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Cohabitation As Substitute To Marriage Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3339 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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With the advancement of the society there has been a remarkable shift in the way societies are organized. Traditional family norms have drastically changed over the past half century (Carmichae, 2000). Rise of pre-marital cohabitation is one of these significant changes which have altered the dynamics of the traditional nuclear families all over the world.

The hypothesis of the paper is that cohabitation directly threatens the institute of marriage. The independent variable of the hypothesis is cohabitation and the dependent variable is importance of marriage as an institute i.e. with the increase in cohabitation the importance of marriage will decline in the society.

This work aims to assess the validity of the hypothesis in both developed and developing countries. The first part of the paper deals with the literature review of cohabitation in developed countries like America and then compares it with relatively new cohabitation trends in the developing countries like Philippines, India and Pakistan. The last part of the paper provides the conclusion by analyzing the overall trends generated through the research findings.

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Literature Review

The first two decades after the Second World War were very familistic in the more developed countries. The combination of dominant middle class values, the deprivations of wartime and post-war economic prosperity gave rise to the ‘Golden Age’ of marriage and the bourgeois nuclear family. But these traditional family norms all over the world especially in the developed countries have changed drastically over the past half century (Anne Barlow, 2004).

The criticism of traditional sex roles within the family was first launched by militant feminists in the 1960’s and then over a passage of time these ideas gradually spread to the larger population (Aronson, 2008). The rising feministic norms and increasingly individualistic attitudes in the western societies have significantly impacted the institution of marriage and resulted in a significant increase in cohabitation. Cohabitation is formally defined as an arrangement where two un-married people live together in an intimate relationship, particularly an emotionally and/or sexually intimate one, on a long-term or permanent basis (Bumpass, 2008). An especially spectacular demographic trend is seen in the more developed countries since the mid- 1960s as couples with an increasing frequency have cohabited without being formally married (Carmichae, 2000). Cohabitation is very prevalent in the American society where the number of cohabiting couples almost tripled between 1977 and 1994 (Casper & Cohen, 2000).

Western societies have come a long way from the time when cohabitation was considered a ‘taboo’ (Linda J. Waite, 2000) and the phenomenon was regarded as ‘living in sin’ in the middle class societies (Skolnick, 1981). Now, cohabitation is at the forefront on the discussions about the major twenty first century families (Brown, 2005). Hence, if some estimates are correct, a majority of the population in the future may cohabit at some point in their lives (Larry L. Bumpass, 1991).

Cohabitation may delay marriage:

Cohabitation poses numerous threats to the institute of marriage. It wouldn’t be a threat to marriage if it is deemed as a temporary phase before marriage or a strategy for moving into a union gradually (Manting, 1996) But research into the field indicates that a substantial proportion of cohabitating couples are just concerned about the stability of their current relationship and don’t want to jeopardize their current relationship for any future commitment like marriage (Larry L. Bumpass, 1991). Even if these couples expect to get married at some point in the future, research in the field indicates that usually one partner expects marriage and the other does not (Larry L. Bumpass, 1991) Hence, due to reasons as such a high proportion of cohabiting partners disagree about marriage and in developed counties like America most couples even after five years of cohabitation continue to live together without marriage (Larry L. Bumpass, 1991).

Substantial research has shown trends that the recent cohorts of young adults in the developed countries like America are more likely to delay marriage relative to the cohorts that entered adulthood in the earlier period from 1945 to 1965 (Larry L. Bumpass, 1991). Further, the common perception about cohabitation is that requires less commitment and its more liberating than marriage. This is supported by studies of women in the developing countries which conclude that the women who want to pursue advanced education so that can effectively compete in the job market prefer to cohabit and use cohabitation to delay marriage (Baber, 1992)

Cohabitation as substitute to marriage:

Cohabitation poses a grave threat to marriage as an institute not only when it is used to delay marriage but also when it serves as a substitute to marriage i.e. when the cohabiting couples don’t end up marrying at all. Many social scientists commenting on the dynamics of the American society hold that ‘in the space of less than twenty years, marriage has lost all measure of necessity. It is now no more than an option in the marital life course: a bridge to cross when one chooses and if one chooses’ (Carmichae, 2000).

Studies conducted in the Western societies show that the numbers choosing to marry at all are declining, while there is a sharp rise in couples choosing to cohabit without marrying (Anne Barlow, 2004). Recent trends indicate that ‘cohabitation is being chosen more frequently as an alternative to marriage’ and many of these people have ‘no plans to marry in the future.’ (Bumpass, Sweet, & Cherlin, 1991). Bumpass conducted in America which showed that only a third of cohabiting people agreed that marriage is better; indeed, a quarter explicitly disagreed (Larry L. Bumpass, 1991).

There can be many factors that make cohabitation seem like a better and attractive option than getting married. In the western societies these constraints usually include low income, employment and financial instability, or the fact that one of the partners is not yet divorced from a previous marriage (Larry L. Bumpass, 1991). All these factors pose a serious threat to the institute of marriage as under these circumstances people would prefer to cohabit than to get married.

Marriage will not improve the lives of cohabitors:

Many cohabitors equate marriage with cohabitation and this indeed is the gravest threat to the institute of marriage. It simply implies that cohabitors think that marriage wouldn’t impact the quality of their life. Research in the western countries like America concluded that many cohabitors reported that the quality of their relationship is ‘highly similar to their married counterparts because they are almost married themselves’ (Booth, 1996). This notion is supported by extensive research conducted in the western societies, when cohabitors were asked if marriage would improve the quality of their life, they replied in negative. Such opinions were shared by majority of the cohabitors included in the study that their quality of life would improve and they would be happier only if their living conditions were to improve and that has got nothing to do with getting married (Bumpass, Sweet, & Cherlin, 1991). These notions resonate the belief that people in the developed countries like America associate quality of life with increasing productivity and acquiring financial stability rather than entering into social contracts like that of marriage. The individualistic attitudes of people in the developed countries make cohabitation a more feasible option for them than marriage. Studies conducted in America reflect similar attitudes that most cohabitors admitted that that their ‘freedom to do what they want would be worse if they were married’ (Larry L. Bumpass, 1991).

Cohabitors have higher rate of divorce:

It is not necessary that people in the developed countries cohabit only to delay marriage or use it only as an alternative to marriage. Studies suggest that many people cohabit to ‘test their compatibility before marriage’ (Bumpass, Sweet, & Cherlin, 1991). Thus, one would naturally assume that those cohabiting before marriage ought to have higher-quality and more stable marriages. But research suggests otherwise; a sample of around 1500 spouses’ in the U.S. was examined to find out the relationship between premarital cohabitation and marital dysfunction. Two U.S. marriage cohorts were used in the study i.e. those married between 1964 and 1980 (when cohabitation was less common) and those married between 1981 and 1997 (when cohabitation was more common). The results of the study indicated that spouses in both cohorts who cohabited prior to marriage reported poorer marital quality and greater marital instability (Claire M. Kamp Dush, 2003).

Similar trends are replicated in the findings of the research conducted in the western societies. A longitudinal study was conducted in America which showed that those who ‘cohabit before engagement are at greater risk for poor marital outcomes, negative interactions, lower interpersonal commitment, lower relationship quality, and lower relationship confidence than those who cohabit only after engagement or at marriage’ (Kline, et al., 2004). These findings are crucial as they indicate that cohabitation is a poor test of compatibility between people. Such research support that cohabitation doesn’t ensure high quality marital relationship in the western societies, rather it detoriates the relations further. Another surprising element of the studies in this field is that ‘the longer the cohabitation before marriage, the greater the perceived likelihood of divorce’ (Booth, 1996) It is suggested that cohabitation alters the dynamics of the relationship posing an imminent threat to the institute of marriage by making people more ‘divorce-prone’ (Smock, 2000)

Booth and Johnson also worked extensively on the link between cohabitation and divorce and suggested that cohabitation prior to marriage is positively associated with the perceived likelihood of dissolution of the current marriage. By looking into the matter, they suggested that the newly-weds, who have cohabited before marriage, also hold liberal attitudes towards divorce. Booth’s research indicated that if all else equal, there is greater opportunity for instability in cohabiting relationship and similar instability continues even after marriage (Booth, 1996).

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Cohabitation is more socially accepted now:

The increasing social acceptance of cohabitation in the western societies like American poses further threat to the institute of marriage. Though most people in the developed countries are still expected to get married but the normative pressures toward marriage are not very high in these societies (Larry L. Bumpass, 1991) which makes it easier for people to engage in cohabitation. Recent studies show that couples in the developed countries no longer feel constrained by ‘old-style religious and social norms to remain married for life’ (Anne Barlow, 2004). This increased social acceptance of cohabitation in the western world is diminishing the power of the institute of marriage whose main purpose according to the functionalists was thought to be of reproduction (Smock, 2000). Cohabitation has taken over and replaced this core function that was previously considered to be under the sole jurisdiction of marriage. According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2002 more than one-third of all births are to unmarried women (Aronson, 2008). Further, recent trends suggest that children are spending more time in cohabiting families in the western societies and less time in married families (Brown, 2005). Marriage is no longer the license provider to the society encouraging childbearing and child care (Espenshade, 1985) as childbearing and intimate relationships increasingly exist outside the institution of marriage (Anne Barlow, 2004).

Comparison with the developing countries:

Cohabitation is not only restricted to the developed countries like America but such trends can be found in the developing countries as well. Research suggests that the percentage of people in cohabiting relationships is on the rise across the world (Kelly, 2009). For example, a census in 2000 placed the percentage of cohabiting couples in Philippines at around 19%. Another study suggests that around 2.4 million Filipinos were cohabiting as of 2004 (Kelly, 2009). This high percentage of cohabitation indicates that cohabitation is not only restricted to western societies.

Further, a research was conducted in Philippines in the year 2007 which examined the data from a national survey of 15-27 year olds to assess attitudes toward marriage and cohabitation. The results of the research indicated that attitudes toward cohabitation remain quite conservative among young Filipinos. It concluded that men’s socioeconomic status affects their ability to enter unions, particularly marriage, whereas women’s union formation patterns are influenced by the family in which they grew up, their participation in religious services, and to some degree by their place of residence. Both men and women who hold more liberal attitudes on a range of issues are more likely to have cohabited than are individuals who do not share those views (Lindy Williams, 2007).

Similar attitudes about cohabitation can be established in other developing countries like Pakistan and India. But cohabitation is still considered to be taboo in Pakistani and Indian societies and hence, little if any cases of cohabitation are reported in these societies (hiox.org, 2010). Traditional sexual mores in the Indian and Pakistani societies have emphasized absistence from sexual relations prior to marriage (Agrawal, 2010). However, the trends are changing and this is no longer true in big metro cities in India and Pakistan where people have a more liberal approach towards ‘live-in relationships’ (hiox.org, 2010). The rural areas of India and Pakistan are thought to have more conservative values regarding cohabitation. But experts in India believe that cohabitation tendencies are developing at an increasing speed in big cities and the day is not far when this way of cohabitation will spread all over India in spite of strong opposition from all religious communities of the country on moral grounds (Agrawal, 2010).

Cohabitation prior to marriage is relatively in new phenomenon in India but many cases have been reported where the cohabiting couples have demanded their rights to exercise freedom. One such instance is of 21 year old Payal Sharma who appeared before the Allahabad High Court claiming that she was a major and had a right to live with whomever she wanted to (Agrawal, 2010). In recent years, many groundbreaking judgments regarding cohabitation and live-in relationships have been passed by the superior judiciary in India. Supreme Court clearly declared that a live-in relationship is not illegal and equated the long term cohabitation between two major man and woman to a valid marriage (Bag, 2011). Such trends highlight the increasing social acceptance of cohabitation in developing countries like India.

Regional differences regarding cohabitation and live-in relationships do exist in the developing countries of the world but research suggests a common pattern of ‘desacralization’ of marriage (Goode, 1993) exhibited by the elite class of developing countries like Philippines, India and Pakistan. Marriage is still of supreme importance in these societies but the phenomenon of cohabitation is getting popular as well. Many experts attribute acceptance of cohabitation within the elite class of developing countries like Pakistan to the globalization trends and universal diffusion of culture (Gavin Willis Jones, 2004). Studies suggest that developing South Asian countries like India and Pakistan are gradually moving towards the ‘modern individualism’ end of the continuum. Currently, cohabitation does not seem to pose a direct threat to the institute of marriage in these societies. But recent trends in these developing societies include second generation marrying later than their parents, lower rates of marriage and higher rates of cohabitation (Mann, 2009).


In this paper, the literature review of the developed countries like America highlighted certain trends that cohabitors in developed countries usually delay marriage and use cohabitation as a substitute to marriage. Additional findings included that cohabitation is increasingly taking over the institute of marriage in developed countries and it is no longer seen as license provider of child-bearing and intimate relationships. Further, analysis of extensive data in these developed societies also suggested that cohabitation has proved to be a poor test of compatibility i.e. even if cohabitors get married they are reported to have poor marital relations and are at a higher risk of divorce.

The paper also analyzed the incidence of cohabitation in developing countries like Philippines, India and Pakistan. Cohabitation is considered to be a taboo in these societies and hence, there is a severe shortage of data on cohabitation in these developing societies. Literature reviewed in this paper highlighted that the trends in the urban areas of these developing societies are changing and cohabitation is quite prevalent in the upper class of these countries which is considered to be fairly westernized.

Analysis and Conclusion

The findings in this paper prove the hypothesis that cohabitation directly threatens the institute of marriage. It is true for developed countries like America where experts are of the opinion that ‘traditional marriage may be becoming less important in social terms’ (Anne Barlow, 2004) and that ‘marriage as an institution is threatened and losing its centrality in developed countries like the United State’ (Smock, 2000).

However, the hypothesis doesn’t hold true for developing countries like Philippines, India and Pakistan where cohabitation is fairly restricted to the upper class of the society. The extent to which cohabitation threatens the institute of marriage in these developing countries depends upon the social acceptance of the phenomenon. Although recent rulings of the superior courts in developing countries like India have been favorable towards cohabitation but studies suggest that many Hindus, Muslims and Parsis have not approved this way of living because it is considered immoral according to their Holy Scriptures (Agrawal, 2010). Hence, cohabitation doesn’t directly threaten the institute of marriage in these societies.

Experts suggest that the open discussions on cohabitation and its increased social acceptance in the developed countries like America are indeed the ‘most striking aspects of the social and sexual revolution of the past decade or so’ (Skolnick, 1981). Cohabitation is not that socially accepted in the developing countries like Philippines, India and Pakistan but studies suggest that there is high assimilation in patterns of upper class of these societies towards those of the white population (Jones, 2010). Hence, experts predict that the legal, religious, psychological, and social distinction between being married and not being married will continue to blur even in the developing societies (Agrawal, 2010)


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