Population Research and Policy Review

, Volume 33, Issue 2, pp 287-305

First online:

Cohabitation Expectations Among Young Adults in the United States: Do They Match Behavior?

  • Wendy D. ManningAffiliated withSociology Department and Center for Family and Demographic Research, Bowling Green State University Email author 
  • , Pamela J. SmockAffiliated withSociology Department and Population Studies Center, The University of Michigan
  • , Cassandra DoriusAffiliated withDepartment of Human Development and Family Studies, Iowa State University
  • , Elizabeth CookseyAffiliated withDepartment of Sociology, Ohio State University

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Cohabitation continues to rise, but there is a lack of knowledge about expectations to cohabit and the linkage between expectations and subsequent cohabitation. We capitalize on a new opportunity to study cohabitation expectations by drawing on the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLSY79) main youth and two waves (2008 and 2010) of the NLSY young adult (YA) surveys (n = 1,105). We find considerable variation in cohabitation expectations: 39.9 % have no expectation of cohabiting in the future and 16.6 % report high odds of cohabiting in the next 2 years. Cohabitation expectations are associated with higher odds of entering a cohabiting relationship, but are not perfectly associated. Only 38 % of YAs with certain cohabitation expectations in 2008 entered a cohabiting union by 2010. Further investigation of the mismatch between expectations and behaviors indicates that a substantial minority (30 %) who entered a cohabiting union had previously reported no or low expectations, instances of what we term “unplanned cohabitation.” Our findings underscore the importance of considering not only just behavior but also individuals’ expectations for understanding union formation, and more broadly, family change.


Family Cohabitation Union formation Emerging adulthood Young adults Unplanned cohabitation