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Marriage Rate and Age
Attitudes about Sex
Cohabitation was considered disreputable (“living in sin”), often illegal, and quantitatively unimportant throughout most of the century. It became legal around 1970 with the removal of statutory restraints such as false registration laws, which prevented unmarried couples from checking into a hotel, and customary restraints, such as the refusal of landlords to rent to unmarried couples. As the chart indicates, by 1998, more than 7 percent of all American couples were cohabiting. Their actual numbers increased eightfold, from 523,000 couples in 1970 to 4.2 million in 1998.
While the chart represents a time series of cross-sections, data from longitudinal surveys provide a more in-depth look at this trend. The 1987–1988 National Survey of Families and Households, for example, found that 44 percent of those who married between 1980 and 1984 had cohabited with someone beforehand. The 1995 National Survey of Family Growth found that 51 percent of women aged thirty to thirty-four had cohabited before marriage or were cohabiting at the time of the survey. At the end of the century, a large proportion of newlyweds lived together before the wedding with the full knowledge of their relatives and friends. Many cohabiting couples rented an apartment or purchased a house together with no more difficulty than married couples.
For some couples, cohabitation was something like the “trial marriage” advocated by family reformers in the 1920s. If the trial was successful, the couple married within a few months or years. Unsuccessful unions were terminated more quickly.
Like other types of familial behavior, the propensity to cohabit was influenced by age, ethnicity, and education. Those most likely to cohabit were young adults, non-Hispanic whites, and people who never graduated from high school.
SA 1987, tables 54 and 55; SA 1998, tables 62 and 64; and SA 1999, tables 65 and 68. For possible reasons for the rise in cohabitation, see Andrew J. Cherlin, Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), pages 12–13. See also SA 1999, table 66. For differential rates of cohabitation by education and other factors, along with an overview of the literature on cohabitation, see Pamela J. Smock, “Cohabitation in the United States: An Appraisal of Research Themes, Findings, and Implications,” Annual Review of Sociology 26 (2000):1–20.