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Cohabitation: The end of Marriage

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 2585 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The following essay is aimed at discovering whether cohabitation has literally displaced marriage. It will focus on the processes of cohabiting as well as marriage, briefly touching on their historical backgrounds as well as the trends for each of the processes in different countries. Immediately after the war, marriage became practically universal phenomena but apparently, its popularity has declined towards the end of the twentieth century.

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Bumpass and Lu (2000) and Teachman, Tedrow and Crowder (2000) explain that patterns of family formation and also dissolution are changing in the United States. She clearly cites an increase in divorce, cohabitation and non marital children which clearly shows a shift from traditional marriage. According to Murphy and Young, (1999), marriage has been in steady decline since the early 70s in the United Kingdom. A McRae (1999) point out that marriage in 1995, which was 322,000, is thought to be the lowest on record since 1926. As the marriage rate dropped, so did the remarriage rate resulting in a steady rise of cohabiting. (Morgan 2000)

Cohabiting according to Marshall (1998) refers to “an arrangement whereby couples who are not legally married live together as husband and wife. In view of the above definition, the term, “not legally married brings in another dimension as to the authenticity of cohabitation. This leads to the idea of common law marriage. There seems to be a huge misconception of the idea of common law marriage, with some authorities and according to Fairbain, (2009) there is no specific legal status for what many refer to as “common law marriage. She also points out that many cohabiting couples are unaware of this fact. On the other hand, marriage, as defined by Horton and Hunt defined marriage as the approved social pattern whereby two or more persons establish a family. Majumdar takes it further by defining marriage as a “socially sanctioned union of male and female or as a secondary institution devised by society to sanction the union and mating of male and female for purposesof establishing a household, entering into sex relations, procreating and providing care for the offspring” There appears to be a clear distinction between marriage and cohabiting, judging from the definitions above which helps me conclude that they are not one and the same thing. The question which I will attempt to answer is whether on is displacing or replacing the other. Shaw and Haskey, (1999) seem to concur with the idea of a clear dichotomy as they point out that there has been a major trend towards a decline in marriage and a rise in cohabitation.

Hasky, (1999) also points out that marriage’s popularity rose throughout the 1950s and the 1960s but notes that towards the end of the century, it fell, giving rise to cohabitation. It appears there was a shift in family formation from the traditional marriage to cohabitation. To further support the prevalence of cohabitation, Bramlett and Mosher, (2002) confirm that the increase of cohabitation is well documented showing that the majority of newly weds have cohabited before their first marriage. Levidon (1990) also argued that consensual unions, (cohabitation) appeared to constitute a new type of union. However, he mentions that the process was transitory, which points to the fact that marriage still was seen to be the end goal. A major development however was that there was more recognition of informal unions and as a social institution. (Haskey 1999)Kiernan, and Estaugh (1993), came up with the idea of “nubile cohabitation” which involved young people living together either as a prelude to or as an alternative to marriage. This was further elaborated on by Bumpass, Sweet and Cherlin (2001); Smock, Huang, Bergstrom and Manning (2005) who cited one of the key reasons why cohabitation was on the rise, as a way of testing out a relationship and determine compatibility. Research however found out that there is a positive correlation between cohabitation and marital dissolution. (DeMaris and Rao 1992, Teachman and Polonko 1990 and Schoen 1992 cited in Smock (2000). They also found out that the link between cohabitation and marriage failure is complex, with other factors like, race, sexual history and ethnicity playing a significant influence. (Phillips and Sweeney 2005).

According to Casper and Sayer (2000) and Brown and Booth (1996), cohabiters, are distinguished by factors like “plans to marry” It is noted that most of the cohabiters eventually plan to marry but not all cohabiters enter into cohabitation with marriage plans. (Manning and Smock 2005). In this way, cohabiters treated their cohabiting as an initial stage of the marriage process which clarifies that they did not see it as an alternative to marriage and likewise, those without marriage plans also viewed cohabitation as part of courtship or single hood. According to Brown (2004), cohabiters with marriage plans view cohabitation as a “semi marriage” and as a matter of fact, they share the same relationship quality as the married couples. Another factor that needs to be looked at is the individuals’ cohabitation history which researchers say in very significant. It was proven that women who cohabited only once with the same partner, being intimate, had the same relationship stability as those who never cohabited, (Teachman 2003). On the contrary, young adults who had multiple cohabiting partners are likely to encounter marital instability, (Teachman and Polonko 1990), (DeMaris and McDonald 1993). It is worth pointing out though that they concede that individuals who had multiple cohabitation before marriage could possibly have enough experience to enable them to make better marriage choices.

Duncan et al (2005) states that “cohabitation is often equated with “do it yourself”…and is no longer restricted to particular social groups. In line with this notion, Manning, Smock and Majumdar (2004) and Phillips and Sweeney (2005) maintain that race, and ethnic differences in cohabitation are likely to have an impact on cohabitation. It was noted that cohabitation had a negative effect on Whites’ marital stability but none on Blacks. This is likely so because of the view each ethnic group has on cohabiting. It was further observed that amongst cohabiting couples, Blacks had weaker marriage plans than Whites. (Manning and Smock 2002) Brown (2000) also argued that Blacks were less likely to go through to the actual marriage even with marriage plans.

Between 1986 and 1990, there was a dramatic rise in cohabitation in Britain. 29% of unmarried females under 60 were cohabiting in 2001 and 2002. This was a three fold increase. As cohabitation rose, children being born to cohabiting couples were estimated to be over 25% by the beginning of the twenty first century. The fall decline of and delay in marriages, have all given rise to the phenomenon of cohabitation. Marriage does not stand out as the only means of commitment for life since some couples choose to cohabit, citing reasons like less commitment and the ease of opting out if things do not work well. (Kieman 2004). According to Duncan et al (2005) the shift from marriage to cohabitation suggests that individuals have found an option which meets their personal needs and has less or no hassles in terminating.

Having looked at the history and trends of the two processes, marriage and cohabitation, this paper will focus on the individualisation theory. According to Beck, (1992) and Giddens (1992), we have entered a ‘late modern’ era of ‘de-traditionalisation’ and ‘individualisation’. Financial stability, education and provision through the welfare state tend to give individuals the latitude to move away from traditional customs. According to Lewis (2001), the pursuit of self fulfilment and individual happiness and freedom has brought up changes on the view of family. While the traditional institutions are still valued, there is less emphasis on marriage vows or private commitments and more emphasis on “self projects”. The ‘project of self’, places an emphasis on individual self-fulfilment and personal development, comes to replace relational, social aims. (Duncan and Smith 2006) The prevalence, historically, of economic and legal inequality, and the belief of there being accepted patterns of behaviour is now getting weaker. (Lewis, 2001, p3) According to Lewis (2001), individualisation is thought to be a formulation of freedom of choice and personal preferences which competes with social structural traditions. However, in the eyes of the traditionalists, this may be viewed as a “counter cultural revolution” Beck (1992( suggests that social structures of gender, class, family and religion are gradually weakening due to individuals becoming more reflexive in making own choices, resulting in the creation of their own biographies. As a result, relationships now focus on individual fulfilment and consensual love, with sexual and emotional equality, substituting formal unions which have been historically prescribed within set gender roles. (Bauman, 2003, Duncan and Smith 2006).

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With reference to Majumdar’s definition of marriage, there is particular mention of it being “a union of male and female or as a secondary institution devised by society to sanction the union and mating of male and female for purposesof establishing a household, entering into sex relations, procreating and providing care for the offspring”. However, with reference to individualisation, the prescript nature of the marriage institution is challenged resulting in sexuality being largely freed from institutional, normative and patriarchal control as well as from reproduction. (Duncan and Smith 2006). This notion has led to the acceptance and rise of same sex relationships as confirmed by “The Civil Partnership Act 2004 which was passed and came into effect in December 2005 created civil partnerships which gave same-sex couples who entered into them the same rights and responsibilities of marriage.

From a feminist perspective, Lewis (2001) would argue that historically, marriage has reinforced the limiting of the self development of women. Marriage was seen as a restrictive union and could dictate emotions, feelings and behaviour. Cohabitation, from a different perspective could then be argued to be a form of liberation for women. (Morgan 2000). Marriage was viewed as being restrictive and confining, thereby limiting independence and autonomy. Morgan argues that marriage is an “unencumbered life without binding commitments”. This then presents the idea of cohabitation as a viable alternative which affords people choice to determine their own conditions for the establishment and dissolution of a relationship, Morgan (2000).

The emergence of this contemporary family has been viewed positively and negatively. According to Giddens, (1992) and Weeks, (2001), the greater diversity of lifestyles and the opening up of choice leads to democracy in personal relations, and liberation from oppressive institutions. On the contrary, the work of Zygmunt Bauman (2003) and Francis Fukuyama (1999), stresses that the breakdown of traditional ties leads to a disintegration of families and the moralities once maintained by them; this ‘demoralisation’ leads to individual alienation and social breakdown.” Maslow (1954) maintains that people who engage in self actualisation were concurrently individualistic and altruistic. In order to meet their needs, individuals moving towards self actualisation, became “higher selves” and according to Maslow, this is “healthy selfishness” (p.156). In this process, the healthy self focuses more on the “self” Kilpatrick (1975)

According to the pioneers of the individualisation theory, Becks and Gersheim (2002), society has shifted away from traditional structures where, “people no longer have pre-given life worlds and life trajectories.” (Heath, et al 2007). Generally, individuals are no longer expected by society to follow a set family pattern. According to Beck, (1992) this notion has altered the previous accepted family structures resulting in the dissolution of the social foundations of the nuclear family as more emphasis is placed on the “family of choice” Fukuyama (1999) argues that the institution of marriage has previously been viewed as the bedrock of society but due to the emergence of the family change and freedom of choice, traditional ties have weakened and as a result, there has been family degeneration. Gender roles have also shifted since from the categorization of men as breadwinners and women as house makers. The major change appears to be women emancipation advocated for by the women’s movements and this has altered societal and demographic values. Active participation by women on the labour market has significantly changed the notion of a family unit by bringing in more choice and autonomy women did not have in the past.

The Legal Position of Cohabitation in Britain

Heterosexual cohabitation has been socially and universally accepted as an alternative to marriage in the UK for over two decades but very little has been finalised as regards legal rights of the cohabitants is debatable. (Duncan et al 2001) The issue with cohabiting is that while it can be registered as a Civil marriage, it does not attract the same legal rights and privileges of a marriage. Traditionally, marriage has been regarded as

  • Bauman, Z (2003) Liquid Love: on the Frailty of Human Bonds. Oxford, Polity.
  • Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London, Sage.
  • Bumpass, L., & Lu, H. (2000). Trends in cohabitation and implications for children’s family contexts in the United States. Population Studies, 54, 29-41.
  • Duncan, S. and Smith, D. (2002) ‘Geographies of family formations: spatial differences and gender cultures in Britain’ Transactions Institute of British Geographers, 27, 4, 471-493.
  • Fukuyama, F. (1999) The Great Disruption: Human nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, New York, Free Press.
  • Giddens, A. (1992) The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Cambridge, Polity Press.
  • Horton, P. B. and Hunt, C.L. (1984) Sociology. 6th ed. Singapore: McGraw Hill Book Companies
  • Kiernan, K. and Estaugh, V. (1993) Cohabitation Extra-marital Childbearing and Social Policy,Joseph Rowntree Foundation/Family Policy Studies Centre.
  • Lewis, J. (2001) The End of Marriage? Individualism and Intimate Relationships, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
  • Marshall, G, (1998) A Dictionary of Sociology cited on http://www.encyclopedia.com Accessed 20/11/2009.
  • Weeks, J. (2001) Same Sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and Other Life Experiments. London, Routledge.
  • Teachman, J. Tedrow, L and Crowder. K. 2000. “The Changing Demography of America’s Families.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 62:1234-1246.


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