Info & Advice

What does ‘cohabitation’ mean?

‘Cohabitation’ is a word that frequently appears in articles about family life in the 21st Century. Strictly speaking the term has no precise legal definition in the UK, and can refer to any number of unrelated individuals living in the same household – but in normal usage the word almost always refers to couples who live together and share a home without formalising the relationship in by getting married or entering a civil partnership.

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There are now more 3.5 million cohabiting couples across England and Wales. Twenty-six years ago, back in 1996, there were just 1.5 million: that’s an increase of 137 per cent in 26 years, making unmarried couples the fast-growing type of family. This is a symptom of enormous social change: over the last 50 plus years we have moved from a world in which romantic couples married by default before setting up home together, to one in which the majority – at least in secular, western cultures – do not.

Freedom and personal choice

Western societies now place a premium on freedom and personal choice. For many couples, marriage or a civil partnership before setting up home together just seems too formal, too rigid, altogether too much commitment for a relationship that may still be in its formative stages. Unless other pressures come into play, such as, for example, conservative religious beliefs, formalised relationships are now associated with serious long-term commitment – something best suited to buying house for example, or having children. The average age for a first marriage is now 31, almost a decade later than used to be the case.

As of this year, for the first time since records began, the majority – 51 per cent – of the births in England and Wales were to unmarried mothers. The social stigma once so forcefully attached to illegitimacy is long gone, it seems.

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