Intervention of Professor Dr. Svetlana Trbojevik in the second International Conference on the Family on April 15, 2023

Cohabitation as an alternative or prelude to marriage. The Balkans and the West.

Demographic and socioeconomic changes have shifted household structures in Western democracies. Most European cultures have undergone significant changes regarding marriage patterns. The number of single-person households has increased; the number of cohabitating couples has increased; household types have diversified with alternative family forms; and as a result of postmodernism, the number of households with children has decreased. This diversification of families is especially the case in developed, higher-income countries, which have seen an increase in lone-parent households and an increasing importance of alternative family forms, such as stepfamilies, cohabiting couples and same-sex couple households (Parker, 2012).

Over the past few decades, marriage rates in Western societies have declined, particularly among the younger population. According to Menasche-Horowitz, Graf, & Livingston (2019) 18% of US adults younger than 30 are married, compared with 31% in 1995. Over the same period, the share of Americans who are cohabiting has risen from 3% to 7%. This increase in cohabitation is also a global trend, verified in available studies. The increase in cohabitation rates has been closely related to the secularization of western societies, as well as societies whose values are under the influence of western societies. Namely, this phenomenon is closely related to other social processes and worldviews, such as globalization, post-modernism, feminism and individualism. Cohabiting couples are more likely to embrace egalitarian individualism, as opposed to married couples that tend to emphasize collectivism (Foste, 2001). The rise of cohabitation may also be connected to the ideas of the hippie movement in the 60s and feminism in the 70s of the last century.

Cohabitation appears in many different forms. The majority of people have cohabited with more than one cohabiting partner over a period of time. The nature of cohabiting relationships varies significantly by religion, race, ethnicity, social status, and education. Cohabiters raise children, including those they share with their partner. Thus, cohabitation as a family form influences not only the adult couple, but also the well-being of the children.

The above-mentioned movements encouraged the economic emancipation of women, causing the demand for the inclusion of women in the labor market to increase and, thus, marriage no longer represented a community in which the financial stability of the women and children is guaranteed (Avirovikj, 2017). Another contributing factor is that the women gained more possibilities of regulating birth through widely assessable contraceptives and began to control their reproductive function.

In addition, the institution of marriage is jeopardized by the new social role of women, who aspire to obtain higher education, rather than to get married and have a family. These contemporary trends lead to the postponement of marriage and alternative forms of cohabitation, as well as to a decrease in fertility as a result of delaying marriage until older years. Marriage is postponed unti the later years of adult life, when biological constraints and the chances of having a large family are limited. In addition, the incentives for childbearing and family formation offered by conservative governments are considered to be unsuccessful. Cohabitation connotes a certain level of commit­ment without the legal and social obligations that come with marriage. As an alternative to marriage, these days, cohabitation seems to be more favorable than marriage, because of its being less restrictive and less threatening to independence.

There is a direct connection between the constant increase in extramarital unions and divorces and a simultaneous decrease in the number of marriages. The Head of Unit for Information and Communication at the Eurofound, Mary McCaughey, noted geographical differences in Europe regarding cohabitation. The Balkan countries, under the influence of the Western European countries, did not remain immune to the changes in the structure of the family that arose as a result of these numerous social processes. These past decades had a strong impact on the change in the family structure, marriage, divorce, and birthrate. Cohabitation in Eastern and Southern Europe is a practice as a route to marriage, whereas in Western Europe, cohabitation is becoming more of a permanent lifestyle. Southern Europe has historically shown a slower pace in accepting changes in family forms than the rest of the continent. The motivations underlying the possible shift towards less traditional patterns of family formation, mainly outside marriage, is closely connected to the changes in attitudes over time towards marriage and cohabitation. A European Values Study (2008) survey carried out in European countries revealed that, for the majority of respondents, marriage indicated a commitment to be faithful to one’s partner, as well as an intention to have children, to safeguard one’s legal rights, and to form a nuclear family. In the United States, Campbell and Wright (2010) stated that the perceptions of marriage have remained rather stable over time, with people getting married because they believe in monogamy and fidelity; the main purpose of marriage is love and satisfaction. They believe that for those with plans to marry, cohabitation is an extension of the courtship process, a prelude to marriage, and is culturally determined and is gradually giving up under the pressure of contemporary trends. European trends have a great influence on the liberal views of the extramarital unions of young people in Southeast Europe. Marriage is increasingly losing its meaning as a union whose main purpose is the continuation of offspring. Modern reproductive assisted technology makes it possible to have a child outside of marriage, even without a partner. On the other hand, single parents and extramarital unions are viewed more liberally in most European societies.

According to a study conducted in Greece (K. Rontos, 2012), particularly important factors associated with attitudes towards marriage include the readiness of young men and women to undertake marital commitments and obligations, their predisposition towards cohabitation. In addition, family formation means that more time and money are spent on the household, childbearing, and child care, instead of one’s personal life. Individualism and today’s egocentric and consumerist mentality of non-commitment deter young people from moving towards marriage and its commitments (K. Rontos, 2012).

Nonetheless, there is a limited number of studies about cohabitation in the social sciences. Some of the initial studies were conducted in 1988 as part of the National Survey of Families and Households USA. Research conducted by the PEW Research Center (2019) shows that the share of adults who have lived with a romantic partner in the USA is higher than the share of those who have been married. Nonetheless, this research shows that married adults are more satisfied with their relationships, and more trusting of their partners than those who are cohabiting. According to EU data, cohabitation continued to increase in Europe over the period 2007–2017. At the household level, couples who had never married represented 7% of households in 2017, an increase of 2 percentage points from 2007. The proportion of people cohabiting who have never been married increased from 9% to 13% during the same period. The proportion of unmarried parents also increased since 2007 (7% to 11%). However, cohabitation was less common among couples who have children than couples without children (11% vs 15%, respectively). Cohabitation couples living together without being married is also on the rise in Europe. Eurofound’s calculations of EU data shows that France (13%), Sweden (13%) and Finland (12%) recorded the highest cohabitation rates in the EU in 2017. The largest proportional increases in cohabitation between 2007 and 2017 were recorded in Czechia, Slovakia and Belgium, and the overall cohabitation rate in the EU increased from 5% to 7%, In Macedonia 1.6% live in a cohabitation.

The trend of decreasing the number of marriages is also reflected by an increase in the number of children born out of marriage. The number of children born born out of marriage has also increased in the European Union, from 27.3% in 2000 to 42.6% in 2016. Greece and Croatia have the lowest number of children born out of marriage, whereas France has the highest percentage, 60%, followed by Slovenia, 58.6%, and Estonia, 54%. The Balkans lags behind countries with a high standard, where women decide more easily to have a child born out of marriage. Bulgaria has the highest percentage of children born out of marriage in the region, 58.5 %, followed by Kosovo with 38.7 %, Serbia 26.8 % and Croatia 20.7 %, while there is no data for Albania and Montenegro. This trend is also evident in Macedonia. Namely, in the last 10 years, about 13% of the newborns in Macedonia were registered as children born out of marriage. More precisely, out of about 19,000 newborn children on an annual level, over 2,500 children belong to this category. Since 2000, the number of children born out of marriage in Serbia has been constantly growing from 20% and has reached 26%, according to the latest Eurostat data. Every fourth child in Serbia is born out of marriage. A similar trend was observed in Italy, Romania and Switzerland. On the other hand, the number of children born out of marriage decreased from 29.2 to 22.5% in Russia, and in Turkey only 2.9% of children were born out of marriage. Serbia follows the trends of more developed countries regarding postponing the age of the first birth. The average age for women in the EU increased from 29 years in 2001 to 30.6 years in 2016. Whereas the average for Serbia has increased from 25,7 years in 2001 to 29,1 in 2016.

In most cases, children born out of marriage have the same rights as children born in marriage. They inherit from their parents, who are obliged to take care of them until they reach adulthood. The child can take either the mother's or the father's surname, depending on their agreement. After birth, the child must be registered by both parents, but a problem arises if the parents are registered at different addresses. Children in cohabiting households are generally economically better off than children in single, female-headed households, however, they have much higher poverty rates than children in married families.

According to Eurostat, the consistently low birth rates and higher life expectancy are transforming the shape of the EU’s age pyramid. The structure of the population is getting older, a development which is expected to increase significantly in the coming decades. This may, in turn, lead to an increased burden on those of working age to provide for the social expenditure required by the ageing population for a range of related services.

We can conclude that there is a correlation between delaying marriage or unwillingness to get married and the increase of persons who have ever lived with an unmarried partner. Amid these changes, most people in the Western societies find cohabitation acceptable, even for couples who don’t plan to get married. Nonetheless, the opinion that society is better off if couples in long-term relationships eventually get married still prevails.

Based on research conducted by the PEW Research Center (2019), the majority of married and cohabiting adults express at least a fair amount of trust in their spouse or partner to be faithful to them, act in their best interest, always tell them the truth and handle money responsibly, but married adults are much more likely than those who are cohabiting to express a great deal of trust in their spouse or partner regarding trust in their spouse or partner to be faithful to them, act in their best interest, always tell them the truth and handle money responsibly.

Married adults also express higher levels of satisfaction with their relationship. About six-in-ten married adults (58%) say things are going very well in their marriage; 41% of cohabiters say the same about their relationship with their partner.

Married adults are also more likely than cohabiters to say they feel closer to their spouse or partner than to any other adult. About eight-in-ten married adults (78%) say they feel closer to their spouse than to any other adult in their life compared to majority of cohabiters (55%) say the same about their partner.

It is often perceived that marriage is not an outdated institution, and is still the norm.

Based on different studies, Foste (2001) notes some of the trends related to cohabitation. Namely, (1) cohabitation remains a relatively short-lived family form where most cohabiting couples marry or separate within two years. (2) Divorce rates are higher among couples cohabiting prior to marriage than among couples that marry without cohabitation. (3) A lack of permanence and commitment between partners are the primary features distinguishing cohabitation from marriage. (4) Cohabitation is selective of individuals with a lower commitment to the institution of marriage and who are more accepting of divorce. (5) Cohabiting couples report more violence than married couples, and cohabitors are less sexually exclusive then married partners. (6) Many couples choose cohabitation over marriage because they lack economic stability. (7) Among those with low-incomes, cohabitation is generally a substitute for the long-term commitment of formal marriage. (8) cohabitation is increasing among women who value highly their careers and men who value leisure. (9) Couples in these types of cohabiting unions emphasize equality between partners especially in terms of income.

Based on the above, we can conclude that cohabitation in Western societies is becoming increasingly an accepted model that inevitably does not lead to marriage, whereas in the Balkans cohabitation is still perceived as a prelude to marriage. On the other hand, cohabitation in the West and to some extent in the Balkans is becoming a lifestyle and an organizational form in which partnership relationships occur in variety of forms. A growing number of children live in this type of communities, which in the long run can disrupt their stability, security and confidence. Children and young people lose trust in themselves, in the family and in society as a whole. In addition, the evident trend of a reduction in the number of marriage unions and increase in the number of divorces and cohabitation unions results in a drastic decrease in the number of newborn children and the aging of the population in countries that belong to Western civilization or those that are in a hurry to follow Western worldviews. However widely accepted this trend is and will be in the future, it will have a negative and devastating effect on Western Civilization and might even be, in the future interpretation of history, considered as the core reason for its fall and disappearance. Therefore, it might be the right time to ask ourselves the question: Quo Vadis West, Quo Vadis Europe?

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