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In the Name of LoveThe reality of cohabitation in Korea
안나현 Reporter  |  violetan@yonsei.ac.kr
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승인 2007.10.30  22:13:29
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“IN THE 1970’s, a campus couple walking around campus holding hands was a big issue,” recalls An Kook-chan, who is now in his late forties. Also, virginal purity was considered absolute, and physical display of affection was never done in public. In today’s society, however, couples holding hands or putting their arms around each others’ shoulders is considered natural and commonplace. Furthermore, some couples live together before marriage, also referred to as cohabitation. In the dictionary, cohabitation is defined as “two unmarried people of the opposite-sex living together.” The meaning, however, is usually narrowed down to “two roommates who are romantic partners sharing their living space and all responsibilities that go along with it – without a formal, legal commitment.”

Why not marry, but live together?
   Cohabitation is a form of living that binds a couple together but it is different from marriage. A traditional marriage bonds a couple more strongly and demands more responsibility by bestowing both legal and social admissions to each partner. On the other hand, cohabitation is a more liberal form of commitment that does not adhere to any social or legal liabilities. In modern day, the social trend of relationships is changing from marriage to cohabitation throughout the world. Countries such as Sweden, England, Canada, and the United States show a stunning increase in the rate of cohabitation. For instance, the rate of people cohabiting in England has increased from 5% in the 1970’s to 70% in 2004. Likewise, cohabitation rate in Korea is also rising even though social attitude is much less open to cohabitation than the countries stated above. According to an article in Segye Ilbo in 2004, one out of ten couples in universities was in the state of cohabitation.

Today, it is not hard to find this phenomenon in ordinary Korean people’s lives. A survey from Yonsei Chunchu in March 2005, shows that as much as 44.6% of the Yonseians said cohabitation presuming marriage is just fine. Also, cohabitation has become the theme and topic of many Korean soap operas and movies. For instance, a famous weekend soap opera “9th Inning 2outs” described people who start to cohabit for financial reasons but in the end, they become lovers.

 Lee Jung-sook, the author of Live before you marry explains that the modern form of cohabitation first started with a purpose of knowing the partners before they get married in order to prevent unwanted divorces. Many people in their twenties these days, however, cohabit even though they are not sure if they are going to marry the person with whom they are currently cohabiting. Their reason for cohabitation is rather simple – they love each other. They simply consider cohabitation as a process of loving while the older generation considered it as a process to prepare for marriage. “I think living together with someone I love is great. I don’t have to say goodbye to my boyfriend every night. We can just come home and stay together all the time,” says Jung sun-hee, an alias, who is in her early twenties.

In addition, solving the sexual desires of students is also an important reason to cohabit. In fact, according to the survey held by one cohabitation café on an Internet portal site Daum, 27% among 650 people answered that they cohabit in order to resolve their sexual desire. This type of cohabitation has increased after the concept of premarital sex changed to become more accepting. According to the statistics from the Yonsei Chunchu in 2005, only 13.4% of the students were opposed to having premarital sex. “Students prefer cohabitation since they do not have to search for a place to have sexual intercourse like a motel or DVD room. This reason cannot be ignored,” states Han.

   Furthermore, economical reasons also play a large role in why people cohabit. In a survey from one cohabitation-arranging café shows that 18% of the total respondents cohabit to reduce their living costs. On the Internet cohabitation cafés, there are many people looking for someone to share their house and to reduce the rent and living fee. For students who do not have a regular earning, reducing rent and living expenses are one of the most important factors for them. Many people with this reason think cohabitation is pretty reasonable. “I think people are taking cohabitation too seriously. After all, it is just a way of reducing some living fees by living with the opposite sex,” insists Park sang-hyun, an alias, a member of the Internet cohabitation café.


Changed society
People state various reasons to explain their cohabitation. However, the cohabitation can be realized as result that is more than just a personal choice. Society has become more open to discussions on sexual subjects which has influenced the activation in cohabitation. Only a few decades ago, sexual expressions were strictly abandoned by the government. There were restrictions on anything that is sexually appealing - even the length of skirts was regulated. Therefore, it was almost impossible to speak out about sexual issues under those social circumstances. These days, however, free discussion and conversation are guaranteed. Especially with the advent of the Internet, people started to discuss subjects that were hard to discuss in an off-line society. As a result, it became possible for people to share their opinions on sexual topics and cohabitation. This vitality on cohabitation talks attributed to conception of the cohabitation culture.

The increased influence of the Western countries in the broadcasting field also deepened Koreans’ understanding of cohabitation and made cohabitation a more common phenomenon throughout the country. “American television and living-abroad experiences affected the young generation in Korea. In most American sitcoms, cohabitation looks more like a precondition for couples, which had an impact on many Korean students who love American sitcoms,” explains Han. Not only Western sitcoms, but the increase on the number of students studying abroad also played an important role in the growth of cohabitation. When these students return to Korea after experiencing foreign cultures, they become more open to cohabitation. In fact, these experiences toward western countries make people more open to a new type of relationship.

Not only social changes, but changes in GDP (Gross Domestic Product) also influenced the growth in the number of cohabitations. Lee explains, “According to one research, when the national income exceeded $10,000, women were able to support themselves as their economic power increased.. During this period, symptoms such as divorce and cohabitation increased as the economic power of women increased. However, as the national income rose to more than $40,000, the rates of divorce and cohabitation began to stabilize. ” Since the national income in Korea is heading towards $20,000, based on the findings of the research, the number of cohabitation in Korea should be increasing.


  In most American sitcoms, cohabitation looks more like a precondition for couples  

Is Korean society really open?
   The society looks more open than ever. However, is this society really being tolerant to cohabitation? Looking further, people notice that deep inside, people’s mind have not changed much. To see what people really think about cohabitation, The Yonsei Annals posted some notes on the Internet website. The note was written by a girl asking people whether to cohabitate or not because her boyfriend really wants her to live with him.

   Reading dozens of replies for the question, the Annals discovered that Yonsei students are more conservative towards cohabitation than they show on the surface. “It would be okay if you succeed in marrying with your partner, but if you don’t have confidence in that, I strongly recommend you not to cohabitate.” This is the common Yonseians’ reply for the situation. There even were aggressive replies saying, “I would never date a girl like you,” or “I would not want to get married to a girl who had cohabited with some other guys.”

What are the problems?
As one can see from people’s replies on the Internet web sites, people’s attitude toward cohabitation is pretty conservative. The gap between the increase in cohabitation and people’s conservative attitude is what makes it difficult for people to cohabit. The number of cohabitations has increased; however, the Korean people’s mind-set has not yet changed. People still have a conservative attitude towards the phenomenon. In fact, the situation in Korea is different from other countries which accepted cohabitation as a natural form of loving and living. It is because unlike other countries, Korea has been a country based on Confucianism, therefore, faithfulness in marriage was considered as an essential virtue for all Koreans for centuries. Due to this ideology that still plays a major role in shaping most of Koreans’ minds, many students who cohabit often must keep it a secret from their friends and their parents. Since the relationship is hidden from others, it can be assumed that the responsibility they have towards their partners would be weaker than when it is pronounced in the public. Therefore, the cohabitation is more likely to end badly.

Last but not least, the fact that the students are still young to manage themselves is highly problematic. In contrast to the students in Western countries who start to  separate from their parents after they graduate high schools, Korean students are more dependent on their parents, especially on financial matters. Although living together without having the ability to be self-sufficient can be risky, many assume that they will be able to get married happily. However, marriage is different from today’s easy-going form of cohabitation, since it requires more responsibility and respect towards their partners. However, when people cohabit, students usually tend to see the surface of cohabitation unlike marriage. Not being ready to be responsible enough, it gets more difficult for the students to manage their lives.

*   *   *

   People who approve of cohabitation tend to think that they could meet a nice person, cohabit happily, earnestly fall in love with each other and in the end, successfully get married. It is not an impossible dream, but in reality, most couples who cohabit do not always end up happily. Some people say cohabitation preconditioning one’s responsibility would be fine. However, considering that cohabitation has appeared to lessen the responsibility that people feel about marriage, it is hard to dream of cohabitation with fulfilled responsibility. After all, for the better lives of people who love each other, a serious consideration is necessary before starting cohabitation. It is, in fact, a great matter that determines their future.

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