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Cohabitation Precedes Rather than Replaces Marriage

For most Russians, their first experience of cohabitation is as a precursor to marriage. Younger Russians, however, pursue a variety of matrimonial strategies, which often include cohabitation as an alternative to official marriage, according to Ekaterina Mitrofanova, Junior Research Fellow at the HSE's Institute of Demography, and Alyona Artamonova, Bachelor student at the HSE's Faculty of Social Sciences.

In many Western European countries, cohabitation is no longer seen as abnormal behaviour, but rather as an alternative to formal marriage. Similar trends have emerged in Russia, although less noticeably, since most Russians continue to perceive cohabitation as a ‘trial marriage’. However, for the younger generation, cohabitation increasingly replaces marriage, conclude Artamonova and Mitrofanova in their paper 'Is Cohabitation an Alternative to Marriage in Russia?', presented at a seminar hosted by the HSE's Institute of Demography.

The paper is based on the findings from three waves (2004, 2007 and 2011) of the study 'Parents and Children, Men and Women in Family and Society' conducted by the Independent Institute for Social Policy. Mitrofanova and Artamonova examined a subsample of the broader survey, including 4,880 respondents born between 1930 and 1986. The researchers considered only the first live-in unions, as most Russians have had only one marriage and/or cohabitation during their lifetime.

Marriage Remains a Matrimonial Strategy of Choice

For a long time in Russia, marriages occurred early and were almost universal without any meaningful alternatives. Extramarital relationship were looked down upon and usually ended in official marriage, often in the wake of a pregnancy (see ‘Out of Wedlock Does Not Mean Fatherless).

The timing of a first marriage has shown a noticeable upward trend since 1993 (see S. V. Zakharov, Marriages in Russia: Past and Present//Demoscope Weekly. 2006. Nos. 261-262), due, inter alia, to the country's socioeconomic transformation and the emergence of new values ​​and lifestyles (see ‘Young People Seek Self-fulfillment). The number of informal unions has also increased, while the age of people entering such unions has decreased.

"However, cohabitation cannot yet be described as an independent social institution," the authors note, explaining that cohabitation is still seen as a ‘trial marriage’.

Artamonova and Mitrofanova examined various possible scenarios for first cohabitation and found that just 9% of the sampled cohabitations continued at the time of the survey, suggesting that this type of union appears to be unstable.

The remaining 91% of first-time cohabitations in the sample either broke up (15%) or led to a formal marriage (76%). In the former case, cohabitation was considered an independent type of union, while in the latter case, it was considered a preparatory phase to – indeed, a trial version of – official marriage. By the time of the survey more than a third (35%) of such marriages had ended in a divorce, yet in 41% of cases the marriage continued.

Cohabitations Partially Replace Marriages

The researchers broke down all incidents of standalone and 'trial marriage' cohabitations by sex and generation to show an evolution of society's attitudes towards unregistered unions among generations born between the 1930s and the 1980s.

The proportion of people who started their matrimonial biography with an informal relationship has remained about the same over the years, yet more Russians born in the 1970s and 1980s, i.e. those aged 28 to 44, accept cohabitation as a standalone social institution.

Comparisons across Generations

Only a very small proportion of those born in the 1960s (4% of men and 5% of women) consider cohabitation a valid alternative to marriage, comparable to the oldest part of the sample born in the 1930s (1% and 4%, respectively) and to those born in the 1940s and 1950s.

However, significantly more Russians – 8% of men and 9% of women – born in the 1970s consider informal unions a standalone arrangement in its own right, while the proportion of women born in the 1980s who accept cohabitation as an alternative to marriage tripled compared to women born in the 1960s.

That said, the perception of cohabitation as a trial version of marriage is more common and shared by 29% of men and 32% of women born in the 1960s, and 32% of men and 37% of women born in the 1970s. It is too early to draw conclusions about the views of the 1980s generation towards matrimony, but the proportion of those sharing the 'trial marriage' approach is much lower among them, at 11% of men and 21% of women.

Younger Couples Prefer Cohabitation

The report's authors estimated the likelihood of entering one's first live-in partnership – marriage or cohabitation – after reaching the age of 15 for different generations.

According to Artamonova and Mitrofanova, the younger the respondent, the higher are his or her chances of first-time cohabitation rather than formal marriage, as reflected in the totally different patterns of the blue curves corresponding to the 1980s generation on the left side (cohabitations) and the right side (marriages) of Graph 3; likewise, the left and right patterns of the red curves corresponding to the 1970s generation also differ, although less markedly.

Gender, education, and the place of residence were important variables in the models. Women tend to enter their first union earlier than men, but the likelihood of marriage evens out for both genders by the age of 30, according to the authors.

Russians with university-level education are less likely than those with general school or vocational education to enter any union, whether cohabitation or marriage, at an early age. People living in big cities are more likely to choose cohabitation over formal marriage as their first-time union, reflecting a change in values among urban residents, as opposed to rural areas where people are more likely to stick to traditions and prefer registered unions to informal partnerships.

Overall, most cohabitations lead to marriages and thus serve as 'trial marriages', but for younger Russians, cohabitation is increasingly a standalone type of union, particularly for urban residents who are more likely to break conventional stereotypes.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, February 10, 2015