Attitudes and Intentions to Marry – a Typology of German Cohabiters

Unmarried cohabitation has become an inherent part of Europe’s demographic landscape. Its increasing popularity has fuelled the public and scientific debate on whether cohabitation has become a life stage preceding marriage or whether it is about to replace marriage altogether. Our recently published paper explores whether there are specific types of cohabiters who are more likely to get married than others.

Previous typologies emphasized that in order to grasp the diversity of cohabiters it is important to take marriage plans into account. We proposed a typology in which we combined such marital intentions with a general attitude towards marriage in order to better understand the various reasons for which cohabiters may (not) plan to marry. Additionally, combining intentions and attitudes enabled us to explore whether those who plan to marry despite less favorable attitudes towards marriage differed in their likelihood to realize their wedding plans compared to cohabiters whose intentions and attitudes were congruent.

Moreover, the study addressed the social and cultural context of cohabitation. We compared relationship trajectories of cohabiters in eastern and western Germany: Two regions that— despite aligned institutional conditions since the reunification in 1990 —continue to differ in relationship patterns and family behavior and the social acceptability of unmarried cohabitation.

We used data from four waves of the German Family Panel (PAIRFAM) and a supplementary study with a specific focus on eastern Germany (DEMODIFF). The first wave was launched in 2008/09 and subsequent waves were conducted annually. For this study we followed 1,258 cohabiting men and women for up to four years. Half of the cohabiters we studied were cohabiting for at least three years when they were initially interviewed.

Indeed, the cohabiters in our study had various reasons not (yet) to marry (see Figure 1). Some of them felt that their relationship was not yet ready for marriage; others considered it unimportant to marry though some of them had stronger ideological resentments than others. Interestingly, only a relatively small group of cohabiters with marital intentions were explicitly positive about marriage (prelude to marriage type). An even larger share of cohabiters with plans to marry was indifferent or even negative about the importance of marriage (conformist type). Incongruent plans and attitudes concerning marriage may reflect a perceived absence of alternatives to marriage. Hence, conformists may prefer to postpone or forego marriage but succumb to normative pressure or to a partner who urges them to marry. Other incentives to marry, such as the legal recognition of a union, could also play a role.

The distribution of cohabitation types across Germany was largely similar in the western and eastern German subsamples, yet we identified some clear differences. Eastern German cohabiters more often viewed their union as an alternative to marriage which can be explained by a longer history of cohabitation in this part of the country. At the same time, conformism was also more prevalent which indicates that eastern Germans are more pragmatic about marriage, maybe also because they are less religious than western Germans.

Figure 1: Cohabitation typology and prevalence in Germany


We hypothesized that the chance of getting married would be highest for cohabiters who viewed cohabitation as a prelude to marriage and lowest for those who ideologically rejected marriage. Cohabiters who were not yet ready to marry would be somewhere in between.

Indeed, we found marked differences in the transition to marriage by type of cohabiter. Cohabiters who viewed cohabitation as a prelude to marriage had the highest likelihood of getting married. The conformists were less likely to marry than cohabiters in the prelude to marriage type but they were more likely to marry than other types of cohabiters. Cohabiters whose plans and attitudes are congruent rather than conflicting were indeed more successful in realizing a marriage. Unsurprisingly, cohabiters without marital plans and less positive attitudes about marriage had the lowest chance of getting married and particularly the ideology driven cohabiters avoided marriage. But even some of them married which suggests that they may have had other incentives to marry. As expected, those who did not feel ready to marry laid somewhere in between.

We expected to find differences between eastern and western Germany due to stronger marriage norms in western Germany, resulting in a higher likelihood to marry for all types of cohabiters. We also suggested that such norms might be particularly relevant for cohabiters in the ideologically driven type of cohabitation as this is particularly at odds with the predominant meaning of cohabitation in this part of the country. In fact, we did not find any differences in the association between type of cohabitation and marriage formation between the two regions. This suggests that the cohabitation typology proved useful as a means to understand differences in the relationship careers of cohabiters in both regions.

To conclude, our typology of cohabitation that combines marital intentions with marital attitudes not only allows us to grasp the diversity of cohabitation — which will only increase with the ongoing diffusion of cohabitation but also enables us to describe and explain the different relationship careers of men and women by types of cohabiters. This study shows the importance of “soft” indicators, such as attitudes and norms, to analyze demographic behavior in general and the consequences of the growing popularity of unmarried cohabitation in particular.


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Nicole Hiekel

About Nicole Hiekel

Nicole Hiekel is an assistant professor at the Department of Sociology and Social Psychology at the University of Cologne, Germany and affiliated to the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute, The Hague, The Netherlands. She received her Ph.D. from the VU University Amsterdam for her dissertation: "The different meanings of cohabitation across Europe. How cohabiters view their unions and differ in their plans and behaviors" (2014). Nicole's research interests are in the field of family sociology and social demography.

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