, low-income families, men in families.

Women living in poverty have frequently exhibited intimate union patterns that fall outside of mainstream norms. In the United States, childbearing without marriage has historically been most common among lower income families (Cherlin, 2005), and cohabitation, though now common among all income groups (Sassier, 2010), was previously practiced primarily among the poor (Cherlin, 2008). Among middle-class families, cohabitation is usually part of a marriage trajectory, with a cohabiting relationship serving as a trial for marriage or as a precursor to the actual wedding (e.g., Lichter, Qian, & Mellott, 2006). Among lower income and minority women, however, cohabitation has sometimes served as a marriage alternative (Phillips & Sweeney, 2005) and has increasingly become an alternative to being single (Manning & Smock, 2005; Sassier & Miller, 2009). During the past few decades, marriage rates have declined substantially among lower income women, urban women, and African American women in particular, with the number of women in these groups who marry before age 30 falling far below national averages (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002; Gibson-Davis, 2011).

Research now indicates that there are not only higher rates of cohabitation among the poor, but also increasingly frequent variations in cohabitation patterns. Rates of nonmarital births continue to be highest among those with lower income and who are less educated (Cherlin, 2005), but women in their 20s, rather than their teens, now account for the majority of all nonmarital births (Ventura, 2009), and a majority of nonmarital births may be to cohabiting mothers (Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008). Multiple partner fertility has become more frequent (Carlson & Furstenburg, 2006). Lower income women are most likely to engage in serial cohabitations, in which they cohabit with more than one man in sequence without ever marrying (Cohen & Manning, 2010; Lichter, Turner, & Sassier, 2010). Unmarried parents are frequently cohabiting at the time of their child's birth, but the relationship often does not last beyond the child's first years (Parents' relationship status, 2007). Scholars, however, have noted that having a child together often creates lasting ties between parents whether or not they remain romantically involved (Edin & Kefalas, 2005; Roy, Buckmiller, & McDowell, 2008).

To a certain extent, these ongoing ties are legally mandated. Changes in the law that began in the later 1960s recognized parental rights and obligations outside of marriage. Before this era, men had no legal rights to their children unless they were married to the child's mother. Subsequently, men not only earned rights to visitation and custody (Mason, Fine, & Camochan, 2001), but were also charged with the obligation to financially support their children (Aberg, Small, & Watson, 1977). …

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