The Australian Institute of Family Studies recently held its biennial conference, celebrating 30 years of "advancing understanding of Australian families". The conference recognised key statistics that illustrate some of the dramatic changes in the landscape of families, including declining marriage rates and the increase in cohabitation and ex-nuptial births.
One only has to glance at the 500-plus comments expressing outrage at Bettina Ardnt's "backward opinions" (which suggested that Prime Minister Julia Gillard's de facto relationship might not be setting the best example for young female onlookers) or more generally at widely held attitudes towards our Prime Minister's relationship status, to conclude that we seem to have reached consensus: cohabitation is another stage on the pathway to a family.
When it comes to children's wellbeing, AIFS director Professor Alan Hayes recognises that the function of the family unit is what matters, rather than the form. What is crucial is that children have an example of a loving relationship that doesn't disappear before their eyes; that they're brought up in an environment of love.
While the stigmas attached to cohabitation are no longer as entrenched as they once were, this shouldn't mean that we cease to consider what the social sciences say on the subject. Cohabitation isn't grounded in promises regarding the permanence of a relationship in the same way as marriage is, even if it looks similar in practice.
Form and function, or how relationships can be seen to play out, are intertwined. Just because we can cohabit (with the same legal and financial supports accorded to married couples) doesn't mean that it is necessarily in our best interests, let alone the best interests of our children.
The most dramatic change in the rates of cohabitation has, not surprisingly, taken place among the younger generations. In 2006, of those living with a partner, just under 70 per cent of 20-24-year-olds and just over 40 per cent of 25-29-year-olds were cohabiting, rather than married. Several factors have contributed to such statistics. For one, Gen Y has grown up witnessing one in three marriages break down, filling us with fear that our own marriages will fail. There appear to be fewer "old-fashioned" parents who are willing to discourage their children from moving in with their boyfriend or girlfriend. Moreover, with women spending increased time in university or building a career, few are ready to settle down and be a wife at 20-something. Then there is criticism of marriage as nothing more than an archaic religious institution, causing some young people to choose to steer clear of it.
All of this might suggest that we should enthusiastically embrace de facto arrangements. Yet studies on attitudes to relationships among young people show that they'd like to permanently settle down ultimately. Indeed the majority of those in de facto relationships intend to eventually marry their partner. While for many cohabitation is seen as a "trial marriage", for others it's just killing time until they're ready for the real thing. Here's hoping both partners are thinking along the same lines! After all, research on relationship formation shows that, for most, cohabitation "just happens". She lives closer to work, or he gets sick of paying rent at a place he never stays; she gets over visiting home to get clean clothes. The reasons are pragmatic. There's no down-on-one-knee, no anniversary. There's a sleepover, one of them doesn't leave and it just happens.
Underlying the pragmatic reasoning is the notion that life is better when there is someone to share it with. But in looking for "the one", are we teaching ourselves to be serial-monogamists, less willing to make a life-long commitment and more willing to walk away when our expectations are not fulfilled? Those who cohabit these days are more likely to break up, and less likely to get married than they were in the past.
The HILDA Survey (Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia) charted relationships in the five years between 2002 and 2007. It noted that de facto relationships were the most volatile of all. Just 26 per cent of de facto relationships moved to marriage in the timeframe. Another 37 per cent were unchanged. Most of the remainder had either returned to living alone or started a new de facto relationship (with a small percentage marrying the new partner).
Some argue that cohabitation is, therefore, a successful screening process for potentially bad marriage matches. But is it possible to test the viability of someone who will need to be there "in good times and in bad, till death do us part" in the absence of that promise: is it possible to test love, or trial commitment?
In reality, a woman who is hoping that cohabitation is the stepping stone to marriage that it once was will likely hold back on complaining that the toilet seat is up - until she has a ring on her finger. A couple might keep bank accounts separate, would-be in-laws at a distance and talk of the long-term future at bay, but that isn't the full picture. In fact, the instability rates for marriages preceded by cohabitation are higher (or in a few studies, which discount cohabiters who don't end up married, as high) compared with marriages entered into directly. If cohabitation really did work as a "trial marriage", one would expect lower rates of instability.
The move from cohabitation to marriage, though often now marked by an extravagantly expensive wedding, can be so insignificant for couples that it isn't difficult to see how the understanding of marriage as a total commitment and a full sharing of one's life can easily be overlooked.
Amy Vierboom is completing her law degree at the University of Technology, Sydney. She worked as a legal researcher in privacy and e-commerce before taking up her current job doing research into marriage and family in Australia.