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Cohabitation in America has nearly doubled over a quarter-century, according to a new analysis of Census Bureau data by researchers at Bowling Green State University.
Using data from 2011 to 2013, researchers found nearly two-thirds of women ages 19-44 had cohabited at some point and some had experienced serial cohabitation, said Wendy D. Manning, co-director of Bowling Green's National Center for Family and Marriage Research, who analyzed data with doctoral student Bart Stykes to look at race/ethnicity, education level and other distinctions.
Recent increases are largest among those who have attended at least some college, she said, explaining they analyzed the data on cohabitation by women because the data was tracked that way, but "I would imagine it's about the same for men."
"We thought maybe the number had plateaued," Manning said, "but it continues to rise. Now about two-thirds have ever cohabited. That's really striking."
The increase, she noted, has been faster for older age groups and for more highly educated people in recent years. It's possible, she said, that's because it was already high among people with lower levels of education.
In the United States, cohabitation is usually short-lived; it often constitutes a longer-term relationship in countries like France and Sweden, said Andrew J. Cherlin, sociologist at Johns Hopkins University and author of several books on marriage and family structure, including "The Marriage-Go-Round."
The new analysis doesn't show how many cohabiting partners an individual had, but Manning said people "might be starting and ending more relationships before they actually get to marriage."
The differences are also starting to blur, she added, across education lines. It's been noted for a while that college-educated couples are more apt to marry, while those with less education are less likely to marry. But many of both groups live with a romantic partner at some point, including close to half of college graduates and three-fourths of those who only attended high school.
The analysis found that the "unions" of young folks, 19 to 24, are mostly cohabiting relationships. Some experts, Manning said, believe that it doesn't necessarily mean they are rejecting marriage, "but it could have something to do with the recession. They're waiting to get married until they're economically set." What hasn't changed is the "expectation, even with these age groups, that they will still marry. But they also increasingly expect to live with someone."
Many experts have looked at cohabiting and its impact from different angles. Most say children in cohabiting families tend to have less stable lives.
The National Marriage Project's "Before I Do" report looked at premarital experience and the quality of subsequent marriages for young adults. It said past relationship quality had direct bearing on marital quality and that "deciding" instead of "sliding" through relationship transitions led to better marriages.
Manning and her colleagues hope to closely examine differences in cohabiting among people with different education attainment. They want to know whether a woman lived with her spouse or someone else before she got married and explore a range of topics, including serial cohabitation.