When thinking about differences and similarities between marriage and cohabitation one thing that tends to get overlooked is that, in terms of people’s reasons for making these commitments, neither is homogeneous; just as there are many and varied reasons for deciding to get married, the same is largely true of decisions about whether to cohabit.

Smart and Stevens’ (2000) explored some of these reasons and identified two broadly different (ideal) types of cohabitative commitment through their interviews with 40 separated parents. This research identified a number of broad reasons for cohabitation:

1. Attitudes to marriage: These ranged from indifference to marriage to being unsure about the suitability for marriage of the person with whom they were cohabiting.

2. “Trial marriage”: For some of the mothers involved, cohabitation represented a trial for their partner to prove they could settle-down, gain and keep paid work and interact successfully with the mother’s children. In other words cohabitation for these female respondents was intended to be a test of their partner’s behavior and intentions and, in consequence, a trail period prior to any possible marriage commitment. Related to this idea Self and Zealey (2007) suggest that one reason for the general rise in cohabitation in the UK over the past 25 years may be the trend for both males and females to marry later in life; prior to marriage (which still seems to be a long-term goal for the majority) both males and females move into and out of serial cohabitation (one cohabiting relationship followed by another).

How we interpret the significance of this situation depends, to some extent, on our general perspective on family life and relationships; on the one hand it could be seen as indicating a general unwillingness to commit to long-term marriage-type family relationships (either through choice or some other intervening factor), while on the other it could indicate a desire on the part of both men and women to take appropriate steps to ensure that when they do commit to something like marriage it is with a partner they already know a great deal about (sometimes referred-to as a contingent commitment – couples are willing to commit to each other in the long-term depending on how their relatively short-term cohabiting relationship works out).

3. Legal Factors: Many cohabiting parents were either unwilling to enter into a legal relationship with their partner (often because they were suspicious of the legal system) or because they believed it easier to back away from a cohabiting relationship if it didn’t work-out as they’d hoped.

4. Opposition to marriage as an institution was also a factor, with some parents believing cohabitation led to a more equal form of relationship.

One outcome of their research was that Smart and Stevens (2000) noted two basic forms of “commitment to cohabitation”:

1. Contingent commitment involved couples cohabiting “until they were sure it was safe or sensible to become permanently committed or married”.

2. Mutual commitment involved the couple feeling as committed to each other and their children as married couples.

The ideas behind these two types of commitment are summarised in this PowerPoint Presentation or, if you prefer, this short film:

Finally, we can note that Lewis et al (2002) found three distinct orientations to cohabitation in their sample of 50 parents who had cohabited, had a child and then separated:

1. Indistinguishable: Marriage and cohabitation were equally preferable.

2. Marriage preference: One or both partners viewed cohabitation as a temporary prelude to what they had hoped would be marriage.

3. Cohabitation preference.


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