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Cohabitation Is Rising Globally

Cohabitation is rising, but a new ruling proves we still have ways to go.

Key points

  • Living with a partner and establishing a partnership without being married is becoming more universally acceptable.
  • Cohabitation rates are expected to moderate relationship patterns where cohabitation and marriage are clearly distinguishable.
  • The consequences of such a cultural change will be that relationship formation becomes more varied across the globe.
A new court ruling proves we have a long way to go in relationship-diversity
Source: Photo by EKATERINA BOLOVTSOVA from Pexels

Boris Johnson and his partner, Carrie Symonds, live together as the first unmarried couple in No 10. Downing Street. But while cohabitation is celebrated in some parts of the world, it is not in many other parts.

A Zimbabwean woman has just won a $650,000 (R10 Million) award from the estate of her late partner after a long process in the country’s Constitutional Court. The only problem was that she cohabited with her partner instead of marrying him. The court finally ruled that such relationships are a legitimate family structure, and deserved respect and recognition under the law.

Indeed, there is a cultural shift affecting the proportion of singles in the population across the globe. Fears of commitment to marriage and aversions to the risk of divorce are contributing to the number of couples choosing to cohabitate for significant periods of time before getting married, or indeed cohabitate indefinitely without getting married at all [1-3].

Once frowned upon, the option of living with a partner and establishing a partnership without being married is becoming more universally acceptable. In some cases, cohabitation is as common or more common than marriage [4, 5]. The increased legitimacy of cohabitation, as well as increasing frustration or disillusion with the institution of marriage, has resulted in more couples choosing not to get married [6, 7].

In some contexts, there is an immediate impact on the proportion of singles in the population; cohabitating relationships are less stable and more short-lived than are marriages, and are more likely to end up in separation, independent of age, income, or the number of children [2]. As such, a higher proportion of individuals are expected to spend longer periods of time as singles (certainly not a bad thing in and of itself).

Care should be taken, however, in estimating the significance of cohabitation trends and opinions on relationship patterns. In some contexts, cohabitation has become closer to marriage both socially and legally, with common marriage law providing similar rights to formal marriage commitments in the U.S., Australia, and Europe [8]. To that end, it could be that the effect public opinion on cohabitation has on relationship formation and dissolution is moderated by the extent to which cohabitation is an acceptable replacement for formal marriage. In other words, if cohabitation was truly indistinguishable from marriage legally and socially, cohabitation trends would not have a significant effect on the proportion of singles in the population. Some have argued that this is already the case in parts of Mexico and Latin America [9, 10].

Cohabitation rates are expected to moderate relationship patterns where cohabitation and marriage are clearly distinguishable. Currently, this would include most countries and societies, though a blurring of the differences between the two could eventually make the difference between cohabitation and marriage less relevant.

In any case, cohabitation is rising globally. In the U.K., for an obvious example, the overall number of families rose by 8 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Yet, the number of cohabitating couple families grew faster than married-couple families, up 25.8 percent over the decade. The sure consequence of such a change is that relationship formation becomes more varied across the globe, and it is time to discuss the implications of such a change.

Elyakim Kislev (Ph.D.) is the author of Happy Singlehood and Relationships 5.0.


1. Lewis, J., The End of Marriage? Books, 2001.

2. Morgan, P.M., Marriage-lite: The rise of cohabitation and its consequences. Vol. 4. 2000, London: Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society.

3. Sweet, J.A. and L.L. Bumpass, Young adults views of marriage cohabitation and family. 1990.

4. Heaton, T.B. and R. Forste, Informal unions in Mexico and the United States. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 2007: p. 55-69.

5. Martin, T.C., Consensual unions in Latin America: Persistence of a dual nuptiality system. Journal of comparative family studies, 2002. 33(1): p. 35-55.

6. Zimmermann, A.C. and R.A. Easterlin, Happily ever after? Cohabitation, marriage, divorce, and happiness in Germany. Population and Development Review, 2006. 32(3): p. 511-528.

7. Bramlett, M.D. and W.D. Mosher, Cohabitation, marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the United States. Vital health statistics, 2002. 23(22): p. 1-32.

8. Perelli-Harris, B., et al., Towards a deeper understanding of cohabitation: insights from focus group research across Europe and Australia. Demographic Research, 2014. 31(34): p. 1043-1078.

9. Esteve, A., et al., The Expansion of Cohabitation in Mexico, 1930-2010: The Revenge of History?, in Cohabitation and Marriage in the Americas: Geo-historical Legacies and New Trends, A. Esteve and R. Lesthaeghe, Editors. 2016.

10. Esteve, A., R. Lesthaeghe, and A. López‐Gay, The Latin American cohabitation boom, 1970–2007. Population and Development Review, 2012. 38(1): p. 55-81.

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