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Family relationships are normally viewed as unchanging and fixed institutions in many parts of the world, but in reality, these relationships are established upon ever-changing systems that have gradually brought substantial changes in the way this institution operates. In the USA like in many other societies especially those of the developed world, individuals now have a variety of choices to make regarding family life. During the last century, substantial changes occurred within American families many of which resulted in a more varied pattern of Americans’ general outlook towards the family unit and family formation. Throughout the 20th century, dynamic changes took place within the family institution that resulted in increased frequency of cohabitation relationships and divorce. By the close of the century, many families had experienced the impact of divorce and as a result, many single adults now opted to cohabit with members of the opposite sex rather then get married. The stability and health of the once stable American family was now at great risk of disintegration (Coleman, Ganog and Warzinik 2007).
Cohabitation is the term used to describe an intimate sexual relationship between two unattached partners who opt to share residence for a determined period. This practice has substituted marriage for many couples in the United States of America (USA) but differs from the marriage institution along several dimensions. Unlike marriage, cohabitation has no specific legal obligations or rights on the part of the couples involved, and it is also a less permanent type of union. Cohabiters are unlikely to undertake any joint financial obligations and their sexual activities are less exclusive (Waite and Barchrach 2000). In a cohabitation type of relationship, the non-parent has no legal, supervisory, custodial or financial responsibilities towards the child/children. Cohabiting partners are likely to cheat on one another (Tolson 2005).
In most of the industrialized world, intimate sexual relationships had a very steady trend in which falling in love led to marriage, and raising of children crowned the relationship thereafter. But this trend has drastically changed and intimate sexual relationships are getting more complicated by the day. In most of these societies including the USA, cohabitation has become an easy alternative to marriage for many couples. Most young adults have the tendency to live together before marriage and a good number of them may choose to stick to such a union, even raising children out of casual relationships. Premarital cohabitation is today an acceptable social norm in the US society where statistical research on this issue indicates that as far back as the early 1990s, 56% of women in their first marriage had cohabited before legalizing their relationship. In 1995 alone, about one-fifth of all single women between 19 years of age to 44 years were living with partners. According to the U.S. Census Bureau Estimates, the number of cohabiting heterosexual couples increases from 440,000 in the year 1960 to a soaring 3.8 million couples in 2000 ((Waite and Bachrach 2000 ; Farley and Haaga 2005).
Besides substituting marriage with cohabitation, many couples are also getting married at a higher age than was earlier the case, whereby the mean marriageable age for women has risen to, 24.8 years and 27.1 years for men. Declining rates of marriage have been most noticeable among African Americans of both sexes. And while postponing marriage, cohabitation has become for most couples, the best substitute to enjoying an intimate sexual relationship (Waite and Bachrach 2000). For women, cohabitation is a pre-run for marriage while for men; it is something that should be done before getting into a commitment. Most young adults also confess that they cohabit because marriage is still not an important issue in their minds; at least for some time and it can therefore be shelved for a later date (Jayson 2005).
The change in marriage behavior is highly associated with variations in certain conditions that directly affect this union such as, changing cultural norms, economic systems, social systems and political institutions. Good education is increasingly becoming a determining factor for living an affordable life because it increases the prospects of a good career. This means that more people are today spending a considerable number of years pursuing higher education and in the long run postponing the age at which they are getting married. Those unable to go far have more difficulties trying to establish themselves financialy and cohabitation has become a substitute to the long wait for marriage. For men, the chance and opportunity to marry are closely tied up with their financial stability largely due to societal expectations, that all men should be able to give the expected support to their families. Women will therefore judge prospective partners on the basis of their long term ability to provide within a marriage. This explains the reason why marriage for most people especially the men comes soon after or even long after graduating from school. Those men that are have not made beyond high school form the largest number of cohabiters. After all their prospects for a good career are low, and in cohabitation the role of primary breadwinner does not exert much pressure on their lives. Cohabitation is good ground for people who are financially unstable to live together until they are emotionally and financially ready to live together in a long-term relationship or marriage (Waite and Bachrach 2000).
Gendered expectations that a man should be able to provide for his family have not changed much even with modernization and equal job opportunities for both sexes. Working women have not embraced the idea that wives are equally expected to financially contribute to household and as a result, low income and joblessness for men decreases their opportunities for getting an eligible partner as this will increase the already high costs of marriage for the women. However, education has also gradually changed the cultural norm about a woman’s place being in the house. Economic demands on life can no longer be met by the man alone and married women are increasingly being required to support their families. Women are also competing with the men for high level careers meaning that the marriageable age for both sexes is being pushed further down the years. This factor has also reduced the incentive for women to marry for the simple reason that working and homemaking is too much responsibility for many of them. More women also expect their male counterparts to contribute to household duties and thus cohabitation becomes good ground for women to assess prospective suitors’ ability and willingness to adapt to such a change (Waite and Bachrach 2000).
For women, the fear of unexpected pregnancies has been reduced by development of modern contraceptive methods that have proved very reliable. This means that women are now free to engage in intimate relationships without worrying about the outcome of pregnancy. Birth control also means that women are able to postpone the age at which to have children. The institution of marriage is also loosing its glamour due to the increasing rate of divorce in modern US society and because marriage has therefore proved to be less permanent, many couples choose no to get involved in it for fear of the repulsive effects that come with divorce. Permanence in the marriage institution is very crucial as it gives confidence to those desiring the same. Many couples in the USA are today less sure if marriage will last a lifetime and it is due to this uncertainty that many couples find cohabitation a better type of union for the lack of permanency already associated with it. Divorce also impacts very heavily on children, affecting greatly their future attitude towards the marriage union. Because many of them resent a repeat of the experience especially within their own relationships, cohabitation serves as a very good alternative to marriage. After all separation or dissolution of a cohabitation would be less expensive economically, socially and even psychologically (Waite and Bachrach 2000; Jacobsen 2007).
Societal attitudes, norms and values towards the institution of marriage have changed. In the USA, attitudes towards pre-marital sex, childbearing and cohabitation have changed tremendously since the 1970s and disapproval of the same has remained very low since the 1990s. The result is that parenthood and intimate relationships outside marriage have become socially less costly and many couples either delay marriage or choose no to marry at all, making cohabitation a very popular practice (Waite and Bachrach 2000). For most young adults also, sexual intimacy has preceded love and single-parent families have become very common. Education has ensured that most single mothers are financially independent and can live on their own (Farley and Haaga 2005). Most of the women who fall pregnant before marriage therefore prefer to cohabit than get into marriage, an indication that this has become a very popular alternative of raising children in an alternative kind of family kind of set up. In reality, about 40% of families perceived to be single parent households are in actual fact, two partner cohabitations (Tolson 2000).
The legal and social policies that had previously governed this practice have gradually lost meaning since the 20th Century. Previously unmarried partners had for example been denied access to hotel rooms and landlords were biased against renting residence to such couples. The result of relaxing these rules was a huge increase of cohabiting partners and by the year 2000, unmarried couples constituted about 4% of the total number of American households. To the younger adults, cohabitation was becoming more acceptable as a lifestyle, while older divorced or separated adults also opted for cohabitation rather than daring to repeat past mistakes. In the year 2000, the percentage of young adults in such kind of a relationship was 25% for women and 16% for men. Among older adults especially over 65 years of age, about 4 % were cohabiting. The rates of cohabitation escalated for both whites and blacks in US society but rates were higher among individuals with little education or rather, those who did not make it beyond high school.
For some especially the young adults, cohabiting makes life cheaper in terms of shared rent, mortgages or utility bills and marginalized people are also not under any social obligation to marry. Cohabitation before marriage has also been widely accepted as a courtship process before legalizing the union. Many American couples go through this stage of mate selection. Birth control methods have also increased sexual activity during the courting process, premarital sex is no longer a social ill, and many couples start cohabiting when a relationship gets serious. Living together has therefore become a very common method of testing the compatibility of a couple.
In the early decades of the 20th century, cohabiting was mainly common among couples that hade experienced the ugliness of divorce for the fear of involving themselves in long-term commitments once again. But it was also an acceptable practice within some ethnic groups for example the Latin Americans from Puerto Rico. By the end of the century, cohabitation was an alternative among individuals of all ethnicities and races. The traditional order of getting married first and having children afterwards had now reversed to children first, and marriage would possibly follow if the cohabitation worked out.
There is an attitude that has griped American society whereby people want to exercise individual rights but with less or no responsibility at all and this trend has impacted very strongly upon the family in this nation. People are increasingly avoiding the commitment that comes with marriage and in the process; the American family structure has become the weakest among the developed countries. The rate of marriage is steadily declining and as more people make the choice to cohabit rather than get married, instability in the family institution will certainly be on the increase. This is due to the lack of seriousness for commitment that characterizes cohabited unions. As much as marriages continue to break up, cohabiting couples continue to have a higher rate of break ups than married couples (Johnson 2008).
Heterosexual couples living in cohabitation make up 18% of all US coupled households (Johnson 2008; Harvey and Weber 2002).). In the USA, the tendency among cohabiting couples to marry or dissolve the union is higher than in any other developed nation and cohabitation has outdone marriage for most first partnerships. The decision to marry or to dissolve cohabitation will normally take place within 5 years into such a relationship. But this type of union may soon change from a short-lived affair to a long-term type of arrangement (Chase-Lansdale, Kiernan and Friedman 2004).
In many industrial nations, the institution of marriage has of late become less permanent and more optional. The major reason explaining this is the fact that marriage, sexuality, childbearing and cohabitation have become very closely linked concepts, a factor that has led to very many changes in the family life (Chase-Lansdale et al., 2004). Although the cohabitation culture has affected the entire US population, there are distinctive variations across different ethnic and racial groups. African Americans are more involved in raising children through cohabitation than whites and other racial groups and they also rarely convert such unions into marriages. In the USA, cohabitation is relatively brief for most couples whereby majority either terminate the relationship of opt to marry after living together for a few years and gaining the confidence that a long-term relationship is workable. Estimates indicate that about one sixth of cohabiting couples remain in the union for three years and roughly, one tenth live together for 5 years and above. African Americans prefer to separate from such a union rather than convert it into a marriage. Cohabitation is more common in a selected group of people than others whereby the less religious, more liberal and those in favor of an egalitarian type of family set up (Chase- Lansdale et al., 2004).
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In America today marriage has lost its importance as the channel for bearing and raising of children and the institution of marriage has become less attractive to most Americans today. Single-hood and childlessness have become acceptable social norms and there are other options for getting children such as fostering and adoption if the need for a child arises. Americans today also tolerate alternative arrangements of living than they did in the past and there are fewer stigmas associated with alternatives to marriage such as cohabitation, single-motherhood and gay unions. It has now become an individual’s responsibility to make a decision about the kind of relationship he/she wishes get involved in.
Cohabitation has had very serious implications upon the family unit, institution of marriage, and the American society as a whole. Through cohabitation, most couples are now delaying the age at which to get married and the age at which to have children is also rising. Because it is more attractive to less serious couples, cohabitation is highly threatened by dissolution in such instance that the arrangement fails to work out and if by any chance such couples get married, the rate of break-up is even higher. Cohabitation therefore undermines the stability of any subsequent marriages (Farley and Haaga 2005).
Lifelong marriage has historically been very successful as the basic unit for child socialization but in contemporary American society, this institution is gradually falling apart. Divorce is tearing down this institution with such high magnitude that most people are no longer attracted to marriage for the emotional, economic, and psychological effects that divorce has had or may have upon their lives. After all, more than 50% of all first marriages taking place in the US today will eventually end up in divorce. 60 % of remarriages are also likely to end up in permanent separation. People can now get together just for companionship and sexual intimacy through cohabitation (Grigorenko and Sternberg 2001).
Lesbian and gay persons are also increasingly getting out of their hiding to demand for legalization of their type of unions and also to demand for their rights. Most young people are slowly losing the picture of a real family union and are adapting to the culture that seems most attractive to them, cohabitation (Harvey and Weber 2002). About 40% of all US children will also have spent some part or all of their childhood in a cohabited type of relationship and whether the union results in marriage or remains that way, this set up remains very familiar with them and they will refer to it in future (Coleman et al. 2007).
Cohabitation, like marriage, ensures that those involved have readily available and reliable sexual partners although most cohabiting couples have reported lower sexual satisfaction than married couples. Because of its temporal nature, there is less emotional investment into the union thus affecting both the frequency of sex and satisfaction of the same. The high rate of shift from marriage to cohabitation portrays a lack of commitment in relationships whereby most people especially the men, exchange freedom for the endurance required in marriage. Most people are of the view that cohabitation is a very poor bargain for the women. Investment in one another is also less likely because of the lack of a proper legal framework to sort out matters in the event of a separation and most couples operate independent financial lives while sharing only the necessary expenses (Etzioni 1998).
Cohabitation will remain a good alternative to marriage while for others; it is still a stage in the courtship process. For the less serious towards their relationships, it will remain a convenient arrangement of practicing an intimate relationship (Waite and Bachrach 2000).
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