‘Commitment and the changing sequence of cohabitation, childbearing, and marriage’

In the United Kingdom, standard, traditional sequences of family events have been replaced by a de-standardized life course; marriage is postponed and no longer necessary for childbearing; unmarried cohabitation has increased. New sequencing raises questions about the meaning of cohabitation and marriage in peoples’ lives. This paper analyses data collected within a series of focus groups conducted in the UK. It asks whether the new sequencing of life events implies a shift in commitment in cohabitation, potentially giving rise to new expressions of commitment and understandings of cohabitation. We find that personal commitment is similar in cohabiting and marital relationships, but that marriage is perceived to embody greater moral and structural commitment. Public displays of commitment are increasingly occurring in other ways, such as childbearing and joint mortgages. Although commitment often grows over time, this progression is not necessarily talked about in relation to the timing of childbearing. We conclude that commitment levels are no longer ascribed solely by union type, but rather by other life events and the couple’s own perceived level of commitment.