Cohabitation in Contemporary North America
Pamela J. Smock
The University of Michigan
The University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Of all the institutions of society, marriage is the most fundamental, most farreaching and most vital. It preceded society; it made society possiblc; it binds soclety togcthcr. It is the basis of social order and improvemcnt, and the chic1 support of molality, religion, and law. (Cook, 1888, p.680)
Over the past few decades, unmarried, heterosexual cohabitation has transformed family patterns in the United States, Canada, and other industrialized nations.1 Commentators and social scientists alike have been grappling with the implications of the dramatic rise in cohabitation. Most broadly, some interpret cohabitation as a manifestation of a serious retreat in marriage—that is, that cohabitation is symptomatic of, and reinforces, a decline in the centrality of marriage as the foundation of family life.
This chapter describes, assesses, and reflects on the role of unmarried cohabitation in contemporary family structure, and its attendant implications, in Canada and the United States.2 A major theme of this chapter is that cohabitation challenges static conceptions of family structure as well as its legal and social bases, which have hitherto been defined largely by marriage. Although cohabitation is certainly not the only recent challenge to marriage, as the most “marriagelike” family form, we argue, it is the most proximate challenge.
The organization of the chapter is as follows. First, we briefly review the trends and basic features of cohabitation in Canada and the United States. Second, we evaluate the role of cohabitation in family structure, concluding that cohabitation increases and reinforces the dynamism of the life course in terms of family events. The third section discusses how the role of cohabitation varies across population subgroups; we focus on cultural and social class variation. Fourth, we present evidence that cohabitation itself has been changing substantially over time, and____________________