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Taiwan Panorama / Editor’s Picks / Article:Cohabitation: Is It the Future of Marriage?
Editor’s Picks
Cohabitation: Is It the Future of Marriage?
Vito Lee/photos by Chuang Kung-ju/tr. by Scott Williams
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At this very moment, couples all over Taiwan are quietly living together. They share everything, from money and physical intimacy to their joys and sorrows, from good times to workaday troubles. In short, they are just like the majority of the world's married couples.

But Taiwan's more than 400,000 cohabitants have long been swept under the carpet by the law and by society. They sometimes come up in the newspaper, but almost always in a negative context. This makes these couples still more invisible.

Cohabitation has existed in all times and all places. But it has also long been universally viewed as either "illegal" or "extralegal."

Nonetheless, with marriage edging slowly towards extinction, more and more singles are choosing something simpler--living together, which is easier both to get into and out of, and less demanding in terms of rights and duties. Many governments have already responded with policy and legal measures that give cohabitation, which is as old as marriage itself, a more formal standing.

In Taiwan, cohabitation is half accepted and half taboo. Supporters say "do it, but don't talk about it." Opponents frown upon it, but don't denounce it. In keeping with this ambiguous status, cohabitation has little protection in the law, and even academics have hardly studied it.

Following closely on the heels of the developed nations, Taiwan has experienced for itself the dissolution of the traditional family, sexual liberation, soaring divorce rates, increasing numbers of unmarried adults, and falling birthrates. In this environment, cohabitation represents an alternative to marriage and is becoming something of a trend.

When the last dish is served at the wedding banquet, a raucous evening begins to wind down. But the unmarried women in attendance are anticipating more. They are waiting for the bride to toss her bouquet, each one hoping that she will be the one to catch those very symbolic flowers, each one hoping that she will receive her own wedding blessings while the other guests look on. This evening, the lucky young lady is named Ah-chiao. Bouquet in hand, she hugs her boyfriend as the two of them smile brightly at their assembled friends.

Marriage is part of the foundation of a stable society. The flower arrangements are perhaps one of the most important parts of this fundamental rite, for they symbolize that from this moment forward, this couple will be not just legally but divinely blessed. At the ceremony in the hotel today, one couple entered into a marriage, and another set the date for their own walk down the aisle.

The newly engaged couple, one from Yunlin, the other from Miaoli, met at university. After they graduated, Ta-yao performed his military service while Ah-chiao remained in Taipei to work. "He stayed here with me whenever he had leave," recalls Ah-chiao. "After being discharged, he found work in Taipei, too, and it was just very natural that we would live together."

The two look after one another, sharing everything that life has to offer, both great and small. Ah-chiao loves to cook, and when she doesn't have to work late, she hurries home to prepare a meal. Their rooftop apartment, an "illegal structure" near Taipei's Veterans General Hospital, is filled with the warmth of a true home. Their friends, including today's bride and groom, often drop by to visit. They know that the two are loyal to one another, that they look out for and take care of each other. They also know that it's just a matter of time until they too marry. "Actually," remarks today's groom, "their married life began even before ours."

When Ah-chiao caught the bouquet at the wedding, it was as if Love had made an unambiguous proclamation, and her heart leapt as if she and her boyfriend were already walking down the aisle.

Has marriage lost its luster?

The day after the wedding, Ah-chiao's gown and heavy makeup have been packed away, and life has returned to normal. She withdraws NT$12,000 from their joint account to pay the rent, which by itself accounts for half of the couple's monthly expenses.

"Food and other necessities also cost about this much," says Ta-yao. "She manages this 'necessities' account; we each take care of our other expenses ourselves."

After six years of living together, Ah-chiao and Ta-yao have finally found a way of handling money that works for them. And, since both of them have stable work, "These days we don't really argue about money," says Ta-yao.

Money is an important aspect of sharing a life. In another part of Taipei, Hsiao-hui and her live-in boyfriend, Lao-ta, recently began saving money in a joint account, and just completed an 18-day trip to Japan that that money allowed them to take.

"It costs more than NT$100,000 for two people to tour from Tokyo to Kobe," says Hsiao-hui. "Fortunately, we had saved enough." She explains that the two of them usually keep their money separate, but this time opened a joint account. They made monthly deposits into this "travel fund" for six months, then spent it all on this trip.

"Actually, neither one of us is very good with money," says Lao-ta from a room full of figurines and cosplay attire. "But we were really determined this time."

"Love is precious," says Ta-yao. "By saving for tomorrow, we're addressing marriage's first battle--money problems."

"Taxes are another issue," says Lao-ta. "If we were to file them jointly, we'd have to pay a lot more." Lao-ta has agreed to save enough for a down payment on a home, and plans to marry Hsiao-hui once he does so. To that end, he has reined in his shopping for the last two years, and has even asked Hsiao-hui, who gets by on what she earns from online auctions, to be a little more economical.

Hard to build a nest?

Even when a wedding isn't in the offing, money is becoming an ever more important factor in couples' decisions to live together, especially among college sweethearts.

Spring Fan is an adjunct professor in the department of educational psychology and counseling at Taiwan Normal University as well as a counselor with the university's counseling center. After more than ten years counseling students and married couples about their relationships, she has a lot to say on the topic.

"Tuition costs are rising," says Fan, "and students from out of town have to rent apartments of their own. They face a very heavy financial burden. Many kids are graduating with a lifetime's worth of debt. If they're in a relationship with someone they get along well with, living together can reduce the economic pressures. They almost can't help but bend the rules this way."

Pi-chi, a university senior who has been living with his girlfriend for two years, admits that the main advantages of living together are financial and sexual. "Otherwise," he asks, "where would we go? Hotels are expensive and they aren't safe." Pi-chi explains that when he and his girlfriend first met, they made frequent use of hotels. But the hotels were expensive and there were also safety concerns, such as the innumerable instances of couples being illicitly filmed. Once he moved out of his parents' home, his girlfriend left her roommates, and together they rented their own little love nest.

Over the last ten years, university and graduate school enrollments have soared. "This means young people are staying in school longer," says Fan. "With graduate study becoming more common, more and more students are becoming adults while still in school. You can't ask everybody to repress their desires all the way through a masters degree or a PhD!"

"At the outset, I didn't want to accept it," says Ah-chiao's father, describing his change of heart. "It's bad for the girl. But even if you don't accept it, what can you do about it?"

Fleeing the cohabitation closet

Cohabiting while still in school is something "done but not talked about," something kept "on the down low." But once they graduate, cohabitants discover that society at large is also unprepared to accept this kind of modern "quasi-marriage." They tend to keep quiet about their living arrangements, so much so that it is impossible to estimate how many couples are living together even from household registration records. For cohabitants, however, the lack of legal protection available to those in an "unregistered marriage" is far from their biggest headache.

"You feel it from everybody," says Aline, a recent university graduate who has lived in two different places with her boyfriend. "It's in the way they look at you, everyone from your landlord to your neighbors, as if they want to say something but then bite it back."

People exchange looks and everyone knows what's going on, but no one wants to say anything. There's a kind of tacit understanding about avoiding unpleasantness. This kind of tacit understanding is also present in cohabitants' social circles.

"Friends know when they can talk about it," says Hsiao-Y, "and when they can't." Hsiao-Y lives with her boyfriend near campus, but there's no way she'll say so around people older than herself or her coworkers. As for friends of her age and her classmates, "They know," she says. "It's no big thing."

There's also a tacit understanding between some parents and their children. "Of course my parents are against it. We've never come right out and told them, but they know. We don't talk about it now, probably because my little sister is still in high school."

With schools only able to offer passive counseling and also in no position to do anything about the issue, should other people say something? Should they say nothing? The awkward reactions cohabitants get from others reflect society's perspective--it's still a little bit taboo, but it's also becoming more acceptable.

Awkward silences

Behind closed doors, cohabitants are free of society's sometimes prying eyes and have home lives that are as mundane as can be. "I think it's probably no different than married life," says Lao-ta, reflecting on his four years of cohabitation. "You lose your freedom, and just follow your partner around picking up after her. Marriage is probably the same."

Taiwanese society, which remains ambivalent about cohabitation, probably doesn't realize that in the West cohabitation and marriage began to develop at the same time. In her Le Concubinage, the French scholar Mireille Dewevre-Fourcade discusses the many documents from the third-century Roman Empire describing cohabitation. In that period, even the aristocracy frequently cohabited without being legally married and without incurring legal penalties. The practice continued to develop for several centuries and by the ninth century cohabitation had acquired legal status and protections that gave cohabitants the right to inherit property and to share assets.

However, "In the Middle Ages," writes Dewevre-Fourcade, who holds a doctorate in law, "the Church's influence increased; it began to view men and women who had come together without God's blessing as being in conflict with social morality. Thereafter, freely partnering outside the bonds of marriage became genuinely criminal behavior."

Taiwan has, like the contemporary industrialized West, experienced sexual liberation and high rates of divorce. The family, too, is losing some of its functions. And now the island is witnessing the development of other trends seen in the West--2001's debate over the decriminalization of adultery, for example.

"Marital values are changing," says Hsieh Wen-yi, director of the Graduate Institute of Family Studies and Child Development at Shih Chien University. "Generally speaking, treating adultery as a crime does nothing to protect the essential value of marriage."

Sex and marriage are gradually going their separate ways, with the result that extramarital sex is no longer taboo. From this perspective, marriage as a means to perpetuate the family line is no longer so clearly distinct from the superficially individualistic practice of cohabitation.

"If you bring up not marrying, or bring up living together, everyone starts talking about issues like money pressures. But the bigger issue is young people's changing assumptions about marriage itself," argues Hsieh.

And the children?

Marriages are not fulfilling their function; the power of the family is broken; and economic factors such as tax law, jobs and incomes do not promote settling down. What effect is all of this having on society?

"The rate of marriage in Taiwan has been declining for the last ten years," says Yang Ching-li, a professor with the Institute of Sociology at Nanhua University. "In contrast, pre-marital sex is becoming more common and attitudes towards it more liberal. Surely not all of those unmarried people are lonely old maids? Our own experience tells that that they aren't, and certainly those who don't live with their parents are not.

"Very large numbers of people are having sexual relationships, but can't have children," continues Yang. "What kind of impact will that have on the birthrate? No one in Taiwan is compiling these kinds of statistics."

In the UK, where some 4.5 million people cohabit, 70% of women cohabit before marrying. In the US, one-third of women live with their boyfriends for a period of time before. And in Scandinavia, where attitudes towards sex are still more liberal, nearly 80% of young people cohabit and have children before marrying.

"What's interesting," says Yang, "is that while birthrates are generally falling in industrialized societies, they are falling less in Northern and Western Europe, where having children while cohabiting is acceptable, than they are in Southern European nations like Italy and Spain, or East Asian nations like Japan and Taiwan. These latter nations have a stronger sense of family, which you would reasonably expect to encourage people to have children. But this is not the case."

In contrast to the 4% of Taiwanese children and 1% of Japanese children born out of wedlock, about one-third of Western European children and half of Scandinavian children are born to unmarried parents. "It would be worth looking at whether attitudes to having children out of wedlock, and government policies, contribute to this difference," suggests Yang. If they do, then we must give thought to increased legal protections for cohabitants as a means of addressing Taiwan's current birthrate crisis.

Laws and contracts

Cohabitation is less constraining than marriage and sometimes is thought of as a substitute for it. At other times, it is treated as a "trial marriage," as a time to really get to know your partner before making a decision about marriage. Unfortunately, this kind of close observation usually ends in separation.

In the US, which has a large body of data on cohabitation, some 80% of cohabiting couples split up without ever marrying. More surprising is that those who cohabit before marriage are less satisfied with their marriages than those who do not.

On the other hand, the relative lack of legal constraints is for many people an inducement to cohabit. It is therefore somewhat paradoxical that the long arm of the law is slowly reaching into the lives of cohabitants in an effort to better protect their rights.

In the UK, dozens of groups are working on behalf of that nation's 4.5 million cohabitants, seeking to acquire for them the rights enjoyed by married couples to property, inheritance, maintenance, and compensation in cases of abandonment. One of these groups, LivingTogether, recommends that couples write up and sign an agreement before they move in together or make a major purchase together, in order to avoid property disputes during a break-up or if one partner dies.

In France, meanwhile, the law automatically recognizes as married, and grants legal protections to, couples that have lived together for three years. And in Sweden, where cohabitation is most common, government notaries even offer "cohabitation certificates" that detail the rights and duties of cohabitants, though almost no one bothers to actually register these.

Taiwan too is making incremental changes in policy and law, extending their protective umbrella to cohabitants and their children. For example, cohabitants experiencing domestic violence can now seek a restraining order; in 2004, civil servants were for the first time granted a birth allowance for children born out of wedlock; there is hope that the draft of the Artificial Insemination Act, which is about to hit the legislative agenda, will address the childbearing needs of cohabitants; and the Ministry of Justice has for the first time broached the issue of amending the family law section of the Civil Code. Although the MOJ ultimately decided that it did not need to provide "purely cohabitant relationships" with legal standing, it agreed to consider making it easier to marry by changing the law's traditional "ceremonial marriage" to "registered marriage" and to continue reviewing issues such as the legality of cohabitation as "de facto marriage."

Given this, "Aren't the law and these agreements turning cohabitation into marriage, and squeezing the life right out of us?" laughs Ta-yao.

The moral path

"What are your plans for the future?" "Are you going to marry?" Though family and friends may have long since gotten used to the idea of a couple living together, they also endlessly deluge them with these kinds of questions.

"Even though we made it clear that living together didn't mean we were going to marry, people still constantly asked us these questions," says Mr. Chu. "They even asked if we planned to have children!" He and his girlfriend lived together for eight years and had planned to continue doing so till the end of their days, but in 2003 the pressure became too much and they married.

The myriad feelings represented by a marriage certificate are hard to describe, but the questions that arise from deep in one's heart are even harder to answer.

Hsiao-chien, a cohabiting university student who has kept her parents in the dark about her living arrangements, on the one hand loudly proclaims her independence and the idea that love needn't be tied down by responsibility, but on the other is deeply uncomfortable about deceiving her parents.

"Father says girls are easily taken advantage of, and at first didn't allow me to have a boyfriend at university," says Hsiao-chien.

In contrast, Lao-ta and Hsiao-hui have recently moved in with his parents so they can save for a down payment on their own apartment more quickly. "It's as if I've already become a daughter-in-law," says Hsiao-hui, "but my own family still doesn't know." Her father has warned her that once she moves in with a boyfriend's family, it becomes very difficult to negotiate things like bride price and dowry.

"Living together is not a complete rejection of the value of marriage," says Hsiao-chien. "It's like choosing not to have children--a decision someone might make out of consideration for the competitive pressures a child would face after it was born. I have great respect for the sanctity of marriage. That's why I won't marry unless I'm 100% certain about it."

Does that sound like sophistry? "If you're going to marry," argues Lao-ta, "you need to be financially stable and you must be ready to make sacrifices. Right now, we're saving money. Aren't we preparing?"

Marriage is in decline--the number of single adults is rising; the divorce rate is climbing; and the birth rate is falling. Taiwanese society has long chosen to ignore these issues. It can do so no longer.

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