Much has been made of the rising median age at first marriage among young adults in America. But as two recent articles note, the historic delay of marriage in America has not corresponded with a delay in forming intimate, coresidential relationships.
First, in a recent Journal of Marriage and Family article, Wendy D. Manning, Susan L. Brown, and Krista K. Payne note that “Even though young men and women are waiting longer to tie the knot, this does not mean that they are waiting until their late 20s to form coresidential relationships.” They report that for 74 percent of women and 82 percent of men, their first coresidential relationship was in a cohabiting relationship, not marriage. Moreover, even as the median age at first marriage rose from the mid 1980s to the late 2000s, the median age at first cohabitation slightly decreased, from 22.8 to 21.8 for women, and from 23.9 to 23.5 for men.
In other words, even as men and women are delaying marriage until the later 20s, they are not delaying cohabitation.
Moreover, there are marked differences between those with a college education and those without. Among college graduates, 50 percent of women ages 35-44 had ever cohabited, compared to 67 percent for high-school-educated women, and 73 percent for women without a high school diploma.
For women without a college education, age at first cohabitation is even more striking. In the mid-1980s, the median age at first cohabitation for women with a high-school education stood at 22.2. In the late 2000s, it had dropped to 19.9. Moreover, the proportion of high-school educated women whose first coresidential relationship was cohabitation increased dramatically from the mid-1980s to the late 2000s, from 56 percent to 89 percent. But for college-educated women, it stayed virtually the same: from 55 percent to 56 percent.
In summary, as the authors report, “Men and women with the highest educations were waiting to cohabit and marry, whereas those with the lowest education levels were waiting to marry but not cohabit.”
Second, in a February 2014 Journal of Marriage and Family article, Jonathan Vespa examined the prevalence of serial cohabitation, and whether marital intentions are sensitive to a person’s cohabitation history. He found that one of four women born between 1978 and 1982 had been in at least two cohabiting relationships, compared to only one in ten women born between 1958 and 1962. Moreover, among women who have ever cohabited, about one in three have cohabited serially.
What about intentions to marry? Vespa’s research shows that for women born between 1978 and 1982, only 14 percent of serial cohabitors started their second cohabiting union with intentions to marry. But even when controlling for serial cohabitors, young women in the youngest cohort (born between 1978 and 1982) were more likely to begin cohabiting without intentions to marry than older cohorts. As Vespa notes, commenting on this change, “Cohabitation has been detaching from marriage”—with serial cohabitors the furthest detached from marriage. For an increasing number of couples, Vespa notes, it appears that cohabitation is no longer necessarily a “stepping stone into marriage,” but a decision “motivated by convenience or a desire to spend time together.” (Scott Stanley has written in this space about a separate study’s documentation of this trend.)
One further finding from Vespa’s research is worth noting: among young women who had ever cohabited, the most recent cohort was significantly less likely to have lived with both biological parents while growing up than older cohorts. Moreover, women who did live with both biological parents and had ever cohabited were more likely to have begun cohabiting with marriage intentions than cohabiting women who did not live with both biological parents.
My own interviews with working-class young adults lead me to believe that insofar as cohabitation is becoming detached from marriage for more young couples, it is not necessarily because those young adults enter adulthood dismissing marriage altogether. Instead, as one cohabiting young woman had put it to her boyfriend, “If you rush into things, what is that gonna do besides lead into another divorce?” Even if a cohabiting person may not have intentions to marry his or particular partner at a particular moment, to them, cohabitation could be part of a larger strategy to avoid divorce. And that attitude appears to be shared beyond the working class: A majority of high-school seniors accept the idea that “It is usually a good idea for couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along.”
Of course, whether living together before marriage—particularly starting in one’s late teens and early twenties, and then doing so with multiple partners—strengthens the likelihood of lifelong marriage is another question. One study found that the likelihood of divorce for serial cohabitors was more than twice as high as for women who cohabited only with their eventual husbands. Another study found that couples who cohabited before engagement reported poorer relationships than those who did not cohabit until after engagement or marriage.
While many young adults are understandably cautious about rushing into marriage, the troubling relationship outcomes of serial cohabitors suggest that there is also good reason to be cautious about rushing into a cohabiting relationship.