Grasping the Diversity of Cohabitation: Fertility Intentions among Cohabiters across Europe

By Hiekel, Nicole; Castro-Martín, Teresa | Journal of Marriage and Family, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Grasping the Diversity of Cohabitation: Fertility Intentions among Cohabiters across Europe


Hiekel, Nicole, Castro-Martín, Teresa, Journal of Marriage and Family


Nonmarital childbearing has increased in most European countries as well as in the United States and Canada largely because of increasing births to cohabiting couples (Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008; Kiernan, 2001; Raley, 2001). Nowadays, about half of all first births in Norway, France, and East Germany; nearly 40% in Austria; and about 25% in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom take place within cohabiting unions (Perelli-Harris et al., 2012). Even in countries such as Spain, where nonmarital childbearing has traditionally been low, 24% of first births currently occur in cohabiting unions (Castro-Martín, 2010). In Eastern Europe, where conception out of wedlock is more likely to prompt marriage, the proportion of first births to cohabiting parents is generally lower than in Western Europe, but it is still sizable in many countries, such as Bulgaria (22%), Hungary (18%), and Russia (17%; Perelli-Harris et al., 2012).

Prior research suggests that examining the fertility behavior of cohabiters constitutes a promising avenue for understanding the role cohabitation plays in an individual's partnership trajectory, how it is intertwined with marriage, and how it fits into the family system (Kiernan, 2001). Thus far there is no broad consensus as to whether cohabitation is seriously challenging the hegemony of the legal and social institution of marriage as the proper setting in which to bear and rear children. Some scholars have emphasized that marriage is increasingly being decoupled from the childbearing process (Kiernan, 2001; Smock & Greenland, 2010), yet others have argued that cohabitation is far from replacing marriage, even in the Scandinavian countries, which are characterized by a very high prevalence of cohabitation and a high proportion of births within cohabiting unions (Ohlsson-Wijk, 2011; Wiik, Bernhardt, & Noack, 2009). Furthermore, although couples are increasingly entering unions by cohabiting rather than marrying directly and in most countries the legal status of the parents' union is not relevant for defining a child's rights, for many couples cohabitation is an alternative to marriage only until children come along (Sassler & Cunningham, 2008). The intention to have children remains a prominent reason to move from cohabitation to marriage (Moors & Bernhardt, 2009). These patterns suggest that marriage might not necessarily become irrelevant in the family formation process but instead be postponed to a later stage in the couple's trajectory.

This article extends prior research on the links between cohabitation and fertility by drawing attention to the different meanings that cohabiters attach to their unions and how these meanings are associated with plans to have a child in the near future. It is widely acknowledged that cohabitation might mean different things to different people and involve various levels of commitment (Bianchi & Casper, 2000; Heuveline & Timberlake, 2004; Kiernan, 2001). The meaning that cohabiters attach to their unions is likely to be related to the views they have about the appropriate timing, sequencing, and context of childbearing. One could argue that cohabiters who already have joint children apparently view their union as an appropriate setting in which to have and rear children. Studies from the United States nevertheless emphasize a relatively high rate of unintended pregnancies among cohabiting women (Musick, 2002; Sassler, Miller, & Favinger, 2009). Still, cohabiters who already have a child with their partner-intended or unintended-might attach different meanings to cohabitation than cohabiters without joint children. Our first research question, therefore, was this: How do cohabiters with and without joint children differ in the meanings they attach to cohabitation?

Across Europe, there is substantial varia- tion in the prevalence of cohabitation and the meanings attached to it (Sobotka & Toulemon, 2008). Heuveline and Timberlake (2004) classi- fiedWesternandNorthernEuropeancountriesas being more advanced in the societal diffusion of cohabitation than countries in Central and East- ern Europe. …

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