2017 08 23
Dalia Leinarte and Jan Kok. Cohabitation in Europe: a revenge of history?

Unmarried cohabitation is often seen as a radically ‘new’ phenomenon, originating in the 1960s, but in fact it has long historical antecedents. The question is, however, whether traditional and modern cohabitation are comparable and whether we can speak of persistence. This article offers a literature review on cohabitation in Europe, with the focus on persistence over time, integrating the results of a 2013 conference on this topic.

What sources are available to confirm or reject such persistence? How should we understand persistence? In terms of the motivations of unmarried cohabitants? Or in terms of the acceptance of the community at large? And if no real persistence is found, does this mean that European cohabitation since the 1970s truly represents ‘new’ behaviour? We show that, on the regional level, the legacy of the past is still visible in factors affecting the timing and frequency of marriage of cohabiting couples. These factors are a mixture of regional socio-economic constraints, the relative cultural importance attached to marriage, the religious history, and the level of secularization.


1. Introduction

Often, studies of unmarried cohabitation in contemporary society begin with a reference to its historical origins. However, these origins are almost always placed in the 1960s or 1970s when specific groups of divorced people and highly educated, urban youths began to refrain from (re)marrying (e.g. Kasearu & Kutsar, 2011, p. 309; Martin & Théry, 2001, p. 135). However, several authors have noticed that the areas where modern cohabitation seems to have been ‘invented’ were also the areas where it had been prevalent in the past, especially in the nineteenth century. Ron Lesthaeghe describes this overlapping of old and new patterns as ‘a revenge of history’ (Lesthaeghe, 2010, p. 214; in a similar vein see Therborn, 2004, p. 193). In fact, cohabitation has a very long history which is, by definition, intimately tied to the history of marriage and marriage regulations. What kind of history can be written on the roots of modern cohabitation? Is it a social history of more or less marginal groups of people who, for one reason or another could not meet the costs of a wedding or could not comply with the exigencies of official marriage? Or is it a cultural history of regionally different perceptions of the meaning of marriage and of the stages of courtship leading towards marriage? In other words: what does ‘a revenge of history’ mean? Can we really find continuity of cultural perceptions or even ‘path-dependent’ repertoires of family formation which somehow survived the supposed ‘golden age of marriage’ in the mid-twentieth century?

Censuses are of little help to study persistence and change in the patterns of regional variation and in the levels of cohabitation. In most countries, direct questions to accommodate common law unions did not appear in the censuses before 2000 (Spijker, Esteve, & Cusidó, 2012). In some countries, surveys exist that make it possible to go back a few decades earlier (e.g. Casper & Cohen, 2000). Before the 1970s, one would have to infer cohabitation from the fact that unmarried persons were living together, but this may also include housekeepers, boarders, etc. Thus, data on illegitimate births are often the only source used to estimate the occurrence of cohabitation in the past. However, cohabitation is only one of the explanatory factors of illegitimacy, and estimates of its share are notoriously unreliable. Even more important is the relative meaning attributed to marriage and cohabitation in different periods and different regions. Did communities develop specific terms to define cohabitation that were created with different underlying reasons? In several countries children born in unlawful, but stable, consensual unions were not recognized by civil law and the church, and were therefore registered as illegitimates, but in a communal perspective they were considered as legitimate. Examples are children from ‘irregular marriages’ in Scotland and ‘incomplete marriages’ in Sweden (see below).

The articles collected in this special issue originate from a conference, held in September 2013 at the Gender Studies Centre at Vilnius University, Lithuania. The meeting brought together social historians, historical demographers and social scientists working on contemporary cohabitation. The aim of the conference was to study the issue of persistence in cohabitation over time. What sources are available to confirm or reject such persistence? Can we find persistence in the motives to cohabit? Can we find it in the communal norms on what constitutes ‘proper’ marriage? And if no real persistence is found, does this mean that European cohabitation since the 1970s represents truly ‘new’ behaviour, and that its surge reflects the sweeping change towards tolerance and ‘self-actualization’ that the theory of second demographic transition describes (Lesthaeghe, 1995; van de Kaa, 2001)?

In this introductory essay, we will try to answer those questions. We will briefly discuss the history of cohabitation in both Western and Eastern Europe, since the late sixteenth century. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) forms a good starting point, as it stipulated that a public ceremony performed by a priest, in the presence of witnesses and after consecutive proclamations of the banns, constituted a valid marriage. Next, we will discuss to what extent historical patterns have persisted and are still traceable in the current forms and regional variations of cohabitation. In our review, we integrate the findings in the papers collected in this Special Issue. Finally, we will conclude with an inventory of future research questions and prospects. We will begin, however, with the problem faced by all scholars working on this topic: the lack of reliable sources.

2. ‘A dark area’: methodological problems in the history of cohabitation

In his seminal work For better, for worse John Gillis (1985) presents estimates of the numbers of consensual unions, although he frankly admits that it is ‘a dark area that cannot easily be determined’ (p. 111). More recently, Pat Thane (2013) is just as cautious: ‘The best we can say is that, as yet, we simply do not know how many people lived together in unmarried relationships before the recent past’ (p. 246). Why is it so difficult to find cohabiting couples?

Cohabitation can be defined as marriage-like relations in which there has been no marriage ceremony but in which the partners live together. As said, the obvious source to look for such relations is the census, but this is not of very much use. First of all, an unmarried couple could co-reside with others and not be recognizable as such. Second, they could easily hide their status by claiming to be already married, or by describing one of the partners as servant, housekeeper, boarder or lodger (Brunet, 2010; Matovic, 1986, p. 405). Brunet and Bideau (2010) even found a couple in nineteenth-century Lyon who presented themselves to the census-takers as mother and son. Another source is the civil registration of vital events. In countries which retained the French civil codes after the Napoleonic era, or adopted them afterwards, clear and comparable administrative procedures and documents of birth and marriage exist, including the recognition and legitimization of children born out of wedlock. By recognizing a child, a father claimed paternity and accepted the obligation of maintenance of the child, who, in turn, could inherit from him (although less than a fully legitimate child). Some scholars have thus deduced the frequency of cohabitation from the percentage of illegitimate children that were recognized by their fathers (Berlanstein, 1980, p. 365; Frey, 1978, p. 20; Kaplow, 1978). Shorter (1971, p. 255), however, saw recognition as an easy way for men to abscond and to avoid their family responsibilities. In his view, only subsequent marriage, by which the children were legitimized, offers insight into premarital cohabitation. However, cohabiting couples could decide not to marry or to recognize their child (Brunet, 2010). Some couples placed their children in other homes, e.g. with their parents, only to legitimate them much later (Matovic, 1986, p. 409). ‘Legitimizing’ marriages could take place many years after the birth of the children, which might also indicate that a man other than the biological father married the mother and ‘adopted’ the children through recognition. Furthermore, several studies of the addresses on certificates of ‘legitimizing’ marriages indicate that such marriages offer no conclusive evidence for cohabitation. Kok (1991) found that only half of the couples legitimating a child (in the city of Haarlem 1825–1833) shared the same address. But even those who did share an address might not have lived together before their marriage. Brunet and Bideau (2010) tried to link 498 Lyonese marrying couples (1876–1886) who had indicated the same address on their marriage certificate (out of a total of 8100 couples) to census listings of 1876, 1881 and 1886. Only 200 were actually found, and 123 of them could be described as cohabitants (also Ratcliffe, 1996). Population registers, which existed in the nineteenth century in Belgium, The Netherlands and Italy, can be seen as continuously updated censuses. Thus, addresses of single mothers mentioned in birth certificates can be checked for signs of cohabitation. For The Netherlands, this procedure yields a range of 3% (in rural communities) to 20% (in large cities) of unmarried single mothers living in a consensual union in the nineteenth century (Kok, 1991). The illegitimacy ratios in The Netherlands were very low, with just a few percent of all children born out of wedlock. Thus, it is not surprising that among all single women (with and without children) in the city of Haarlem in the first half of the nineteenth century less than 1% were found to be cohabiting (de Haan & Stam, 1986).

Several scholars assumed that single mothers who gave birth to more than one child must have been cohabiting (e.g. Fine, 1988, p. 433). Such mothers were often responsible for a large share of all illegitimate children (e.g. Blaikie, 1993; Viazzo, 1986). But studies of ‘repeaters’ show that, when the fathers of their children were known, they were often from different men (Brunet, 2010, p. 53; Kok, 1991, p. 53; Reay,1996, p. 187). Also, fathers of children of ‘repeating’ women were not more likely to declare the child than other fathers of illegitimate children (Kok, 1991, p. 53).

Even with proper administrative systems of housing and declarations of births and marriages in place, we will not be able to arrive at reliable estimations of the frequency of cohabitation, at least not covering long periods of time and large areas. Clearly, this is even more difficult in the period before the nineteenth century. Furthermore, percentages tell us little about the actual motivations of people to forgo marriage in a period of moral condemnation. Scholars therefore have often used other sources to study the background, characteristics, and motives of cohabiting couples.

When cohabitation was a criminal offence, which was the case in many Western European countries until around 1800, we can find prosecuted couples in the court records (e.g. Sogner, 2003; van der Heijden, 2014). Churches continued the surveillance of morals much longer, and information is to be found in the minutes of, for instance, Calvinist Scottish or Dutch presbyteries (Mitchison & Leneman, 1989; Roodenburg, 1990) or in the files of the English Church (‘bawdy’) courts (Tarver, 1995). In the nineteenth century, charitable organizations bent on ‘civilizing’ the poor became interested in the situation of cohabiting couples. One of the most successful was the Société de Saint-François Régis that put an end to thousands of Parisian concubinages. In the period 1826–1854, this society alone was responsible for more than 7% of all marriages in Paris (Ratcliffe, 1996, p. 323). In The Netherlands, as in other countries, this organization was also active, but it operated on a smaller scale. In Amsterdam the volunteers assisted with only several dozens of marriages per year. The records of the organization contain interesting information on cohabitants, but perhaps even more on the mindset of the volunteers. For instance, in 1868 the chair of the department in the town of Hoorn proudly reported to the head office having succeeded in separating an elderly couple, who had lived together for 20 years with several children, and added that ‘we hope that with God’s blessing they will secure a legal wedding within a couple of days’ (Kok, 1991, p. 80). Information on characteristics and motives can also be found in court cases of couples that secured a (bigamous) marriage (Frost, 1997) or that committed serious crimes (Frost, this issue). Finally, information can be found in contemporary surveys into the situation of unmarried mothers and their children. From the late nineteenth century onwards, many nations collected statistics and organized surveys to prepare or monitor laws intended to improve the health and well-being of children. For instance, publications in Sweden (1916, see Hwang & Broberg, 2009) and The Netherlands (Centraal Bureau voor Maatschappelijk Hulpbetoon, 1923) reported on remarkable studies on life courses of illegitimate children. The situation of their mothers (married, cohabiting, single) was included. Other surveys offer less information on cohabitation, as they focus on single mothers with information culled from institutional records (e.g. Kammerer, 1918) or from paternity suits (e.g. Overdiep, 1955). Overall, sources providing information on the lives of cohabiting couples are rare, disparate, and suffering in differing degrees from selection bias. Couples that stayed under the radar of church control, that remained childless, did not commit crimes, and did not need social assistance, remain largely unobserved.

As in Western Europe, Eastern European researchers have access to very limited quantitative data bases and statistics on cohabitation. It appears that Hungary and Poland are the few rare exceptions in this regard. During the census of 1970 in Hungary, a special family status category‚ ‘partners in life’ was introduced which identified cohabitating people. Thanks to this identification, today we have the numbers of cohabitating couples in Hungary from the 1970 and 1980 censuses and the microcensus of 1984 (Carlson & Klinger, 1987, p. 89). The mentioned censuses in Hungary give us statistics about married, divorced and single cohabitating men and women. Some of the censuses conducted in Poland also identified informal unions that in 1988 made up 1.3% of all marriages, 1.7% in 1995 and 2.2% of all marriages in Poland in 2002 (Matysiak, 2009, p. 216).

After the Second World War and up to the demise of the communist regimes, statistical data about cohabitation in East European countries practically did not exist, as this kind of marital form was unacceptable and unregistered. An example of extreme negative attitudes towards cohabitation is Albania, where even after the fall of the Communist regime cohabitating couples were stigmatized, and where short-term cohabitation was akin to prostitution. According to Albanian researchers, women who had cohabitated and did not marry ended up choosing emigration and resolved never to return to their homeland (Murzaku & Dervishi, 2003, p. 251). As Plakans and Lipša (this issue) note, the censuses held in the Soviet Union after the Second World War in 1959, 1970, 1979, and 1989 contained only traditional married life categories and as such cohabitating couples were left uncategorized: ‘married’/‘single’/‘widower’, with ‘divorced’ as a possible category in some cases.

A similar situation regarding lack of statistical registration data remained in Eastern Europe after 1990 which is why the absolute majority of studies about cohabitation are based on qualitative studies, surveys, interviews, individual-level rates and so on (see Gerber & Berman, 2010; Hoem, Kostova, Jasilioniene, & Mure¸an, 2009; Kasearu & Kutsar, 2011; Legkauskas & StankeviČienė, 2009; Leinartė, 2012b; Liefbroer & Dourleijn, 2006; Sobotka, Št’astná, Zeman, Hamplová, & Kantorová, 2008; Stankūnienė, 2003; etc.). Often, such surveys about cohabitation involve tens of thousands of people. For example, in Hungary in 2001–2002 a total of 16,363 people were surveyed (Aassve, Billari, & Spéder, 2006, p. 137). Although the various kinds of non-census surveys and specialized ‘sociological’ inquiries are instructive on these diverse cohabitation situations, they do not allow for the analysis of cohabitation processes in the long-term perspective.

Illegitimate children, on the other hand, were always much better registered in Eastern Europe, starting with nineteenth-century statistics. That is why researchers often use these statistics as a reference point for the analysis of cohabitation. Yet these statistics rarely distinguish between children born to cohabitating couples and children born to single women (Perelli-Harris & Gerber, 2011).

The most important source for determining the numbers of cohabitating people in nineteenth-century East European Catholic communities, at least in Tsarist Russia, are the so-called ‘Trials on Depraved Lifestyles’ that were scrutinized by the Consistory’s ecclesiastical court. Cohabitating families who were in illegitimate marriages for certain objective reasons put forward their cases: due to obstacles in Canon law, legally binding earlier marriages or current separation which banned one from forming a new family. The plaintiffs in the ‘Trials on Depraved Lifestyles’ cases were usually legal spouses. Seeking the assistance of spiritual leaders or the police, they aimed to punish their former spouse, to tear apart their new family, and to return them to their earlier (legally binding) family. The ‘Trials on Depraved Lifestyles’ cases are especially important in estimating the number of cohabiting couples and their prevalence over time.

Meanwhile, common census-like materials from the nineteenth century like Status Animarum only identified the traditional family form, or people’s relationship with the head of the family. Informal marriages were reflected neither in household composition lists nor in the first tsarist Russian census of 1897. Plakans and Lipša (this issue) say about the tsarist Russian province of Latvia: ‘most of these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century microdata about coresidence come from fiscal censuses called “revisions of souls”, and the enumerators who prepared the revision had little interest in probing the subtleties of personal relationships within a coresidential unit’. It can be assumed that a similar mist hangs over cohabitation practices from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in other regions of Eastern Europe as well. In the next sections we will discuss how historians, despite the lack of proper statistical material, have interpreted cohabitation in Western and Eastern Europe.

3. The experience of cohabitation in historical Western Europe

3.1. Motives for marriage and cohabitation

Notwithstanding they are rare, disparate and selective, qualitative sources, in combination, do provide us with information on the most common motives of people to cohabit. From the late sixteenth century until well into the twentieth century, churches and governments actively persecuted, or at least discouraged, cohabitation. Couples skipping the official and unofficial rites de passage that made them full members of their communities had a lot to lose, so it seems. What were the reasons for choosing cohabitation instead of marriage? In this section, we provide a brief overview of the history of cohabitation in Western Europe, focusing on two questions. First, which factors affected the desirability of official marriage in comparison with cohabitation? Second, which factors affected the feasibility of official marriage? We assume that the higher the relative desirability of marriage and the higher its feasibility, the lower the incidence of cohabitation in a given period or region will be.

Why and when was official marriage more desirable than the alternative of cohabitation? First, marriage offered social as well as legal status to spouses as well as their children, which was, until recently, mostly denied to cohabitants. Second, marriage allowed couples to avoid state and church sanctions against cohabitation. Third, the state could offer specific material benefits to married couples and withhold them from cohabiting ones. Last, marriage might be perceived as being more stable, offering more security, and being proof of a greater commitment than cohabitation. In other words, the symbolic value of an official marriage was higher. And when was official marriage more feasible? First, when there were no legal obstacles to getting married. Such obstacles ranged from stipulations on prohibited degrees of kinship to laws against marriages of the poor. Second, marriage was more feasible when the costs of a wedding were rather low, which depended on the expectations of the community and the real wages of the couple. Third, marriage was more feasible when the official procedures were relatively simple, and, for instance, also facilitated access to marriage for foreign migrants. Last, the feasibility of marriage increased when it was not tied to the life cycle transitions of other persons, for instance to the relinquishing of headship of a household in old age (or even at death) of the parents. Below, we will discuss these factors in greater detail.

3.2. The desirability of marrying officially

Getting married was, for a long time in human history, a major rite de passage and marker of adulthood. Permanent celibates were often subjected to the derision of their peers (Chambers-Schiller, 1984; Froide, 2005; Israel, 2002; van Poppel, 1992). The issue at stake here, is, of course, what defined a proper marriage in the eyes of the community? And who exactly constituted the community? Did sub-communities exist with different norms and sanctions with respect to marriage?

After the Council of Trent (1545–1563), a properly proclaimed public ceremony performed by a priest in the presence of witnesses came to define an official and valid marriage, but in various European regions older notions of marriage survived for several centuries after Trent. Betrothals or vows of marriage, especially in a public ceremony, may have given a couple the same social standing in their community as those that went on to church to repeat their vows in front of a priest, but what about legal status? Official marriage defined the statuses of husband and wife, and of children versus their parents, in terms of obligations and rights, e.g. to one another’s property. Illegitimate children had no access to property, and therefore had lower chances of marriage. Moreover, illegitimate boys were not accepted as apprentices in the guilds, although governments such as in Denmark tried to outlaw this exclusion (Telste, 2009). The negative consequences of an illegitimate status lasted well into the twentieth century. For instance, in The Netherlands illegitimate sons could not be exempted from military service (Overdiep, 1955, p. 49).

Within Western Europe, there is a distinction between countries where the rules of Trent were followed quickly and strictly and other nations where it took more time. In England the canonic rules of Trent had never been formally backed up by legislation, leaving room for cohabiting couples. However, their common-law marriages, outlawed by Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753, appear to have enjoyed no legal status (Probert, 2009, pp. 75–76). In Scotland, ‘irregular marriages’ based only on the mutual consent of couples persisted and were considered valid. It seems to have been a rare but accepted recourse for couples who did not wish to be married by the clergy, which was the only legal option until 1940 (Smout, 1981). Especially in Lutheran countries, children from betrothed couples held the same rights as children from married couples, at least for a long time (Fauve-Chamoux, 2011). An example is the case of Sweden. The church tried to incorporate the betrothal in one single ceremony, but in practice betrothals and church weddings remained parallel forms of marriage until the eighteenth century. The marriage code in the Act of 1734 made the church ritual the only lawful form of marriage, but still the (public) betrothal followed by copulation was respected in the curious legal form of ‘incomplete marriage’ (Sellin, 1922). This means that deserted partners as well as the children were treated as if the intended wedding had actually taken place, thus they were given the same rights to property inheritance as legally married partners and legitimate children (Lundh, 2003; also for Norway, Sogner, 2003). In the perception of local communities in several regions in Sweden, betrothal remained the crucial transition. In northern Sweden, the actual living together of an unmarried couple was celebrated by a village feast called skjuta på björn (shooting at the bear) (Marks, 1994).

The consequences of not marrying were different for men and women. On the one hand, not being married was riskier for women than for men. Until the eighteenth century, women made pregnant after a promise of marriage could still have their honour restored, and their child financially supported, through a paternity suit. But many countries tightened the procedures proving that promises had been exchanged. For instance, Norway accepted only public promises after 1734 (Telste, 2009, p. 177). Countries that adopted the French Civil Code banned paternity suits wholesale. In many areas, these suits were reinstated in the first decades of the twentieth century, on behalf of the children. Possibly, the lack of possibilities to enforce legal claims on the male partner might have made women more reluctant to enter into cohabitation (Leffingwell, 1892, p. 48). On the other hand, a woman might have had good reasons to choose cohabitation over marriage if she had more assets or more income than her prospective husband. Through marriage, men became the legal guardians of women, and gained the right to control their wives’ savings and income. In the Swedish so-called ‘incomplete marriage’ form (see above), the husband did not become the legal guardian of his wife and children and could not exercise the right of the master of the household (Matovic, 1986, p. 27). In England as well, women had been made legally incapable by Hardwicke’s Act, and by not marrying they could retain control over their property (Burguière & Lebrun, 1996, p. 136)

In every Western European society, sub-communities existed which had their own definitions of marriage and cohabitation. When travelling groups of pedlars or workers such as chimney sweeps consisted of men and women, sexual relations would be regulated through customs of their own. Dutch navvies working on canal digging or land reclamation were accompanied by women doing their washing and cooking. Their common-law marriages were sealed by ‘jumping the well-hook’, which became one of the terms for cohabitation in The Netherlands (Kok, 1991). Likewise, people such as Dutch knife grinders had their own practice (the ‘marriage under the oaks’ with a special knife grinder’s formulary), and a study of illegitimacy in one inland province (1912–1940) revealed that more than a third of cohabitations could be ascribed to the small group of itinerants (Overdiep, 1955, p. 35). Sogner (2003, p. 225) stresses the similarities between vagrant and ‘ordinary’ marriages, but ‘The economic, or maybe rather the cultural, incentive to set up an ordinary […] marriage was evidently lacking’.

Avoiding sanctions against cohabitation has been a powerful stimulus to seek official marriage. Countries, such as the Calvinist Netherlands, adopting the Church’s vision of a morally pure community could be very severe in their prosecution of cohabitation as a form of ‘fornication’. Dutch couples caught would have to pay a heavy fine, but they were often acquitted when they could prove that their intended marriage had been delayed and they then married quickly. However, those that persisted were banished for 10 to 12 years (Van der Heijden, 19982014). In France, and other Catholic countries, cohabitation was also punished harshly, in contrast to England, as we have seen (Laslett, 1965). Cohabitation was no longer deemed a criminal offence in countries following the French Civil Code (early nineteenth century), but authorities still had many ways of disciplining cohabitants. For instance (Dutch) juvenile courts threatened out-of-home placement unless the parents married (Overdiep, 1955, p. 51). In Scandinavian countries illegitimacy and cohabitation remained punishable for a longer period. A Swedish ‘guilty’ couple had to pay a fine to the church which corresponded to about one month’s pay for a farmhand (Matovic, 1986, p. 26). In Norway, persecution of cohabiting couples was, after 1812, limited to those who had more than two children. Interestingly, cohabitation remained in the Norwegian Penal Code until 1972 (Sogner, 2003). In her contribution to this issue, ‘Cohabitation from illegal to institutionalized practice: The Case of Norway 1972–2010’, Liv Siltevik describes how Norway abolished the concubinage paragraph and moved on to become one of the world’s first nations to realize institutional equality between cohabitation and marriage.

The churches had their own ways of punishing cohabiting couples, apart from informing the police (when this was still possible). For instance in Sweden, unmarried mothers had to be ‘purified’, which means she had to admit her sins to the parishioners in the church. In 1741, this was changed to a private ceremony, in which she had to face only the minister. The system was abolished in 1855 (Brändström, 1996). In Calvinist countries, such as The Netherlands, couples found guilty of fornication were banned from the Eucharist, and were excommunicated when they persisted (Roodenburg, 1990). According to Ehmer (2002, p. 319) the strict control of premarital sexuality by several religious groups (Calvinists, Catholics in Ireland and southern Europe, Muslims and Jews) had been very successful, in the sense that people had internalized the norms.

Cohabitants could also face sanctions from their community (e.g. through charivaris), their kin, and their employers. For instance, in small French industrial towns, such as Le Creusot, employers put pressure on their workers to marry (Fauve-Chamoux, 2011). On the other hand, in many European working-class communities cohabitation was not frowned upon, as long as one behaved as ordinary couples, as is shown in Ginger Frost’s contribution in this issue ‘“As If She Was My Own Child”: Cohabitation, Community, and the English Criminal Courts, 1855–1900’ (also, Abrams, 1993, p. 89). European family systems differ to the degree in which adult children depended on parental approval and support (Reher, 1998). It is likely that in regions with strong family ties the diffusion of cohabitation in the twentieth century was delayed, until the parents themselves had accepted or even experienced it (Di Giulio & Rosina, 2007).

Cohabiting couples missed many of the material benefits available to married ones. Unmarried partners could not benefit from pensions or allowances, such as provided to the dependants of soldiers. In the first half of the twentieth century, social and family policies were geared to improving the situation of families. Sometimes, the aim was to give a boost to the nation’s birth rate, sometimes to reinforce traditional, patriarchal relations (Therborn, 2004). The benefits, such as marriage loans, maternity leave and child allowances were not granted to cohabiting couples. Cohabiting couples in, for instance, The Netherlands and Scotland were not eligible for social services, such as public housing or unemployment allowances for dependants (Overdiep, 1955, p. 50; Smout, 1981, p. 227). However, some policies had the unintended consequence of stimulating consensual unions. Examples are laws removing married women from public service and ending widows’ pensions on remarriage.

Apart from having social, legal and financial advantages, official marriage had symbolic value and promised more protection, stability and endurance, if only because getting divorced was costly and difficult until the second half of the twentieth century. Especially for women who, after divorce, had no income to support themselves, this might have been an important reason to press for marriage. Frost (1997) describes how English women tried to get their relationship (with separated men) legalized, even at the risk of being persecuted for bigamy: ‘The ceremony, then, must have had an attraction beyond the mere practical, giving a sense of permanence, public proof of a partnership, and community acceptance’ (p. 295). In the 1970s when divorce rates surged and marriage lost its aura of stability and permanence, it may also have lost its comparative advantage of offering more permanence. Indeed, some social scientists see cohabitation as a ‘strategic long-term response’ to the prevalent divorce culture (Hiekel & Keizer, 2015, p. 213).

3.3. The feasibility of marrying officially

Many cohabiting couples, perhaps the majority, would have been perfectly happy to marry, were it not for insuperable obstacles preventing them from doing so. One obstacle could be the parents, who, in several countries, still had to consent to the wedding of their adult children. Also, marriages were prohibited among kin (either consanguinal or affinal) by elaborate rules on forbidden degrees. The rules were sometimes hard to comprehend and state and church authorities sometimes interpreted them differently. For instance, in seventeenth-century Netherlands, the church and the state debated whether marrying the widow of a brother of one’s late wife should be prohibited (van der Heijden, 2014). More common was the situation of widowers with young children, who were often assisted by – but could not marry – their sisters-in-law (Overdiep, 1955). In Roman Catholic countries a divorce could not be obtained, and remarriage after separation was not possible (Fauve-Chamoux, 2011). Cohabitation of couples of which one or both of the partners was still married was treated as adultery. In protestant countries, it was somewhat easier to obtain a divorce, especially after adultery was proven or admitted. However, remarriage with the person deemed guilty of adultery was still forbidden (in The Netherlands until 1970, de Smidt & Gall, 1985). Another obstacle was the disappearance of a partner, which happened frequently to sailors’ wives. It meant the woman had to wait at least five years before remarrying. The law also put obstacles in the way of mixed couples (especially Jews and Christians), couples who for religious reasons did not accept civil marriage (such as Italian Catholics during the conflict with the Vatican in the 1860s), professional military (because of the limited funds for widows’ pensions) and, in several regions of Europe, the poor. In Germany, Switzerland and Austria governments aiming to curtail the expansion of pauperism subjected marriages to strict conditions. Applicants had to prove themselves to be of impeccable moral conduct (which could mean pregnant women were not allowed to marry), they had to demonstrate sufficient means of sustaining a household, and the officials had to be convinced that there was demand for their labour (Head-König, 1993). Districts with such marriage restrictions were also the districts with the highest levels of illegitimacy. In Germany these restrictive laws were repealed in the 1860s, out of concern for the staggering illegitimacy ratios. Indeed, the ratios fell off rapidly after that (Guinnane & Ogilvie, 2014; Kraus, 1979).

For poor people, the costs of a wedding could be prohibitive, especially when a lavish feast was expected. In the Swedish countryside, weddings could sometimes attract as many as several hundred guests. Thus, couples might have to save a long time for the wedding (Lundh, 2003; Matovic, 1986). In addition, church and state officials had to be paid for their services. Governments of, for instance, France and The Netherlands, reacted to the nineteenth-century rise of proletarian cohabitation by creating the option of free marriages (Burguière & Lebrun, 1996; Kok, 1991). However, for some workers, already the costs of renting a suit and of forgoing a day’s wage could be a reason not to marry (Kok, 1991, pp. 54–55). In Scotland, ‘irregular marriages’ became more popular after 1870, as they offered more privacy, were cheaper, and could be arranged quicker, which all suited the needs of a mobile workforce (Smout, 1981, p. 226). Economic necessity, for instance of pooling the rent, might have been a motive to start the cohabitation in the first place (Matovic, 1986, p. 398). The very high levels of illegitimacy in the first half of the nineteenth century in cities such as Stockholm, Prague and Paris have been attributed to low standards of living. When real incomes started to rise, especially after 1875, illegitimacy rates began to drop, indicating that the cultural value of marriage had not diminished, and was even spreading among the lower classes (Ehmer, 2002, p. 320).

Other barriers were of a purely bureaucratic kind. Before a marriage could be secured, the French Civil Code stipulated that documents were shown proving one was of legal age, not still married, that parents had consented to the wedding, that one was not in the military, etc. All in all, the number of different documents to be amassed could amount to more than 20. Meeting these requirements was especially problematic for foreign migrants, who had to enter into prolonged communication with bureaucrats in their native communities. The already mentioned society of Saint-François Régis was very helpful in dealing with problems of this kind.

Finally, farming couples in the stem family regions in Scandinavia or the Alps frequently waited for marriage until they came into landownership, as successor to a farm (e.g. in Norway, see Sogner, 2003). Marks (1994) noticed that when, in the 1930s government regulations facilitated agricultural credits, illegitimacy declined rapidly in Northern Sweden. In Austria, the designated heir and his future bride lived on the parents’ farm, awaiting succession and marriage. Illegitimate births were accepted and often even welcomed (Kytir & Münz, 1986).

4. Cohabitation in the Eastern European past

4.1. Marrying officially versus motives for cohabitation

Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, in terms of at least one aspect, the history of cohabitation in Eastern Europe differed from the West European examples. It appears that in the past in East European countries, cohabitation was rarely or never justified as a prelude to marriage. Cohabitation in East European communities was often caused by bigamy, as usually one or both of the men and women in cohabitation were already married. In many cases cohabitation in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century and earlier can be treated as an informal and alternative way of resolving legal problems where it was impossible to officially enter into marriage or to dissolve a marriage.

The history of cohabitation and bigamy in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) can be traced back to the fifteenth century (by then, the GDL was the largest state in Europe. Until 1772 it included Lithuania, Belarus and a larger part of Ukraine). In the GDL it mostly stemmed from the legal confusion between custom law, the canon law of the Orthodox Church and the secular legal code outlined in the Statute of Lithuania. According to the Polish historian Juliush Bardach, this legal confusion allowed Orthodox believers in the GDL to marry on the grounds of custom law. In such cases marriages took place in a home environment, not in a church, and not in the presence of a priest. Wanting to dissolve such a union, it sufficed to declare one’s desire in public. In this way, marriages formed according to customary law opened the way to cohabitation as marriage and divorce essentially did not require legal validity (Bardach, 1970). In the seventeenth century, among the Orthodox population of Vilnius city there were also cases of cohabitation/bigamy where marriages or divorces were carried out according to customary law (Frick, 2013, pp. 229–248).

Cohabitation in Eastern Europe is particularly closely related to the history of marriage. For example, according to the 1836 Law on Marriage as well as the Civil Code of Tsarist Russia, marriage and divorce matters were handled by the Church, while property issues of the separated couple were deliberated in the civil courts. So in the Tsarist Russian Empire, Catholic marriages and separations were regulated according to the Council of Trent norms. According to the canon code of the Catholic Church, dissolution of a legally binding marriage was impossible and only the death of one of the spouses could terminate the marriage sacrament. The only form of complete judicial divorce that was sanctioned by the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church was the acknowledgement of a legally invalid marriage as void, that is, recognizing its annulment. In the everyday life of Catholics, this meant that canon law testified to the very limited opportunities for separation and divorce (annulment of marriage) up until 1917 when civil registration was introduced in Soviet Russia (Leinarte, 2012a). In 1863–1904 in the Kovno governorate, which was the largest Catholic part of tsarist Russia, only 89 requests for annulment of marriage were registered, and out of these, 77 court rulings handed down a negative verdict. At the time, the Kovno governorate had a population of around a million inhabitants.

In cases of failed family life, cohabitation in tsarist Russia was practically unavoidable. It is interesting that in Tsarist Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, cohabitation was accepted and justifiable even though the surnames of men and women in cohabitation were different, and their children would be registered as illegitimate. Even in their appeals made to the ecclesiastical court for separation or the annulment of an earlier legally valid marriage, the plaintiffs would usually indicate that they had now ‘formed a new marriage’, despite being fully aware that the sacrament of marriage had not been granted and that they were indeed living in illegal cohabitation (Leinarte, 2012). In the nineteenth century, priests themselves would justify unavoidable cohabitation or bigamy to some extent. In presenting the ecclesiastical court information about cohabitating couples in their parish, clergymen would often come across as confused: ‘I have the honour to inform the consistory about the illegal life of the lesser noble Herbertas Gedgaudas, who married the already married peasant Domicelė Daubarienė’ (MarcinkeviČienė [Leinarte], 1999, p. 171).

Catholics in Tsarist Russia were also forced into cohabitation in cases where a spouse had disappeared. Men and women who were abandoned by their other halves and who wanted to form new legal families faced enormous bureaucratic hurdles, because they had to prove that their missing husbands (or wives) had died or could not be located throughout the entire Russian Empire. Searches for missing spouses were conducted in a centralized way, a task which demanded great outlays of time, effort and financial means. As a consequence, the abandoned husbands and wives usually entered into cohabitation arrangements, just because work had to be done on the farm.

In late eighteenth- to early twentieth-century tsarist Russia, belonging to different religious communities often led to cohabitation. The different religions and confessions had different regulations for marriage and divorce. Jews recognized only one form of divorce – a complete legal divorce; this did not demand a complicated divorce case, and depended entirely on the personal will of the couple. From the moment when a husband would give his wife a divorce act in the presence of a rabbi and witnesses and declare: ‘You are hereby divorced from me and available to any other man’, the formalities of a Jewish divorce would be completed. From that moment on, both the wife and the husband could enter into new, legally valid marriages. But that does not mean that Jewish divorces were a flippant matter, as strict regulations applied to the property relationships of the separating couples. Having this freedom of choice in their personal lives, Jews could make conscious decisions and avoid cohabitation. Naturally enough, in Tsarist Russia official legal divorce amongst Jews was a common phenomenon. Based on the data of the 1897 census, in the Kovno governorate, there were 434 divorced individuals amongst the Jewish population, and 846 both separated and divorced amongst the Lithuanian and Polish speaking population (Catholics and Protestants) combined. It can be assumed that Jews entered into cohabitation on fewer occasions than did Catholics. The Evangelical Lutheran, Reformist and Old Believer churches recognized several reasons for divorce; however, obtaining a divorce was nevertheless a difficult procedure. The statistics for illegitimate newborns are inadequate to determine cohabitation numbers because there is no way of finding out how many were born into cohabitating families and how many were born to single mothers. Nevertheless, the number of Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran illegitimate newborns is relatively larger than the same figure for Jews. When comparing the data on illegitimate children born to the contemporary main faiths in Lithuania, the numbers are as shown in Table 1.

Shorter, Knodel and Van de Walle (1971) raised the hypothesis about cohabitation as a usual form of married life among Slavic peasants (though, so far there is no clearer data concerning this aspect). According to these scholars, children born in unlawful but stable consensual unions were not recognized by civil laws and the Church, and were registered as illegitimate, but were considered as legitimate by their Slavic communities. They assumed that in the nineteenth century, among Slavic rural communities, the understanding of marriage was different to that in Western societies. However, they presented a similar example from Western Europe. According to Italian scholars a majority of children born between 1866 and 1871 were registered as illegitimate because their parents only had had a religious marriage, which was not registered in accordance with the usual civil procedures. In this regard, Shorter, Knodel, and Van de Walle (1971) did not mention how nineteenth-century Italian society viewed these officially unregistered but stable unions and the children born into such families. We are safe to conclude that in some cases the existence of cohabitation in Eastern Europe is similar to the experiences of Western European societies.

In Tsarist Russia cohabitation was punishable and if a couple living in cohabitation was exposed, they would be forced to separate. In such cases, the police would demand that even families raising several children that had lived together for even a dozen or more years would still have to part ways. The exposed cohabitating men and women would be sentenced to perform penance by the ecclesiastical court, a situation that remained basically unchanged throughout the entire nineteenth century. The condemned individuals would have to spend seven or 14 days at the parish and pray every day: in turns, one day kneeling, the next day lying in the shape of the cross. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays they had to follow a strict fast allowing only water and bread, and in this way prepare for ‘the confession of their lives’. In addition, the priest had to hand down the strict precept that in the future the couple would not start to live together again (MarcinkeviČienė [Leinarte], 1999, p. 167).

Financial calculations were another reason for cohabitation in Tsarist Russia, as annulment of a marriage required a fair sum of money. Plaintiffs had to present their request for divorce on armorial paper, which was expensive. Otherwise the consistory would not even consider their request. Each time the consistory replied to the plaintiff in writing, the latter had to pay for the paper used – 80 kopeks for two sheets. In addition, if the couple that had lived in an illegitimate marriage (i.e., one formed not abiding by Canon law) received an annulment, they would have to pay the court a fine ranging from 6 to 270 roubles. Strict norms and obstacles for Catholic marriages also pushed people into cohabitation. For example, cohabitants or former lovers could not validate a marriage. In this regard, neither penance nor the death of one’s legitimate spouse granted the opportunity to move from cohabitation to marriage. Marriage was also forbidden if the couple were expecting a child as Canon law forbade marriage between former or existing bed-mates. Canon law also prohibited marriage between individuals having so-called religious bonds. These would include association between a godfather/godmother and their godchild.

Meanwhile, cohabitation in nineteenth-century Romania could be explained by early and often arranged marriages, a large number of unsuccessful marriages, as well as particularly difficult separation processes. For these reasons, mutually separated spouses and widows/widowers often started living in new, unregistered marriages (Bolovan & Pădurean, 2005). Strict wedding customs and custom law in Macedo-Romanian communities (A-Romanians and Megleno-Romanians) required that weddings be planned even before the couple’s birth. In these communities, marriage planning, organization and the selection of a spouse had to follow strict rules and thus unavoidably encouraged cohabitation (Ţîrcomnicu, 2009). Meanwhile in Transylvania in 1853 the Austrian Civil Code was accepted, as well as several other family-related laws that laid the foundation for different and more egalitarian wedding and interpersonal relationships. Unlike the Romanian Civil Law, the Austrian Civil Code foresaw much broader rights for married women (Pinca, 2009).

Cohabitation in Hungary in 1875–1914 can be explained by several factors, among them specific marriage registration rules and the mandatory registration of marriages, births and deaths introduced in 1895. Scholars believe that before 1895, young people from different religious backgrounds registered their marriages according to civil procedures in areas where there were facilities for this to take place. Yet when the newlyweds returned to their homes, their marriages would not be recognized and the children born to such unions would be registered in church birth registers as illegitimate. In Hungary, the status of cohabitation was almost equal to that of official marriage. Such consensual unions were recognized by village communities as a couple that happened to live together. They would be invited to village community festivals, and the children would be identified in the name of the father (Ajus & Henye,1994).

Bolshevik Russia was the first modern state in the world which consciously encouraged cohabitation. A free union of two people based on romantic love, unbound by obligations, property relations or official registration became one of the state’s symbols (Goldman, 1993, p. 34). Immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918 the Code on Marriage and the Family was passed which legalized de facto partnerships and divorces without identifying a reason (Wood, 1997). That is why already in the mid-1920s Russia had the highest number of divorces in Europe: it was 3 times greater than in Germany, 3.56 times greater than in France, and 26 times greater than in Wales or England. In 1926 in Moscow, every second couple that had registered their marriage ended up by divorcing, and could then freely enter into a new marriage or cohabitation. In 1926 a new Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship was passed in Russia, which continued to recognize de facto partnerships and further simplified the divorce procedure. Now an officially registered marriage could be dissolved at the request of one of the spouses without even announcing their decision to their other half. The book of biographical interviews by Anastasia Posadskya-Vanderbeck and Barbara Alpern has recorded numerous testimonies from Russian women who spent their married life in the 1920s and 1930s in Russia. The women recalled how easily men left their de facto partners and their common children (Alpern Engel & Posadskya-Vanderbeck, 1998). Cohabitation and bigamy in Bolshevik Russia of the time surprised no one, as the highest leaders of the Bolshevik party encouraged unregistered partnerships. Lenin’s comrades in arms Inessa Armand and Aleksandra Kollontaj dreamt about the nationalization of motherhood in Russia, where women would be liberated from caring for children through the creation of children’s towns and communal apartments with state-trained house-mistresses. However at the beginning of the 1930s, ever stricter commentary could be heard in the Soviet Union against such unbridled interpersonal relationships between men and women. That is, relationships without certification of an officially registered marriage and cohabitation were condemned more and more often. In 1936 in the newly passed Law on the Family, de facto partnerships were abolished, and only officially registered marriages were recognized, while the divorce process was tightened.

Meanwhile, the religious form of marriage remained in place in Lithuania until 1940. As Lithuanian society grew more modern in the interwar period, cohabitation developed into a relatively widespread phenomenon. More and more frequently, when faced with the issue of divorce or a new marriage, Church norms would be violated or confessional changes would occur, or marriage in another country. According to the data of various authors, there were from 8000 to 30,000 cohabiting men and women in interwar Lithuania (MarcinkeviČienė [Leinarte], 1999).

4.2. Cohabitation after the Second World War

After the Second World War, the laws of a majority of East European countries regulated private and family life and limited the possibility of cohabitation. Nevertheless, regardless of the laws on marriage and divorce, the spread of cohabitation in Eastern Europe, i.e., in the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc countries, was not identical. For example, in Soviet Estonia cohabitation could be compared to what was happening in Sweden or Denmark at the time. We should also note that the term cohabitation was used interchangeably with bigamy as was the case in earlier historical periods, as often cohabitating people were actually married. In some East European countries, for example in Hungary, cohabiting couples were identified by the special legal term ‘partners in life’. This term meant that one or both partners in cohabitation could be married.

The spread of cohabitation after the Second World War in the USSR can be related to and explained in terms of not only the laws regulating marriage and divorce, but also the social policies in place. Welfare distribution in the USSR was centralized. That is, the arrangements for provision of citizens with a place, plots of land for the construction of an individual house, cars and some exclusive items were regulated by the state. When it came to the distribution of goods and services, families had priority. That is why cohabitation interfered with the organization and the normalization of everyday life, which generally required significant efforts in the USSR as it was (Legkauskas & StankeviČienė, 2009, p. 23).

From the early 1950s onwards, an increase in cohabitation in several Soviet republics could be noticed. This trend was confirmed by the changing approaches of Soviet citizens towards sexual relations before marriage. For example, if in 1972 45% of women in Russia had had sexual relations before marriage, by 1990 this figure had grown to 80%. Russians’ attitudes towards cohabitation also changed. In 1990 98.2% of men aged 18 and 23, and 95.8% of women had a positive view of cohabitation (Legkauskas & StankeviČienė, 2009, p. 23). Family behaviour in Russia changed significantly after 1965 when the strict divorce law was liberalized. After changes to the law were introduced, around one-third of marriages ended in divorce, which also probably encouraged cohabitation. According to demographers’ data, 20% of Russians born between 1920 and 1960 were in cohabitation arrangements during their first partnerships. On the other hand, around half of them would get married within one year, while two-thirds of cohabitating couples would register their marriage within three years. It is believed that unlike Estonia and Latvia where cohabitation grew from the beginning of the 1960s, in Russia it started to increase markedly only after 1984 (Gerber & Berman, 2010, p. 5).

Yet cohabitation in the European part of the USSR was not evenly distributed over the area. Cohabitation obviously flourished in Soviet Estonia and Latvia where from the 1950s the number of children born out of wedlock constantly grew. By the end of the 1980s, 25% of all newborns in Estonia and 18% of all newborns in Latvia were children born out of wedlock. Scientists explain that this is exclusively the byproduct of cohabitation, as children born to single mothers in Estonia and Latvia comprised no more than 6–10% of the total number of children born (Katus, Puur, Pöldma & Sakkeus, 2007, p. 272). At the time in Soviet Lithuania, children born out of wedlock comprised around 7% of all newborns. Similar numbers of illegitimate children were recorded in pre-war Lithuania (Katus et al., 2007, p. 272). In the context of the Soviet republics and communist countries, Estonia was an exceptional case, as here cohabitation was more of a tradition than an exception. Two-thirds of Estonians born in 1924–1938 entered into marriage during their first partnership. Meanwhile over 50% of Estonians born in the 1940s and who formed their first partnerships sometime in the 1950s and early 1960s cohabitated. And cohabitation was a regular phenomenon among Estonians born in 1969–1973: only 11.2 men and only 5.9 women of this generation entered into marriages without having cohabitated first (Katus et al., 2007, p. 267). According to cohabitation indicators from 1985, the three Baltic states could be attributed to traditions existing in different West European countries. Estonia and to some extent Latvia reflected the Scandinavian cohabitation model, whereas Lithuania could be grouped with Spain, Italy and Poland where cohabitation as a path to marriage was neither popular nor accepted (Katus et al., 2007, p. 270).

After the Second World War in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, much like in Russia, cohabitation started spreading after the 1960s with a marked increase noticeable from the 1980s. In effect, this cohabitation trend can be explained using the Second Demographic Transition (SDT) theory (Aassve et al., 2006, p. 130; Hoem et al., 2009, p. 242). During the census of 1970 in Hungary, 61,170 women were registered as living in cohabitation, or, by the legal term as ‘partners in life’. This number made up 1.4% of all Hungarian women aged over age 15. In 1984 this percentage grew to 9%, when amongst the 92,350 registered cohabitating couples or ‘partners in life’, one-quarter (20,950) were couples of which the man or woman was still married (Carlson & Klinger, 1987, pp. 86, 89). This legal duality in effect means that at least until 1970–1984, cohabitation in Hungary was often identified as bigamy.

Opposite examples were Socialist Romania and Albania. The ‘Law on Family’ of the Republic of Albania did not contain any discriminating provisions against children born out of wedlock. The law of 1982 provided that ‘Children born of unmarried parents enjoy the same rights and obligations as children born of married parents’ (Murzaku & Dervishi, 2003, p. 245). However, cohabitating couples and their children were particularly discriminated against in Albania. They could risk losing their jobs or even punishment from living in the capital and other larger cities in Albania. In addition, cohabitating parents and their children experienced enormous stigmatization from their closest circle of friends and relatives, which is why they would try to hide this episode of their lives (Murzaku & Dervishi, 2003, p. 245). It appears that in Albania the family was understood as the foundation for a patriarchal order, whereas in Romania the family was seen as one of the essential tools of the communist ideology. The Family Code of Romania contained the main socialist principles on labour and family that were confirmed at the Eleventh Congress of the Romanian Communist Party in 1974. Cohabiting couples opposed the communist morale and could be summoned by party institutions. Cohabitation was also discouraged by the famous Decree no. 770 of 1 October 1966, named ‘On regulating pregnancy interruption’ (Padurean, 2009, pp. 521–542).

The spread of cohabitation across the map of Eastern Europe can be followed not by the political boundaries that were formed after the Second World War, but more by the traditional ethnic entities that were present in pre-war Europe. In the USSR, cohabitation first of all spread in Estonia and Latvia. In the Federation of Yugoslavia, Slovenia was the leader in cohabitation, while in Czechoslovakia cohabitation had found its niche in northern Bohemia. In Communist Poland, this was the domain of those territories that had belonged to Germany before the war. Cohabitation spread in western Belarus and western Ukraine, i.e., in those territories that had belonged to Poland before the war. According to demographers, during the Second World War the population in these territories experienced major changes in family structure and thus became more open to non-traditional forms of establishing family relations (Klüsener, Perelli-Harris, & Sánchez Gassen, 2013, pp. 149, 152). Yet this cohabitation hypothesis does not explain why the scale of cohabitation was unreservedly greater in Estonia compared to Lithuania, even though both countries shared a practically identical history.

5. The revenge of history? Contemporary trends and historical legacies

From the late 1960s onwards, cohabitation began to spread rapidly in western countries, and is still on the increase. According to many social scientists, this remarkable development is part and parcel of the so-called Second Demographic Transition, a revolution in demographic behaviour leading to large and unpredictable demographic changes (Lesthaeghe, 1995; van de Kaa, 2001). Supposedly, this Transition is caused by value changes in society as people begin to realize ‘post-materialist’ needs, such as recognition, freedom of expression, and self-realization. Individualism and self-realization imply breaking free from restrictive interpersonal ties; people begin to divorce more often, to live alone more often, to cohabit, to have fewer or no children, etc. The possibility to fulfil these post-materialist needs stems from a number of important changes in post-war societies. First, it arises from the rise of the welfare states with their improved living standards and security through social legislation. Second, it is related to the arrival of efficient means of contraception (e.g. the pill), which disconnected sexuality and procreation. For couples who could control the arrival of children, their social and legal status (see above) was no longer part of the equation (Sweeney, Castro-Martín, & Mills, 2015). Third, the sexual revolution which disconnected marriage and sex played a role. Fourth, it was associated with women’s economic and legal emancipation, which strongly reduced their dependency on their husbands. Women following a professional career tended to postpone having children (and marriage), which made cohabitation a logical option. Finally, the ongoing secularization removed, for large parts of the European populations, the moral objections to cohabitation. According to Lesthaeghe, the rise in cohabitation ‘depends more strongly on moral acceptability and legitimacy rather than on the calculus of advantage’ (Lesthaeghe, 2010, p. 227).

If cohabitation is indeed an integral part of the value changes described in the theory of the Second Demographic Transition (SDT), what does this mean for its recent and future development? Many social scientists working on SDT theory tend to extrapolate from the recent history of cohabitation in Scandinavia. In Scandinavian countries, three distinct stages could be discerned. First, a stage of diffusion in which cohabitation, still mainly a prelude to marriage, spread from small groups (e.g. urban intellectuals) to virtually all groups in society. Second, a stage of permanency, in which cohabitations lasted longer and were less often converted into marriage. Finally, there was a stage in which cohabitation and marriage were, for all intents and purposes, no longer distinguishable from one another (e.g. Kasearu & Kutsar, 2011; Matysiak, 2009; Sobotka & Toulemon, 2008). SDT theory predicts that all countries will, eventually, follow this sequence and that an international convergence in behavioural patterns will occur. Indeed, the spread of cohabitation is unmistakable and, in terms of percentages cohabiting and of ratios of illegitimate children, convergence can be detected (Lesthaeghe, 20102014).

Several papers in our special issue contribute to the debate on whether the timing and geographical spread of the increase in cohabitation indeed prove the SDT claim that value changes are leading to the disappearance of all (demographic, social, legal, and cultural) differences between marriage and cohabitation. This debate revolves around (a) the impact of economic crisis, (b) the evaluation of values and attitudes), (c) postponed demographic behaviour), (d) the interpretation of life course patterns, and (e) the valuation of marriage. Below, we will elaborate on these issues.

  • A first issue concerns the effect of economic crisis. Various scholars suggest that the spread of cohabitation in Eastern Europe, in terms of timing and the social groups in which it occurred, can be explained by economic crisis and social disruption in the post-Soviet era, rather than by the spread of individualistic values (Aassve et al., 2006, p. 148; Coleman, 2004; Kalmijn, 2007; Rotariu, 2009). One indication is that illegitimacy and cohabitation are especially prevalent among people with low levels of education living in the countryside. This ‘pattern-of-disadvantage’ interpretation of cohabitation (Lesthaeghe, 2014) suggests that it is, just as in the past, a proletarian reaction to adverse circumstances. However, some researchers claim that the crisis in Eastern Europe had already started in the 1980s. In addition, if the economic upheavals had a great impact on the decrease of marriages and the growth of cohabitation, then in Russia the number of marriages would have had to increase immediately after 1999 when the crisis lessened (Gerber & Berman, 2010, p. 7).

  • A second question is how to evaluate attitudinal change. Scholars working on Eastern Europe do find, for instance in interviews, that cohabitants display modern values and attitudes (Hoem et al., 2009). However, this is not necessarily the same as SDT-type self-fulfilment. In her article ‘The Unmarried Couple in Post-Communist Romania: A Qualitative Sociological Approach’ Dohotariu (this issue) claims that after the decline of the communist regime in Romania, cohabitation was most likely affected neither by the SDT that had started back in the socialist times, nor by the socio-political and economic upheavals of the 1990s. In the author’s opinion, cohabitation in post-communist Romania can be viewed as a completely new social phenomenon that has no link with the past and which has been initiated by democracy and gender equality. According to Dohotariu, in post-communist Romania cohabitation became a new form of interpersonal relationship.

  • Third, the rise of cohabitation has been interpreted as a form of ‘postponed behaviour’. The theory of ‘Developmental Idealism’ sees the spread of cohabitation as a postponed form of Western European family formation patterns (Thornton & Philipov, 2009). In their article ‘Stigmatized Cohabitation in the Latvian Region of the Eastern Baltic Littoral: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’, Andrejs Plakans and Ineta Lipša support this theory on the transmission of the cohabitation process from Western to Eastern Europe. In their view, cohabitation in Latvia can be termed a twentieth-century social phenomenon that was accelerated by opened borders and the crumbling of Soviet ideology. According to the authors, the Latvian censuses after 1991 give evidence of this. On the other hand, the article by Aušra Maslauskaitė and Marė Baublytė, ‘Education and transition from cohabitation to marriage in Lithuania’ opposes the Development Idealism theory. In these authors’ views, in Soviet Lithuania there were all the necessary features of SDT: declarations of gender equality; a large number of women in higher education institutions, often outnumbering men; universal participation of women in the labour market; and the very weak influence of religion in society. Accordingly, the authors say that the spread of cohabitation in Lithuania after the fall of the regime in 1990 could hardly be explained as a delayed process from the West, as similar processes already existed in Soviet Lithuania.

  • A fourth research strand looks at life course patterns to study whether cohabitation behaviour is converging across Europe. Several scholars study the sequences of cohabitation, pregnancy and marriage, and investigate to what extent transition rates from one stage to another become similar across countries. Does pregnancy everywhere accelerate the transition to marriage (Perelli-Harris et al., 2009)? It turns out that there are very different trajectories within Europe. For instance in The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Flanders, marriage is still the preferred situation for the planning of children. In Eastern Europe, the rapid transition after pregnancy to either marriage or cohabitation points at limited access to reliable contraceptives, in other words, to the limited role of (efficient) planning. In England, pregnancy, especially of teenagers, often leads to cohabitation. Thus, the rise of illegitimate births across Europe is not the unequivocal outcome of the rise of ‘modern’ cohabitation. Cohabitation is associated with different stages in the life courses in different countries, and certainly does not replace marriage everywhere. A convergence of European life courses – in the sense that the ‘choice biography’ will dominate everywhere is not (yet) visible (Billari & Wilson, 2001). The research of Maslauskaitė and Baublytė (this issue) shows how in Lithuania, one of the countries with limited cohabitation traditions (along with Romania, Russia and Hungary), after 1990 as many as 80% of cohabitating couples went on to register their marriages. Their findings confirm those of other researchers in whose opinion cohabitation in Lithuania and Latvia generally ends in marriage (Katus et al., 2007, p. 270). In Poland as well cohabitation has become an important prelude to marriage, although the country did not have cohabitation traditions. After 1990, as many as 89% of cohabitating couples in Poland would marry within the course of three years (Matysiak, 2009, p. 223). Another example is the Czech Republic. Between 1975 and 1989 only 20–25% of couples in the Czech Republic cohabitated in the first year of their partnership. However, in the 1980s and the beginning of 1990 more than half of the married women in the Czech Republic did so when they were expecting their first child (Sobotka et al., 2008, p. 429). On the other hand, the situation in Russia and Bulgaria is very different, as almost half of the cohabitating couples in Russia in 1999–2003 and around 40% of cohabitating couples in Bulgaria did not marry (Philipov & Jasilioniene, 2008, p. 2078) which confirms that cohabitation was not a prelude to marriage in these two East European countries (see also on reasons for cohabitation in Russia: Potârcă, Mills, & Lesnard, 2013).

  • Finally, researchers debate the valuation of marriage. A recent comparative project based on interviews with focus groups suggests that in most European countries (Eastern Germany being a noteworthy exception) marriage is still seen as qualitatively distinct from cohabitation. Marriage is perceived as a higher level of commitment; it stands for ‘the real deal’, the most durable expression of love. Cohabitation, either as a trial for testing compatibility or as a temporary recourse, is seen as subordinate to the marriage ideal (Perelli-Harris et al., 2014). The increase of cohabitation therefore does not imply a growing rejection of marriage. Marriages seem to be postponed more often, probably as a result of the global economic crisis. Prolonged cohabitation is thus a response to financial constraints and increased instability and insecurity. But there are still many regional differences in the value attached to marriage relative to cohabitation. Religion, especially Roman Catholicism, still colours the valuation of marriage. And we have seen that in familistic countries the opinion of the parents weighs heavier than elsewhere. Institutional path dependency may also play a role. In Western Germany and Austria, cohabitation is seen as a free, but premature, stage in the life courses of young adults, whereas marriage stands for adult responsibility. Perelli-Harris et al. (2014, p. 1055) suggest that this may reflect ‘the long-standing reliance on the breadwinner model, which relies more heavily on women’s dependence on men, especially through marriage. Marriage is a form of protection, and policies aimed at preserving marriage and the breadwinner model, for example, exempting married couples from taxes, reinforce the strength of the marital institution’.

Can we still trace the legacy of the past in the current developments in European cohabitation? This question is central in the analysis of geographic distribution of extramarital births in Sebastian Klüsener’s ‘Spatial Variation in Non-Marital Fertility across Europe in the 20th and 21st centuries: Recent Trends, Persistence of the Past, and Potential Future Pathways’ (this issue). He concludes that, in the past 100 years, continuity is certainly visible, although it is fading. Moreover, the observed continuity seems to have different causes in different regions. Klüsener links regional family systems, the national differences in welfare arrangements (with breadwinner models associated with lower levels of illegitimacy), and different processes of secularization. In some regions, strong divergence from historical patterns has occurred, most notably in Bulgaria. Also, Eastern Europe seems to be witnessing a form of ‘de-secularization’ in which a revived interest in and power of the Church is associated with a return to traditional marriage.

It is clear that after, say, 1970, very much has changed. Marriage no longer constitutes the exclusive access to sexuality, reproduction, inheritance rights, adult status and social recognition. The meaning of marriage has been reduced to its symbolic role of representing lasting commitment. But that is not a negligible legacy. Furthermore, history seems to play a role in determining how long cohabitations will last, whether pregnancy will stimulate a conversion to marriage, and what social gradients exist in the duration and sequences of cohabitation and marriage (see also Maslauskaitė and Baublytė, this issue). Having children while cohabiting seems to have been much more accepted in Lutheran countries than in Roman Catholic or Calvinist ones as the distribution across Europe shows (Therborn, 2004, p. 201). We have seen that in Lutheran countries, premarital unions, especially those based on the formal betrothal, were legally recognized for a long time after the Council of Trent, and undoubtedly even longer in the popular perception. The valuation of marriage is also affected by the institutional benefits created in the era of the male breadwinner family. Cohabitation has spread over all social classes. However, the highly educated are no longer its forerunners. The fact that in various countries the poorer and lower educated sections of the population postpone a subsequent marriage the longest brings to mind the survival strategies of the nineteenth-century poor. Thus, prolonged ‘proletarian’ cohabitations may be yet another legacy of the past.

Summing up, the ‘revenge of history’ can be found in factors affecting the timing and rate of conversion of cohabitations to marriages. These factors are a mixture of socio-economic constraints, of the relative cultural importance attached to marriage, the religious history of a specific region and the level of secularization.

6. Research prospects

Now that cohabitation has become such a prominent stage in the life courses of young adults across the globe, it is surprising that we know so little about its antecedents. Although illegitimate fertility in its variation across European societies of the past has attracted ample attention (e.g. Laslett et al., 1980; Mitterauer, 1983), the incidence, importance and meaning of cohabitation are still largely unknown. In some countries, cohabitation is even still an uncharted field (for example in Latvia, see Plakans & Lipša, this issue). The most important reason is the lack of proper sources, as cohabitants tended to disguise their relationship. Often, they can only be glimpsed when their ‘fornication’ was persecuted by Church or State, when they committed a crime, or when a child was born out of wedlock and information on both parents was provided (e.g. because the father declared, recognized or legitimized his child). But even then, the duration of and reasons for the cohabitation remain unknown, as well as the community’s reaction to it. The papers in this issue have made some progress in describing new sources, such as homicide cases (Frost, this issue) or the Latvian ‘revisions of souls’ (Plakans and Lipša, this issue), but there is still much to be discovered in the archives, as has been demonstrated by, for instance, Romanian scholars (Bolovan & Pădurean, 2005).

Future qualitative research into the motives of cohabitants should address more explicitly the issue of gendered strategies and gender bargaining involved in cohabitation. Currently, the literature is not very conclusive on this topic. On the one hand, cohabitation is sometimes interpreted as a survival strategy of poor women, who needed to pool incomes or rent, but did not have enough bargaining power to press for marriage which would offer them more status and relative security against desertion. On the other hand, cohabitation supposedly gave some women an advantage over marriage, as they avoided legal guardianship of a husband. On specific male motives for choosing cohabitation over marriage we know next to nothing.

To assess the likelihood of people entering and ending cohabitation, and to see how this differs across social groups, regions, and periods, we will have to rely on rare life course reconstructions. This presupposes that we can follow people in their different household configurations over the life course. Recently, the accessibility and interoperability of various large European databases containing historical life courses are being improved (Alter & Mandemakers, 2014). This might offer opportunities for a comparative history of cohabitation. A longitudinal approach will also make it possible to study the implications for children. Did their parents’ concubinage affect their health, occupational positions, and marriage choices, for instance compared to children of single mothers, widows and children of married couples (van Poppel, 2000)? And how did temporary or permanent cohabitation affect the health (e.g. Koskinen, Joutsenniemi, Martelin, & Martikainen, 2007) and career prospects of the cohabiting men and women themselves?


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