Transitions From Sexual Relationships Into Cohabitation and Beyond

Abstract

Much research on cohabitation has focused on transitions from cohabitation to marriage or dissolution, but less is known about how rapidly women progress into cohabitation, what factors are associated with the tempo to shared living, and whether the timing into cohabitation is associated with subsequent marital transitions. We use data from the 2006–2013 National Survey of Family Growth to answer these questions among women whose most recent sexual relationship began within 10 years of the interview. Life table results indicate that transitions into cohabitation are most common early in sexual relationships; nearly one-quarter of women had begun cohabiting within six months of becoming sexually involved. Multivariate analyses reveal important social class disparities in the timing to cohabitation. Not only are women from more-advantaged backgrounds significantly less likely to cohabit, but those who do cohabit enter shared living at significantly slower tempos than women whose mothers lacked a college degree. In addition, among sexual relationships that transitioned into cohabiting unions, college-educated women were significantly more likely to transition into marriage than less-educated women. Finally, although the tempo effect is only weakly significant, women who moved in within the first year of their sexual relationship demonstrated lower odds of marrying than did women who deferred cohabiting for over a year. Relationship processes are diverging by social class, contributing to inequality between more- and less-advantaged young adults.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The meaning of “dating” was left up to the respondent; no information was obtained about when the sexual relationship began. These were retrospective reports of relationships that began, on average, in the mid-1980s and early 1990s.

  2. 2.

    Compared with women, men reported shorter durations between dating and spending the night, and between spending the night and officially living together, but a longer duration from cohabitation until marriage. Couple-level disagreement over start times of different stages was common.

  3. 3.

    In the 2006–2010 NSFG, 90 % of women reported having at least one sexual partner in the past 12 months, as did 85 % of the women in the 2011–2013 NSFG.

  4. 4.

    The NSFG defines living together as having a sexual relationship while sharing the same usual residence. This specification results in a smaller proportion of cohabitors than found in some other nationally representative samples (e.g., Sassler and Joyner 2011).

  5. 5.

    Estimating the duration to cohabitation results in a number of women with negative durations between first sex and cohabitation because of inconsistencies in reported dates (n = 306). After consulting with researchers at the NSFG, we adjusted 84 cases for which the difference between the date of first sex and the move-in date was one month, assuming that these two events happened at approximately the same time. We adjusted another 64 cases where the dates of first sex and move-in resulted in a negative duration because when respondents were asked how old they were at each of these events, a positive duration was calculated between date of first sex and date of cohabitation/marriage. Finally, we adjusted two cases for which a negative duration resulted from imputing the season of first sex or move-in when respondents did not report a precise month. All told, we adjusted 150 cases following these NSFG guidelines.

  6. 6.

    Additional analyses using narrower windows (five or eight years, for example) revealed that the main results were quite similar, although given fewer transitions, often did not reach conventional levels of significance.

  7. 7.

    Using six-month intervals yielded the lowest Bayesian information criterion (BIC), when compared with a linear or quadratic function of duration, and therefore provided the best model fit of the data.

  8. 8.

    More than 90 % had entered their cohabiting union within 40 months; the remaining 5 % were sexually involved for more than 45 months before entering into shared living, with the longest duration between sexual involvement and coresidence being 119 months.

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Acknowledgments

An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2012 National Survey of Family Growth Research Conference and at the 2013 annual meeting of the Population Association of America.

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Correspondence to Sharon Sassler.

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Sassler, S., Michelmore, K. & Qian, Z. Transitions From Sexual Relationships Into Cohabitation and Beyond. Demography 55, 511–534 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-018-0649-8

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Keywords

  • Cohabitation
  • Marriage
  • Tempo
  • Relationship progression
  • Young adults