The impact of cohabitation on women and children

Essay, 2007
14 Pages, Grade: 84%




The types of cohabitation

Union stability

The impact of cohabitation on women

The impact of cohabitation on children




“I don't need no license / To sign on no line / And I don't need no preacher / To tell me you're mine (…) I say we're living on love they say we're living in sin . Although Bon Jovi was no contemporary, his song of 1989 depicts what was reality until the 1960s - the lifestyle of cohabitating couples was often legally and morally condemned as a “life in sin”. In addition, cohabitation was a quantitatively uncommon phenomenon in the Western world for a significant period in modern human history; however, over the last decades, the rates of ‘de facto unions’ are rising rapidly. Today cohabitation is a morally accepted biographical option, often chosen by couples who either wish to experience a trial period before marriage, refuse to marry or are divorced. As many jurisdictions recognize the growing significance of cohabitation by protecting it legally, the de facto relationship is on its way to become a new institution alongside the “old fashioned” marriage.

However, researchers have varying opinions about the implications of cohabitation on family members in de facto relationships. Cohabitation appears to be less stable and the involved partners are considered to lack interpersonal commitment. Therefore cohabitation seems to provide a less beneficiary environment especially for women and children compared to legal marriage. The purpose of this essay is to investigate, how cohabitation impacts on the life and well-being of women and children compared to legal marriage. The paper will therefore focus on heterosexual cohabitation as a consensual union of unmarried people who reside at the same dwelling and share an intimate relationship.

The types of cohabitation

Currently there are three main variations of heterosexual cohabitation: cohabitation as a prelude to marriage (Elisabeth 2000), cohabitation as a substitute for marriage and post-divorce cohabitation as a successor of marriage. Cohabitation before marriage was statistically a rare lifestyle until the 1970s but has now become the norm (Dempsey and De Vaus 2004). For most of the never-married couples cohabitation is a form of ‘trial-marriage’ (Wu 2000, 105). Within this living arrangement the partners have the chance to get to know each other and experience the dynamics of living together without having to make the financial and personal investments of marriage and its consequences in the case of dissolution. Should the couple’s relationship turn out to be unsatisfactory, it will most likely be terminated. If the cohabitation arrangement is successful, it will be transformed into marriage (Baker 2006). Particularly among the low-income couples ‘trial marriages’ establish to become a long term moratorium even if the couples want to marry. Financial stability and the acquisition of certain assets like a house and a car are considered to be prerequisites to marriage (Gibson-Davis et al. 2005). Furthermore, the couples often wish to host an ‘ideal’ wedding as it is displayed in the media. They postpone the wedding until they can afford their desired celebration (Baker 2007). Yet, many low-income couples are unable to attain these living standards for the entire time of their relationship and therefore can not meet their own entry criteria for marriage. The combination of difficulties in reaching financial security, asset gaining and the divide between their situation and the ideal middle-class lifestyle has therefore influenced the rise in long term cohabitation in low-income families (ibid.).

Although cohabitation is in the majority of cases followed by marriage, it does not necessarily have to be a temporary arrangement, as a stage of transition (Lewis 2003, Baker 2007). For some couples, cohabitation is an alternative to marriage. Elisabeth (2000) explored why people chose cohabitation as a preferred lifestyle before marriage and interviewed twelve New Zealand women and seven of their male partners who had never been married and resisted marriage. She found that most of the cohabitants considered societal expectations about marriage and the adoption of marriage-related practices and identities as a threat to the quality of their relationship. Another reason for the cohabitants to resist marriage was the perception that their relationship will be governed by the state (Elisabeth 2000, 96) as the “rules of entry and membership” to the institution of marriage are defined and established by law and not by the themselves (Morgan 2004, 22).

The third group of cohabitants are the divorced. Until the early 1970s this group of cohabiting men and women was the largest (Dempsey and de Vaus 2004) but today divorcees represent only one quarter of all cohabitants (Morgan 2004). However, post-divorce cohabitants at all ages are proportionally more likely to cohabitate than never-married (Dempsey and de Vaus 2004). Many people decide not to marry again after the experience of divorce or they postpone the decision of remarriage and choose to cohabitate to protect themselves concerning a second dissolution of their marriage (Morgan 2004).

Union stability

Cohabitation as a form or trial marriage is more likely to end in dissolution than marriage as only satisfied cohabiting couples with prospects of an ongoing good quality of their relationship convert their consensual union into a legal commitment (Liefbroer and Dourleijn 2006). According to this, it would seem to be obvious that people who cohabitate and then marry have a high quality and stability in their relationship. Yet, with higher divorce rates among the former cohabitants, the opposite is the case (Beck-Gernsheim 2002). In fact couples, who lived together before marriage experience a higher risk of divorce than couples that did not cohabitate (Wu 2000). German studies showed, that the risk of divorce is 40-60 percent higher for former cohabitants, (Beck-Gernsheim 2002, 27) whilst Canadian researchers even quoted the risk as being about two to three times higher (Wu 2000, 132). Researchers explain the higher divorce rates among those who cohabitated before marriage by the different characteristics of legally married and cohabitants (Wu 2000, Baker 2006, Liefbroer and Dourleijn 2006). Cohabitants hold more unconventional values than non-cohabitants and couples who marry straight away. This means they are less likely to share traditional attitudes in terms of the compliance of religious norms, premarital sex, childbearing out of wedlock or the ending of an unhappy relationship.


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The impact of cohabitation on women and children
University of Auckland  (Department of Sociology)
Family, Women and the State
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Rates of cohabitation (eheähnliche Gemeinschaft) are rising throughout the Western world as a precursor, a substitute or a successor of marriage. However, compared to legal marriage, women and children seem to be worse off in those living arrangements for several reasons. This paper sought to explore the different impacts of cohabitation on women and children and how different jurisdictions responded to the rising rates of cohabitation (comparison Germany, New Zealand).
Family, Women, State
Quote paper
Christine Schlapa (Author), 2007, The impact of cohabitation on women and children, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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