Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Entry into Parenthood and the Outcome of Cohabiting Partnerships in Britain

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Entry into Parenthood and the Outcome of Cohabiting Partnerships in Britain

Article excerpt

Data from a national cohort study of men and women born in Britain in 1958 are used to examine factors influencing the outcome of cohabiting first partnerships. Conception is found to be a key factor promoting marriage for both men and women. Observed gender differences in the estimated impact of children on partnership stability are likely due to the incomplete reporting of past fertility among men. Social class and educational differentials in the likelihood of female cohabitors experiencing a conception, and their likelihood of subsequent marriage, suggest that the role of cohabitation varies according to socioeconomic background.

Key Words: birth cohort, cohabitation, partnership dissolution, premarital conception.

In this article, I offer new insight into the role of cohabitation as experienced by a British cohort that was entering their first partnerships during the late 1970s and 1980s. I identify the sociodemographic factors that influence the probability of separation, or the translation of cohabitation into marriage. By analyzing these relationships for both men and women, I move beyond studies that have focused solely on the experience of female respondents. After establishing that conception is a key factor promoting marriage among cohabitors, I model the antecedents of becoming pregnant while cohabiting and the subsequent outcome as either a marital or cohabiting birth.

Cohabitation among never-married men and women began to increase in Britain during the mid-1970s. Childbearing within cohabitation increased significantly during the 1980s, contributing to the one third of all births that now occur outside of wedlock (Office for National Statistics [ONS], 1998). Legislative changes have acknowledged these trends and have started to use parenthood rather than marriage as the mechanism through which legal rights and responsibilities are obtained (Kiernan & Estaugh, 1993). Nevertheless, contrary to popular understanding of the present law (Barlow, 1999), unmarried fathers still do not automatically obtain "parental responsibility"-the rights, powers, authority, and duties of a parent toward their child. Current debate in Britain considers these and other inconsistencies in the legal position of cohabiting and married couples and the implications of changes in patterns of partnership formation and dissolution for the well-being of children. In its recent consultation paper, the New Labour Government referred to the instability of cohabiting partnerships as a reason for supporting formal marriage, suggesting that "marriage does provide a strong foundation for stability for the care of the children" (Supporting Families, 1998, p. 31).

It is surprising, then, to learn how little is known about the family background and current life course factors influencing the outcome of partnerships in Britain or how parenthood might encourage marriage or affect partnership stability. In this article, I present new longitudinal evidence from a national study of men and women born in Britain in 1958. The relevance of their experience to today's cohabitors is unclear, although data from the British Household Panel Survey would suggest that, unlike some other developed countries, the proportion of cohabitors who ultimately marry has remained fairly constant over time (Ermisch & Francesconi, 1998).

The experience of the 1958 British birth cohort was similar to that found for comparable birth cohorts in the United States, where 60% of first cohabitations begun between 1975 and 1984 were seen to translate into marriage within 10 years (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989). In contrast, cohabitation in many European countries, especially the Scandinavian countries, was more long lasting. In Sweden, more than 80% of those born in 1959 cohabited with their first partner. After 10 years only 40% of unions had converted into marriage (Granstrom, 1997). In some European countries, the permanence of cohabiting partnerships has increased dramatically. …

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