Living together: facts, myths, about “living in sin” studied

February 7, 2000

Living together: facts, myths, about “living in sin” studied

ANN ARBOR—Living together has gone from being a relatively rare situation to nearly the norm in the United States, according to a University of Michigan researcher.

The percentage of marriages preceded by cohabitation rose from about 10 percent in 1965 to over 50 percent by 1994, according to Pamela J. Smock, a sociologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), the world’s largest academic survey and research organization.

And the percentage of women in their late 30s who said that they had cohabited at least once reached 48 percent in 1995.

“This is quite a striking shift,” says Smock. “My sense is that the general public and many social scientists seriously underestimate both the prevalence and the significance of cohabitation in changing the life course of individuals and the general contours of the American family.”

Smock is the author of an article on cohabitation in the United States to be published in the 2000 volume of the Annual Review of Sociology. In the article, she reviews, interprets, and synthesizes the latest social science research on cohabitation, and offers explanations for the dramatic increase in a practice that was considered socially unacceptable just 30 years ago.

For most couples, she points out, cohabitation tends to be fairly short-lived. “The most recent estimates suggest that about 55 percent of cohabiting couples marry and 40 percent end the relationship within five years,” she says. “Only about one-sixth of cohabitations last at least three years and only one-tenth last five years or more.”

Contrary to the popular image that living together is about nothing but lust, cohabitation often includes taking care of, not just making, children. “About one-half of previously married cohabitors and 35 percent of never-married cohabitors have children in the household,” says Smock. “In about 70 percent of the cases, these are the children of only one partner. The rest of the time, they are the biological offspring of the couple. In fact, about 40 percent of children born to supposedly ‘single’ mothers today are actually born into two-parent, cohabiting households. And about two-fifths of all children in America spend some time living with their mother and a cohabiting partner.”

Research confirms the common impression that there are differences between people who cohabit and those who don’t, according to Smock. On average, their socioeconomic status tends to be slightly lower, they tend to be slightly less religious and they tend to be slightly more liberal and supportive of egalitarian, non-traditional gender and family roles. “But these differences are minor,” she notes. “Cohabitation is now common among all groups of people.”

While common sense suggests that premarital cohabitation should offer couples an opportunity to learn about each other, increasing their chances for a successful marriage, the evidence suggests just the opposite, Smock finds. “Premarital cohabitation tends to be associated with lower marital quality and increased risk of divorce,” she says.

In recent years, many patterns of cohabitation seem to be changing, Smock says. “Lower proportions of cohabiting couples are marrying and more are breaking up,” she notes. “Women in the 90s were more likely than women in the 80s to cohabit rather than marry in response to pregnancy. Together, these trends suggests that cohabitation is becoming more a substitute for marriage, rather than a form of engagement that culminates in marriage.”

As major changes in the American family continue, Smock believes that it is time to bring the complexity of contemporary living arrangements into the public discourse. “Discussing family structure primarily in terms of marital status can seriously distort our understanding,” she notes. “For example, almost one-half of all stepfamilies involve a biological parent and his or, more typically, her, cohabiting partner.

“The prevalence of cohabitation, and of the presence of children in cohabiting unions, indicates how family life in the United States is being transformed, with legal marriage losing its primacy as the manifest center of family ties.”

Smock’s research on cohabitation was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world’s oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. Visit the ISR Web site at for more information.

Pamela J. SmockAnnual Review of SociologyNational Institute of Child Health and Human DevelopmentSurvey of Consumer Attitudes