Ten years ago studies of couple relationships emphasized marriage formation and dissolution (both separation and divorce). Marriage is still the dominant heterosexual couple relationship, but increases in rates of nonmarital cohabitation, the growing recognition of couple relationships between individuals who do not live together, sometimes called LAT (Living Apart Together) couples, and same sex unions have broadened the area of inquiry to include these other unions as well. A benefit of the broader perspective is that it allows for comparisons between marriage and less institutionalized relationships, such as cohabitation, to assess effects of social context and laws on couples’ wellbeing.
Research on unions often distinguishes between unions as private, intimate relationships and unions as public phenomena that are a result of laws, policies, and social norms about the rights and obligations of members of the couple. Examples of the latter are tax policies and inheritance laws that treat married couples differently than unmarried couples who live together. The public nature of unions is also evident in attitude surveys that show general agreement about a gendered division of labor within marriage. The distinction between private and public unions is less useful than might appear at first. Private aspects of couples’ relationships are, at least in part, a function of the laws, policies, norms, and economic organization of the public world. For instance, the relative wages of men and women may affect the timing of marriage and the kind of person someone marries. Social norms affect how husbands and wives divide household labor and childcare. Policies that change how difficult it is to divorce may also alter the quality of relationships within marriage. When divorce is less costly, spouses invest less in their relationship and pursue more of their own interests than when divorce is more difficult.
The US has seen an increase in the age at which couples marry. In 2003, half of US men were married by the time they reached age 27.1, an increase since 1970 of nearly 4 years. For women, the increase in median age at marriage to 25.3 was even greater, 4.4 years (US Bureau of the Census 2004). During this period, sex outside of marriage became more acceptable, rates of marital separation and divorce rose and then stabilized at high rates, and nonmarital cohabitation became much more common before and after marriage. By the late 1990s about half of first marriages ended in separation or divorce (some who end marriages do not formally divorce); and over half of first marriages were preceded by cohabitation. The probability of marital dissolution has been relatively stable for the past 20 years, although crude divorce rates have stabilized and even declined slightly for some subgroups. Late marriage and high divorce rates do not mean that individuals have stopped pairing off. Individuals still form couples and live together outside of marriage. Although rates of cohabitation have continued to rise, the increase in cohabitation has not compensated for the rise in age at marriage. That is, rates of union formation, where unions include marriage and nonmarital cohabitation, are still lower today despite the increase in cohabitation.
Within the US there are substantial class and race/ethnic differences in rates of union formation and dissolution. Men and women who have more secure economic prospects are more likely to marry than those who are economically disadvantaged. African Americans are much less likely to marry than are whites. This race difference cannot be explained fully by racial differences in economic characteristics. Marital dissolution is also more common among those with less education and among African Americans, as compared to whites. These disparities in separation and divorce appear to be widening over time.
Trends in union formation and dissolution in Western European countries are similar in several ways to those in the US. Age at marriage has risen and nonmarital unions, sometimes called consensual unions, have become increasingly common since the 1970s. Rates of divorce have also increased in most European countries. The combination of delayed or nonmarriage, increasing consensual unions, and high rates of marital instability support the claim that marriage has become less attractive compared to alternative arrangements.
Economic and Cultural Explanations
There are two broad categories of explanations for these trends and differentials: cultural change and changes in economic opportunities. Cultural explanations argue that changes in unions occurred because of a broad shift toward individualistic and egalitarian values. Some trace this ideological shift to the Protestant Reformation, while others identify a qualitative change toward the middle of the twentieth century, sometimes called the Second Demographic Transition. The rise in individualism fostered investment in personal goals which sometimes conflicted with marital goals, and resulted in delayed marriage and increases in marital dissolution. At the same time, a growing concern with equality between women and men fostered increases in women’s education and labor force participation, contributing to declines in the number of children couples have. Without the responsibility for children, individual spouses have less investment in their marriage and find divorce less costly. The driving force in these explanations, however, is changes in values.
Economic explanations for changes in marriage emphasize the rise in opportunities for wage labor, expansion of educational opportunities, and the relative wages of women and men. These theories argue that marriage and other unions are the result of cost benefit calculations about whether the benefits of being married (or divorced) are greater than alternatives, such as being single or cohabiting. Delayed marriage and higher rates of marital dissolution occur because women have greater economic independence outside of marriage than they had earlier in the twentieth century. This interpretation derives from the ”new home economics” theory advanced by Gary Becker and is consistent with Talcott Parsons’s view of the family in which there are gains to specialization in marriage. In these theories, both husband and wife are better off when one (typically the husband), who has higher earning potential, specializes in market work and the other (typically the wife) specializes in housework and childcare. When women’s earning potential increases, the gains to marriage are relatively smaller, and divorce rates rise.
Empirical evidence for the theories emphasizing women’s economic opportunities is mixed. Several patterns suggest this explanation cannot on its own account for trends and differentials in union formation and dissolution. For example, US women with higher education and earnings are more likely to marry than women with lower earning potential. Education also reduces women’s chances of divorce in the US. There is also some evidence that the education disparity in rates of marital dissolution has increased recently.
A second variant of economic interpretations focuses on men’s economic prospects and security. According to this view, marriage in western societies has long been an economic arrangement, a prerequisite for which was that the couple must have sufficient economic resources to live independently from their parents. Even today, men’s economic resources and potential earnings are an important predictor of marriage. In this view, marriage is delayed or fore gone when men have difficulty establishing themselves in the labor market and earning a family wage, that is, among those who are less educated and minority group members. New research in this area, however, suggests that for recent cohorts both women’s and men’s earning potentials affect who marries and the kind of person they marry.
Although cultural and economic explanations for changes in unions are often posited as competing interpretations, efforts to compare them typically demonstrate that neither is sufficient on its own to explain either temporal or cross sectional variation in union patterns. It is more likely that both ideological and economic factors contributed to changes in the formation and dissolution of marriage.
Private Relationships and The Marriage Market
In the US the popular notion of finding a spouse is that two people fall in love and then marry. That marriage depends on more than love is evident from data on assortative mating, or the extent to which spouses resemble each other on social and demographic characteristics. Husbands and wives are very likely to have the same racial identification. They are also likely to be similar in the amount of schooling they have completed. In addition, spouses are likely to come from similar religious backgrounds, but religious intermarriage has been increasing in the US. Couples who are cohabiting are somewhat less homogamous or similar than married couples. This is probably in part because cohabitation is a period when individuals are evaluating whether or not they are a good match for each other, and in part because the social norms about what constitutes an appropriate marriage partner are different from those governing other unions. Members of cohabiting couples who are more similar have a greater likelihood of marrying. Marriages between more similar spouses are also more stable and less likely to end in divorce.
Similarities between spouses’ or partners’ characteristics are the result of a matching process in which each person seeks the best partner who will also have him or her. Social scientists sometimes describe the process of spouse selection as a marriage market. This analogy assumes that spouses find each other through an exchange process. The actors in marriage markets differ across cultures. Although in the US the potential spouses themselves are the primary actors, in some cultures matches are formed by kin groups seeking alliances with each other for political reasons or to protect property, and in other settings parents themselves or a third party matchmaker bring a couple together.
Marriage markets also differ in the characteristics considered desirable in a potential spouse. For instance, in a secular society in which technical skills are highly valued, finding a highly educated spouse may be more important than marrying someone who is of the same religion. In the US, religious homogamy has declined at the same time educational homo gamy has increased. There may also be gender differences in the characteristics desired in a spouse. If the roles of husband and wife differ, as in the Parsonian breadwinner-homemaker model of middle class marriage, then the marital division of labor dictates that men with higher earning potential and women who are attractive and emotionally supportive would be highly sought after on the marriage market. Men’s attractiveness and women’s earning potential would be relatively less important compared to the characteristics that help fulfill the gendered role requirements of marriage.
Finally, marriage markets are also constrained by formal rules about who is an appropriate marriage partner (e.g., whether or not first cousins are allowed to marry; and whether racial intermarriage was permitted under previous US state laws governing marriage). Informal aspects of social organization also affect marriage market outcomes. Daily interaction between persons of the same race or education level in neighbor hoods, schools, and work settings increases the likelihood of homogamous unions. By choosing where to live or where to send their children to school, families indirectly affect children’s later decisions about whom to marry.
Delay in Marriage as an Extended Search for a Spouse
Finding a spouse takes longer when it is unclear whether or not potential spouses have the desired characteristics. Physical appearance is easy to observe at a young age, but signs that someone will have a successful career or earn a lot of money are not apparent until individuals are older and have finished school and started working. That age is correlated with characteristics that matter on the marriage market is an insight that can be used to interpret the trend in age at marriage for US women and men. In the mid twentieth century both women and men married at younger ages than they do today, in part because men completed schooling earlier and entered paid work at younger ages, thus revealing their potential as a breadwinner at younger ages. With the growth in demand for more highly educated workers, determining whether a potential husband would be a good economic provider takes longer as men (and women) stay in school longer and delay the age at which they marry. At the same time, the women’s movement and improvements in women’s economic opportunities increased the value to potential husbands of wives’ earning potential. Uncertainty about women’s economic potential when they are young also contributes to the rise in age at marriage, and probably accounts for the even greater rate of increase in women’s age at marriage than men’s. Much, but not all, of the delay in marriage in the US is compensated for by the increase in cohabitation before marriage. Living together before marriage is one way that couples learn more about whether a potential partner would be an appropriate spouse, even if couples do not consciously decide to cohabit as a step on the way to marriage.
Even with late marriage, there is still uncertainty about whether a potential spouse is a good match. Individuals change after marriage, sometimes in ways that make them more compatible and sometimes in ways that are unexpected. When individuals change in ways that are not anticipated (e.g., if a person is wrong about what kind of person their spouse will become or if one of the partners loses a job) these unexpected disruptions may increase the chance that the marriage will dissolve. The rise in US divorce rates in the 1960s and 1970s might be explained by unanticipated changes in spouses’ expectations about each other’s gen der role obligations in marriage associated with the women’s movement and women’s greater labor market opportunities and by decreasing costs of dissolving unsatisfactory matches.
Many theories about the formation and dissolution of intimate unions claim that unions depend on individuals’ assessments of the relative benefits of being in the relationship as compared to an alternative. When cohabitation is rare, it is likely that the alternative to marriage is being single. When cohabitation is more widely accepted, there may be two alternatives to marriage: being single or cohabiting. New research should investigate the conditions that affect the alternatives individuals weigh in deciding whether, when, and with whom to form (or dissolve) a union.
Another productive area for new research is how individuals form expectations about potential partners’ future characteristics (e.g., whether they will be good economic providers or good parents). It is especially important to learn more about the role of uncertainty in making decisions about unions and the degree to which individuals actually think of themselves as making a decision.
The challenge of designing studies that fully take into account the range of potential partners who might form a union, that is, the full marriage market, is a longstanding problem in studies of union formation and dissolution. Research that considers only unions or matches that have already been formed excludes important information about the alternatives or failed matches.
Finally, research on unions typically assumes that the partners or spouses co reside, and that when the union dissolves, the partners no longer live together. Co residence is important, but it is not the only dimension of intimacy and enduring ties that matters for couple relationships. Couples who are deeply committed to each other and their relationship may live apart (LAT relationships), and those who live together may not think of themselves as being in an enduring or satisfying relationship. Learning more about the continuum of relationships and the conditions under which they involve co residence will shed new light on the meaning and effects of contemporary unions.
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