Jewish Journal

Cohabitation and Intermarriage - What will Jewish Parents Think?

by Bruce Phillips

January 12, 2012 | 12:52 pm

My parents are visiting!!

A report issued by the Pew Research Center at the end of 2010 revealed that marriage in America was at an all-time low, with only 51% of American adults 18 and older currently married as contrasted with 72% in 1960.  Many trends contribute to the decline of marriage including later age at marriage, higher divorce rates, more people choosing to never marry, and a rise in cohabitation. Some cohabiting couples are simply not ready to get married, others regard marriage an obsolete institution, and still others are cohabiting in interracial non-marital unions.  Demographers refer to couples living together as “non-marital unions.” They have long noted that non-marital unions are more likely to be inter-racial than are marital unions (i.e. married couples).  Up until 1967 anti-miscegenation laws in 15 states outlawed black-white marriages leaving non-marital unions as the only option for these couples.  Family pressures currently explain the current high rate of interracial unions among cohabiting couples.  A young person living with a person of a different race does not have to apprise his or her parents of this fact.  If and when they choose to marry, however, the parents are more likely to become involved. At some point mom and dad will want to meet their new son or daughter-in-law. This is why, according to Stanford demographer Michael J. Rosenfeld, interracial couples and same-sex couples are more likely to live away from the community in which their parents reside.

Does this apply to Jews?  Let’s look at non-marital unions in the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey.  For this analysis a non-marital union was defined as a household in which the respondent indicated a partner, fiancé, boyfriend, or girlfriend was living with them. Only about 6 percent of all Jewish households were non-marital unions, because non-marital unions are linked to age: 16% of all respondents 18-24 and 13% of those 25-29 were cohabiting, as compared with only 6 percent of 30-39 year old respondents and 3 percent of those 40 and older.

The table below compares the percentage of cohabiting and married respondents with a non-Jewish partner controlling for ancestry. Only respondents under 30 are analyzed, as these are the most likely to be cohabiting. As I have pointed out in an earlier blog, persons of mixed Jewish ancestry are far more likely to intermarry than those of single Jewish ancestry (i.e. two Jewish parents).  Almost all of the mixed ancestry respondents under 30 had a non-Jewish partner, regardless of marital status. Among single Jewish ancestry respondents, however, those who were cohabiting were almost two and half times as likely to have a non-Jewish partner as those who were married (73% vs. 30%).

I am struck by how much Jewish cohabitation resembles interracial cohabitation.  For both Jews and African Americans, non-martial unions are more likely to be interfaith/interracial than are marriages. Interracial couples are hesitant about family reactions and possibly have doubts about the viability of interracial marriage. Young Jews in cohabiting interfaith unions apparently have their own reservations about their parents’ reaction and/or the complications that arise from an interfaith marriage.

Percent of Respondents in a Union with a Non-Jew by Marital Status and Ancestry (Respondents 18-29)

Ancestry - Mixed
(One Jewish parent)
Ancestry - Single
(Two Jewish parents)
Marital Status - Cohabiting97%73%
Marital Status - Married95%30%

Bruce Phillips is a Professor of Jewish Communal Service in the School of Non-Profit Management, HUC-JIR/Los Angeles and USC. Bruce is among the leading sociologists studying the contemporary Jewish community, specializing in the sociology and demography of American Jewry.  Bruce can be found playing banjo, mandolin and other stringed instruments in the Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Shabbat Unplugged live Bayit (House) Band on many Friday nights.pini00003@gmail.com

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Bruce Phillips is Professor of Sociology and Jewish Communal Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. He has conducted Jewish population...

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