More and more people across Europe are choosing unmarried cohabitation as their preferred partnership arrangement. Some cohabitations are a temporary prelude to marriage, while other are more permanent. One often hears that marriage is an unnecessary formality and the marriage license is the only difference between marriage and cohabitation. But is this really the case?
In a new study, Martin Kreidl (Masaryk University) and Zuzana Žilinčíková (Université Catholique de Louvain) examine how marriage and cohabitation differ in their effect on attitudes toward family dissolution. Using panel data from the Generations and Gender Programme for nine countries, they investigate how the permissiveness of union dissolution changes after people transition into a coresidential union.
They show that cohabitation makes people more tolerant of union dissolution, whereas marriage strengthens a less tolerant view. Furthermore, this study also documents that union duration matters: the longer someone cohabits, the more non-traditional their attitude becomes. Interestingly, these findings hold across countries in the study regardless of the prevailing type of unmarried cohabitation in that context.
This effect of union choice might explain why cohabitations – even cohabitations in which children were born – are less stable than marriages. It may also explain why (as has been found in the U.S.) premarital cohabitation destabilizes subsequent marriage.
On a large scale, this research reminds us of the role of cohabitation in current demographic trends. While the rise of unmarried cohabitation is usually seen as stemming from the growth of liberal values, this study shows that liberal attitudes and cohabitation reinforce each other: cohabitation also functions as a catalyst of value change. With growing prevalence of cohabitation, further strengthening of liberal values is to be expected.