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Did you know that (first- and second-time) cohabiters are twice as likely to marry their partner than to separate?

October 2018

In Germany, we observe an increasing complexity of partnership biographies. More and more people enter multiple co-residential unions in their lifetime, while no longer being confined to marriage as the type of union they choose. Knowledge on the prevalence, stability and routes of exit from serial cohabitation in the German context is seriously limited. In a new study, ISS researcher Nicole Hiekel and her colleague Barbara Fulda analyzed relationship biographies of about 2,500 women and men aged 35-45 to close this gap in the literature.

The authors examined, first, the number of unmarried cohabiting relationships they had entered up to this age. Their results reveal that in the cohort studied, so-called serial cohabitation, namely the formation and dissolution of more than one unmarried partnership, is a relatively rare phenomenon. 14 out of 100 men and women report to have lived with two unmarried partners under the same roof, while 3 out of 100 report to have experienced more than two cohabitation episodes. The latter named group belonged to the minority of the sample that had never entered a first marriage by the time the survey was taken.

In a second step, they compared the likelihood of experiencing a marriage or separation from an unmarried partner. The results imply that about 90 percent of women and men in a cohabiting union of first and second order either experience a marriage or separation within 5 years since the start of their relationship. The likelihood to get married to a first or a second cohabiting partner is twice as high as to dissolve the relationship. In cohabiting unions of higher order marriage is yet less likely, while the risk of separation is comparably high to that of cohabiting unions of lower order.

This is the first study on complex partnership biographies in Germany. It shows that for the birth cohort studied, the increasing popularity of unmarried cohabitation and the rise in partnership instability did not imply a loss of importance of marriage.