An Overview of Unmarried Heterosexual Cohabitation and Suggested Marketing Implications

ABSTRACT - This paper discusses the causes for the rapid growth of unmarried heterosexual cohabitation and describes the process which transformed cohabitation from a stigmatized relationship to an acceptable form of behavior. Findings from a study of fifty cohabiting couples are reported. Finally, some marketing implications of the growth of cohabitation are suggested.


Carl Danziger and Mathew Greenwald (1977) ,"An Overview of Unmarried Heterosexual Cohabitation and Suggested Marketing Implications", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04, eds. William D. Perreault, Jr., Atlanta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 330-334.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1977   Pages 330-334


Carl Danziger, Rutgers University

Mathew Greenwald, American Council of Life Insurance


This paper discusses the causes for the rapid growth of unmarried heterosexual cohabitation and describes the process which transformed cohabitation from a stigmatized relationship to an acceptable form of behavior. Findings from a study of fifty cohabiting couples are reported. Finally, some marketing implications of the growth of cohabitation are suggested.


Over the past decade unmarried heterosexual cohabitation has gone from a hidden stigmatized arrangement of a small number of mainly lower class people to an increasingly acceptable aspect of the courtship process of middle class, highly educated young people. It seems clear that cohabitation will become more frequent among the young middle class and among the middle aged and the elderly of all social classes. This paper will discuss the factors which led to the growth of cohabitation, the dynamics of the cohabiting relationship and its place in the courtship process. Because of its expected growth, it also appears timely to describe some of the financial and marketing implications of unmarried cohabitation.

The Development of Unmarried Heterosexual Cohabitation

It is difficult to understand the growth of cohabitation without first considering the continued development of new stages of life as society has become increasingly complex. Simple societies traditionally define two stages of life, childhood and adulthood. In the United States in the 1870s, industrialization led to the development of a new non-adult phase. The term adolescence, coined in 1904 by psychologist G. Stanley Hall, provided a label for this stage. With the need for more highly educated workers and the concommitant growth of high schools, a growing number of young people past puberty did not take on adult roles. Although it was not until 1940 that the majority of young people completed high school, it was apparent that adolescence had become an institutionalized stage of life before that point. The development of adolescence created demands for products aimed specifically at the teenager.

In the 1960s, increasing demands for higher education and the affluence to permit further delays of work, led to the emergence of a new pre-adult stage. This period between adolescence and adulthood has been referred to as youth, studentry, and transadulthood by different observers (Kenneth, 1971; Parsons and Platt, 1973; Danziger and Greenwald, 1973). All of these conceptualizations recognize that increasing numbers of young people, mainly college students, are not viewed by others as "adults". Although past the teenage years they do not support themselves, have made no commitment to a career or a family and appear intent on delaying or avoiding the responsibilities of adulthood.

At college and university centers and in a number of large cities transadults, in the 1960s, were able to establish their subculture in a setting somewhat detached from the pressures of conventional society. The abnormally large number of people in their 20s during this period aided in the development of this subculture. Free to a large extent from external social pressures they were able to establish new social norms. In this setting sexual freedom and then cohabitation were able to develop and eventually flourish. But as the so-called LeClair Affair illustrates, some obstacles remained, in March 1968 the New York Times published a story about cohabitation among college and university students. Through this account Barnard College administrators learned that one of their students, Linda LeClair, was illicitly living off campus with a Columbia student, Peter Behr. Barnard College, seeing clearly its moral duty, denied her the use of the university cafeteria and snack bar. Furthermore, in case Ms. LeClair's parents were not already aware of their daughter's living situation through the national news coverage, the Barnard administration acting in loco parentis, informed them of her situation. Today, a mere eight years after Ms. LeClair's censure, such university actions and media coverage are inconceivable.

How specifically did unmarried heterosexual cohabitation change from an unacceptable form of behavior to an acceptable form of behavior? Martin Weinberg (1968) and Richard Stephenson (1973) have each studied the process by which individuals involve themselves in behavior once regarded by them as deviant or immoral. Stephen-son (1973, p. 173) stated, "To engage in deviant behavior that violates prior patterns of socialization and normative standards of significant others requires, to some degree, a change in the definition of the situation that formerly guided or inhibited behavior." The first stage of resocialization, or alteration or mores, according to Weinberg and Stephenson, is a passive phase in which people are involved in learning, thinking and talking about a new mode of behavior or deviant activity. That is, the behavior must become part of their realm of reality. In order to be re-socialized, people must know about the behavior and this behavior must involve identifiable and acceptable people. When knowledge of actual situations becomes public, particularly when participants do not suffer from the consequences of this public knowledge, the behavior becomes a more acceptable topic of discussion and gains an air of legitimacy. The LeClair Affair, and the many news stories and accounts of cohabiting couples that followed it, gave impetus to the discussion and consideration of behavior formerly considered deviant and not widely practiced.

In the second or active phase the discussion of "deviant'' behavior leads to the possibility or potentiality of involvement in this behavior. At this point, the emergence of the new, transadult, stage of life was quite important. Large numbers of young people, mainly college students, were brought together in situations somewhat isolated from the traditional influences of family and work. Their new subculture rejected many previous standards of behavior. Under this situation an active consideration of cohabitation was possible. As sexual standards and housing regulations on college campuses changed, overnight relationships became more plausible. The cohabiting couple is highly unlikely to start a cohabiting relationship the first time they sleep together. However, at this stage the couple can test out the relationship by spending the weekend or several days together; thus allowing the possibility for involvement in the next stage to emerge.

In the third and final stage of the resocialization process, the behavior formerly perceived as deviant and unacceptable is rationalized and legitimized. The alienation of young people in the late 1960s and early 1970s tended to devalue traditional norms, and make this resocialization easier. As all aspects of society came under a critical reexamination and reinterpretation it was not difficult to redefine standards of acceptable pre-marital heterosexual behavior. The technological advance and distribution of the pill virtually guaranteed "safe" sex, while the decreasing value of virginity end the increasing rights of women allowed greater freedom to develop sexually intimate relationships without strong feelings of guilt.

Through the three-stage resocialization process unmarried cohabitation, once viewed as deviant, became an acceptable stage of courtship, at least in the college community. This process suggests that cohabitation will continue to increase, simply because the presence of large numbers of participants will serve to resocialize others. As Jason Montgomery (1973, p. 292) stated, "Besides having social and subcultural support, cohabitation serves to reinforce itself. The more cohabitation there is, the more there will be. It will be easier for people to do simply because more people have done it."

According to the Census Bureau the number of unmarried cohabiters in the United States increased eightfold between 1960 and 1970, from 17,000 to 143,000. These figures are undoubtedly understated, because of the reluctance of some cohabiters to inform census takers of their relationship.

Surveys conducted on various college campuses have found that large proportions of students have cohabited with members of the opposite sex. A review of these surveys indicates that the proportion of students who have cohabited (defined differently by the different surveys) ranged from a low of 9% at a small Midwestern liberal arts school with a conservative housing policy to a high of nearly 40% at a large northeastern university with liberal residence regulations.

These surveys reveal that pre-marital heterosexual cohabitation is not a phenomenon limited to one geographic area or one type of educational setting. The studies also reveal that those who had experience with cohabitation were not significantly different from those who had not cohabited. Moreover, those not involved were open to cohabitation and often expected or wanted to become involved in a "living together" arrangement. The majority of students apparently viewed unmarried heterosexual cohabitation as acceptable and increasingly expected behavior.

The Dynamics of the Cohabiting Couple Relationship

A more detailed picture of the cohabiting situation can be gained from a review of an intensive survey of 50 unmarried couples conducted by one of the authors (Danziger, 1976). The study utilized the snowball procedure of sampling, in which initial respondents were asked to recommend other potential respondents. The definition employed was that unmarried heterosexual cohabitation involves two cross-sex individuals, each of whom considers his/her primary residence to be the one in which they cohabit. Furthermore, they themselves had to define their situation as a cohabiting relationship. This definition excludes brief sexual encounters such as the "one night stand," as well as going together relationships in which the couple does not cohabit.

Data was collected through a questionnaire, filled out separately by each partner, an individual interview with each member of the couple and an open ended interview with the couple together. All of the respondents lived in the New Brunswick, New Jersey area and most were part of the Rutgers University community. The data was collected during the academic year of 1971-1972.

In order to effectively analyze this data it is appropriate to provide some initial background information concerning the subjects in the sample. Approximately 70% of the respondents were between the ages of 20 to 23. The youngest person in the sample was 18, the oldest 34. Most of those interviewed were college or graduate students at Rutgers University and most categorized the social class in which they were raised as middle or upper middle class. Therefore, in reviewing the findings of this research, it should be kept in mind that we are dealing with a group of respondents who were young, well educated, mainly middle and upper middle class and were raised for the most part in suburban communities in the New York Metropolitan area. All of the respondents were white.

Approximately 60% of the couples lived in their own apartments, another third of the couples shared apartments or rented houses with friends and approximately 10% lived together in dormitories.

The majority had a "going together" relationship of at least 7 months before they started living together and nearly one-third had been going together for more than a year before establishing a living together relationship. Furthermore, at the time they were interviewed for the study, 70% of the couples had been cohabiting for more than 7 months and nearly half (44%) had been living together for over 1 year.

Relationships with Family

Of the 50 couples studied by Danziger only slightly more than 50% of the female cohabiters parents were openly aware of their daughters living arrangement. However, an additional 22% of the females indicated that their parents were aware of her living arrangements, but never acknowledged their awareness. The parents of male cohabiters were more likely to be aware of their sons cohabitation. Though the double standard was in effect, over 80% of the parents of the respondents in the sample were certainly cognizant of their offspring's cohabitation, as Table 1 shows.



The data for awareness among parents (86% male, 76% female), aunts end uncles (48% male, 36% female) and grandparents (28% male, 14% female) consistently show that the male's family was more likely to be aware of his living arrangement than was the female's family.

The effect of the double standard can also be observed in the differential reaction of parents of male and female cohabiters to their children's living situation.

Forty-seven percent of the female cohabiters whose parents were aware of their living situation (including those whose parents do not openly acknowledge awareness) felt their cohabitation had caused difficulties between her and her parents. Only 21% of the male cohabiters felt their parents knowledge had caused difficulties. The data indicates that the majority of parents do not approve of premarital cohabitation, but they find themselves in a particularly difficult sit-nation. Though they do not want to give approval to the relationship, they do not wish to cut themselves off from their children. Therefore, parents often do not approve, but their disapproval takes the form of pressuring for marriage or separation without threatening their child or the relationship.

It is interesting to note that in a small number of cases respondents stated that their relationship with their parents had actually improved with their parents knowledge of the living-together relationship. In a number of cases parents viewed cohabitation as a step toward greater maturity and responsibility or an opportunity to enjoy a new freer life style. Finally it is important to note that many respondents indicated that their relationship with parents was not significantly altered due to parents knowledge of their living arrangement.

If parental disapproval is present, what effect does this disapproval have on the cohabiting couple? Interviews with a number of married couples who had lived together before marriage revealed that at least part of the reason they married was to satisfy parents by adding a legal contract to their relationship. The study indicates that very few respondents (approximately 5%) felt that their relationship with their partner or mate suffered due to parental reaction. On the other end of the spectrum several respondents indicated that parental disapproval actually brought the cohabiting couple closer together due to a feeling of greater distance from parents.

The Living Situation

The cohabiting couple in setting up a household are not unaware of the somewhat tenuous nature of their relationship. In many cases, at least in the initial stages, one partner merely moves into the other partners already existing living situation, rather than the couple setting up their own apartment. Moreover, it is rare that these couples make any major joint purchases. Of course, most cohabiters in this sample were young and not yet established in careers. They had relatively few possessions and rather low incomes. In fact, among those in the sample only a half were completely financially independent. Overall, 58% of the females and 42% of the males were partially or totally dependent on their parents for financial support.

The couples tended to divide their expenses "fairly". In 60% of the cases the household and living expenses were evenly divided. In an additional 36% the expenses were shared on an "ability to pay" basis. If one member of the couple was working while the other was a student the working partner often shouldered more of the financial burden. In only one case (2% of all cases) the male paid for everything and in one case the female paid all the bills. Examining a further aspect of their financial relationship it is interesting to note that less than 30% of the couples kept their funds in the same bank account.

Although these couples were apparently quite egalitarian in terms of their financial expenditures they were less likely to achieve that partnership in terms of household chores. The great majority of the couples (70%) divided household chores along traditional sex role lines. The women usually cooked and cleaned, the men took out the garbage. Age was a factor. The younger the couple the more likely there was to be an egalitarian division of labor.

Definition of Relationships--a Typology

In any consideration of unmarried heterosexual cohabitation it is important to recognize the various types of relationships. Cohabiters vary in their definition of the situation, their level of commitment and their plans for the future. To clarify the types of cohabitation relationships, the authors have developed a schema for classifying the 5 major types.

We have labeled the categories of cohabiting relationships as casual, transitory, stable, trial marriage, and alternative to marriage. The casual couple is characterized by the fact that although they are living together, they do not consider their relationship to be exclusive and have vague plans for the future. Casual couples state that they do "date" other people and had agreed to this type of relationship before they started living together. The couples that have been categorized as transitory are those who consider their relationship exclusive, at least for the time being, but have very vague ideas or plans about the future. In the third category, labeled a stable relationship, the couples consider their relationship to be quite stable, believe that they will be living together for some time into the future and, in most cases, say that their relationship is exclusive (i.e., they do not date others). The trial marriage is characterized by those who state in some form that they are thinking of marriage in the future and consider their cohabitation as a means of testing their comparability as a couple. The final category alternative to marriage is reserved for those who consider their relationship to be a "permanent" alternative to marriage. This couple has a negative orientation to marriage. They define their relationship as stable and their commitment to each other as permanent, but they do not plan to marry.

Of the 50 couples sampled, nearly 2 in 5 fit into the "stable" classification, about 1 in 3 described their relationship as "transitory" and only 1 in 5 defined their relationship as a "trial marriage" (see Table 2). The categories at the two ends of the spectrum accounted for less than 10% of the couples. On one end of the scale only two couples classified their relationship as "casual". At the opposite end only 2 couples indicated that they considered their relationship as an "alternative to marriage". In both of these cases the women were staunch feminists who viewed marriage as a degrading institution for women, and both stated that they did not plan to have any children.




One of the interesting areas of the findings to explore is that of evaluating how these couples feel about the future of their relationship. Do they plan to eventually marry the person with whom they are living? Do they expect to stay together?

Since the definitions of the various categories describing the relationship include, in part, plans for the future, we would expect to find some correlation between the type of relationship and future plans. This certainly was true in this study. At one end of the continuum we find that the "casual" couples did not plan to remain together in the future. At the other extreme the couples classified as "alternative" definitely planned to stay together.

Examination of the future plans for "transitory", "stable", and "trial marriage" couples reveals what might be expected from their definitions. None of the transitory couples expected to marry; about one-third of the stable couples thought their future included marriage (to each other) and slightly over 80% of the trial marriage (9 of 11) couples expect to marry.

Among all 50 couples only 15 definitely thought they would eventually marry the person with whom they were living. Eleven couples said they definitely planned on staying together and 12 said they would probably stay together. It is apparent that cohabiting couples do not generally see their relationship as a permanent alternative to marriage nor do they view their relationship as necessarily a preparation for marriage. The majority, of course, did not enter the cohabiting relationship for the direct purpose of preparing for marriage.


The conclusion of this and other studies in this area suggest that cohabitation among unmarried educated middle class young people has become quasi-institutionalized. Participants view their behavior as normative and acceptable particularly within the academic environment. This cohabitation apparently represents an extension of the courtship process rather than an alternative to marriage. Although some cohabitation is defined as a convenience relationship, and others see their cohabitation as a permanent alternative, much of it can be described as a testing of the comparability of the relationship. Although it appears probable that the majority of the couples involved in cohabitation in this study will not eventually marry their present partner, this does not indicate a rejection of the institution of marriage. Only 3 of the 50 males and only 4 of the 50 females indicated that they never expected to be married.

Thus, unmarried cohabitation is not a new form of marriage. It is becoming a new stage in the courtship process, a time when marriage is considered. It can lead to marriage, the way going steady or being pinned led to marriage two decades ago. But, as with going steady, marriage is not inevitable. For example, over thirty percent of the young people in this sample reported here had cohabited with someone else prior to this relationship. Although males were more likely to have had more previous partners than the females, about an equal number of males (34%) and females (28%) had had experience with heterosexual living together in the past. In the past, courtship could be described as the narrowing of field of eligibles until the final selection of a mate. It has now evolved into a series of "relationships", one of which may result in marriage.

The research has not, as yet, answered the question as to whether premarital cohabitation will lead to more successful enduring marriages. Though respondents overwhelmingly feel that cohabitation does aid in the ability to choose the right marriage partner, that level of agreement is not found among the researchers. However it is apparent that cohabitation will serve to delay marriage and provides a much more realistic evaluation of the comparability of the couple. Sociologists do agree that the older people are when they marry the more likely the marriage is to last. We might suggest, at the very least, that unmarried heterosexual cohabitation during the transadult stage of life, is a functionally efficient means of adapting the emotional and sexual needs of young people to a system that prolongs the period of nonadulthood in our society.


Marketing to the Formerly Deviant

Over the past decade, a number of formerly stigmatized lifestyles have become more acceptable, and have won many new participants. One example of this is the cohabiting couple. Other non-traditional family forms, such as the single and divorced lifestyle, planned childless marriage and cooperative living have also become less stigmatized and more common. There is more acceptance of homosexuality and bisexuality, and more homosexuals are "coming out of the closet". Also, mid-career change, movement from upper-middle class urban lifestyles to working class rural lifestyles, and adoption of fundamentalist religions have become more frequent and generally more acceptable.

This type of societal change requires a re-examination of marketing approaches by many organizations. We will use the example of the cohabiting couple to amplify this point. During the period when cohabitation was a stigmatized lifestyle practiced by very few, many businesses developed policies for dealing with unmarried couples. For example, many companies providing financial services tended to discriminate against the cohabiting couple on the assumption of greater risk. Banks often refused joint credit to cohabiters, property and casualty insurers charged unmarried couples more for insurance than they charged married couples and credit card companies often did not extend the same credit to unmarried couples that they often oriented only to the traditional family, discouraging cohabiters from applying for financial services.

Companies that do not revise their marketing policies face various risks regarding unmarried couples and those in other nontraditional lifestyles. They will not only lose the current business of many cohabiters, but are likely to miss out on potential future business after the cohabiters adopt more traditional lifestyles. Companies that do not market to nontraditional groups invite the establishment of new firms which will compete with them for an expanding segment of their potential market. Examples in the financial service area include a Woman's Bank in New York City, and All Together, Inc., a Chicago based company which offers life and health insurance, pre-paid legal insurance and other financial services to those in alternative lifestyles.

Finally, companies that do not re-examine discriminating marketing practices run the risk of incurring law suits. The denial of credit, higher insurance premiums, or refusal of a loan because of the living arrangement of the applicant can lead to legal action, which in the current social environment can be quite costly.

Currently, many companies are studying their marketing policies regarding unmarried couples and other non-traditional lifestyles. Within the life insurance business, for example, there is discussion about needs analyses for various family forms, about what factors are important for risk classification, and about sales strategies for various population segments.

All companies that have made assumptions about cohabiters and others in nontraditional lifestyles should study the current accuracy of their assumptions. Are cohabiters more likely than others to experience theft because of the presumed tendency of one partner to steal the others possessions when the couples break up? Do homosexuals have a higher than average tendency to be assaulted? Are single people less likely to pay their debts than married people?

Inaccurate assumptions can certainly lead to inappropriate marketing policies. However, even accurate assumptions should not always be retained. For example, if cohabiting couples really do suffer more theft, property insurers should not automatically charge more for renters insurance. If the differential is small it might not be worthwhile to risk lawsuits and possible bad publicity, as well as the extra investigative costs, to make the additional charge.

A major task facing organization's marketing to unmarried couples and others living nontraditional lifestyles is to have an image of acceptance. If the cohabiters believe they must hide the facts of their relationship to an organization or face discrimination, they are likely not to deal with that organization in the present or the future. Companies that appear not to discriminate can build a loyalty that may lead to business in the future, even when the cohabiters adopt a more typical lifestyle. An image of acceptance can be enhanced through the tone and placement of ads; however it must be earned through performance.

Some organizations should consider developing special credit procedures or financial and insurance services for unmarried couples, or those in nontraditional family forms. The fact that many of these relationships are transient requires certain safeguards, but their availability could earn a long-term relationship with the current cohabiter.

Consumption Patterns of the Cohabiting Couple

For a variety of reasons unmarried cohabiters tend to spend less than married or single people their age. A primary factor is the reduced need of cohabiters for conspicuous consumption. For the single person dating and attracting people can be a costly process, involving clothes and appearance, entertainment and vacations. Many single people believe that the ownerships of luxury items will enhance their status, which can be an important objective. The time immediately before and after marriage is frequently one of major purchases. A household is established which has a variety of symbolic meanings. This requires investment in expensive furniture. Concomitant with marriage are long-range plans that often include the purchase of life insurance, stocks, and other financial instruments.

The cohabiting couples are often in a more isolated situation. They infrequently entertain parents or relatives in their home. Most are involved in the college subculture, which does not stress material possessions. Because their household is not defined as permanent it has less symbolic meaning.

There are other factors which constrain spending by cohabiters. A primary consideration is the lack of a long-term commitment. It is difficult to make a major furniture purchase for an apartment you may only expect to live in for a short period of time. Additionally, cohabiting couples rarely pool their resources for major purchases. With few societal guidelines for dividing property at the end of the cohabiting relationship, many couples simply maintain individual ownership of the items in their joint household. A great number of cohabiters have small incomes and individually cannot afford major purchases.

In sum, although cohabiters do not spend much, their growing numbers make them a significant force in the market. Perhaps more importantly, most cohabiters eventually marry, work, have children and participate generally in society. The way businesses relate to them while they cohabit will influence the way they relate to these businesses during and after their cohabitation experience.


Carl Danziger, "Unmarried Heterosexual Cohabitation," unpublished doctoral dissertation, (Rutgers University, 1976).

Carl Danziger and Mathew Greenwald, Alternatives: Look at Unmarried Couples and Communes (New York: Institute of Life Insurance, 1973).

Kenneth Keniston, Youth and Dissent (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Ind., 1971).

Jason Montgomery, "Towards an Understanding of Cohabitation,'' unpublished doctoral dissertation, (University of Massachusetts, 1973).

Talcott Parsons and Gerald Platt, The American University (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973).

Richard Stephenson, "Involvement in Deviance: An Example and Some Theoretical Implications," Social Problems, (1973), 173-190.

Martin Weinberg, "Becoming a Nudist," in Earl Rubington and Martin S. Weinberg (ed.), Deviance: The Interactionist Perspective (New York: MacMillan, 1968), 271-279.



Carl Danziger, Rutgers University
Mathew Greenwald, American Council of Life Insurance


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04 | 1977

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