Cohabitation in the United States


In the history of mankind, lifelong marriage has always provided society with a basic unit as well as ready platform for child socialization. This situation has however changed in contemporary US society, whereby the institution of marriage has continued to lose its stability due to the rising rate of divorce that is threatening to tear down this important unit of society. Divorce is taking place at such high magnitude that most people opt to stay out of marriage due to the negative psychological, emotional, and economic effects that divorce continues to have upon people’s lives. In the US, over 50% of all couples in their first marital union are likely to end up in divorce while 60 % of all remarriages are also likely to follow the same trend. To avoid such inconveniences, people are now opting to get together into a less permanent and more convenient type of union referred to as cohabitation. This type of union offers cohabiting partners the convenience of sexual intimacy and companionship within a less demanding type of relationship (Grigorenko and Sternberg, 2001).


In many parts of the world, family relationships have continually been viewed as fixed institutions that are not easily changeable. Realistically, the family unit and associated relationships are created upon systems that are often going through various changes that in turn have gradually affected the way this institution operates. Individuals in many societies of the developed world, the USA included, now have various family life options to choose from depending on suitability to their type of lifestyle. The last century has witnessed substantial changes within the American family institution many of which have changed the Americans’ general perception about family formation and family life in general. Most of these changes took place during the 20th century, as a result of which divorce became more common and many couples turned to the less demanding and more convenient union of cohabitation. By the time the 20th Century was coming to a close, the effects of divorce had been felt in most families, greatly discouraging many adults from marrying with most of them now preferring cohabitations to marriage. The stability of the once healthy and stable American family was now in jeopardy (Coleman, Genong and Warzinik, 2007).

Cohabitation is a type of human relationship in which two mature people agree to live together, carving out a private union that is strictly based on a private bargain and one that is done for very private reasons, but one that is also almost free of any social or legal pressures. In the U.S.A, this type of union has become very popular with more couples moving in to live together, sharing a sexual relationship and basic needs such as housing, but nevertheless choosing to remain unmarried for a period of time or for all the time that they are living together. In 1970, the ratio of cohabiting couples to married couples was 1:100, a figure that had risen to 8:100 by the year 2000. Apart from sharing living quarters and an active sexual life, cohabiting partners have no ceremony to mark the beginning of their relationship, and most of them do not have any license or long term plans (Whyte, 2000).

Cohabiting was initially associated with a sexual revolution that took place in the 1970s that led students to adapt the behavior of living together as sexual partners. By the late 1980s, the trend had changed to include high school graduates who were now more involved in this type of relationship. In the USA, the cohabitation type of union has substituted marriage for many people who desire a partnership although it widely differs from the marriage institution. Unlike marriage, most cohabiting couples start living together without any specified legal obligations or rights and this type of union is also less permanent when compared to marriage. Because of the temporary nature of this type of union, partners are unlikely to practice exclusive sexual activities although most of them get into the union with such expectations. It is also unlikely that partners pool their financial resources together to achieve a common goal. Where children are involved, the non-parent has no financial, legal, custodial or supervisory obligations towards them (Waite and Bachrach, 2000).

Over a period of about 30 years, the number of cohabiting unions in the USA has increased so tremendously that cohabitation has become a routine component of this nation’s life. The rate of cohabitation is higher among young couples than among the older persons mainly because cohabitation has become an integral part of the courtship stage that comes before marriage. Previously married couples also have a tendency to resort to cohabitation if they ever get into other relationships although race-ethnic differences greatly influence the patterns of cohabitation in the same way that they influence marriage and divorce. Black women have however reflected a tendency of cohabiting with their partners than white women and are also less likely to marry within their first cohabiting union. Over the past few years, the rate of cohabitation has increased among the Hispanic, black and non-Hispanic white populations although the pace at which cohabitation has been increasing is higher among the whites (Coleman and Ganong, 2004).

There are several reasons behind the high rate of cohabitation in the USA but the most common are delayed age of marriage, society’s approval of pre-marital sex and the instability that currently characterizes the institution of marriage due to high rates of separation and divorce among other factors. Many unmarried couples have become attracted to cohabitation irrespective of whether they may or may not marry in future. The general attitude that society holds towards norms, values and attitudes governing the marriage institution have changed. Attitudes towards pre-marital sex and childbearing have changed tremendously since the early 1970s and since the 1990s premarital sex has somehow become an approved social habit. As a result intimate sexual relationships and parenthood outside marriage have become a less costly affair socially leading many couples to either delay marriage or choose to live in a partnership, thus making cohabitation a very attractive and popular practice (Waite and Bachrach, 2000).

Cohabitation in the USA has been a very popular type of lifestyle option for some time now. By the year 2000, an estimated 5 million adults were living in cohabitation, a tremendous increase from just half a million in 1970. Over the past century, Americans have experienced greater sexual freedom and have become exposed to better lifestyle options. Because most young people are barely prepared for the challenges that characterize a permanent relationship or marital union, many of them have opted for cohabitation as they contemplate whether to engage in a permanent marital relationship or not (Turner 2003). Cohabitation has also become widely accepted as a stage in courtship before partners can legalize the union. Many young American couples choose to go through this stage valuing it as a good environment in which they are able to learn one another’s character before marriage. This arrangement has however led to a situation where many people find themselves moving through a series of relationship in the effort of searching for the most appropriate potential partner. Cohabitation as a courtship process has also greatly reduced the stigma surrounding such unions highly contributing to their increase (Coleman and Ganong, 2004).

Most young adults are now involved in sexual intimacy before they decide if they are in love with the sexual partner and this has given rise to single-parent families. Education has also improved the status of women enabling most single mothers to enjoy financial independence. Such women are likely to live in cohabitation for the mutual need of enjoying a consistent sexual relationship. Most women who fall victim to pre-marital pregnancies prefer cohabitation to marriage an indication this type of living arrangement has become a popular setting for raising children. About 40% of the families that are normally perceived to be single- parent households are in reality two partner cohabitations. Cohabitation has therefore become a very common setting for raising children either brought in from previous relationships or born into cohabitation. For some people, this union has become an alternative to marriage as a suitable environment for bringing up children even if marriage may not be an eventuality. Children brought up in such unions are more likely to end up cohabiting than children raised within a normal family thus leading to further increase of cohabitation in the USA (Farley and Haaga 2005 ; Coleman and Ganong, 2004).

Social and legal policies that previously governed cohabitation have in the duration of time lost especially since the 20th Century. With time several rules such as those denying unmarried partners access to hotel rooms and renting the same residence gradually disappeared as a result of which the number of cohabiting couples increased tremendously and by the year 2000 the number of cohabiting couples in the USA constituted roughly 4% of the total number of households in American society. For the younger adults, this practice was slowly becoming a lifestyle while their older counterparts dared not to repeat the mistake of enduring another divorce process and therefore also opted to cohabit. By the year 2000, 25% of young women were cohabiting while the rate for young men ranged at 16%. About $ % of the older adults were cohabiting with special preference to those over the age of 65 years. But although cohabitation rates escalated among the black and white populations especially, they remained higher among persons who did not make it to a level of education above high school (Coleman, Genong and Warzinik 2007).

Over the span of time, religion has lost its former influence on an individual’s power to make decisions and technology has given rise to more reliable birth control methods which have freed most women from the inconvenience of unwanted pregnancies. As a result birth control methods have led to increased sexual activity during courtship and with premarital sex no longer considered a social ill; many couples move in to cohabit as soon as a relationship starts getting serious. Living together is therefore the most preferred ground for testing a couple’s compatibility (Parillo 2008 ; Coleman, Genong and Warzinik 2007). Cohabitation also offers a good environment in which couples can combine love, sexual intimacy and work while keeping away from parental obligations and avoiding those inconveniences that characterize a legal bond. Couples also have an opportunity to change and grow together as they prepare themselves for a more permanent commitment. In such way, any subsequent separation becomes less painful as it is without the guilt of feeling of failure that accompanies divorce (Turner, 2003).

In the USA today, a form of licensed cohabitation popularly referred to as domestic partnership has been available for both heterosexual and gay couples since the 1990s. Currently, 6 states, 60 cities and 9 counties provide official registration for such unions. The first states to confer official recognition for cohabiting couples were Hawaii (1997), California (1999), Vermont (2000), New Jersey and Maine (2004) and Connecticut as recently as the year 2005. To be registered in a domestic partnership, couples must present at the registration office, a duly completed affidavit in which partners attest their willingness to share a residence as financially stable persons as well as relate intimately with one another. They must also rule out any biological or legal relationship between them and attest to adhere to the mutual well-being of one another. But legal termination of a licensed domestic partnership is easier than termination of a legal marital union. Partners only need to inform the record department of the registration office about the specific place where such a partnership got registered, consent of both partners is not a requirement and termination does not include any guidelines regarding palimony or property division. After 6 months, the partners are each free to register new partnerships if at all they are willing to do so (Parillo, 2008).

Escalating rates of divorce within the modern US society have made the institution of marriage loose its glamour and with marriage proofing to be less permanent, many partners opt not to get involved in such union for the fear of the repulsive effects that divorce brings along incase the marriage fails to last a lifetime. Permanence is a very crucial component of the marriage institution as it creates confidence in those desiring such a union. But divorce has become so common that may couples in the USA are hardly sure if a marriage will last and such uncertainty has led many couples to have a preference for cohabitation. Children from divorced relationships are also very heavily affected and their future attitude towards marriage gets negative in such a way that most of them choose cohabitation in place of marriage. Considering their past experiences, dissolution of a cohabitation appears less expensive economically, socially, economically or even psychologically (Waite and Bachrach 2000; Jacobsen, 2007).

Marriage is no longeran important channel and institution for bearing and bringing up children and for most Americans the marriage union is now a less attractive type of relationship. Childlessness and single-hood especially for women are currently acceptable social norms with society providing other options of raising children such as adoption and foster parenting if at any one time the desire to raise a child/children becomes a priority. Alternative living arrangements are also more tolerated in present day American society than was the case earlier on and various alternatives to marriage such as cohabitation, gay unions and single-motherhood no longer hold the kind of social stigma that existed before. Relationships have therefore become an individual’s responsibility whereby it is upon every person to decide the type of relationship they wish to practice (Farley and Haaga 2005).

Women have become more involved in the labor force, a factor that has led many of them to loose interest in marriage and prefer to avoid the load of responsibilities that characterize the family unit. More educated women have therefore turned to cohabitation as an alternative living arrangement but one that also demands less commitment. The increasing rates of cohabitation are also an indication that people are now more attracted to more flexible intimate relationships and those that are also less binding in the social contest than legal marriages. Cohabitation therefore becomes a more attractive type of relationship as it is likely to offer many benefits that accompany marriage but with fewer social and legal expectations. In the USA, about half of all adult women are likely to live in at least one cohabitation union between 15 and 45 years and about one third of all US children are most likely to live in a maternal cohabitation before they are sixteen years of age (Mitchell, 2007).

Cohabitation has seriously implicated upon the family, marriage union, and the entire American society. Through cohabitation, most people are now marrying at a higher age and also bearing children much later in their lives. But cohabitation is more attractive to less serious couples, because of its likelihood for dissolution if the relationship fails to work out. The rate of break is even higher if such a couple decides to get married and cohabitation therefore greatly undermines the stability of any marriage that is likely to take place (Farley and Haaga, 2005).


Although most of the cohabiting couples do not have marriage as an ultimate goal of their union, most cohabiting partners have a vision about marriage. For many older couples especially those that are already through with child bearing and rearing, cohabitation provides an alternative type of lifestyle to their previous one. For most couples contemplating marriage, cohabiting naturally represents an extension of an intimate and presumably serious relationship (Turner 2003).

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