Senior Research Associate
November 5, 2020
More unmarried couples today are living together, and doing so for longer than in the past, but fewer of these relationships lead to marriage, new research finds. This change may in part reflect shifting attitudes toward cohabitation, and it results in more separations and re-partnering during young adulthood.
Most young women today will live with a romantic partner at least once, compared with just one-third of young women in the late 1980s.1 During that decade, most cohabiting relationships were short-lived and frequently led to marriage.
The new research, conducted by graduate students and faculty at the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University, examined how cohabitation and marriage patterns have changed for young women over the past four decades. Their research was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).
In their study, Esther Lamidi, now at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, and colleagues Wendy Manning and Susan Brown at Bowling Green, drew on data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) to compare women ages 15 to 39 who lived with a first romantic partner in 1983-1988 and in 2006-2013.2 They examined changes in whether couples who lived together had married or split up within five years.
They found that while cohabiting relationships are still relatively short-lived, couples today are cohabiting longer—increasing from about 12 months in the 1983-1988 cohabitation cohort to 18 months in the later cohort—and that this longer duration is linked to couples delaying or forgoing marriage altogether. After five years, similar shares of women in both cohorts were still living with their partner, but the distribution of those still cohabiting as compared to those who had married had shifted. Among the early cohort, 23% of women were still cohabiting five years later, and 42% had married their partner. These shares were reversed among the later cohort—43% were still cohabiting and only 22% had married.
Over the past five decades, changes in family behaviors such as declining rates of marriage have been more pronounced among women with less education compared with women who have more education. Lamidi and her colleagues confirmed this divergence—similar to what’s been observed in other family behaviors and frequently termed “diverging destinies”—when they examined patterns of cohabitation across different sociodemographic groups.
Their analysis found that the more recent cohort was much less likely to marry their cohabiting partner, and while this pattern was observed across all sociodemographic groups, it occurred more frequently among women with less education.
After accounting for women’s educational attainment, their results show that between the two cohorts only women with less than a college education experienced a decline in marrying their cohabiting partner. In addition, women having one or more children while cohabiting—an occurrence more common among women with less education—delayed or inhibited marriage more for the later cohort than the earlier cohort, they found.
Sociodemographic characteristics are associated with the pathways out of cohabitation—break ups or marriages—and changes among the cohabiting population’s characteristics can be reflected in changes in cohabitation outcomes. Yet while the researchers noted that the cohabiting population grew in size, became more racially and ethnically diverse and more highly educated, and had more births while living together, they found these compositional changes had little impact on the changes in cohabitation outcomes across the two cohorts.
What does this finding mean? The researchers conclude that the limited impact of population composition changes on cohabitation outcomes, combined with the decline in marrying a cohabiting partner among women with less education, suggests that the social class divide in the American family appears to be widening.
Their findings also “diminish the traditional view of cohabitation as a prelude to marriage” for women with less education and show, particularly for this population, that “cohabitation is increasingly serving a role similar to that of traditional marriage in offering a viable context for childbearing and child-rearing.”
Although cohabiting relationships may be lasting longer, they remain relatively unstable. Kasey Eickmeyer, now at the Center for Policing Equity, reports, “Millennials experienced more relationship instability during young adulthood than earlier birth cohorts of women.” She found that cohabitation experience accounted for this instability.
Eickmeyer asked whether young women see their intimate live-in relationships (either marriage or cohabitation) end more frequently today than earlier generations.3 She analyzed data from multiple cycles of the NSFG to examine women’s experience of ending marriages and cohabiting relationships when they were ages 18 to 25 across several five-year birth cohorts from 1960 to 1985.
She found that among women who had ever married or cohabited, the share breaking up with a live-in partner increased from 31% among women born between 1960 and 1964 to 44% among women born in 1985 to 1989.
Cohabitation explains this increasing likelihood of experiencing a breakup. Compared to women in the 1985-1989 birth cohort, women in the earlier birth cohorts from 1960-1964 through 1975-1979 were significantly less likely to have one or more live-in partnerships end. Once Eickmeyer accounted for women’s cohabitation experience, she found that young women’s increased likelihood of having an intimate partnership end is because union formation during young adulthood shifted from marriage—a relatively stable union—to cohabitation, a relatively unstable union.
As more young women enter into and end cohabiting relationships, they have more opportunities to live with multiple partners in a pattern of serial cohabitation. The growing practice of serial cohabitation reflects in part changing attitudes about couples living together without marriage.
Eickmeyer and Wendy Manning wanted to know whether contemporary young adult women who had ever cohabited are more likely to re-partner than prior cohorts of young women.4 Using data from the 2002 and 2006-2013 NSFG, they compared the cohabitation experience of young women ages 16 to 28 across five-year birth cohorts beginning in 1960 through 1980 to examine trends in serial cohabitation.
They found that early Millennial women (born 1980-1984) were 53% more likely to live with more than one romantic partner during young adulthood compared with the late Baby Boomers (born 1960-1964), even after taking into account sociodemographic characteristics such as race and ethnicity and educational level, and relationship characteristics such as their age when their first cohabiting relationship ended and whether they had children.
Not only were early Millennial women more likely to live with more than one partner without marriage, they also formed subsequent cohabiting relationships more quickly than the late Baby Boomers—dropping from nearly four years between live-in relationships to just over two years.
The characteristics most strongly associated with serial cohabitation—such as identifying as non-Hispanic white, having less than a college education, and growing up with a single parent—remained stable across birth cohorts, Eickmeyer and Manning found. And, much like the cohabiting population, the composition of women who had previously lived with a partner changed across cohorts, but this shift does not explain the increase in serial cohabitation.
The researchers conclude that the increase stems from more young adults cohabiting, the continued instability of cohabiting relationships, the increasing length of time between first cohabitation and first marriage, and the growing acceptance of cohabitation during young adulthood.
Their findings highlight the instability in many contemporary young adults’ lives and the increasing role cohabitation plays in relationship churning. Although multiple live-in romantic relationships could have negative consequences for young adults’ well-being (and any children they may have), Eickmeyer and Manning suggest “that young adult relationships may be evolving, and young women may be learning to end coresidential relationships that are not working.”
This article was produced under a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The work of researchers from the NICHD-funded population dynamics research center at Bowling Green State University (P2CHD050959) was highlighted in this article.