Changes in Conjugal Life in Canada: Is Cohabitation Progressively Replacing Marriage?

Article excerpt

This article aims first to contrast the trends of marriage and cohabitation across different regions in Canada, and second, to assess whether cohabitation constitutes a new stage in the progression to marriage, or an alternative to marriage altogether. Based on various empirical demographic indicators, the analysis shows profound differences across the country. In Quebec, cohabiting unions are now widely accepted as forming the basis for family life, whereas they still largely constitute a childless prelude to marriage elsewhere in Canada. The authors discuss the role of different religious and cultural backgrounds, and of recent changes in the relationships between men and women, in accounting for the divergent evolution observed.

Key Words: Canada, cohabitation, marriage, nonmarital births, partnership transition, union instability.

In the last 30 years, most Western countries have witnessed formidable changes in the foundation of the family institution. Demographic indicators point to a postponement of marriage and to a decline in the proportion of individuals who are likely to marry during their lifetime. Marriage has also been characterized by growing levels of instability, with divorce rates showing that it is not that uncommon among these countries to find that one marriage out of two is likely to dissolve. The dramatic increase in cohabiting unions over the last 30 years-first as a way for young adults to start their conjugal life, and more recently, as an environment in which to start and raise a family-further led researchers to question the "future of marriage" (title of Jessie Bernard's well-known book, and the theme of the 2003 National Council on Family Relations [NCFR] annual conference). Currently, the recognition of same-sex marriage has prompted debates about the meaning of marriage. How has the institution of marriage changed in recent decades, and how do these changes vary across cultures and across countries? These are some of the questions that were raised at the 2003 NCFR conference.

One of the ways to document the weakening of marriage and its change in meaning is to look more closely at the progression of cohabitation over time. This was the focus of the plenary session, "Cohabitation and Marriage in Western Countries," in which we were invited to present a paper. More specifically, we were asked first to describe the demographic trends of marriage and cohabitation in Canada, and second, to assess whether cohabitation constitutes a new stage in the progression to marriage or an alternative to marriage altogether. After addressing these issues, we close by discussing possible explanations underlying the observed changes. By contrasting the evolution of demographic behaviors adopted across the different regions in Canada, we show that cohabitation has reached different stages of development in Quebec as opposed to elsewhere in Canada, as formulated by Kiernan (2001). In the former, cohabitation seems now to be nearly indistinguishable from marriage, as it is in Sweden, whereas in the latter, cohabitation is still accepted predominantly as a childless phase of conjugal life, as is the case in the United States.


Profound changes have transformed the conjugal life of Canadians in recent decades. Figure 1 presents the evolution of total female marriage rates, calculated by combining marriage vital statistics and census population counts, and exemplifies the fall of marriage over the last 30 years. These rates show the proportions of women within synthetic cohorts who would marry at least once if the behaviors observed in any given year were to last.

As can be seen in Figure 1, marriage was still very popular throughout the 1960s; more than 9 women out of 10 would marry over the course of their life. In the mid-1970s, marriage started to lose ground progressively, and by the turn of the century, just slightly over half of women were expected to marry in Canada. …


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