Sharon Sassler, Ph.D., and Amanda Miller, Ph.D.

Cohabitation Nation

Is Cohabitation the New Conventional?

How couples view their careers can teach us about gender and relationships.

Posted Jul 18, 2019

Oberholster Venita/Pixabay
Source: Oberholster Venita/Pixabay

Marriage rates today are at a historic low, as couples tie the knot less frequently (and at older ages) than in the past. Other trends portend a “liberalizing” of the American family as well. There are currently high rates of births outside of marriage, support for decoupling parenthood from marriage is at an all-time high among millennials, and divorce is up among those in midlife.

Couples who have children without being married, get divorced, or delay or forego the institution of marriage are not living lives of solitude, however. They are living together outside of marriage. In fact, as of 2016, 18 million people lived together in cohabiting unions.

At one point in time, cohabitation was considered to be the union choice either for those too poor to marry or the avant-garde who eschewed marriage. Now, however, the majority of recent marriages were preceded by cohabitation. With so many couples cohabiting (or having cohabited), it is quite likely that the views cohabitors hold on a range of issues—from maternal employment to how couples should divide housework—are quite similar to those of married couples. So, are cohabitors the new traditionalists?

In fact, in our research with Daniel Carlson, we find that around 40 percent of the 61 cohabiting couples we interviewed did have a quite conventional work orientation, more similar to the Leave it to Beaver outlook than not. That is, they had fairly traditional ways of thinking about both their own careers and their jobs in relation to those of their partners.

For these couples, most intend for both partners to work, but view the man’s job as more central—he is the one whose career gets top billing in the family, whose job determines where couple will live (or if they will move), and who receives more privileges (such as being able to do less housework), as a result of his job. 

For these couples, this “King of the Castle” view holds whether or not his job is actually more prestigious, better-paying, or requires more hours per week. Many of these couples planned for the female partner to become the primary parent in the future, working part-time or leaving the workforce for a period of time to be with children.

Based on this, yes, cohabitation is the new conservative model of family. Such views (as well as behaviors) are not randomly dispersed throughout the sample, though. Adherence to these more conventional arrangements is more often held by middle-class, college-educated couples (who generally do not yet have children) than by their less-educated peers who work in service sector jobs.

Lest we think that women with college degrees are the new Stepford Wives, however, it’s important to note that roughly 20 percent of the couples we studied are following a far more egalitarian pathway—or even reversing convention entirely.

Again, more common among the college-educated, a number of couples are those who equally privilege one another’s careers, taking turns advancing up the ladder, for example, or, in rare instances, even see the female partner’s more specialized job and greater earnings potential as the one which should receive the most focus.

So what of their service class peers—couples in which both partners tend to have a high school diploma or some college education? They have much more variation in their work orientations. These couples often consist of partners for whom work is a low priority or those in which at least one partner has few plans for advancement, but is a stable worker.

This makes sense given the types of jobs that service-class individuals tend to be in. After all, financially and practically, it is difficult for those working in fields like retail and telemarketing to move up through the ranks—or ultimately to be able to afford to have one partner stay home part-time with children.

How are couples to navigate this Brave New World of family formation and negotiation of work and family roles? Couples who have clearer social scripts to follow (whether that be “traditional breadwinner/homemaker” or “egalitarian power couple”) tend to experience greater relationship stability than those who do not, in larger part because they have societal expectations to fall back on and are not trying to constantly renegotiate gendered norms anew.

Whether they are moving toward a marriage like the Cleavers’ or more like the executive and physician couple, like the Johnsons of TV’s Blackish, it is not surprising, then, that the college-educated are moving into marriage at higher rates than their peers. As we argued in our most recent work, “unless there is a change in the nature of jobs available for those without college educations, the divergence in marriage rates—and relationship satisfaction—between service-class and middle-class cohabitors is likely to continue.”

Rather than focusing on marriage as the panacea for all that ails today’s families, a more productive approach would be to make it easier to be partners, workers, and parents—by providing paid parental sick leave, easier pathways to educational attainment and off-routes that are not laden with crushing debt, and affordable childcare. 

What today’s alternative families need, after all, are not all that different from what their more-traditional counterparts—married couples—also seek. 

Cross-posted from the Council on Contemporary Families Blog @ The Society Pages with permission.

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