Unmarried heterosexual cohabitation has increased sharply in the recent years in the United States. It has in fact become so prevalent that the majority of marriages and remarriages now begin as cohabiting relationships, and most young men and women cohabit at some point in their lives. It has become quite clear that understanding and incorporating cohabitation into sociological analyses and thinking, is crucial for evaluating family patterns, people’s lifestyles, children’s wellbeing and social changes more broadly. This essay presents some common explanation for cohabitation’s dramatic rise and identifies some analytic questions as to how cohabitation is increasingly a major barrier in the marital stability in the United States.
Cohabitation, over the last two decades has gone from being a relatively uncommon social phenomenon to a commonplace one and has achieved this prominence quite quickly. A few sets of numbers convey both the change and its rapidity. The percentage of marriages preceded by cohabitation rose from about 10% for those marrying between 1965 and 1974 to over 50% for those marrying between 1990 and 1994 (Bumpass and Lu 1999, Bumpass & Sweet 1989); the percentage is even higher for remarriages. Secondly, the percentage of women in their late 30s who report having cohabited at least once rose from 30% in 1987 to 48% in 1995. Given a mere eight year tome window, this is a striking increase. Finally, the proportion of all first unions (including both marriages and cohabitation) that begin as cohabitations rose from 46% for unions formed between 1980 and 1984 to almost 60% for those formed between 1990 and 1994 (Bumpass and Lu 1999).
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