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Marriage Versus Cohabitation: How Specialization and Time Use Differ by Relationship Type

Leslie S. Stratton (Virginia Commonwealth University, USA)

Time Use in Economics

ISBN: 978-1-83753-605-4, eISBN: 978-1-83753-604-7

Publication date: 14 December 2023


Relationships have changed dramatically in the last 50 years. Fewer couples are marrying, more are cohabiting. Reasons for this shift include more attractive labor market opportunities for women and changing social norms, but the shift may have consequences of its own. A number of models predict that those cohabiting will specialize less than those marrying. Panel data on time use – particularly housework time – as well as on the degree of specialization in more narrowly defined household tasks from the 2001–2019 waves of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey are used to test this prediction.

The time use data for men provides only limited supporting evidence for specialization. The results for women are much stronger. Women who marry without first cohabiting increase their reported housework time more than those who enter cohabitations (by 3.7 hours versus 1.2 hours). The latter generally make up a third of the difference if they do marry. Expanding the analysis to other uses of time yields some further evidence of specialization.

Survey responses on the degree of specialization are more informative. The raw data show substantial intrahousehold specialization and further analysis reveals that on average married couples specialize more than cohabiting couples. Adding couple-specific fixed effects reveals that specialization increases when cohabiting couples marry. Interestingly, there does not appear to be a substantial tradeoff between tasks; partners who report specializing more on one task are more likely to report specializing on other tasks as well. Given the important roles couples have in family formation and the labor market, it is important to understand this intrahousehold behavior.




This chapter uses unit record data from the Household, Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey. The HILDA Project was initiated and is funded by the Australian Government Department of Social Services (DSS) and is managed by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (Melbourne Institute). The findings and views reported in this chapter, however, are those of the author and should not be attributed to either DSS or the Melbourne Institute. Research assistance from James Stratton is gratefully acknowledged. Thanks are due referees, including Shoshana Grossbard, who provided excellent suggestions.


Stratton, L.S. (2023), "Marriage Versus Cohabitation: How Specialization and Time Use Differ by Relationship Type", Hamermesh, D.S. and Polachek, S.W. (Ed.) Time Use in Economics (Research in Labor Economics, Vol. 51), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 187-218.



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