Transitions into and out of Cohabitation in Later Life

By Brown, Susan L.; Bulanda, Jennifer Roebuck et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 2012 | Go to article overview

Transitions into and out of Cohabitation in Later Life


Brown, Susan L., Bulanda, Jennifer Roebuck, Lee, Gary R., Journal of Marriage and Family


Cohabitation among adults over age 50 is rising rapidly, more than doubling from 1.2 million in 2000 to 2.75 million in 2010. A small literature provides a descriptive portrait of older cohabitors, but no study has investigated transitions into and out of cohabitation during later life. Drawing on demographic and life course perspectives, the authors developed a framework for conceptualizing later life union behaviors. Using data from the 1998-2006 Health and Retirement Study, they estimated discrete-time event-history models predicting union formation (i.e., cohabitation or marriage) among older unmarried individuals (N = 3,736) as well as transitions to either marriage or separation among older cohabitors (N = 377). Those who formed a union were as likely to be in a cohabiting relationship as a marriage. Older adult cohabiting unions were quite stable and unlikely to culminate in either marriage or separation. During later life, cohabitation appears to operate as a long-term alternative to marriage.

Key Words: aging, cohabitation, families in middle and later life, marriage.

The dramatic growth in cohabitation over the past few decades has altered contemporary union formation and dissolution patterns. Cohabitation is now the modal path to marriage and fully accounts for the delay in marriage entry. A majority of marriages are preceded by cohabitation, yet a minority of cohabiting unions are formalized through marriage (Bumpass & Lu, 2000).

Despite the rapid ascent of cohabitation and its central role in broader shifts in union behavior, nearly all of the research on cohabitation involves young and middle-age adults, essentially ignoring the experiences of older adults (Cooney & Dunne, 2001, although see Chevan, 1996, and King & Scott, 2005). Moreover, the research on marital status and transitions in later life focuses overwhelmingly on marriage and widowhood (Allen, Blieszner, & Roberto, 2000; Calasanti & Kiecolt, 2007; although see Brown, Lee, & Bulanda, 2006).

The omission of older adult cohabitors from the family and gerontological literatures is notable for two reasons. First, it belies the demographic composition of the U.S. population, which is aging rapidly. This process is now accelerating with the movement of the baby boomers - the first generation to cohabit in large numbers - into the older adult population, suggesting that cohabitation will be increasingly common among older Americans (Brown et al., 2006). Second, cohabitation among older adults is important from a theoretical standpoint because it likely plays a unique role in the lives of older Americans. For instance, older adults may be less interested in marriage because they are past the age of reproduction. They also may be more interested in protecting the wealth they have accrued over their lifetime than they are in pooling economic resources. Older adults, especially women, may be less sanguine about marriage because of the caregiving burden it often entails (Talbott, 1998).

To begin to fill this critical gap, we used longitudinal data from the 1998-2006 Health and Retirement Study (HRS; see http://hrsonline.isr.umich.edu/) to examine transitions into and out of cohabiting unions among adults over age 50. The current investigation was guided by a theoretical framework that incorporates life course and demographic perspectives on aging (Uhlenberg, 1996). Combining insights from the extensive research base on union formation among young adults with findings from the literature on dating and marital transitions among older adults, we developed a framework to predict the formation of cohabiting unions among older adults.

We also evaluated the stability of cohabiting unions and the propensity of older cohabitors to marry versus separate. Some researchers (e.g., Davidson, 200 1 ; Talbott, 1998) have argued that older persons are less interested in marriage and thus union duration and outcomes among older cohabitors are likely to exhibit a pattern distinct from that documented for young adults. …

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