But how do the relationships get started?
By Sharon Sassler
Professor, Department of Policy Analysis & Management
Clearly, the age at which one begins living with a partner, whether in a marriage or cohabitation, is important. But perhaps more important is how long one is involved with a romantic partner before moving in together. And there are substantial variations in this, linked to education and socioeconomic status.
Among college graduates who enter into cohabiting unions, the process of entering into shared living is quite protracted. Half of college-educated women who enter into cohabiting relationships have been romantically involved for more than a year (an average of 14 months) before moving in together. More than one-third were romantically involved for over two years before “shacking up.”
By contrast, my qualitative research (with Amanda Miller), based on over 150 interviews with cohabitors, found that the majority of individuals with less than a college degree had moved in with their partners within six months of starting their romantic relationship. Nationally representative data from the most recent National Survey of Family Growth validate these findings: Of young women with only a high school diploma, the majority of those who cohabited had entered into shared living within about six months.
What causes many young adults to enter cohabiting unions so rapidly? Our interviews suggest that financial needs often precipitate the move into shared living among the less advantaged, while the college educated are better able to maintain separate homes while getting to know each other and assessing whether their relationship has a future. College-educated individuals also enter into shared living at older ages, on average – frequently after completing their degree. These differences undoubtedly contribute to the fact that less-educated cohabitors are more likely to break up before ever entering marriage, and more likely to divorce if they do marry, than their better-educated counterparts.
It may be premature, then, to assert that premarital cohabitation is not associated with an increased risk of divorce. Rather, knowing more about how relationships are formed and how they develop – such as how long couples are romantically involved before moving in together – may help us make better predictions about the chances that a relationship will dissolve, whether before the couple marries or after they do so.
NOTE: The research discussed here comes from a book in progress about cohabitation among young adults in the United States.
What can reduce unintended pregnancies and increase stable relationships?
By Kristi Williams
Associate Professor of Sociology
The Ohio State University
As Sharon Sassler mentions in her commentary, early cohabitation – not just at a young age but at an early stage in a relationship – is a risk factor for relationship stability. Arielle Kuperberg’s new study shows that this is equally true for marriage. These findings suggest that efforts to promote marriage, one of the central goals of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, miss the point. Far more effective in helping Americans develop stable relationships would be to provide educational opportunities that discourage early marriage and to do a better job of preventing the unintended pregnancies that often trigger early marriage or cohabitation.
More than three-fourths of births to unpartnered women under the age of 25 are unintended. But marrying in response to an unintended pregnancy is hardly a recipe for relationship stability, especially for low-income women. A new study indicates that women who marry after the conception of a child but before the birth (the traditional “shotgun” marriage) are more likely to experience divorce in their first marriage than similar women who remain single at first birth! Postconception (“shotgun”) cohabiting unions are especially fragile. They are almost three times more likely than postconception marriages to end by the child’s third birthday. Unintended births also substantially increase the risk of union dissolution among those already in cohabiting or marital unions.
The Fragile Families and Child Well Being study found that only 16 percent of low-income unwed mothers who married the child’s biological father, before or after the child’s birth, were still married to him five years after the child’s birth. In one nationally representative study, approximately 64 percent of the single mothers who married were divorced by the time they reached age 35-44.
Given that premarital sex has been nearly universal in the U.S. for more than 40 years and that early marriage poses divorce risks, it is vital to provide teens and young adults with access to effective contraceptives and family planning services. Each year nearly two million unintended pregnancies are prevented by publicly funded family planning services, with savings of $4 on Medicaid-related pregnancy expenditures for every $1 spent.
Yet across the U.S., efforts to restrict access to contraception are growing. Nine states currently ban or restrict abortion providers or affiliated organizations like Planned Parenthood from receiving public funds, and thirteen states restrict access to emergency contraception. Challenges to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act are currently pending in 80 cases. These efforts fly in the face of a large body of scientific evidence showing that preventing unintended pregnancies strengthens the family.
What are the benefits of delay? Women’s delayed entry into first marriage and marital stability
By Evelyn Lehrer
Professor, Department of Economics
University of Illinois at Chicago
The age at which people enter first marriage has long been known to be an important factor in the stability of unions. The precise nature of the relationship has been the subject of some debate, however. An early study by Gary Becker and colleagues (1977) found that the relationship is non-linear: at first, increases in age at marriage are associated with greater marital stability, but after a point, additional increases are associated with lower stability. The authors reasoned that this could be due to a “poor match effect”: As women still single in their thirties or later begin to hear the biological clock tick, they may settle for a match that is less than optimal, resulting in a higher probability of a subsequent divorce.
In two studies using large scale national data sets for 1995, 2002-2003 (Lehrer 2008) and 2006-2010 (Lehrer and Chen 2013), we found that women who enter first marriage at later ages do so having completed relatively high levels of schooling prior to the marriage, and the same is true of their partners. Their unions are often unconventional – e.g., the spouses differ substantially in race/ethnicity, age, education, and/or religion, or the husband had been married before – traits that are typically associated with a higher probability of divorce. At first glance this would seem to support Becker et al.’s theory of a poor match effect. However, we found that these unconventional marriages contracted at late ages tend to be solid. The curve showing the relationship between women’s age at first marriage and the probability of divorce is steeply downward sloping until the early thirties and flattens thereafter, without rising again.
Our statistical analysis of this puzzle found that although unconventional matches are indeed associated with higher marital instability – even in couples who have delayed entry into marriage – the stabilizing effects associated with older age at marriage and higher levels of educational attainment are far larger and outweigh the risk factors.
In sum, although women who delay marriage disproportionately enter unconventional matches that pose real challenges for couples, they and their partners also tend to have relatively high levels of human capital and maturity – and the unions they form therefore tend to be stable.
Who knows what other old rules may be shattered in the next few years?
Kuperberg’s and other new studies of cohabitation and marriage provide more evidence of the unprecedented transformation now occurring in the dynamics of close relationships. Almost all the old sociological “rules” about who marries, what people want in a mate, what contributes to marital satisfaction, and what predicts divorce are in flux.
In the 1950s, for example, the average couple wed after only six months of courtship. But divorce rates were much lower than they are today, partly because marriages in that era were based on predefined, rigid gender roles. Both parties knew exactly what was expected of them. It was much easier to figure out how to make a marriage work than it is today, when there is so much more to negotiate.
Early marriage was already a divorce risk by 1960. But “early” meant something quite different when the average age of marriage for women was barely over 20 – still too young to legally drink a toast at their own wedding reception. And as Lehrer points out, in the 1960s marrying at a later than average age was also a divorce risk, an association that has now disappeared.
In the 1950s, cohabitation was so stigmatized that the only people likely to live together were truly unconventional and unconcerned with social respectability. In that context, premarital cohabitation was associated with higher divorce rates, not so much as a cause but as a symptom of associated risky behaviors and values. Now that prior cohabitation is the normative route to marriage, and especially now that marriage requires more negotiation skills and deeper friendship than the past, the United States may well follow the same pattern that researchers found in Australia. In that country, in the 1940s and 1950s, premarital cohabitation significantly increased the risk of divorce. But the added divorce risk declined each year for marriages contracted up to 1988 and then it reversed, so that since then premarital cohabitation has reduced the risk of separation. Who knows what other old rules may be shattered in the next few years?
The Council on Contemporary Families, based at the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of family researchers and practitioners that seeks to further a national understanding of how America’s families are changing and what is known about the strengths and weaknesses of different family forms and various family interventions.
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