Cohabitation in Western Europe:
Trends, Issues, and Implications
London School of Economics and Political Science
In many Western European nations, few developments in family life have been quite as dramatic as the recent rises in unmarried cohabitation and having children outside of marriage. Although cohabitation is often regarded as a recent development, it includes a range of living arrangements some of which are novel whereas others are more traditional. Prior to the 1970s, cohabiting unions were largely statistically invisible and may well have been socially invisible outside of the local community or milieu. In some European countries, there were subgroups of the population who were more prone to cohabitation than others: the poor; those whose marriages had broken up but were unable to obtain a divorce; certain groups of rural dwellers; and groups who were ideologically opposed to marriage.
Although there are few statistical data on how common cohabitation was in the past, there is evidence from parish register data for Britain, that stable, nonmarital procreative unions in earlier periods, going back several centuries, often attained the status of legal marriage (Laslett, Oosterveen, & Smith, 1980). Moreover, cohabitation after a marriage breaks down and between marriages is unlikely to be a recent development as common sense alone would suggest that in periods when divorces were less easy to obtain people might well choose to cohabit. Booth, in his studies of the laboring population in London, noted that those who were most likely to cohabitate were older, formerly married persons. He noted “more license is granted by public opinion to the evasion of laws of marriage by those who have found it a failure, than is allowed to those who relations to each other have not yet assumed a permanent form” (Booth, 1902, cited in Gillis, 1985, p. 232).
Similarly, in other European countries there are a number of historical sources from around the beginning of the 20th century that suggest that the phenomenon was sufficiently visible to attract some comment. In Sweden, according to Trost (1988), there were two types of cohabitation: one known as “marriage of conscience” practiced by a group of intellectuals as a protest against the fact that only church marriages were permitted at that time (their protests led to the introduction of civil marriage in 1909) and the second known as “Stockholm marriages, ” which were found among poor people who could not afford to marry. These unions were probably akin to those observed in poorer sections of British, French, and German