Volume 31 - Article 34 | Pages 1043–1078

Towards a new understanding of cohabitation: Insights from focus group research across Europe and Australia

By Brienna Perelli-Harris, Monika Mynarska, Ann Berrington, Caroline Berghammer, Ann Evans, Olga Isupova, Renske Keizer, Andreas Klärner, Trude Lappegård, Daniele Vignoli

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Date received:27 Nov 2013
Date published:12 Nov 2014
Word count:10384
Keywords:cohabitation, Europe, family, marriage, partnership, relationships, unions
Weblink:You will find all publications in this Special Collection “Focus on Partnerships: Discourses on cohabitation and marriage throughout Europe and Australia” at http://www.demographic-research.org/special/17/


Background: Across the industrialized world, more couples are living together without marrying. Although researchers have compared cohabitation cross-nationally using quantitative data, few have compared union formation using qualitative data.

Objective: We use focus group research to compare social norms of cohabitation and marriage in Australia and nine countries in Europe. We explore questions such as: what is the meaning of cohabitation? To what extent is cohabitation indistinguishable from marriage, a prelude to marriage, or an alternative to being single? Are the meanings of cohabitation similar across countries?

Methods: Collaborators conducted seven to eight focus groups in each country using a standardized guideline. They analyzed the discussions with bottom-up coding in each thematic area. They then collated the data in a standardized report. The first and second authors systematically analyzed the reports, with direct input from collaborators.

Results: The results describe a specific picture of union formation in each country. However, three themes emerge in all focus groups: commitment, testing, and freedom. The pervasiveness of these concepts suggests that marriage and cohabitation have distinct meanings, with marriage representing a stronger level of commitment. Cohabitation is a way to test the relationship, and represents freedom. Nonetheless, other discourses emerged, suggesting that cohabitation has multiple meanings.

Conclusions: This study illuminates how context shapes partnership formation, but also presents underlying reasons for the development of cohabitation. We find that the increase in cohabitation has not devalued the concept of marriage, but has become a way to preserve marriage as an ideal for long-term commitment.

Author's Affiliation

Brienna Perelli-Harris - University of Southampton, United Kingdom [Email]
Monika Mynarska - Uniwersytet Kardynała Stefana Wyszyńskiego w Warszawie, Poland [Email]
Ann Berrington - University of Southampton, United Kingdom [Email]
Caroline Berghammer - Vienna Institute of Demography (Austrian Academy of Sciences), Austria [Email]
Ann Evans - Australian National University, Australia [Email]
Olga Isupova - National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE), Russian Federation [Email]
Renske Keizer - Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, the Netherlands [Email]
Andreas Klärner - Johann Heinrich von Thünen-Institut, Germany [Email]
Trude Lappegård - Universitetet i Oslo, Norway [Email]
Daniele Vignoli - Università degli Studi di Firenze, Italy [Email]

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