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Many contemporary couples begin their life together not in a marriage but when they begin sharing a residence. In some countries, cohabitation is a socially recognized form of partnership that is quite stable and is a permanent alternative to marriage. In other countries, cohabitation appears to be more like a stage in the courtship process. In the United States, unmarried heterosexual cohabitation has become so common that the majority of marriages and remarriages are preceded by cohabitation, and most young adults cohabit at some point in their lives.

The similarity between cohabitation and marriage is apparent: they are both romantic coresidential unions. Many marriages, especially remarriages, begin as cohabitations. Cohabitation differs from marriage in requiring no formal, socially recognized, legally enforceable commitment for the long term. Couples begin a cohabitation when they begin to share a residence; most also share a sexual relationship. But they need share little else. Cohabiting couples are much less likely than married couples to commingle financial resources (Brines and Joyner 1999); less likely to be sexually exclusive (Treas and Giesen 2000); less likely to share leisure time and a social life (Clarkberg, Stolzenberg, and Waite 1995); less likely to have children (Bachrach 1987); and less likely to remain together (Smock 2000).

Cohabitation and marriage are different social institutions, according to some scholars. Nock (1995) has argued that cohabitation is much less institutionalized than marriage, at least in the United States and other countries in which it has become common relatively recently, because it is not covered by clear expectations or norms, and the legal rights and responsibilities of cohabiting partners have not been established. The requirements for establishing or ending a cohabiting union are minimal, with no legal or religious or community formalities involved. There is ambiguity about what it means to be a cohabiting partner, to the members of the couple themselves, their families and friends, their community, and to children belonging to one or both of them. The uncertainty about the nature of the relationship and its future seems to lead to lower levels of commitment, lower levels of relationship happiness (Brown and Booth 1996), and lower levels of emotional well-being, especially for cohabiting women with children (Brown 2000). Cohabiting couples with plans to marry show few of these poor outcomes (Brown and Booth 1996), especially if neither has been married before and neither brings children to the relationship, perhaps because these couples are clear about their future together (Brown 2000).

Some explanations for the dramatic increase in cohabitation in many societies over the last several decades focus on long-term social change, including rising individualism and secularism (Lesthaeghe 1983); economic change, especially women's increasing labor force participation; liberalization of attitudes toward gender roles (McLanahan and Casper 1995); and the sexual revolution (Bumpass 1990). Together, these changes have shifted attitudes and values away from responsibility to others and toward individual goal attainment, away from patriarchal authority toward egalitarianism, away from stigmatization of sexual activity outside of marriage (at least if both parties were unmarried—attitudes toward extramarital sex have remained generally disapproving), and toward acceptance of sexual activity in other relationships, including cohabitation. Individuals may find cohabitation attractive because it allows them to lead a different sort of life than marriage, within an intimate union.

Cohabitation may act as an alternative to being single (Rindfuss and VandenHeuvel 1990), as a step in the courtship process, or as an alternative to marriage. Cohabitation plays a different role in peoples' lives, depending on economic and social circumstances, age of the cohabitors, or previous martial status. When couples select cohabitation at the beginning of their relationship and rarely make the transition from cohabitation to marriage, when cohabitions are about as stable as marriages, when cohabiting couples are socially recognized as a couple and treated as married, and when childbearing takes place in cohabiting relationships at about the same rate as in marriage, then we can argue that cohabitation is an alternative to marriage. This seems to be the case in the Nordic countries, where cohabitation has much the same legal and social status as marriage (Kiernan 2000b) and among Puerto Ricans in the United States (Landale and Fennelly 1992), although not all the above conditions apply. In the Nordic countries cohabiting relationships are less stable than marriages (Kiernan 1999), and among mainland Puerto Ricans, fathers in cohabiting couples with children are less likely to provide financial support to the family and are less involved in child care than fathers in married-parent families (Landale and Oropesa 2001).

The behavioral link between cohabitation, marriage, and childbearing can also tell us something about the nature and meaning of cohabitation. In the U.S., never-married cohabiting women show high levels of contraceptive usage and are much less likely than married women to expect a birth in the near future, whereas previously married cohabitors resemble married women in their contraceptive behavior and birth expectations (Bachrach 1987). This suggests that cohabitation may have a different meaning in the process of initial union formation than in the process of union re-formation.

The relationship between cohabitation, childbearing, and marriage also appears to differ by racial and ethnic group, at least in the contemporary U.S., which suggests that the meaning of cohabitation is not the same for these groups. Cohabitation increases the chances of conception more for white women than for black women. An unmarried conception increases the chances of marriage quite substantially for white women and modestly for black women (Brien, Lillard, and Waite 1999; Manning 1993). And a birth while single increases the chances of entering a cohabitation up to the date of the birth for white women and for the four years following the birth for black women (Brien, Lillard, and Waite 1999). A general consensus has emerged that cohabitation acts primarily as an alternative to marriage for black and mainland Puerto Rican women in the U.S. and as a step in the courtship process for non-Latino white women (see Smock 2000 for a summary of this literature.) It is important to keep in mind that these findings refer to specific cohorts of women, in a particular social and economic context, and there is no reason to think they apply in other times, cultures, or contexts.

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