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Open Access Publications from the University of California

With (or Without) this Ring: Race, Ethnic, and Nativity Differences in the Demographic Significance of Cohabitation in Women’s Lives


Using pooled data from the 1995 and 2002 NSFGs, we compare the timing and type of first union, fertility behavior in cohabitation and marriage, and the duration and outcome of first cohabiting unions for White, Black, U.S.-born Mexican American, and foreign-born Mexican American women. We find that the most pronounced differences in cohabitation are between foreign-born Mexicans and women born in the United States. Although the behavior of most foreign-born Mexicans favors marriage over cohabitation, cohabitation may substitute for marriage for a small number of foreign-born Mexicans. Patterns of cohabitation among U.S.- born Mexican Americans are consistently between those of foreign-born Mexicans and U.S.- born Whites, suggesting that assimilation changes union behavior. For Whites, our results suggest that cohabitation is a stage in the courtship process leading to marriage; whereas for Blacks, cohabitation is a highly unstable union that appears to substitute for marriage. Much of the variation by race, ethnicity and nativity status is accounted for by group differences in socioeconomic characteristics. Remaining variation may be attributable to group differences in the value of marriage and the obligations of partners in consensual unions.

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