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Family Matters article

December 1991


One of the focuses of the Australian Institute of Family Studies Australian Family Formation Project is cohabitation. This article draws on evidence from the second stage of the study in which 1500 respondants now aged 27-44 were interviewed again. It examines the incidence of de facto relationships in the last decade; the characteristics of those who have lived in a defacto relationship compared with those who have not; and the reasons why they chose to live together rather than marry; and the kinds of de facto relationships formed.

Cohabitation, an informal marriage, a de facto relationship, living together or 'shacking up' choose whatever term you like to describe what in Western societies has been a growing phenomenon for more than two decades.

In Australia, which tends to lag slightly behind other industrialised countries in its demographic changes (McNicoll 1990), the rate of people marrying between the ages of 2029 years has been declining since the 1970s. The growth in de facto relationships explains part of this decline (Carmichael 1990; Bumpass and Sweet 1989), and it could be said that 'the beginning of cohabitation may be a more apt marker of union formation than the marriage date' (Bumpass and Sweet 1989).

In the past, those living in consensual unions tended to be the poor, those unable to divorce estranged spouses, and the avant garde. In recent years, there has been a trend towards young people leaving home and being independent for a period before marrying. In many instances, this involves being sexually active and setting up house in marriage-like relationships.

This means marriage is less likely to be a young person's first experience of living with someone else in a committed sexual relationship, and increasingly young people are postponing marriage in favor of living together until their mid to late twenties. Kiernan (1990), in describing this group, coined the phrase 'nubile cohabitation'.

Not only has the rate of cohabitation before marriage escalated; the increase in the divorce rate has also resulted in a high incidence of cohabitation after marriage breakdown (McDonald 1989).

In line with these demographic trends, cohabitation now appears to be widely accepted and tolerated by the law and the general population. In the second wave of the Institute's Australian Family Formation Project 1991, only 18 per cent of respondents disagreed with the statement 'It is all right for a couple to live together without planning to marry'.

In the National Social Science Survey 198889, about half the respondents indicated that if asked to advise young people on ideal living arrangements, they would recommend young people live together with a steady partner and then marry. Very few recommended that couples live together without ever marrying (Evans 1991).

As de facto relationships become more common, the issue of whether society should treat them in the same way as legal marriage has to be addressed. There is considerable concern about the stability of these relationships, particularly where children are involved.

De facto relationships come under the jurisdiction of the Family Law Act only when there are children involved, although a parliamentary review committee is considering whether the Act should be extended to cover all de facto relationships (see Margaret Harrison's article about de facto relationships and the law in this issue).

As it stands, the legal system is inconsistent in the way it deals with these relationships; laws vary between states, between the states and the Commonwealth, and even between government departments. But while there is a need for consistency within the law and social policy, the diverse motivations and circumstances of these relationships must be recognised and better understood.

The literature suggests various interpretations. Cohabitation is regarded as a stage in courtship, a trial marriage, 'a prelude to marriage, not a substitute', as Carmichael (1990) expresses it, or as an alternative to marriage (Bumpass and Sweet 1989; Khoo 1986; Sarantakos 1984). Some suggest it should be viewed as part of the dating process and therefore more related to premarital dating relationships than marriage (Rindfuss and VandenHeuvel 1990).

The Institute's Australian Family Formation Project paid particular attention to cohabitation. The project's first wave was conducted in 1981 when respondents were aged 1834 years. The second wave has just been completed, with the 1500 respondents, now aged 2744, being interviewed again.

Presented here are some findings from the second wave on what cohabitation means for those couples involved, and how they differ from couples who are married. This is the first in a series of papers to be written on cohabitation. It will examine:

the incidence of de facto relationships in the past decade;

the characteristics of those who have lived in a de facto relationship compared with those who have not, and the reasons why they chose to live together rather than marry;

the kinds of de facto relationships formed.

Incidence of Cohabitation

According to the 1986 Census, around 6 per cent of couples in Australia were cohabiting an increase from 4.7 per cent in 1982 (Kilmartin 1988), and we await the 1991 Census results to see whether that upward trend has persisted. (It should be noted that the Census tends to slightly underestimate de facto couples.)

In the first wave of the Institute study, when the sample was aged 1834, 8 per cent were living in de facto relationships (Khoo 1986). Now, in 1991, when the sample is considerably older, 98 respondents (7 per cent) are cohabiting; of these, six are homosexual couples: three female and three male.

Rates of cohabitation were similar when those aged 2734 in 1991 were compared with respondents of the same age in 1981: 9 per cent of men and 7 per cent of women in 1991 compared with 9 per cent of men and 6 per cent of women in 1981. The incidence was lower in the 1991 group aged more than 35 years: 7 per cent of men and 4 per cent of women.

A third of those cohabiting in 1991 had been previously married, and 50 per cent had children. Of respondents living in de facto relationships in 1981, 24 per cent were still in de facto relationships ten years later, and 78 per cent had married.

Forty-three per cent in the 1991 interviews had cohabited at some stage. Around half those who had never married had lived in a de facto relationship. Table 1 shows the incidence of respondents who have cohabited by age.

The rate of cohabitation appears to have started to increase among those born in the 1950s, the generation that became young adults in the late 1960s and 1970s when oral contraceptives were readily available and there was a growing openness and acceptance of changing sexual mores.

Before that, while there was considerable sexual activity among the young, it was more covert. Case studies on married couples in the first wave of the study shed some light on why those born before 1950 had not cohabited before marrying; they did not disapprove of cohabitation, but tended to say: 'It just wasn't done in our day.'

The Institute's Becoming Adult Study provides some insight into cohabitation levels among those aged less than 27. The sample in this study is small (n=138) and by design over-represents those with a family background of marital disruption. However, it does provide some information on the incidence of cohabitation among 23 to 24-year-olds in 1990. At the time of interview, 21 per cent of respondents were cohabiting (Millward 1991), and 44 per cent had lived in a defacto relationship at some stage. These rates compare with those of older respondents, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Respondents who have ever
cohabited, by age
AgePer cent
27-30 years48(370)
31-35 years47(399)
36-40 years44(409)
over 40 years29(300)
Source: AIFS Australian Family Formation Project 1991

These figures suggest that the level of cohabitation may have reached a plateau. The the economic recession and the tendency of young people to undertake higher education may mean they are not cohabiting for economic reasons.

The General Picture

People cohabit for a variety of reasons which will be looked at later, but the extent of cohabitation, the age of commencement and the duration of these relationships explains in part why people are marrying later in Australia. The following section focuses on the characteristics of those in the never-married or first-marriage groups who have cohabited compared with those in the same groups who have not. The analysis is based on data from the Australian Family Formation Project.

Length of Relationship

Twenty-five per cent of de facto relationships lasted 12 months, around half ended after two years and three- quarters had ended by four years. Many ended in marriage. Of those in their first marriage, 36 per cent of husbands and 30 per cent of wives had lived with their spouse before getting married, with the percentages being higher among those under 30.

Age of Commencement

Young women were likely to cohabit earlier than men: 17 per cent of women compared with 7 per cent of men had started cohabiting by the age of 18. Most entered their first cohabiting relationship between 21 and 24 years old.

Personal Characteristics

Respondents who had cohabited at some stage were significantly more likely to have left home earlier than others, and to have become sexually active before turning 18 58 per cent of men and 36 per cent of women who had cohabited had been sexually involved compared with 36 per cent of men and 19 per cent of women who had never cohabited. These respondents were more likely than others to have parents with less traditional values on sexual behaviour and leaving home. They were also more likely to have divorced parents: 19 per cent of women and 14 per cent of men who had cohabited had parents who had divorced, compared with 8 per cent and 4 per cent respectively of respondents who had never cohabited.

As one would expect, the cohabitants themselves had less traditional family values. They were also more egalitarian in their attitudes to sex roles, which was reflected in how they shared household tasks.

Those who had cohabited were less likely to have any religious affiliation and more likely to come from an urban background. There was no educational difference for men but women who had cohabited were more likely to have had tertiary education.

Attitudes and Meaning

Table 2 shows that attitudes about the meaning of de facto relationships vary significantly between those who have been in one and those who have not. But perhaps the more interesting aspects of this Table are the differences between men and women who have cohabited at some stage.

Table 2: Attitudes towards living together, respondents who have cohabited
and those who have not amongst the never married and first married
 Per cent
have not
have not
Living together allows you to keep your
independence more easily than marriage
There are economic advantages in living
If a couple are spending most nights together
anyway, why not live together
Living together involves less commitment
than marriage
Living together is a way of having a trial
Source: AIFS Family Formation Project 1991

Men are more likely than women to believe cohabiting allows them to keep their independence. They perceive it as having economic advantages. It also is seen as involving less commitment than marriage and men are more likely to view cohabiting as trial marriage. This suggests that women may be either more romantic or emotionally dependent in de facto relationships than men, and indicates that there are 'his and her' de facto relationships, just as Jessie Bernard described 'his and her marriage' in 1972.

Why Live Together?

A strong sense of 'appropriate timing' came through in responses to the question of why respondents chose to live together rather than marry. Some stated they were 'too young and unsuited to marriage', or that they were 'too young and still maturing'.

Compatibility, or more to the point, incompatibility, was another element: 'I realised we were incompatible,' said one respondent. Some did not discuss or contemplate marriage because they felt their relationships were 'too unstable'. There was also often a lack of commitment to the other by one or both partners, with women being more likely than men to mention the lack of commitment by their partner: 'Not reliable enough ... he left when he wanted to'; 'I got pregnant and he left'.

Also some respondents were not ready to make the commitment to a permanent relationship: 'We both weren't ready to take the big step'; 'Never entered my head, plus didn't need or want to be tied down.'

Others saw living together as part of the courtship process. As one woman expressed it: 'We were engaged at the time and then married. I don't believe in living together unless marriage is the ultimate goal.'

Characteristics of Cohabitants

Ninety-eight respondents (54 per cent men and 46 per cent women) were cohabiting at the time of the second wave interviews, six of whom were homosexual. This analysis concentrates on how those in heterosexual relationships arranged their lives as cohabitants. (It must be borne in mind that the sample is now aged 2744 years, so those currently living together are not necessarily representative of all those who cohabit.)

As Table 3 shows, 84 per cent of cohabitants lived together with their partner all the time; 91 per cent of women compared with 78 per cent of men reported this. Seventy-seven per cent were monogamous (that is, they did not have sexual relations with others). Further analysis also revealed similar results for those who had never married compared with those cohabitants who had been previously married. All six homosexual cohabiting couples were living together all the time and three were monogamous relationships.

Table 3: Relationship arrangements of cohabiting couples
  Per cent

Live together all the time878184
Neither sexually involved
with anyone else
Share the cost of housing776671
Buy things jointly (home
electrical goods, etc)
Share bank accounts464546
Plan to have or already
have children of relationship
Source: AIFS Australian Family Formation Project

Seventy-one per cent of couples shared housing costs; 66 per cent of couples reported buying things jointly. However, less than half the couples (46 per cent) shared a bank account. The never-married were less likely to share housing costs or to buy things jointly than the previously married. In the homosexual couples, all shared housing costs and bought things jointly but only one out of six shared bank accounts.

When it came to matrimonial plans, 39 per cent of cohabitants intended to marry; significantly more women (45 per cent compared with 34 per cent of men) planned marriage. There were similar results for planning or having children. Overall, 46 per cent planned to have or already had children; however, half the women had these plans compared with 42 per cent of men.

These results suggest a reluctance on the part of some men and women in de facto relationships to take on family responsibilities. Those who had been previously married were far less likely to expect marriage in the future (28 per cent of the ever-marrieds compared with 47 per cent of the never- marrieds). Similar results are evident for planning or having children (a third of the ever-married compared with 55 per cent of those who had never married). It appears that those who had previously been in an unsuccessful relationship were more likely to be wary about making legally binding commitments.

Twenty-one per cent of all those cohabiting felt it was very likely they would marry their partner, 20 per cent believed it quite likely, 35 per cent were not sure, and 23 per cent believed it unlikely. In 30 per cent of cases the respondent believed that both partners wanted to marry; in 16 per cent of cases neither wanted marriage. In 23 per cent of cases the issue was not discussed and in 12 per cent of cases one partner was more interested in marriage than the other. Some others were not able to marry because either partner was still married to someone else.

Rindfuss and VandenHeuvel (1990) pointed out that much emphasis has been placed on cohabitation as a quasi- marriage and thus researchers have concentrated on comparing married and de facto relationships. They argue that cohabitation is a variation on dating and comparisons should be made with dating couples. The wave two information allows us to make such a comparison between de facto relationships and non-cohabiting relationships.

Table 4: Relationship arrangements of couples
not living together (n=91)
 Per cent
Live together part of time34
Neither sexually involved with anyone else80
Buy things jointly15
Share bank account4
Intend to marry in the future29
Plan to have children/already have children22
Source: AIFS Australian Family Formation Project 1991

It was found that 73 per cent of non-cohabiting relationships were sexual relationships, a third of couples reported living together part of the time, and 80 per cent maintained their relationships were monogamous. These couples were unlikely to share bank accounts or buy things jointly. Twenty-nine per cent intended to marry, and 22 per cent planned to have children.

These results suggest that, sexually, there is little difference between cohabitants and non-cohabitants. However, there are great differences when it comes to sharing finances and pooling resources. Those who are not living together are less likely to be considering marriage and children. The reasons may lie in the stage of the relationship, the length of time they have been together, or may reflect differing levels of commitment between those living together and those not.

Among those in an existing de facto relationship, 11 per cent had been together more than ten years, 26 per cent five to ten years, 27 per cent three to four years, and 36 per cent up to two years. As noted earlier, three-quarters of all de facto relationships end within four years. It therefore seems likely that the 37 per cent who have been living together for more than five years will choose not to legalise their relationship.

How long before moving in together?

A fifth of those in existing de facto relationships had been involved in their relationship three months or less before moving in together; 25 per cent had known one another four to six months, 28 per cent seven to 12 months, 18 per cent between one and two years, and 7 per cent had known one another for more than two years before they started living together.

Couples cohabit for reasons ranging from the highly emotional to the very pragmatic. More than 80 per cent of those currently cohabiting mentioned love, companionship, mutual involvement, friendship and long-term commitment. Many felt cohabiting allowed them to develop more fully their intimate relationship:

'Love, companionship, interdependence, it's fun.'

'Mutually loving caring sharing with one another on a full- time basis rather than part-time.'

'We like to share everyday things such as cooking and gardening, as well as enjoying each other's company. Feels empty being apart for long periods.'

'Both needed someone to listen to each other. Company, companionship just something new to do without anyone saying no.'

Half the couples mentioned hard-nosed, pragmatic, economic reasons that focused on saving money, sharing costs and housing. Some spoke of being financially dependent; others were concerned with maintaining financial independence.

'Lowers financial costs.'

'It's much cheaper to share a house. Maybe some day we'll buy a house more sense when two buy.'

'Support one another financially. Have fun playing house together.'

'Left job in Sydney as able to obtain low-cost housing in Victoria.'

'We share accounts and expenses but also maintain own savings.'

A third mentioned practical day-to-day reasons for living together, based on being able to spend more time together, work and employment issues, and sharing domestic roles.

'Do 99 per cent of everything together live near the things we like doing recreationally and convenient for work.'

'It seemed ridiculous to set up two households when my partner already spent weekends with me.'

'No more running to see each other, pool our belongings.'

'Both live near our place of employment and share rent.'

'He worked nights and I had part-time day work, and both of us shared babysitting and both helped each other out.'


While those living in de facto relationships at any given time are a small proportion of the population, just under half those under 40 are likely to cohabit at some stage in their lives. However, the information presented here suggests it must be recognised that there is great diversity in the kind of de facto relationships couples form.

The motivations vary between couples and within couples, and, no doubt, change over time. Reasons given for cohabiting are emotional, economic and pragmatic. Levels of commitment vary, as does the intention to formalise the relationship.

The law and the general community are increasingly recognising and accepting couples living together. These relationships serve a variety of needs and if a couple chooses not to formalise their union, they doubtless have their reasons. Much needed consistency within the law will be difficult to achieve.


  • Bernard, J. (1972), The Future of Marriage, World Publishers, New York.
  • Bumpass, L. and Sweet, J. (1989), 'National estimates of cohabitation', Demography, Vol.26, No.4, November, pp615625.
  • Carmichael, G. (1990), 'Analysis of marriage and informal cohabitation', Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, Vol.27, No.1, March, pp5372.
  • Evans, M. (1991), 'Alternative to marriage', National Social Science Survey Report, Vol.2, No.5, pp78.
  • Khoo, S-E. (1986), Living Together: Young Couples in De Facto Relationships, Working Paper No.10, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
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  • Rindfuss R. and VandenHeuvel, A. (1990), 'Cohabitation: a precursor to marriage or an alternative to being single?', Population and Development Review, Vol.16, No.4, pp.703726.
  • Sarantakos, S. (1984), Living Together in Australia, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne.