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Unmarried couples living together on rise

Cohabitation refers to two romantic partners living together without being married.

In the United States, rates of cohabitation have been on the rise from 45 percent to about 66 percent. Also on the rise have been the rates of individuals cohabiting with children. In 2007, about four in 10 babies were born to unmarried women and nearly 50 percent of these babies were born to women whom were cohabiting with their romantic partner.

Despite these rising rates in the U.S., cohabiting couples and unmarried cohabitors raising children together are still often viewed negatively. This negative view comes from studies showing that cohabiting relationships often lack stability over time, which can be problematic for children.

Interestingly, these notions are not universal. For example, in Britain and Europe, cohabiting couples are not seen as less stable, and births inside and outside of marriage are treated more equally to marriage in terms of public policy.

Given rising rates of cohabitation and cohabitors parenting together in the U.S., family researchers have been focused on gaining a more complete picture of cohabiting relationships. A series of studies conducted out of the University of Arizona in family studies and human development have shed light on the nature of relationships in which unmarried couples living together are expecting their first child. For these studies, both male and female partners were individually interviewed in their homes, and also responded to self-report questionnaires about relationship commitment and sacrifices they make for each other or their relationship; issues that may involve careful consideration by individuals views of cohabitation as negative or lacking stability.

Findings from these studies include:

• When cohabiting partners talked about their relationship, most used language that reflected indicators of commitment and interdependence (e.g., “we” versus “me”) versus exchange (e.g., “I” and “me”).

• When making relational sacrifices for their partner, perceived ease of sacrifice was more beneficial to relationship quality than frequency of sacrifice. Specifically, the more daily sacrifices individuals made, the more their own relationship satisfaction decreased. In contrast, greater perceived overall ease of sacrifice was associated with higher satisfaction and lower ambivalence and conflict.

• Some gender differences have also emerged from this research. When female partners reported more than usual daily hassles, and more than usual daily sacrifices, male partners reported less relationship satisfaction, but female partners did not. In contrast, female cohabitors whose male partners reported low commitment experienced more symptoms of depression than female cohabitors whose partners reported high commitment.

Noting the rapid increases in cohabitation and nonmarital childbearing, greater attention is being paid to understanding the experiences of individuals within these emerging families. Further, as researchers, it has become increasingly important and timely that we focus on developing a more nuanced understanding of the nature of cohabiting relationships as part of our dialogue about relationships and families.