As the title of the recent book, Cohabitation Nation, emphasizes, living together outside of marriage has become normative across the board in the United States; nonetheless, authors Sharon Sassler and Amanda Miller describe how the experience of cohabitation differs profoundly by social class. They argue that for college-educated couples, cohabitation is “but a stopover on the way down the aisle,” while “for the moderately educated, cohabitation has become a waiting room, and many of its occupants wait indefinitely for a time when their financial situations allow them to either marry or separate.”
A long-standing argument for the class divide is that marriage is “out of reach” for less advantaged couples, particularly when the male partner does not have good job prospects: Modern marriage is more of a capstone testifying to success rather than a cornerstone to build a future on together, plus men’s provider role remains a central part of marriage. Cohabitation has thus become a “waiting room” in part because of the hollowing out of the American class structure, meaning that working-class jobs are increasingly unavailable. Sassler and Miller chose the term “service class” to refer to the kinds of jobs now typically available to those without college degrees, including retail, telemarketing, and food production jobs. These are not the assembly line jobs of yesteryear that could support a family at a secure blue-collar level: They are less stable and carry fewer benefits. Having one does not put marriage within reach.
Sassler and Miller also extend the story about how class conditions the experience of cohabitation through their interviews with both moderately-educated and college-educated cohabitants. It turns out that the moderately educated not only lack the resources to convert their cohabitations into marriages, but they are also often initially motivated to move in together for financial reasons (because two can live as cheaply as one). Fully half of the service-class cohabitors in Sassler and Miller’s study moved in together during the first six months of their relationship, compared to less than a quarter of the middle-class couples. They write:
Couples that are romantically involved for over a year before moving in together are substantially more likely to be considering their relationship futures than are couples who begin shared living within three or four months as a result of a need for a place to live or because they lost their jobs or had their hours cut at work.
Several of their service-class respondents thought that moving along too quickly contributed to conflict in their relationships. In contrast, young adults who were able to continue living with their parents or who had the resources to live alone were more likely to cohabit only after they were ready to test their relationships for marriage. In other words, even if the college educated didn’t have a secure job, they had other resources that helped them slow down the tempo of romantic relationships. Small wonder that Sassler and Miller advocate for roommate matching services in their concluding chapter.
Their over-arching story is one in which the successful trajectories of relationships among the college educated “began before these couples ever met.” Relationship success was grounded in good communication skills and support from family and friends, but it also—crucially—was augmented by the planning with which college-educated cohabitors approached their relationships. The moderately educated paid the price for making relationship decisions in response to urgent (rather than long-term) needs. This included less effective forms of contraception that could be secured without taking time off from work for doctor’s appointments, and without insurance (their data were collected before Obamacare).
Sassler and Miller also underlined a dominant theme from other work, namely that relationship planning shouldn’t be conceptualized as some kind of personality trait or moral virtue, but should also be understood as a product that emerges from predictable circumstances: it makes more sense to defer childbearing until marriage if marriage can be seen on the horizon; it makes less sense if marriage is around a corner that can only be turned if a job that may never materialize is secured. College-educated couples were more likely to talk about time tables for relationship progression, while moderately-educated couples were more likely to note the circumstances that had to be in place before a relationship could become more serious. The moderately educated did not have predictable time tables that would facilitate this type of planning.
Because of the advantages college-educated cohabitors had relative to their moderately-educated counterparts, they also found the experience of cohabitation more pleasant. They were more likely to talk about the convenience of living together, rather than disputes about electric bills or fidelity.
While I am completely persuaded that different social classes experience cohabitation in different ways, I do not agree that Sassler and Miller have shown that “rather than challenging the institution of marriage, cohabitation is part of the process” for the college educated. They concede that “at least among the less educated, cohabitation is weakening the institution of marriage, because it reveals how arduous it can be to remain together ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer,’” but contend that the more educated face a smoother road along which cohabitation is a pleasant stopover on the way to marriage.
The core of my disagreement has to do with the types of relationships that are being compared. Sassler and Miller fairly compare the cohabitation experiences of the moderately vs. college educated, but assessing the impact of cohabitation on marriage among the college-educated requires comparisons of marriages preceded by cohabitation with marriages that are not preceded by living together (and also requires assessing how the development of a “cohabitation nation” affects all couples). Put differently, Sassler and Miller have successfully shown that cohabitation is an institution that undermines relationship stability differentially by social class, but they have not shown it to be innocuous among the college educated.
Laurie DeRose is a Research Assistant Professor at the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland at College Park, where she has served since its inception. She is also Director of Research for the World Family Map project.
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.