Commitment and the Changing Sequence of Cohabitation, Childbearing, and Marriage: Insights from Qualitative Research in the UK

By Berrington, Ann; Perelli-Harris, Brienna et al. | Demographic Research, July-December 2015 | Go to article overview

Commitment and the Changing Sequence of Cohabitation, Childbearing, and Marriage: Insights from Qualitative Research in the UK


Berrington, Ann, Perelli-Harris, Brienna, Trevena, Paulina, Demographic Research


1. Introduction

In the UK, the standard, traditional sequence of family events has become far less dominant, to be replaced by a complex and de-standardized lifecourse (Berrington 2003; Elzinga and Liefbroer 2007; Billari and Liefbroer 2010; Perelli-Harris and Lyons-Amos 2013). Marriage is no longer necessary for childbearing, childbearing is sometimes postponed, unmarried cohabitation is becoming more prevalent before marriage and as a setting for child-rearing, and more partnerships, even those producing children, often end in dissolution (Berrington 2001; Kiernan and Smith 2003; Beaujouan and Ni Bhrolchain 2011). These complicated sequences raise questions about the meaning of cohabitation and marriage in peoples' lives: do people consider cohabitation and marriage to be similar or are they still distinct types of relationships? It also raises questions about the role of commitment in relationships. Investigating the role of commitment is important for understanding interdependencies within relationships, joint investments in relationships, as well as long-term union stability (Brines and Joyner 1999, Burgoyne et al. 2010). Previously, marriage signalled that a couple was committed to a life-long relationship, at least on the day of the wedding. Today, however, cohabiting relationships can also entail high levels of commitment, especially because cohabitation has begun to take on many other functions of marriage - such as maintaining a home, childbearing and childrearing. Thus, as the sequencing of family events has become more complex and cohabitation has become a standard part of relationship formation, it is important to investigate how processes of union formation and childbearing decision-making are now interrelated, and the role of commitment in shaping these processes.

Commitment has been a central theme in demographic and sociological studies of family life. Quantitative studies in the U.S. and Scandinavia have examined the ways in which commitment differs between cohabiting and married people, finding for example, that cohabitors have lower levels of commitment and relationship quality than married people (Brown 2004; Wiik et al. 2009; Brown et al. 2014), although cohabitors with plans to marry have similar levels of commitment to those who are already married (Wiik et al. 2009). The quantitative research has emphasized that cohabitors are a heterogeneous group; for example one study in the Netherlands found a variety of different levels of legal and interpersonal commitment (Poortman and Mills 2012). Quantitative survey research has also revealed differences in opinion about the level of commitment in cohabitation and marriage; for example, nearly two-thirds of British respondents thought that living with a partner showed the same level of commitment as marriage (Duncan and Philips 2008). In addition, qualitative research from the UK has emphasized the role of commitment in relationships, especially in contrast to increased individualization (Lewis 2001; Carter 2012). Thus, studying commitment has been an important way to better understand the emergence and meaning of cohabitation.

Nonetheless, these studies have not explicitly engaged with changing attitudes and social norms associated with cohabitation in relation to new patterns of family formation (Heckhausen 1999). Social norms concerning the appropriate timing and sequencing of life events remain central to understanding demographic behaviour (Liefbroer and Billari 2010). Social norms relate to prescriptions or proscriptions about behaviour, and are supported through consensus (at least within a sub-group of the population). They may be enforced through social sanctions, but external enforcement may not be required if norms have been internalised via socialisation in childhood (Liefbroer and Billari 2010). For example, the ways in which men and women from different educational groups talk about marriage and cohabitation will, in part, reflect different social norms within different population subgroups. …

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