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I looked up the word "cohabit" and saw these definitions:

cohabit
1.to live together as husband and wife, esp. when not legally married
Webster's New World College Dictionary

cohabit
(Sociology) (intr) to live together in a conjugal relationship, esp without being married
Collins Dictionary

The first one I think should raise eyebrows, if only momentarily. You could argue "as husband and wife" means "like husband and wife", but I feel that's not the initial meaning one gets when reading that.

The second one contains the word "conjugal", and I'm wondering about this specifically.

The word "conjugal" strictly speaking means having to do with marriage, however I'm aware that there are associations specifically with sexual intercourse. For example the idea of the conjugal visit was, it seems to me, specifically conceived with the intention of allowing a prisoner to have private "intimate" time with their spouse (specifically have sex). So I think this definition more clearly needs to say "sexual relationship" rather than "conjugal" ("sexual" being the word of choice in most other dictionaries for defining "cohabit").

Despite this association with sex, it's very interesting that VERY few of the "official" dictionaries mention anything of this for "conjugal". It's not mentioned by Collins in the same dictionary where it uses "conjugal" to basically mean "sexual". I understand the term "conjugal" may be euphemistic somewhat, however dictionaries don't have a habit of shying away from a word's real meaning.

I guess the important point is that the overwhelming majority of definitions simply define conjugal as "related to marriage or spouses". And so we're basically left to read between the lines about its real meaning.

Is it inadvisable to say something like "a conjugal relationship, especially without being married"? Or is its meaning extremely clear. I guess this kind of goes to the question in the title, "Can you have a conjugal relationship with someone without being married to them?"

  • From "a conjugal relationship, esp without being married" I understand a distinction between official recognition and unofficial habit, i.e., a marriage-like relationship (which likely involves sex but also involves sharing the same space, property, and domestic duties). – TaliesinMerlin Jun 14 at 14:36
  • How does "civil partnership" relate to this? Or bidey-in? Might be that you've caught "conjugal" at a point in its history where it's a little awkward. – Pam Jun 14 at 14:38
  • conjugal means as married. It has zero to do with gender etc. If you cohabit, you do not have a conjugal situation. – Lambie Jun 14 at 15:31
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Conjugal visits are historically reserved for legally married couples, though the rules vary by state and country. It would be understood what you mean by conjugal relationship but it is technically an incorrect phrase outside of marriage. In fact, outside of the prison system, the word conjugal is not common at all and should be avoided, opting for words that make your statement more clear (i.e. if you're talking about a sexual/intimate relationship, say so).

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Yes, you can have a conjugal relationship without being married.

Regarding the Collins Dictionary's usage of cohabit, it draws a distinction between officially sanctioned marriage and cohabitation as a sociological behavior that may be conjugal or marriage-like but unofficial. For example, this online sociology textbook uses cohabitation to refer to (a) living together and (b) having sex without (c) being married.

Cohabitation, when a man and woman live together in a sexual relationship without being married, was practised by an estimated 1.6 million people (16.7% of all census families) in 2011, which shows an increase of 13.9% since 2006 (Statistics Canada, 2012).

The meaning of conjugal in the Collins Dictionary can be considered a transferred or figurative sense that can describe the (esp. sexual) qualities of a partnered relationship without necessarily describing the legal status of marriage. Such a distinction is necessary in cultures (such as our own) where the legal definitions of marriage and the sociological behavior of cohabitation has diverged. Even where I live (the US), many couples are functionally conjugal (centered on two partners who cooperate with one another while in a sexual relationship) but legally unmarried, for whatever reason. Applying conjugal to these couples is one way that language is evolving, and not every dictionary reflects the change yet.

A few dictionaries do refer to the sexual connotations of conjugal. The Cambridge Dictionary highlights how conjugal can sometimes describe two people's sexual relationship:

connected with marriage or the relationship between two married people, especially their sexual relationship:

The Oxford Learner's Dictionary also highlights the sexual element of the conjugal relationship:

connected with marriage and the sexual relationship between a husband and wife

So there may be a change in progress among lexicographers. We could also speculate about other changes, like whether conjugal describes "two married people" (Cambridge) or "a husband and wife" (Oxford Learner's Dictionary).

That said, and in short, conjugal can denote sex or similar marriage-like qualities even if they exist outside of a legal marriage.

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    It's the differences in the dictionary definitions that have caused me confusion. Even "cohabit" varies in it either having mention of "sexual relationship" or not. So you're saying "conjugal" has become a word to describe a couple living together but not married. That would make the "cohabit" definition in Collins make sense: "in a conjugal (living together) relationship, esp without being married. Essentially saying living together but not married. – Zebrafish Jun 14 at 21:47
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It's not entirely clear if the question is solely about the word conjugal or if it's about the phrase conjugal visit or conjugal relationship.

As for the word, here is what Merriam-Webster says:

: of or relating to the married state or to married persons and their relations : CONNUBIAL
// conjugal happiness


Here are a couple of explanations of the phrase conjugal visit.

From Wikipedia:

A conjugal visit is a scheduled period in which an inmate of a prison or jail is permitted to spend several hours or days in private with a visitor, usually their legal spouse. The parties may engage in sexual activity. The generally recognized basis for permitting such visits in modern times is to preserve family bonds and increase the chances of success for a prisoner's eventual return to ordinary life after release from prison. They also provide an incentive to inmates to comply with the various day-to-day rules and regulations of the prison.

From "A Corrections Officer on What Really Happens During Conjugal Visits" at Thrillist:

By design, a conjugal visit is supposed to preserve a family unit, said Ryan (name changed), a 29-year-old corrections officer who used to be stationed at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, NY. There, he routinely moved inmates out from their cells and into their conjugal visitation trailers. Conjugal visits in New York are actually referred to as the FRP -- "Family Reunion Program" -- or, as Ryan's fellow corrections officers liked to joke, "the 'Felon Reproduction Program.'" Conjugal visits are also called extended family visits -- making the whole sex thing kind of off-base.

...

During a conjugal visit, people are permitted to engage in sexual activity -- but mostly, it's actually meant for family time: chatting in a non-prison setting, offering some semblance of a normal life in order to keep the integrity of a family unit together. These visits are intended to incentivize prisoners to comply with prison rules, be on best behavior, and have a higher chance of success upon re-entry to civilization.


As for the phrase conjugal relationship, let's start with ommmon-law marriage, which is often given the same status as actual marriage when considering romantic relationships:

[Merriam-Webster]

1 : a marriage recognized in some jurisdictions and based on the parties' agreement to consider themselves married and sometimes also on their cohabitation
2 : the cohabitation of a couple even when it does not constitute a legal marriage

From "What is the meaning of 'Conjugal Partner' " by Matthew Jeffery, a Canadian immigration lawyer:

What is a “Common-law Relationship”

A common-law relationship is defined as cohabiting (living together) in a conjugal (or marriage-like) relationship with a partner for a period of at least one year.

What is a Conjugal Partner Relationship?

A conjugal partner relationship exists where two people are in a marriage-like relationship but are not married and have not lived together for a period of at least one year due to extenuating circumstances. IRCC considers the conjugal partner category to be an exception category for situations where the Canadian and their foreign partner are simply unable to marry or to live together for a year so as to qualify for family sponsorship as spouses or common-law partners.

From the Government of Canada and its "policy, procedures and guidance used by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada staff":

A conjugal relationship is one of some permanence, when individuals are interdependent – financially, socially, emotionally and physically – when they share household and related responsibilities, and when they have made a serious commitment to one another.

Conjugal does not mean “sexual relations” alone. It indicates that there is a significant degree of attachment between two partners.


So, any answer to this question can only be based on opinion, interpretation, and specific context.

  • It's interesting, from those meanings given by those authorities it doesn't say a sexual component is required in common law relationship, common law marriage or conjugal partner relationship. However it may be implied in the final "conjugal relationship" description when it says "Conjugal does not mean “sexual relations” alone." I'm still confused. I wonder if a non-sexual relationship of two household occupants is still considered "conjugal". They may have a lifestyle much like that of a husband and wife, absent the sexual component, and in that case I wonder if it's "conjugal" or not. – Zebrafish Jun 14 at 21:32

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