Despite a substantial increase in both the number of couples cohabiting at any one time, and the proportion of couples who cohabit prior to marriage, relatively little is known about how the rise in rates of cohabitation influence the pathways and outcomes of union formation. The rapid pace of change, different theoretical approaches, methodologies and disciplinary perspectives, in addition to variations across cultural contexts and time periods, have led to diverse and frequently contradictory research findings. This thesis argues that these inconsistent findings may be partly driven by diversity amongst cohabiters. Not only are cohabiters a diverse group, but their diversity is also likely to vary by cultural context and time period. This research aims to enhance current understanding of cohabitation by proposing a cohabitation typology, which will enable greater understanding of outcomes for cohabiters, and specifically for relationship pathways and well-being.
Using waves 1-8 of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) panel survey, which commenced in 2001, this thesis contributes to existing knowledge on cohabitation in three key ways. First, I devise and employ a cohabitation typology which groups cohabiters by intention to marry and previous marital history. Second, I investigate differences across cohabiting groups and in comparison to other relationship types. Third, I examine the outcomes of cohabiting relationships in terms of transitions out of cohabitation and emotional well-being, specifically, happiness.
Previous research has indicated that intention to marry one’s current cohabiting partner has a substantial impact on the outcomes and quality of cohabiting relationships. Similarly, prior marital history, in particular whether a cohabiter is separated, divorced or widowed, has been found to be associated with the characteristics of cohabiters and have important implications for the outcomes of cohabitation. Despite both of these aspects being important, many studies that assess outcomes associated with cohabitation do not take intention to marry and marital history into account. Recognising the importance of these factors, and the diversity of the cohabiting group, this research proposes a cohabitation typology based on intention to marry and previous marital history and divides cohabiters into four groups. This typology is then employed in the three empirical studies conducted in thesis.
The first empirical study investigates the demographic, socio-economic and attitudinal characteristics of cohabiters in Australia. The analyses examine how the characteristics of cohabiters vary from other marital status groups, and by cohabitation typology group. The second empirical study examines transitions out of cohabitation and the factors that influence these transitions with the aim of investigating under which circumstances cohabitation leads to marriage and under which it leads to relationship dissolution. The analyses conducted in the third empirical chapter recognise that at the heart of all relationship status choices, transitions and patterns are romantic relationships and examines the association between relationship status, transitions in relationship status and happiness.
The research yields four key findings. First, cohabiters are not a homogenous group, and intention to marry and previous marital history play an integral role in shaping the pathways and outcomes of cohabiting relationships. Second, the type of cohabiter and individual characteristics interact to lead to different pathways for cohabiting relationships. Third, variations in happiness are better explained by individual characteristics that influence relationship status, such as relationship satisfaction, or a cohabiter’s intention to marry and previous marital history, than relationship status per se. Fourth, relationship satisfaction is strongly associated with many of the outcomes of cohabiting relationships.
This research suggests that the cohabitation typology is a particularly effective way of taking the heterogeneity of cohabiters into account, but it may also allow studies from different countries and using data from different points in time to be more comparable. Overall, this study has indicated that it is not necessarily relationship status per se that is important for outcomes, but rather individual characteristics, such as relationship satisfaction, relationship intentions and prior marital history, have a great influence relationship choices, pathways and outcomes.