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The Family as an Institution Tends towards Informality

An unregistered marriage or partnership can be similar to an official marriage or to being single. In her article «We Just Live Together», Olga Isupova, Senior Research Fellow at the HSE Centre for Demographical Studies, examines the reasons for the growing popularity of cohabitation

Many factors are causing the expansion of civil marriages among both young and middle-aged couples. These include uncertainty about a relationship, a reluctance to make commitments, fear of divorce, being in a same-sex partnership, and revolting against official institutions, eg marriage. In her article, «We Just Live Together», published in the HSE's Demoscope online journal, Olga Isupova presents a geographical and social typology of cohabitation.

Unofficial Marriage as a Light Version of Marriage

The institution of the family has undergone changes in both developed and developing countries. No matter what theories people use to explain this trend, its purpose is clearly to lighten the 'marital yoke', Isupova explains.

Notably, both men and women are choosing informal unions. The more the state insists on formal marriages, the less likely people are to enter into them – for a variety of reasons. The Second Demographic Transition theory that humankind has transitioned from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates can provide ideological reasons for cohabitation. On the one hand, the social norms prescribing marriage are less imperative, and on the other hand, people are showing a preference for more equitable, autonomous, and individualistic partnerships over traditional marriage. This theory is popular in Europe; it describes typical cohabitants as well-resourced people with good educations and high incomes.

In contrast, the Pattern of Disadvantage theory, popular in the United States, says that cohabitation is not an option for the elites, but instead is preferred by uneducated, low-income people who are uncertain about their capabilities. Such people «are not attractive marriage material and can only expect to attract less than good, in terms of human capital, relationship partners,» Isupova explains. Cohabitation in this case is an alternative to staying single.

However, cohabitation is too complex a phenomenon to be explained by any one theory. While the majority of people who choose cohabitation tend to have limited resources and opportunities, they can also make their choice in the spirit of the Second Demographic Transition for ideological reasons, such as avoiding financial responsibility (for men) or unpaid household work (for women), fear of entering a committed relationship with an unreliable person, and others.

Perhaps certain answers can be found by constructing a typology of cohabitation based on various criteria, with an understanding that different types of people choose it for different reasons.

Nicole Hiekel, a Dutch demographer (Hiekel, N., Liefbroer, AC, & Poortman, A.R. The Meaning of Cohabitation across Europe), proposed one such typology in 2012.

A Social Panorama of Cohabitation

According to Hiekel, cohabitation serves either as a prelude (including three options) or as an alternative (including two options) to marriage, or as an alternative to singlehood. Isupova examines each option in detail.

Cohabitation as a stage in the road to marriage. In this case, marriage remains a highly accepted institution, but cohabitation is becoming increasingly popular as a normative stage in the transition to marriage. It could be, Hiekel suggests, that new standards of demographic behaviour have arisen that favour marriage to be preceded by a period of unmarried cohabitation. Here, cohabitation may take three different forms.

First, cohabitation can be considered a form of ‘engagement’, in which couples have definite plans to marry their partner. Second, cohabitation can be viewed as a testing ground for marriage and a way to find out whether the live-in partners have compatible personalities. And third, the choice to cohabitate can be related to socioeconomic expectations, such as getting a degree, finding a stable job or housing, etc. Once the situation improves, the couple is likely to get married.

Cohabitation as an alternative to marriage. In this case, the institution of marriage is losing its appeal and unmarried cohabitation is increasingly taking its place. Ideological reasons may be involved, eg marriage is perceived as being outdated. Such couples are considered to be in a stable, long-term relationship, to value personal autonomy, and to have liberal attitudes with regard to gender roles and the division of labor. However, cohabiters may also decide not to marry because marriage is not relevant to them. Since being legally married would not make any difference for their relationship, they are in a way married, just not in the legal sense.

Cohabitation as an alternative to singlehood. Another view on cohabitation stresses the similarities between cohabitation and singlehood, and between cohabitation and marriage. Here, cohabitation is seen as a dating relationship between partners who do not perceive it as something serious. Curiously enough, such cohabitation can be long-term.

Yet another type of cohabitation is a visiting relationship, usually chosen by those who prefer to see each other periodically, but are not sure that they want a committed relationship. This type of union includes couples who used to live together, but then tired of each other and decided to live separately.

A Geographical Panorama of Cohabitation: The Former USSR

Of the former countries of the Soviet Union, Estonia has the highest out-of-wedlock birth rate; it reached almost 60% in the post-Soviet 2000s.

Incidentally, Estonia also sets a European record, along with Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (where almost half of all children are born out of wedlock). Perhaps, one reason for the prevalence of cohabitation in Estonia is the sizeable education gap between men and women – in favour of the latter. At 44%, the out-of-wedlock birth rate in Latvia is also high.

In Russia, the out-of-wedlock birth rate is moderate at around 26%, similar to that of the U.K. (25%), Lithuania (28-29%), Ukraine (22-23%, an increase from 20% in 2005), and Moldova (24%).

Georgia deserves a special mention in this respect. With 55% of its children born out of wedlock, this post-Soviet country ranks second only to Estonia, but the reason for this may be that Georgian state power is weak and perceived negatively by the public. «A huge proportion of marriages are not registered with the authorities, even though they usually involve a church wedding or a family celebration,» Isupova explains.

Cohabitation Has Negative Connotations

In Russia, this term has negative connotations, but attitudes towards unofficial marital unions have been swinging back and forth like a pendulum throughout Russian history.

Before the Communist Revolution of 1917, marriages had to be performed in a church to be recognized as legitimate.

Between 1926 and 1944, de facto marital relations were partly equivalent to a formal marriage – partners could claim their share of property after a breakup, but only if they cohabited and shared a household. In fact, cohabiting partners had the same rights to property, inheritance, pensions, and benefits, as legitimate spouses. However, this situation often led to polygamy, since a man could have de facto marital relations with several women.

The 1969 RSFSR Code of Marriage and Family recognized registered marriage as the only legitimate marriage, as did the 1995 Russian Family Code. However, the Supreme Court’s Plenary Resolution of 1998 referred to 'registered' and 'unregistered' marriages, indicating some recognition of the latter.

Trends in Civil Partnerships

Cohabitation has become a norm in the Nordic countries, France, and the Netherlands (see Civil Marriages Protect the Institution of Family), but places still exist in Europe where it is uncommon. These include the Southern European countries, Flanders, and Scotland.

In Italy and Spain, few young adults enter into unions of any type; young people tend to delay marriage, but once they decide to tie the knot, they prefer a legal marriage.

Local customs have been relaxed even in more patriarchal countries with conservative attitudes toward marriage. Islamic law in the Middle East prohibits cohabitation, but allows 'light' forms of marriage – eg for students.

Unregistered marriage is considered unacceptable in India, but the young people in that country’s big cities increasingly prefer such relationships.

In countries where divorce is prohibited – as it used to be in Latin America – the growth in cohabitation serves as a form of protest among those who have avoided family ties and those whose marriages have de facto collapsed. In the early 2000s, 21% of marital unions in Argentina and Brazil were informal.

The more governments insist on a tough policy toward marriage, the more couples resist it. «Giving some form of recognition to de facto marriages appears to be a more reasonable policy,» Isupova concludes.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, March 07, 2014