Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Measuring and Modeling Cohabitation: New Perspectives from Qualitative Data

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Measuring and Modeling Cohabitation: New Perspectives from Qualitative Data

Article excerpt

Almost all our knowledge about cohabitation in the United States rests on analysis of nationally representative, large-scale surveys. We move beyond this work by drawing on 115 in-depth interviews with a sample of young men and women with recent cohabitation experience. These data allow us to address two issues of central interest to family studies. First, we use our qualitative data to assess the measurement of cohabitation in surveys and the census. We find that current measurement strategies are probably underestimating cohabitation, and we may need to find new ways to measure cohabitation. Second, we employ qualitative findings to address issues relating to how we empirically model union formation. We find that the movement into cohabitation is not akin to marriage. It is often not a deliberate decision. Couples do not appear to be deciding between cohabitation and marriage; rather, their decision seems to center around whether to remain single or cohabit. These results have important implications for our analysis and understanding of cohabitation.

Key Words: cohabitation, living arrangements, marriage, measurement, qualitative methods, union formation.

Cohabitation has become a normative part of the life course of young Americans. The percentage of marriages preceded by cohabitation rose from about 10% for those marrying between 1965 and 1974 to well over 50% for those marrying between 1990 and 1994 (Bumpass & Lu, 2000; Bumpass & Sweet, 1989). The percentage of women in their late 30s who report having cohabited at least once rose from 30% in 1987 to 48% in 1995 (Bumpass, 1998). Having gone from a relatively uncommon experience to a commonplace one so rapidly, cohabitation is now engaging the attention of scholars, social commentators, and policymakers.

Moreover, although most Americans still marry at some point and the vast majority of people express strong desires to marry, unmarried cohabitation represents a striking potential rival to marriage and has, at the least, dramatically transformed the marriage process (see Seltzer, 2000; Smock, 2000). Further, as the most "marriage-like" family form, cohabitation challenges the legal and social bases of family structure defined largely by marriage (Smock & Gupta, 2002). Cohabitation, as an unmarried living arrangement, is also challenging our notions of singlehood and courtship (Rindfuss & VandenHeuvel, 1990).

This paper draws on 115 in-depth interviews with a sample of young men and women with recent cohabitation experience. First, we analyze what our qualitative data can tell us about the measurement of cohabitation in surveys and the census. We examine how people talk about and define the beginnings and endings of their cohabitations, the language cohabitors use to refer to their partners, and the living arrangements of cohabiting couples given that they are not uniformly living by themselves. Second, we use our qualitative findings to address issues about the decision to cohabit relevant to models used in quantitative research. We specifically explore how young adults decide to cohabit. The way we empirically model union formation has important implications for our understanding of cohabitation.

BACKGROUND AND SIGNIFICANCE

Nearly all past research focused on the topic of cohabitation has been quantitative, drawing on survey and census data (for an exception, see Sassler, 2004, for an analysis of a college-based sample of cohabitors). This work is continually expanding in response to past research and to new data sources. Smock (2000) outlines the broad array of research topics related to cohabitation, such as trends and differentials in cohabitation, the effects of premarital cohabitation on marital stability, nonmarital childbearing, differences between cohabitation and marriage, and the implications of cohabitation for children. What all this research has in common is that it is based on quantitative analysis. …

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