Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Role of Cohabitation in Family Formation: The United States in Comparative Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Role of Cohabitation in Family Formation: The United States in Comparative Perspective

Article excerpt

The prevalence of nonmarital cohabitation is steadily increasing in the United States. In evaluating the contribution of this new living arrangement to family formation, analysts have relied primarily on comparisons between individuals who cohabit and those who do not. We complement this line of inquiry by comparing the United States and 16 industrialized nations. We first identify six conceptually distinct ideal types of cohabitation with respect to family formation. We then propose empirical indicators to distinguish between the different ideal types, and estimate the values of these indicators for each of the 17 nations. Our findings indicate that although a number of countries fit an empirical pattern corresponding to one ideal type, cohabitation in the United States is more difficult to characterize.

Key Words: childbearing, cohabitation, divorce, single parent.

Normative attitudes on family formation have been changing rapidly in the United States since at least the 1960s (Pagnini & Rindfuss, 1993; Thornton, 1989). As shown by Axinn and Thornton (1993), these attitudinal trends have both contributed to and resulted from concomitant declines in the prevalence of a traditional family formation sequence in which adults first get married, then live together, and finally have children. The deviation from this sequence that has received the most attention in the United States is undoubtedly childbearing before marriage. The increase in the proportion of births to unmarried mothers-from 4.0% in 1950 to 33.0% in 1999 (Ventura & Bachrach, 2000)-is indeed one of the most impressive trends, and a large literature now documents the effects on children of growing up with a single parent (e.g., McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994).

Until recently, living together before marriage generated much less public attention, although family scholars have debated whether to interpret unmarried cohabitation as a prelude to marriage-that is, a simple inversion in the timing of two events (marrying and cohabiting)-or as an alternative to marriage-that is, a decision not to marry. This scholarly debate might have remained just that, as long as unmarried cohabitation was not publicly perceived as a childbearing institution. In fact, Rindfuss and VandenHeuvel (1990) found that unmarried cohabiting couples in the United States exhibited much of the same characteristic behaviors as single dating people, and suggested that cohabitation was an alternative to being single rather than to marriage.

Although cohabiting couples postpone childbearing longer than married couples do (Manning, 1995), cohabitation is nevertheless becoming a significant feature of the modern reproductive landscape. In the early 1990s, births to cohabiting mothers represented more than 10% of all births, and nearly two fifths of out-of-wedlock births (Bumpass & Lu, 2000). More recent data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study suggest that nearly half of all out-of-wedlock births are to cohabiting mothers (J. O. Teitler, personal communication, April 30, 2003). The presence of children has brought cohabitation into public discourse, leading concerned policymakers to propose incentives to incite unmarried cohabitating partners to marry. Although we know relatively little about the consequences for children of parental cohabitation (Smock, 2000)-with the possible exception of economic circumstances (Manning & Lichter, 1996; Morrison & Ritualo, 2000)-cohabitation is generally less stable than marriage and thus presents higher risks for children to experience parental separation. Cohabitation is also spreading as a postmarital institution. The proportion of births occurring to cohabiting mothers nearly doubles to 20% of births among previously divorced mothers (Brown, 2000), and children are more likely to experience cohabitation in a stepfamily than with their two biological parents. Accounting for types of parental cohabitation, Graefe and Lichter (1999) found that one fourth of all children live with a cohabiting parent at some point during childhood, whereas Bumpass and Lu (2000), using a different data set, estimated the same proportion at nearly two fifths. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.