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Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage:  Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns

Teens’ Attitudes and Expectations
Concerning Romantic Relationships and Marriage

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Contents

The diverse family structures in which teens are raised, as well as their early experiences with romantic relationships and dating, may have important implications for their attitudes and expectations concerning adult relationships and marriage. For example, teens who grow up living with both of their biological parents are more likely than other teens to disapprove of divorce or premarital cohabitation (Flanigan et al. 2005). Similarly, teens who have serious romantic relationships in high school are more likely than other teens to expect to get married (Crissey 2005). In addition, attitudes toward marriage are a strong predictor of later relationship outcomes in adulthood (Fein et al. 2003). For this reason, encouraging healthy, positive attitudes toward marriage has been a common goal of recent adolescent relationship and marriage education programs (Karney et al. 2007).

In this chapter, we first describe teens’ general attitudes toward marriage and how they have changed in the past 30 years. We then describe how these attitudes vary by gender, race/ethnicity, family structure, and income level. We also examine the association between teens’ attitudes toward marriage and their early experiences with romantic relationships and sexual activity. For these analyses, we rely primarily on the Monitoring the Future (MTF) and National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) surveys. Analyses based on MTF data include high school seniors only. Analyses based on NSFG data include all teens ages 15 to 18.

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What Are Teens’ Attitudes Toward Marriage?

High-school-aged teens hold complex and changing attitudes toward marriage. Most teens express strong support for marriage and expect to get married one day. At the same time, most teens also believe they can live happily without getting married and that it is a good idea for couples to live together before marriage. A growing number of teens want to delay marriage until they finish college or have worked for several years. In this section, we describe teens’ general attitudes toward marriage and how they have changed in the past 30 years.

When asked about their general attitudes toward marriage, most high-school-aged teens express strong support. For example, in the 2006 wave of the MTF study, 91 percent of high school seniors responded that having a good marriage and family life was either “quite important” or “extremely important” to them (Figure III.1). Only 2 percent said that a good marriage and family life was “not important.” Similarly, data from the 2002 NSFG show that a majority (64 percent) of high-school-aged teens either agree or strongly agree with the statement, “It is better for a person to get married than to go through life being single” (Figure III.1).

Most high school students also feel well prepared for marriage. In the 2006 MTF study, students were asked the question, “How well do you think your experiences and training (at home, school, work, etc.) have prepared you to be a good husband or wife?” Over 70 percent of high school seniors said they felt either “well” or “very well” prepared for marriage (Figure III.1). Less than 10 percent said they felt “poorly” prepared.

Figure III.1
Teens’ Attitudes Toward Marriage

Figure III.1 Teens' Attitudes Toward Marriage. See text for explanation of chart.

Although most teens have positive attitudes toward marriage, many do not equate marriage with happiness. In the 2006 MTF study, only 36 percent of high school seniors agreed with the statement, “Most people will have fuller and happier lives if they choose legal marriage rather than staying single, or just living with someone else” (not shown). By contrast, 30 percent of students disagreed with the idea that people are happier when married, and 34 percent said they neither agreed nor disagreed. These findings suggest that, although most high school students are supportive of marriage, they also believe that adults can be happy without getting married, and they may see no clear causal link between marriage and happiness.

In addition to holding positive general views about marriage, most high-school-aged teens say they expect to get married. In the 2006 wave of the MTF study, students were asked which relationship outcome they are most likely to choose in the long run — getting married or staying single. More than 80 percent of high school seniors said they expect to get married (Figure III.2). Another 15 percent said they are unsure which relationship outcome they are most likely to choose, while only 4 percent said they are most likely to stay single. Among the 81 percent of students who said they expect to get married, 90 percent said they expect to stay married to the same person for life. The high percentage of students who expect to get married is consistent with evidence that a large majority of U.S. adults eventually get married at least once in their lives (Kreider and Fields 2002). However, teens may overstate their chances of staying married to the same person for life, as about half of all first marriages now end in divorce (Bramlett and Mosher 2002).

Figure III.2
High School Seniors’ Expectations for Marriage

Figure III.2 High School Seniors' Expectations for Marriage. See text for explanation for chart.

In the 2006 MTF study, when asked about the ideal time to get married, nearly half (47 percent) of all high school seniors said they want to delay marriage for more than five years (Figure III.2). The number of high school students wanting to delay marriage has also grown in recent years. From 1976 to 2006, the percentage of high school seniors wanting to delay marriage for at least five years jumped from 27 to 47 percent (Figure III.3). At the same time, the percentage who want to get married within two or three years after high school dropped from 36 to 18 percent. Thus, the percentage of high school seniors who want to wait at least five years before getting married (47 percent) is now more than twice as high as the percentage who want to get married within the next two or three years (18 percent). The sharp rise in the number of 12th graders wanting to delay marriage is tied closely to changes in girls’ expectations for marriage, as we describe later in this chapter.

Figure III.3
Ideal Time to Get Married According to High School Seniors, 1976-2006

Figure III.3 Ideal Time to Get Married According to High School Seniors, 1976-2006. See text for explanation of chart.

The recent increase in the number of high school students wanting to delay marriage has coincided with a growing acceptance of cohabitation. In the mid-1970s, 40 percent of all high school seniors said they agreed or mostly agreed with the statement, “It is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along” (Figure III.4). However, the proportion of 12th graders who approve of cohabitation jumped to more than 50 percent by the late 1980s and more than 60 percent by the late 1990s. In 2006, nearly two-thirds of all high school seniors (64 percent) agreed with the statement that it is a good idea for couples to live together before marriage. Teens’ growing acceptance of cohabitation mirrors the rise in cohabitation rates among U.S. couples, as more than half of all first marriages are now preceded by cohabitation (Bumpass and Lu 2000).

Figure III.4
Percentage of High School Seniors Endorsing Cohabitation Before Marriage, 1976-2006

Figure III.4 Percentage of High School Seniors Endorsing Cohabitation Before Marriage, 1976-2006. See text for explanation of chart.

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How Do Teens’ Attitudes Differ by Gender?

Gender differences in teens’ attitudes toward marriage have changed substantially in recent years. In the mid-1970s, teenage boys and girls expressed equal levels of support for marriage, but boys were more likely than girls to want to delay getting married until after finishing college or working for several years (Schulenberg et al. 1995). Currently, boys are more likely than girls to have positive attitudes toward marriage (Flanigan et al. 2005) and a growing number of girls have followed boys in wanting to delay marriage. In this section, we describe the current gender differences in teens’ attitudes toward marriage, as well as the growing similarity in boys’ and girls’ expectations for marriage.

Across a broad range of measures, teenage boys are more likely than teenage girls to express support for marriage. For example, in the 2002 NSFG, 69 percent of teenage boys either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that it is better for a person to get married, compared with 56 percent of teenage girls (Figure III.5). Similarly, in the 2006 wave of the MTF study, more boys (41 percent) than girls (32 percent) agreed with the statement, “Most people will have fuller and happier lives if they choose legal marriage rather than staying single, or just living with someone else” (Figure III.5).

Figure III.5
Teens’ Attitudes Toward Marriage, by Gender

Figure III.5 Teens' Attitudes Toward Marriage, by Gender. See text for explanation of chart.

Teenage boys are also less likely than teenage girls to approve of having children outside of marriage. In the 2002 NSFG, teens were asked whether they agreed with the statement, “It is okay for an unmarried female to have a child.” Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of teenage girls said they approved of nonmarital childbearing, compared to less than half (49 percent) of all teenage boys (Figure III.5). These gender differences in attitudes are all statistically significant at the 5 percent level.

Although boys are more likely than girls to have positive attitudes toward marriage, they are also more likely to want to delay marriage until later in life. For example, in the 1999 wave of the NLSY97, 24 percent of boys ages 15 to 18 said they were more likely than not to get married in the next five years, compared to 31 percent of girls in that age range (not shown). Nearly 20 percent of boys in this age group said they had no chance of getting married in the next five years, compared to 16 percent of girls. These differences are statistically significant at the 5 percent level.

Data from the MTF study indicate that the gender difference in teens’ expectations for marriage has narrowed in recent years (Figure III.6). From 1976 to 2006, the percentage of 12th grade boys wanting to delay marriage for at least four or five years increased from 74 to 85 percent. However, the percentage of girls wanting to delay marriage increased at an even faster rate, from 57 to nearly 80 percent. As a result, the gender gap in the percentage of high school students wanting to delay marriage dropped steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Boys are still more likely than girls to want to delay marriage, but the difference is much smaller today than it was 30 years ago.(1) The recent increase in the percentage of girls who want to delay marriage likely reflects new educational and occupational opportunities open to women (Bae et al. 2000), as well as broader social norms that emphasize gender equality and the empowerment of women (Brewster and Padavic 2000).

Figure III.6
Percentage of High School Seniors Wanting to Delay Marriage for at Least 4 or 5 Years,
by Gender, 1976-2006

Figure III.6 Percentage of High School Seniors Wanting to Delay Marriage for at Least 4 or 5 Years, by Gender, 1976-2006. See text for explanation of chart.

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How Do Teens’ Attitudes Vary by Race and Ethnicity?

Racial and ethnic differences in teens’ attitudes toward marriage are generally smaller than gender differences. They are also smaller than one might expect from the large racial/ethnic differences in family structure described earlier in Chapter II. In this section, we use data from both the 2002 NSFG and the MTF study to compare teens’ attitudes toward marriage among whites, African Americans, and Hispanics.

In general, teens’ attitudes toward marriage do not vary much by race/ethnicity. For example, in the 2005 and 2006 waves of the MTF study, the percentage of high school seniors who said that having a good marriage and family life was either “quite important” or “extremely important” to them was only slightly lower for African Americans than for Hispanics, and it was similar for both whites and Hispanics (Figure III.7). Similarly, data from the 2002 NSFG indicate that a majority of teens from all three racial and ethnic groups agree that it is better for a person to get married than to go through life being single. The percentage of students who feel well prepared for marriage is also similar for all racial and ethnic groups. In the 2005 and 2006 waves of the MTF study, 74 percent of Hispanic students said they felt well or very well prepared for marriage, compared with 73 percent for whites and 72 percent for African Americans.

Figure III.7
Teens’ Attitudes Toward Marriage, by Race/Ethnicity

Figure III.7 Teens' Attitudes Toward Marriage, by Race/Ethnicity. See text for explanation of chart.

Although teens from different racial/ethnic groups share similar attitudes toward marriage, they have different expectations of their likelihood of marriage. In particular, among high school students, Hispanic and African American teens are less likely than teenage whites to expect to get married. In the 2005 and 2006 waves of the MTF study, 86 percent of white high school seniors said they expect to get married one day, compared with 76 percent for Hispanics and 75 percent for African Americans (Figure III.8). Among those students who expect to get married, Hispanics and African Americans were also less likely than whites to say they expect to stay married to the same person for life (92 percent for whites, versus 84 percent for Hispanics and 85 percent for African Americans). These estimates of marital expectations by race/ethnicity are consistent with those reported in other national data sets (Crissey 2005).

Figure III.8
High School Seniors’ Expectations for Marriage, by Race/Ethnicity

Figure III.8 High School Seniors' Expectations for Marriage, by Race/Ethnicity. See text for explanation of chart.

Furthermore, among high school seniors, both Hispanics and African Americans are more likely than whites to want to delay marriage until later in life. In the 2005 and 2006 waves of the MTF study, 50 percent of Hispanic 12th graders and 59 percent of African American 12th graders said they wanted to delay marriage for at least five years after high school, compared with 45 percent for whites (Figure III.8).

These racial and ethnic differences in teens’ expectations for marriage are very similar to prevailing racial and ethnic differences in adult marriage rates. For example, recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that, among adults ages 35 to 39, the percentage of women who have ever been married is higher for whites (88 percent) than for African Americans (61 percent) or Hispanics (85 percent).(2) The percentage of men in their late 30s who have ever been married is also highest for whites (82 percent, versus 68 percent for African Americans and 77 percent for Hispanics). Whites tend to marry for the first time at a younger age and are less likely than African Americans to get divorced (Bramlett and Mosher 2002). Divorce rates are similar for whites and Hispanics. These findings suggest that teens’ expectations for marriage may be influenced in part by marriage patterns they observe among adults.

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Do Teens’ Attitudes Differ by Background Characteristics?

As discussed in Chapter I, many of the recent policy efforts aimed at supporting healthy marriages have been targeted to low-income families with children. However, in this section we show that it is family structure — and not family income level — that is most closely associated with teens’ attitudes toward marriage. There are also differences in attitudes between teens living in rural and urban areas. Because family structure, family income, and race/ethnicity are all closely related, in the analysis presented below, we use multivariate techniques to identify the separate influences of these factors on attitudes toward marriage.

Data from the 2002 NSFG indicate that teens are more likely to have supportive attitudes toward marriage when they live with both their biological parents. For example, when asked whether it is better for a person to get married than to go through life being single, 66 percent of teens from intact families endorsed marriage, compared with 58 percent of similar teens from other family types (Table III.1). In addition, teens living with both their biological parents were less likely than other teens to approve of divorce (42 percent versus 49 percent) or having children outside of marriage (50 percent versus 61 percent). These differences in teens’ attitudes are statistically significant at the 5 percent level and are adjusted for differences across family structure groups in both family poverty status and racial/ethnic background.

Table III.1
Teens’ Attitudes Toward Marriage, by Family Structure and Income Status
Family Characteristics Percentage of Teens Who Agree That:
It is better to get married than to go through life being single Divorce is best solution when couples can’t work out marriage problems It is okay for an unmarried female to have a child
Lives with Both Biological Parents
   Yes 66 42 50
   No 58* 49* 61*
Income Relative to Poverty
   Below 200% 61 48 60
   Between 200% and 400% 60 51 58
   At or above 400% 56 43 62
Total 59 48 60
Source: 2002 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG).
Notes: Figures are nationally representative of teens ages 15-18 in 2002. Estimates are based on a multivariate analysis that adjusts these percentages for differences across categories in family structure, poverty status, and racial/ethnic background.
* Statistically different from percentage for intact families at the .05 significance level.

Although teens’ attitudes toward marriage vary by family structure, they do not differ substantially by family income level. In the 2002 NSFG, 61 percent of teens living in families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level agreed that it is better for a person to get married than to go through life being single (Table III.1). There was somewhat less support for marriage among teens from higher-income groups, but the differences across income groups were not statistically significant. Similarly, there were no statistically significant differences across income groups in teens’ attitudes toward divorce or nonmarital childbearing. These estimates are adjusted for differences across income groups in both family structure and racial/ethnic background. However, the attitudes of low-income and higher-income teens are also similar when the estimates are not adjusted in this way. Attitudes toward marriage are also similar across subgroups when dividing teens on other measures of socioeconomic status, such as mother’s education level (not shown).

Teens’ attitudes toward marriage vary substantially between rural and more urban areas. In the 2006 MTF survey, when asked whether people live “fuller and happier lives” if they marry, 41 percent of rural high school seniors agreed that people are happier when married, compared with 33 percent of students from more urban areas (not shown). Similarly, students from rural areas were somewhat less likely than students from more urban areas to endorse cohabitation before marriage (59 versus 65 percent).(3) These differences were statistically significant.

Although high school students living in more urban areas have somewhat less positive views of marriage than rural high school students, they are equally likely to expect to marry some day. In the 2006 MTF survey, 82 percent of high school seniors from both rural and urban areas said they expect to get married at some point. Among those students who expect to get married, 89 percent of those from rural areas and 91 percent of those from urban areas said they expect to stay married to the same person for life.

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Marriage Attitudes and Early Romantic Relationships

As described in the previous chapter, most teens have some experience with romantic relationships and dating by the time they reach late adolescence. In the 2006 MTF study, nearly three-quarters of high school seniors reported having ever dated, and 65 percent of 18-year-olds in the NLSY97 reported having had sexual intercourse. In this section, we examine how these early experiences with dating and sexual activity relate to teens’ attitudes and expectations concerning marriage.

The data for this section come from two different sources. The MTF study collects information on high school students’ dating experience but not on their experience with sexual activity. By contrast, the NSFG collects information on sexual activity but not on dating experience. Therefore, we use the MTF study to examine the association between dating experience and high school students’ attitudes toward marriage and the NSFG to examine the association between teenage sexual activity and attitudes.

Data from the 2006 MTF study suggest that high school students who are dating regularly have more positive views of marriage. For example, the percentage of students who said that having a good marriage and family life was either “quite important” or “extremely important” to them was higher for those who reported dating at least two or three times a month (94 percent) than for those who reported dating once a month or less (89 percent; Figure III.9). Students who reported dating regularly were also more likely than other students to say they expect to get married at some point (86 versus 76 percent). Dating experience was also associated with greater support for cohabitation. When asked whether it is usually a good idea for couples to live together before marriage, the percentage of students who expressed support for cohabitation was higher for those who reported dating at least two or three times a month (67 percent) than for those who reported dating once a month or less (59 percent).

Figure III.9
High School Seniors’ Attitudes and Expectations Concerning Marriage,
by Dating Experience

Figure III.9 High School Seniors' Attitudes and Expectations Concerning Marriage, by Dating Experience. See text for explanation of chart.

This correlation between dating and attitudes is generally consistent with the findings of prior research (Crissey 2005). However, it does not necessarily imply that teens’ attitudes toward marriage are fully determined by their early dating experiences. For example, another possibility is that teens with little interest in marriage do not make as much effort to date. The correlation between dating and attitudes may also reflect personality differences among teens. For example, teens with more outgoing, confident personalities may be more likely to date than other teens and also be more likely to expect to get married.

Data from the 2002 NSFG show that teens’ general attitudes toward marriage are not related to their early experience with sexual activity. As described earlier in this chapter, when asked whether it is better for a person to get married than to go through life being single, 64 percent of all teens in the NSFG agreed that it is better to get married (Figure III.1, above). This level of support for marriage was similar for teens who had previously had sexual intercourse and those who had never had sex (not shown).

However, when asked about their attitudes toward nonmarital childbearing, 66 percent of sexually active teens agreed that it is acceptable for an unmarried female to have a child, compared with 48 percent of teens who had never had sex (not shown). This difference was statistically significant at the 5 percent level. Teens who had previously had sexual intercourse were also more likely than other teens to approve of cohabitation before marriage (not shown). These findings suggest that, although sexually active teens are just as likely as other teens to express support for marriage, they are less likely to see marriage as a necessary first step before having a child or living with someone.

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Summary of Main Results

In this chapter, we examined teenagers’ attitudes and expectations concerning romantic relationships and marriage. We find that most teens express strong general support for marriage and believe it is better to get married than to go through life being single. Among high school seniors, most also say they feel well prepared for marriage and expect to get married one day. However, while support for marriage remains strong among teens, a growing proportion of them approve of cohabitation before marriage and want to delay getting married until later in life.

We also find that teens’ attitudes toward marriage differ by gender and family background characteristics. In general, teenage boys have more positive attitudes toward marriage than teenage girls do; however, boys are more likely than girls to want to delay marriage. Teens’ attitudes toward marriage are also closely linked with their family structure, with support for marriage strongest among teens who are living with both of their biological parents. Support for marriage is stronger among teens living in rural areas than it is for those living in more urban area. Even so, most teens expect to get married regardless of where they live.

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Endnotes

1. The gender gap in the percentage of high school seniors wanting to delay marriage for at least four or five years was 6 percentage points in 2006, compared with nearly 18 percentage points in 1976. This represents a statistically significant decline (at the .05 level) in the gender gap for this measure over this 30-year period.

2.Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces:  2004”. Available at:  [http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/marr-div/2004detailed_tables.html]. Accessed May 16, 2008.

3. These estimates are adjusted for differences in the racial/ethnic composition of rural and urban areas. However, the findings are similar when the estimates are not adjusted in this way. Rural areas are defined as areas outside of regions defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). Conversely, more urban areas are defined as regions within MSAs.


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