Cohabitation or Marriage? The socioeconomic and family characteristics of first union formation among men and women in Britain.

Kenisha Russell-Jonsson, Institute for Futures Studies

Kenisha Russell-Jonsson

cohabitation, marriage, socioeconomic characteristics, Britain

Using the retrospective British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), this study analyses how the socioeconomic and family characteristics of British men and women affect their transition to first union. Despite the fact that cohabiting unions have become a growing norm for first union formation among young adults, marriage remains an institutional feature of society. It is therefore not surprising that most research is still focused on marriages. The inclusion of premarital cohabitation is however an important part of any analysis on relationship formation, not least because our understanding of how cohabitation and marriage differs will become more clear, but such an analysis sheds light on the factors affecting an individual’s choice of marrying versus entering a cohabiting union as first union formation.

Although such analyses have been carried out in an earlier studies (e.g Berrington/Diamond, 2000) they focused on a singular birth cohort. This work proposes therefore to extend current research in Britain, by using longitudinal data which includes multiple cohorts (1960-1992). In addition, the longitudinal nature of the data makes it possible to differentiate between age and period effects, which was not possible in the previous analyses.

The transition to first relationship was analyzed with Fine and Gray’s (1999) competing-risks regression. As in previous studies, a favourable socioeconomic state promoted entry into marriage, as the propensity for marriage increased with higher levels of education and income. Beyond that, for women, university level degrees seem to have a stronger effect on marrying directly than on entry to cohabitation. For both sexes, pregnancy, the number of children and the age of the child is consistently and positively related to transitions to direct marriage. In general, the decision to cohabit or marry directly seems to be affected by factors such as the experience of a parental divorce during childhood, childhood socioeconomic status, ethnicity and region of residence.