What Does It Mean to Be “Just Living Together”
in the New Millennium? An Overview
Lynette F. Hoelter and Dawn E. Stauffer
The Pennsylvania State University
The role of cohabitation in family formation has recently emerged as an interest of social scientists and policymakers alike. Rising divorce rates have drawn attention to the shift in family forms, and increased rates of cohabitation have been cited as one possible indication ofthe “breakdown” of the traditional family (e.g., Bumpass, Sweet, & Cherlin, 1991; Glenn, 1996; Popenoe, 1988). The chapters in this volume, however, indicate that cohabiting unions are neither new nor necessarily negative in terms of their influence on the well-being of individuals and families involved. Each chapter in this volume addresses a particular aspect of cohabitation and the role that this type of union plays within the larger society; however some common themes emerge throughout.
One theme that cuts across all chapters is the idea that cohabiting unions do not represent a unitary phenomenon. There are variations in cohabiting unions that are often given only cursory treatment in research and discussion of the topic. Although most cohabiting unions are short-lived, a number last for 5 years or longer, and this is not insignificant as these unions are likely to be qualitatively different than their short-term counterparts. Variability is also present in that, for some, cohabitation is viewed as an alternative to marriage, whereas others view it as a prelude to a marital union or a response to the dissolution of a marriage. Diverse cultures and subgroups within a larger society also hold different ideas about cohabiting. All of these possible differences in the cohabitation experience must be kept in mind in discussions of research about the topic. It seems that family researchers have barely scratched the surface when thinking about what the experience of cohabitation means for various couples. The differences in meaning are likely to be related to differences in actual experiences within such a union.
Another theme emerging from the chapters is that cohabiting unions are difficult to study because of the same factors noted above. Defining and capturing the nature of cohabiting unions statistically is not an easy task given their transitory nature. Likewise, social scientific research typically involves comparing one group of individuals to another. It is unclear, though, to whom cohabitors should be compared. General comparisons to married couples tend to oversimplify the diversity within both types of couples (e.g., step- versus two-biological parents, children involved or no children involved, etc. ). Such a comparison also tends to start with the idea that there will be something lacking in cohabiting relationships