Why cohabiting, living together without being married, why not marrying? A young student in my class raised his hand: „I want to be free, not take responsibility“. He hit the point.
A demographic study carried out by social scientists in different European countries was looking how people understand cohabitation in different European countries. They let focus groups discuss the matter. The analysis showed similarities as well as differences.
In all those countries – Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Italy Poland, Norway, UK – commitment was the point of difference. If they marry, people feel more committed, emotionally, economically, empathically. Cohabitation gives more flexibility, it is easier to separate.
Freedom and independence, having space for self-fulfillment for a longer time in younger years, space for developing an own identity – that is what cohabitation is favored for.
It is a phase of testing, kind of trial and error. Reasonable in a society where social roles are not well defined anymore and lifestyles dazzling.
Thus, cohabitation reflects the insecure, unclear, ever-changing situation in today’s society. Responsibility for a family is postponed.
The study also reports some differences.
Religion, the position of the Catholic Church matters. Take Poland and Italy, both countries with low cohabitation rates. Religiosity, the scientists found, was a cause, but in different ways. While in Poland religiosity was emphasized as heritage, in Italy it was more the tradition of marriage and family which was accentuated.
In the German-speaking countries, people referred much more to the issue of freedom and testing, self-fulfillment and flexibility than in the other countries. Marriage was thus imagined as a „secure haven in a fast moving world“. Protection, economic security, and safety in the rough world, stability especially for wife and children are provided by marriage. It can wait. People marry when children are born to provide that haven.
In contrast, in the Netherlands children are not seen as the main motivating factor for marriage. The fear of divorce was a reason why informants from the Netherlands preferred cohabiting.
Britain has a liberal tradition and so cohabitation is founded in liberal thinking. Having children while cohabiting is broadly tolerated. Here the authors of the study found differences between social classes. While in the higher educated milieus marriage was the choice when raising children, lower educated people are rather cohabiting since „nobody cares“. This might reflect that marriage for these people was more difficult to achieve.
In Norway cohabitation and marriage seem to be indistinguishable forms of living, especially when it comes to children. To marry symbolizes the love and romance the couple feels, the commitment they feel for each other, maybe they are even celebrating the success of having raised young children together already. Norwegians are not rejecting marriage, it comes later in life and is much more symbolically than pragmatically based.
Cohabitation means different things to different peoples. It is connected to the countries’ tradition and history. The same forms of living together are legitimized or not legitimized in different ways.