‘Focus on Partnerships: Discourses on cohabitation and marriage throughout Europe and Australia’

Across the industrialized world, more people are living together without marrying. Although researchers have compared cohabitation cross-nationally using quantitative data, few have compared union formation using qualitative data. This talk will present findings from a project that has used focus group research to compare social norms on cohabitation and marriage in Australia and nine countries in Europe (see Special Collection in Demographic Research). We conducted 7-8 focus groups in each country using a standardized questionnaire and then coded each discussion, analysed the results, and produced a country-specific chapter on a particular theme. We also collaborated on an overview paper that synthesized the overall findings of the project. The results from each country describe a specific picture of union formation. However, three themes emerge repeatedly in all focus groups: commitment, testing, and freedom. The pervasiveness of these concepts suggests that marriage and cohabitation have distinct meanings, with marriage representing a stronger level of commitment. Nonetheless, other discourses emerged in the focus groups suggesting that cohabitation has multiple meanings. Taken as a whole this study contributes to and challenges current explanations for family change by pointing out how social norms shape partnership behavior. In addition, the project informs quantitative research by suggesting areas for future research, but also emphasizing the need for nuances in interpretation.