Volume 33 - Article 12 | Pages 327–362  

Commitment and the changing sequence of cohabitation, childbearing, and marriage: Insights from qualitative research in the UK

By Ann Berrington, Brienna Perelli-Harris, Paulina Trevena

This article is part of the Special Collection 17 "Focus on Partnerships: Discourses on cohabitation and marriage throughout Europe and Australia"


Background: In the United Kingdom, standard, traditional sequences of family events have been replaced by a de-standardized life course; marriage is postponed and no longer necessary for childbearing; unmarried cohabitation has increased. New sequencing raises questions about the meaning of cohabitation and marriage in peoples’ lives.

Objective: We ask whether, and to what extent, the new sequencing of life events implies a shift in commitment in cohabitation, potentially giving rise to new expressions of commitment and understandings of cohabitation.

Methods: We analysed data from eight focus groups conducted in Southampton, England, by deductively following major themes outlined in the cross-national focus group guidelines, and inductively using themes raised by the respondents themselves.

Results: Personal commitment is similar in cohabiting and marital relationships, although marriage is perceived to embody greater moral and structural commitment. Since marriage is no longer required as a public display of commitment, the wedding has become more important as a symbolic event. Public displays of commitment are increasingly occurring in other ways, such as childbearing and joint mortgages, demonstrating that cohabiting couples can be as committed as married couples. Although couples discussed ways in which commitment could grow over time, this progression was not necessarily talked about in relation to the timing of childbearing. Highly educated groups seem to have a greater expectation than less educated groups that childbearing will follow marriage.

Conclusions: Commitment levels are no longer ascribed solely by union type, but rather by other life events and the couple's own perceived level of commitment.

Author's Affiliation

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