To marry or to separate. The association between meaning of cohabitation and relationship transitions of cohabiters in different European countries

Nicole Hiekel, Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI)

We propose a typology of different meanings of cohabitation based on cohabiters’ attitudes towards marriage and their intentions to marry. We distinguish five types of cohabitation: cohabitation as a prelude to marriage, because one is not ready yet to marry, as a rejection of marriage, and because one considers marriage irrelevant. Finally, there is a group of cohabiters who plan to marry despite their unfavorable opinion about marriage and we call them conformists. We examine whether the types of cohabitation are differently associated with subsequent marriage and separation in Austria, France, Germany and Hungary. Using data (N= 2,316) from the Generations and Gender Surveys as well as the German family panel (Pairfam) and a supplementary sample (DemoDiff), we find that cohabiters constitute a heterogeneous group. Competing risk analyses show that cohabiters who consider cohabitation a prelude to marriage or are classified as conformists are indeed most likely to marry and least likely to separate. Cohabiters who refuse marriage or consider it to be irrelevant are least likely to marry but also most likely to dissolve their union. This is a surprising finding as the more permanent types of cohabitation are usually characterized as stable and committed unions. Cohabiters who are not ready yet to marry lie in between both extremes. This suggests on the one hand that they consider marriage important but not necessarily at this point in time and on the other hand that they consist of an overrepresentation of bad matches, hence unions that will rather dissolve than proceed to marriage. Preliminary analyses on cross-national variation suggest that the composition of meanings of cohabitation differs across countries and might be related to the societal diffusion of cohabitation. Moreover, separate country analyses suggest that the meanings of cohabitation are similarly associated with relationship transitions across Europe.

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Presented in Session 1: Cohabitation on both sides of the Atlantic