Risk-Avoidance or Utmost Commitment? Dutch Focus Group Research on Cohabitation and Marriage

By Hiekel, Nicole; Keizer, Renske | Demographic Research, January-June 2015 | Go to article overview

Risk-Avoidance or Utmost Commitment? Dutch Focus Group Research on Cohabitation and Marriage


Hiekel, Nicole, Keizer, Renske, Demographic Research


1. Introduction

The Netherlands is one of the most individualized countries in the world (Nevitte and Cochrane 2006). Individualization means that young adults flexibly and autonomously make their individual life choices and are no longer bound by traditional institutions or rigid social norms. Relationship formation is one life domain in which individuals are free to make their own decisions. In this paper we study how Dutch adults view cohabitation and marriage, and their role in union and family formation processes. The increasing popularity of unmarried cohabitation has been viewed as one indicator of individualization (Bauman 2003). In the Netherlands, cohabitation has become customary (Kiernan 2002a) or even a normative step on the road to marriage (Elzinga and Liefbroer 2007). Only a minority of Dutch men and women marry without having cohabited first (Statistics Netherlands 2006). The Dutch legal system has also challenged the primacy of the institution of marriage by introducing registered partnerships in 1998. In 2012, 9,000 couples registered their cohabiting relationship (Statistics Netherlands 2013). In addition, the institution of marriage has been confronted with divorce; currently every third marriage ends in divorce (ibid.). Nonetheless, marriage has not gone out of style. In 2012, 69,000 marriages were formed (ibid.). These trends in union formation patterns raise questions about how people in individualized societies perceive cohabitation and marriage, and to what extent these views are shaped by the process of individualization and the context of high divorce rates.

An extensive body of demographic research has aimed to understand the rise of cohabitation and its role in union and family formation processes (Smock 2000; Sobotka and Toulemon 2008; Thornton, Axinn, and Xie 2007; Thornton and Philipov 2009). Much of the knowledge on cohabitation is based on quantitative data. Some studies have provided us with classifications of different types of cohabitation aimed at grasping the diversity in how people view cohabitation (Heuveline and Timberlake 2004; Hiekel, Liefbroer, and Poortman 2014; Kiernan 2001). Marriage is often the reference in peoples' views on cohabitation. Some cohabitors view cohabitation as a preparatory stage for marriage and thereby perceive it as inferior to marriage, for instance in terms of commitment. Yet others view cohabitation as an alternative to marriage or a substitute for it. In highly individualized societies in which cohabitation is prevalent and socially accepted, people may view cohabitation and marriage as serving similar functions in couple and family life (Kiernan 2001). The present qualitative study draws on focus group data from 40 women and men living in Rotterdam, providing us with deeper insights about the meaning of cohabitation and marriage in a highly individualized context. It explores whether young adults in the Netherlands talk similarly about cohabitation and marriage, for instance, with regard to commitment between the partners or cohabitation being a suitable context for raising children. Our first research question therefore is: (1) how do Dutch young adults view cohabitation and marriage, and how do they articulate similarities and differences between the two relationship types?

Sociologists have argued that marriages in individualized societies run a higher risk of divorce because people put higher emotional expectations on their relationships and are likely to be disappointed (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1990). Nonetheless, although people may feel free to leave an unhappy marriage, the emotional, financial, social, and legal consequences of a divorce are often severe. The concern over the risk of a divorce, however, is not only influenced by peoples' own experience; the divorce of parents, friends and colleagues may also shape peoples' views of marriage. As masters of their own biography, people in individualized societies may want to reduce the risk of relationship failure. …

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