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Cohabitation - Reasons For Cohabitation

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Many observers have assumed that the trend toward cohabitation and later marriage signifies a breakdown of the traditional family. However, this standpoint rests on a limited understanding of family relationships. The notion of the traditional family is mostly a discursive construction, and, as such, it ultimately fails to comprehend the historical complexities of family relationships. For example, as Andrew Cherlin (1992) points out, the pattern of later marriage is anomalous only in comparison to the 1940 to 1960 marriage pattern. The men and women born between 1920 and 1945 married at earlier ages than any other cohort in the twentieth century.

The average age of first marriage in late twentieth century actually suggests a return to the pattern that prevailed at the turn of the century. Evidence given by Catherine Fitch and Steven Ruggles (2000) shows that, in 1890, the median age at marriage of white U.S. men was twenty-six and twenty-two for white U.S. women. From this longterm peak, the decline between 1890 and 1930 (which was especially large for men) was followed by a sudden, acute drop dating from about 1940 to 1960. By 1960, the average age of marriage for men was twenty-two and less than twenty for women. These ages have rapidly increased since the 1970s. By 1980, the average ages at marriage were about twenty-four and twenty-two, respectively; by 1990, about twenty-six and twenty-four. The key point here is that the timing of marriage can widely fluctuate in the long term. Such vicissitudes are not necessarily caused by the so-called breakdown of the family, but are usually symptomatic of specific historical conditions.

The notion that cohabitation somehow represents a collapse of the traditional family is inaccurate considering the historical prevalence of nonmarital union and broad shifts in the timing of marriage. Indeed, the intensification of cohabitation is associated with factors integral to the institutionalization of the nuclear family in the 1950s. According to Cherlin (1992), the pattern of early marriage prevalent in the late 1940s and the 1950s was partially caused by peace and prosperity, both of which released a social demand for marriage that had been suppressed by the Great Depression and World War II.

In the United States, the proliferation of the nuclear family was encouraged by governmentguaranteed mortgages, of which millions of families took advantage to purchase single-family houses outside of the cities. The postwar economic boom created a large, stable market of high-paying (family-wage) employment for men, and this made the nuclear family more or less self-sufficient. This period emphasized home and family life, which partly accounts for the baby boom, which followed the marriage boom. Many of the values associated with these trends were projected (and disseminated) through the popular media. Television programs such as Leave it to Beaver centered on Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver and their children and had little to do with grandparents, uncles, and aunts. The new focus on the nuclear family signified a disintegration of extended kin networks. The postwar retreat into the nuclear family marked the progressive development of individualism because it was a step away from group-oriented family life. As the bonds between individuals and wider kin networks weakened and even dissolved, people gradually began to seek meaning through more self-oriented goals and values, particularly those realized through spousal relationships (Cherlin 1992).

Cherlin (1992) remarks that there was no reason for individualism to stop at the nuclear family since personal fulfillment and family obligations could often conflict. Moreover, the general economic expansion, which made the nuclear family secure, also created a large job market for women. More and more women began either to delay marriage or to balance paid employment and family responsibilities because of high demand for their labor in the service sector. Women's new-found financial independence and the spread of more individual-centered values eventually contributed to the instability of marriage. Changes in social standards meant that people no longer felt as obligated to remain in unhappy marriages. Financial independence meant that they did not have to. Besides increasing the divorce rate, changes in postwar economics and ideas caused the rise in delayed marriage and cohabitation.

Gary Becker (1981) argues that a couple marries because they realize economic benefits from each other's specialized skills. These skills (which are rooted in the gender division of labor) created economic interdependence between men and women, and marriage became the institution that reproduced their economic security. According to Becker, the single most important factor underlying social transformation related to lower fertility, divorce, and cohabitation has been the rise in the earning power of women. An essential change in the gender division of labor has followed women's increased participation in the waged labor force. This change has reduced the economic advantages and necessity of marriage, and consequently, divorce rates have increased and marriage rates have decreased. The reduced benefits of marriage and the specter of marital instability have made nonmarriage more attractive. Reduction in the expected economic gains from marriage has made men and women more hesitant to enter marital unions, but a shared household still offers economic advantages. Cohabitations make good sense because they capitalize on the benefits of a shared household without the economic risks associated with marriage.

Valerie Oppenheimer (1994) explains patterns of cohabitation from another economic perspective. She suggests that rather than being a result of women's growing economic independence, the decline in marriage more closely relates to the deterioration of men's position in the labor market. Oppenheimer's theory holds considerable explanatory value because periods of early marriage have typically paralleled periods with strong labor markets. Oppenheimer argues that because marriage timing usually corresponds to men's ability to establish an independent household, reduction in their earning power temporarily prices them out of the marriage market. However, even though economic costs delay marriage, they do not affect the desirability of union as such, and because of its lesser costs, cohabitation has emerged as an important alternative to marital union.

Apart from economic explanations, changes in social norms bound up in the rise of individualism also explain the increase in cohabitation. Perhaps more than anything else, it is this shift in thinking that separates contemporary cohabitation from past. For the most part, trends in historical cohabitation were associated with the ambiguity between legal and common-law marriage, or with the availability of officials to formalize marriages. By contrast, contemporary cohabitation behavior is a conscious choice, one that expresses the tension that has developed between personal goals and social norms. In this respect, cohabitation has increased because marriage can often decrease or disrupt individual goal attainment.


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