Grasping the Diversity of Cohabitation: Fertility Intentions Among Cohabiters Across Europe

The rising importance of unmarried cohabitation in the demographic landscape is part of a whole array of ongoing changes in families and relationships in contemporary Europe; for example fewer people marry, more marriages end in divorce and fewer children are born than in the past. The diversity in the ways in which cohabiters view their relationship has consequences for the plans and behaviour of cohabiters in these relationships. In our recently published paper, we examine the association between different meanings of cohabitation and plans to have children.

It has become increasingly common that people live together in a relationship without being married, they do so for longer periods in their lives and more cohabiters have children in these relationships. In the scientific and public debate alike, cohabitation is often discussed as if all cohabiters would cohabit for the same underlying reasons. But different people cohabit for different reasons. It is this diversity in the ways in which cohabiters view their relationship that is the focus of this research on fertility intentions of different types of cohabiters.

The study draws on data from the Generations and Gender Surveys on 5,565 cohabiters from nine European countries (Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Norway, Romania, and Russia). We propose a typology that aims to grasp different views on cohabitation and portray the prevalence of different types of cohabitation across Europe. The typology is based on three indicators, namely cohabiters’ plans to get married, their attitudes towards the institution of marriage, and their feelings of economic deprivation. We then examine the linkages between the meaning of cohabitation and short-term plans to have a child, comparing childless cohabiters and cohabiters who already have a child together and exploring variation in this association between Eastern and Western Europe.

We show that, across Europe, cohabitation is a heterogeneous phenomenon with various meanings attached to it. The majority of cohabiters view their relationship as a step on the road to marriage. They cohabit as a prelude to marriage or because they are still testing their relationship (i.e. trial marriage). Cohabiters might also postpone marriage because getting married can be expensive or is perceived as needing a more sound economic footing than cohabitation (i.e. too poor to marry). Some cohabiters plan to marry despite a less favourable view of marriage and thus might succumb to normative pressure to get married (i.e. conformism). Another group of cohabiters view their relationship as an end in itself. They either reject the institution of marriage (i.e. refusal of marriage) or consider marriage irrelevant.

European countries differ in how common cohabitation is and which legal rights and responsibilities are granted to cohabiting couples. Nevertheless, we find a relatively large share of cohabiters who already have children with their partner across Europe and the countries of the former Soviet bloc are no exception. Cohabiters in Eastern Europe, where cohabitation is less diffused and accepted, are, however, more oriented towards marriage than their Western European counterparts.

Cohabiters in various types of cohabitation differ in their short-term fertility plans. These linkages were most pronounced among cohabiters who do not yet have children together but have also been found among cohabiting parents. Cohabiters who view their relationship as a prelude to marriage or are classified as conformists have the highest odds of reporting plans to have a child within three years. This implies that across Europe, marriage and family formation are still linked life events. The anticipation of marriage might increase cohabiters’ willingness to make life long commitments such as planning and having children with their partner. Cohabiters who were not ready yet to marry because they were still evaluating their relationship or for economic reasons as well as those who view cohabitation as an alternative to marriage were less likely to report plans to have a child.

Finally, the way in which types of cohabitation are associated with childbearing plans did not differ across Europe. Although Eastern European cohabiters who already have a child with their partner have been found to have lower odds of intending to have another child, this difference could not be explained by a weaker or stronger association between certain types of cohabitation and fertility intentions. This finding implies that our cohabitation typology successfully grasps diversity within and across countries in the way cohabiters attach meaning to their relationship and is a useful tool to advance our understanding of the differences in childbearing plans of cohabiters in various contexts.

This post has been jointly written by Nicole Hiekel and Teresa Castro-Martin, a Research Professor at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) in Madrid.


Nicole Hiekel & Teresa Castro Martin, (2014), Grasping the diversity of cohabitation: Fertility intentions among cohabiters across Europe, Journal of Marriage and Family 76, 6, 489-505, doi: 10.1111/jomf.12112

This entry was posted in Fertility, Inequality and Poverty, Youth by Nicole Hiekel. Bookmark the permalink.
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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>