Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Process of Entering into Cohabiting Unions

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Process of Entering into Cohabiting Unions

Article excerpt

Over one half of young adults have lived or will live with a partner before marriage. Many studies indicate that the majority of cohabitors plan to marry their partners, yet research examining relationship progression is rare. This article deciphers the processes underlying entrance into informal unions. Data are from 25 open-ended interviews with cohabitors who had lived together for at least 3 months. For many, the relationship progressed rapidly; over one half moved in with partners within 6 months of initiating romantic relationships. Primary reasons for cohabiting included finances, convenience, and housing needs; cohabiting as a trial marriage was not mentioned as the principal reason for moving in together. Plans for marriage remain abstract even when respondents determine that they and their partners are compatible.

Key Words: cohabitation, living arrangements, relationships, union formation, young adult transitions.

Over the past few decades, the courtship process has changed dramatically. Among the most notable societal shifts is the growing prevalence and acceptance of cohabiting relationships-couples living together in intimate heterosexual unions without being married. Today, the majority of young adults approve of nonmarital cohabitation (Axinn & Thornton, 2000; Bumpass & Sweet, 1989; Thornton & Young-DeMarco, 2001). More than half of all young adults who were in their 20s and 30s in the 1990s had shared a home and a bed with an opposite sex partner without being married (Bumpass & Sweet, 1995). Further, the majority over one half) of all recent marriages were preceded by a period of cohabitation (Raley, 2000), and many more individuals lived with a partner without subsequently marrying him or her (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989; Bumpass, Sweet, & Cherlin, 1991; Raley, 2000). Even as cohabitation has become a normative step in the transition to adulthood, relatively little is known about how young adults decide to enter into cohabitation, when in their relationships such a transition occurs, and what such a step means to them.

Common portrayals of cohabitation, reinforced by quantitative research strategies, have frequently viewed cohabitation as a precursor to marriage. Many contemporary young adults indicate that living together is a good way to "try out" a relationship, and many intend to cohabit if they have not already (Bumpass et al., 1991; Thornton & Young-DeMarco, 2001). Studies focusing on cohabitors themselves also report that the majority have definite plans to wed their partners (Brown, 2000; Lichter, Batson, & Brown, 2004; Manning & Smock, 2002). These studies often convey the impression, perhaps mistakenly, that marriage is a clear goal for those entering cohabiting unions. Whether that is the view of cohabitors themselves is debatable, as this study will show.

Today's young adults have opportunities for education, employment, and intimate relationships that are far more abundant than were available to previous generations. The majority continue to expect marriage in their future (Thornton & Young-DeMarco, 2001). In a time of rapid social change-economic shifts, childhood experiences with family disruption, and questioning of gendered family roles-trial coresidential unions may be viewed as an increasingly important way of moderating the risks inherent in romantic relationships (Cancian, 1987; Clarkberg, Stolzenberg, & Waite, 1995; Raley, 2000). Many young people express the belief that living together will help them pick out a better life partner for marriage (Bumpass et al., 1991; Thornton & Young-DeMarco). The research reported here asks whether cohabitation serves such a purpose.

Notwithstanding repeated calls to pay more attention to the courtship process (Bolton, 1961; Smock & Manning, 2001; Surra, 1990), surprisingly little research has focused on the factors that individuals consider when deciding to live together. …

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