Cohabitation Among Older Adults

Although most studies of relationship quality have been of remarried older couples, King and Scott (2005) reported that older cohabiting couples experienced higher levels of relationship satisfaction and stability than did younger cohabitors. Older cohabitors were more likely to see their relationships as an alternative to marriage, whereas younger cohabitors were more likely to plan to marry their partner.

How people cope with romantic relationships and their living arrangements in old age depends on a number of things, including whether they choose to cohabit or remarry. For instance, religious beliefs and social disapproval by family and social networks are barriers to cohabiting; the more religious a person is, the less likely they are to cohabit (Clarksberg, Stelzenberg, & Waite, 1995). Older cohabitors, especially men, also are more likely than remarriers to have been previously divorced rather than widowed and to have more physical problems. Brown and colleagues (2006) speculated that men with poorer health seek partners to help care for them, and they sometimes can find women willing to cohabit but not to remarry them. Cohabiting is probably easier than marriage for women to leave when relationships are unsatisfying and when support for the relationship from adult children and stepchildren is not forthcoming.

To put the romantic relationships of older adults and the subsequent effects of those relationships on later life stepfamilies into perspective, Sheehy (1996) described different US age cohorts and the factors that influenced them as they moved through the life course. Each of these cohorts have had different experiences with remarriage, cohabiting, raising stepchildren, and becoming stepgrandparents.

The cohort of those who became young adults during World War II (the “Greatest Generation”), came of age when gender roles were strictly differentiated and marriage was the bedrock of society. For this religiously oriented cohort, the only acceptable forms of sexual gratification were heterosexual, and within marriage. Few in this age group divorced, and when widowed, few looked to remarry and even fewer to cohabit. Stepfamilies would be seen as unusual by this cohort, who reached later adulthood in the last two decades of the Twentieth Century. They likely would be uncomfortable with being in a stepfamily, and would likely present themselves to outsiders as a first-marriage nuclear family.

The next cohort, the “Silent Generation,” was born between 1936 and 1945. Nearly everyone in this cohort married at relatively young ages and had children. Their relationships are characterized generally by clearly differentiated gender roles, but much less so that the Greatest Generation. The Silent Generation began the trend of divorcing at higher levels than previous generations. Women entered the work force, and male-female relationships were undergoing changes as these adults reached middle age in the 1970s. Those were the individuals who created incompletely institutionalized remarried families (Cherlin, 1978). They were stressed in these new postdivorce stepfamilies and did not find much social support.

Those born from 1946-1955 were the older cohort of the “Baby Boomers,” often called the “Vietnam Generation.” Cohabiting became somewhat more acceptable when they were young adults, and with the advent of the birth control pill in 1964 they were the first cohort able to separate sexual activity from marriage without fear of pregnancy. Many older Boomers espoused egalitarian romantic relationships, and religious affiliation was generally lower among this group, although there was great within-group diversity. This cohort has been at the forefront of multiple divorces and multiple cohabiting unions as young and middle-aged adults, and they likely will be the first cohorts of older adults to cohabit in significant numbers. Many of them have been divorced, so they are much more likely to have been a member of a stepfamily prior to age 65. They also are more likely than earlier cohorts to enter into later-life unions and become stepgrandparents. This cohort also contains a substantive proportion of adults who have had serial intimate partnerships and who may have been involved in a series of stepfamilies as adults.

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