Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns
[ Main Page of Report | Contents of Report ]
Young adulthood is a time of transition and change, during which romantic relationships often play an important role. Relationships are formed and dissolved. Some young adults begin living together; some marry. Earlier experiences in childhood and adolescence may set the stage for these developments, by shaping attitudes, reinforcing certain behaviors, and setting youth on particular pathways into adulthood. Characteristics and experiences in adolescence, such as family structure or expectations of marriage, may influence whether young adults marry or cohabit and whether these relationships are high quality and satisfying.
In previous chapters, we explored adolescent precursors to adult relationships, such as family composition, early relationships, and attitudes. In this chapter, we extend our analysis beyond adolescence to examine romantic relationships in young adulthood. Using the 2005 wave of the NLSY97, we follow the cohort of teens examined in Chapter II into their early 20s. We examine their rates of dating, cohabitation, and marriage as young adults, as well as the quality of these relationships.(1) We also examine which groups are most likely to form romantic relationships and how relationship quality varies by race/ethnicity and gender. We analyze the link between these adult relationships and the individuals characteristics in adolescence to determine whether young adults relationship outcomes vary by their family structure or marital expectations as teenagers.
There are two cautions concerning this analysis. First, it is based on data collected when the sample members were 21 to 24 years old.(2) Most of the sample members had not yet married or cohabited and many more of them will in the coming years. Therefore, we are examining the likelihood that this cohort will marry or cohabit early in adulthood and not the likelihood that they will ever marry or cohabit. Second, although there may be links between adolescent characteristics and outcomes as young adults, this does not necessarily mean that one causes the other. Other factors may cause what we observe in both adolescence and adulthood. Nevertheless, these associations may be useful for developing and refining healthy marriage programs for high-school-aged teens. In particular, this analysis can help identify which teens are most likely to form relationships in young adulthood and may, thus, particularly benefit from participation in a healthy relationship skills program.
[ Go to Contents ]
Although most Americans eventually marry, young adults are increasingly delaying marriage. National trends show that the age at first marriage has been rising steadily for several decades. In 1970, the median age at first marriage was approximately 21 for women and 23 for men. By 2005, the median age had increased to 25 for women and 27 for men (www.census.gov/population/socdemo/hh-fam/ms2.pdf, PDF file, 2 pages).
As marriage is postponed, more informal relationships, such as dating or
living together, have become increasingly common. Most research has focused
on the increase in cohabitation. Today, most young adults will cohabit at
some point in their lives and most marriages are preceded by cohabitation
(Bumpass and Lu 2000). Dating and cohabitation are more fluid than marriage,
and young adults may cycle in and out of multiple relationships before marrying.
In this section, we explore the romantic relationships young adults form
in their early 20s.
Among the young adults in our sample, 60 percent were in some type of romantic relationship in their early 20s, with 16 percent married, 17 percent cohabiting, and 27 percent dating (Figure IV.1).(3) If these young adults follow the patterns of older cohorts, it is likely that many will marry in the next few years and their rates of marriage will increase substantially. For example, census data indicate that, in 2004, 22 percent of 20 to 24 year olds had ever married, compared to 53 percent of 25 to 29 year olds (www.census.gov/population/socdemo/marital-hist/2004/Table3.2004.xls, Excel file, 21 KB).
Relationship Status of Young Adults Ages 21 to 24,
by Gender and Race/Ethnicity
Women are more likely than men to form romantic relationships as young adults. For example, 69 percent of women in our sample reported they were married, cohabiting, or dating at the end of the follow-up period, compared with 52 percent of men (Figure IV.1). The gender difference was particularly pronounced for marriage; 21 percent of women were married compared to 12 percent of men. This gap reflects the pattern that women typically marry at younger ages than men do and often form romantic relationships with men who are somewhat older than they are.
African Americans are somewhat less likely than those in other racial and
ethnic groups to be in a romantic relationship as young adults. Among our
sample of 21-to-24 year olds, 55 percent of African Americans reported being
in a romantic relationship, compared with 62 percent of whites and 63 percent
of Hispanics (Figure IV.1). African Americans are particularly
unlikely to be married as young adults. Among our sample, 7 percent of African
Americans were married in their early 20s, compared with 18 percent of whites
and 17 percent of Hispanics.
Cohabitation is much more common than marriage among young adults. Among those in our sample, 39 percent had ever cohabited by the time they were in their early 20s, while 18 percent had ever married (Figure IV.2). Data from other studies suggest that the phenomenon of young adults being more likely to cohabit than to marry may be a fairly recent one, since marriage rates for young adults have declined substantially in recent decades while cohabitation rates have increased. The proportion of 20 to 24 year-olds who had ever married declined from over 50 percent in the early 1970s to just under 20 percent by 2003 (Fields 2004). In contrast, the proportion of women in their early 20s who have ever cohabited increased from less than 30 percent in the late 1980s to just over 43 percent in 2002 (Bumpass and Lu 2000; Chandra et al. 2005).
Marriage and Cohabitation Status of Young Adults Ages 21 to 24
Transitions out of cohabiting relationships are common among young adults. For example, 17 percent of the young adults in our sample reported currently living with a romantic partner at the time of the 2005 interview, whereas 39 percent reported that they had ever lived with a romantic partner (Figure IV.2). In other words, 22 percent (39 percent minus 17 percent) had been in a cohabiting relationship that had ended either through marriage or through the relationship breaking up and had not entered a new cohabiting relationship. In many cases, these transitions out of cohabitation are transitions into marriage. Among the 22 percent of sample members who had cohabited in the past but were no longer doing so, just under half (10 percent of the full sample) were married at the time of the interview (Figure IV.2). Other work has also found that cohabitation is a fairly fluid arrangement. One study, for example, found that half of cohabiting relationships end in one year or less, either through marriage or relationship breakup (Bumpass and Lu 2000).
In contrast, transitions out of marriage are relatively uncommon among young adults. Only about 2 percent of all sample members and about 1 in 10 of those who had ever married had separated or divorced at the time of the 2005 interview. In contrast, about a third of sample members who had ever cohabited were no longer cohabiting and had not married at the time of the interview, suggesting that cohabiting relationships are less stable than marriages.
We find that, among our sample members, most marriages were preceded by cohabitation. Among those who reported they were currently married, about 60 percent indicated that they had cohabited at some point.(4) However, most sample members who had cohabited were not currently married. Among those who had ever cohabited, 25 percent were married at the time of the 2005 interview. Of course, this does not imply that only 25 percent of cohabiting relationships will result in marriage. An additional 45 percent were still cohabiting at the time of the 2005 survey, and some of those relationships could lead to marriage in time.
[ Go to Contents ]
It is not only the type of romantic relationship, but also the quality of those relationships, that has important implications for young adults. Those in troubled or conflicted relationships may experience negative repercussions, such as compromised psychological and even physical health. Marital quality, typically the focus of past research, has been linked with mental health, cardiovascular health, and immune functioning (Choi and Marks 2008; Kiecolt-Glaser and Newton 2001; Proulx, Helms, and Buehler 2007).
In this section, we examine the way in which the young adults in our sample
rated the quality of their romantic relationships. We examine how those who
are married, cohabiting, and dating rated their relationships and how these
perceptions of relationship quality vary by gender and by racial and ethnic
groups. In the 2005 wave of the NLSY97, respondents who were married, cohabiting,
or dating were asked to rate their relationship on a 0-to-10 scale in terms
of closeness, commitment, caring, and
conflict.(5) To create a single measure of
relationship quality, we averaged these four responses to create a relationship
quality index that ranged from 0 to 10, with 10 indicating the highest quality
Married and cohabiting young adults generally consider their relationships to be of high quality. For both those who were married and those who were cohabiting, the average reported quality rating was 8.8 out of 10 (Table IV.1). The ratings of those who were cohabiting and those who were married were also very similar when we examined responses to each of the four questions that make up the relationship quality scale separately. This result is somewhat at odds with past research, which has found that cohabitors tend to have poorer relationship quality than couples who are married (Nock 1995).
|Source: NLSY97, 2005 wave.
Note: Figures represent the average response to four questions in which respondents were asked to rate four aspects of relationship quality on a 0-to-10 scale. Higher scores represent higher quality relationships. See text for more details.
For all racial/ethnic groups presented, the differences in the average quality rating between those who are married and those who are cohabiting is not statistically significant. For all racial/ethnic groups presented, the differences in the average quality rating between daters and cohabitors and between daters and those who are married is statistically significant.
* Difference between this group and other racial/ethnic groups statistically significant at the .05 level.
We offer two possible explanations for the similarity in reported relationship
quality between couples who are married and those who are cohabiting, even
though earlier research has found substantial differences in relationship
quality between these two groups. First, given the youth of the sample, many
of these young adults may be cohabiting to try out their relationship
with someone they are considering marrying. Past work has found that cohabitors
with plans to marry have similar relationship quality to those who are already
married (Brown and Booth 1996). The NLSY97 does not ask the marital intentions
of all cohabitors, so we were not able to test this possibility with our
sample. Second, these results may indicate a generational shift. As cohabitation
becomes more common and accepted, it is possible that those who cohabit may
have higher relationship quality than past cohabitors. Recent work, however,
suggests that cohabitation is far more likely to end than marriage, even
among younger people (for example, Osborne et al. 2007) and may be becoming
less stable over time (Bumpass and Lu 2000). Thus, even if relationship quality
is converging for cohabiting and married young adults, this may not translate
into greater stability for cohabitors.
Young adults who are dating rate their relationship quality somewhat lower than married and cohabiting young adults do. Their relationship quality responses averaged 8.1 out of 10, compared to 8.8 for married and cohabiting adults (Table IV.1). We also examined relationship quality, omitting the question on commitment, because this question was asked somewhat differently for those who were dating.(6) The gap between married and cohabiting young adults and daters narrowed somewhat but remained statistically significant, with an average rating of 8.0 for daters and 8.5 for the married and cohabiting (not shown). Thus, it is not just the level of commitment that distinguishes the relationship quality of daters from that of married and cohabiting young adults. Given the more casual nature of dating, it is not surprising that the reported quality is somewhat lower than for married or cohabiting adults.
Across all relationship types, relationship quality ratings were very similar for men and women (not shown). They differed somewhat by racial and ethnic groups, however. In particular, white young adults rated their relationship quality more highly than young adults in other racial and ethnic groups did (Table IV.1).
[ Go to Contents ]
Until this point, we have examined whether various factors, such as gender, race/ethnicity, and income, are related to relationship behaviors and outcomes. Certain of these characteristics, however, may be linked with each other. For example, what if adolescents who grew up with single parents and those who grew up in low-income households are less likely to marry? Living with a single parent makes growing up in a low-income household more likely. Thus, to determine which has a stronger association with marriage, we need to disentangle the link between family composition and income level. Statistical techniques can be used to separate the influence of one factor from another and to predict the likelihood of the outcome in question for a person who has a particular characteristic, but who otherwise has the average characteristics of all adults in the sample.
In this section, we analyze how various characteristics in adolescence relate
to the likelihood that individuals will marry or cohabit as young adults
controlling for other background characteristics. We consider the predictive
power of the adolescent characteristics discussed in
chapters II and III, since
these may be important precursors to later behaviors. Using statistical methods
to control for various demographic and background characteristics, we examine
whether these young adults had ever cohabited or married by 2005.
Even with other factors controlled, women are more likely to marry and cohabit
than men as young adults. For example, 20 percent of women married, compared
to 12 percent of men (Table IV.2). Further, 45 percent
of women had cohabited by their early 20s, compared with 31 percent of young
men. As with the earlier results that did not adjust for background
characteristics, this difference reflects the pattern that young women often
marry or cohabit with somewhat older men.
African Americans are less likely to marry in early adulthood than those in other racial and ethnic groups, a difference that is statistically significant even after adjusting for background differences across these groups. For example, 7 percent of African Americans had married by their early 20s, compared with 21 percent of whites and 19 percent of Hispanics (Table IV.2).
Although whites and Hispanics have similar rates of marriage in early adulthood, their paths to marriage are somewhat different. Among our sample members, whites were more likely than Hispanics to have cohabited before marriage 15 percent of whites had both married and cohabited, compared with 10 percent of Hispanics (Table IV.2). African Americans were particularly unlikely to have both married and cohabited, with 3 percent in this group. However, their likelihood of cohabiting without marriage is similar to those in other racial and ethnic groups, 27 percent compared with 29 percent for whites and Hispanics.
|Predicted Probability of:|
|Race and Ethnicity|
|Lived in Rural Area as a Teen|
|Census Region as a Teen|
|Household Composition as a Teen, Lived with:|
|Married biological parents||51||16||32||8||8||24|
|Formerly married parent||22||16||41*||7||10||32*|
|Neither biological parent||8||22*||52*||5*||17*||35*|
|Household Income as a Teen|
|Below 200% of poverty||40||19*||40*||7||12*||28|
|200% of poverty or above||60||14||36||6||8||28|
|Adolescent Behaviors and Expectations|
|Dropped Out of High School|
|Dated by Age 16|
|Had Sex by Age 16|
|Perceived Likelihood of Marriage in Next Five Years|
|< 50 percent chance||46||13||33||5||8||24|
|50 percent chance||26||12||39*||5||7||32*|
|> 50 percent chance||28||25*||45*||11*||14*||31*|
|Sample Size = 5,252|
|Source: NLSY97, 1999 and 2005 waves.
Note: The predicted probabilities presented here are based on the results from estimating a set of logit regression models. They represent the likelihood of the outcome in question for a person who has the particular characteristic in the table but who otherwise has the average characteristics of all adults in the sample. In addition to the characteristics included in the table, the model included and controlled for other race/ethnicity, whether the respondent lived with cohabiting parents in 1999, age in 2005, and whether the respondent had never had sex by 2005.
Tests of statistical significance reported here refer to the difference between the predicted probability of adults with the particular characteristic and the predicted probability for those in the reference category in each group. For each characteristic, the reference category is indicated by italics.
* Differences between the predicted probability for sample members with this characteristic and for those in the italicized reference category statistically significant at the .05 level.
These findings suggest that cohabitation may play a different role in the
lives of whites, Hispanics, and African Americans. Although the likelihood
of cohabitation without marriage is similar across race and ethnicity, whites
appear to be more likely to use cohabitation as a step toward marriage. Other
work also suggests that cohabitation is more likely to be a precursor to
marriage for whites (Phillips and Sweeney 2005). Among cohabitors, whites
are more likely to marry their partners than African Americans (Brown 2000).
Hispanics are more likely than whites to have a child while cohabiting, and
to indicate the birth was intended (Manning 2001, Musick 2002).
Young adults who grew up in rural areas are more likely to marry than those
who grew up in more urban areas. Among sample members who grew up in a rural
area, 21 percent had married by their early 20s, compared with 15 percent
for those who did not grow up in a rural area (Table IV.2).
The likelihood of marrying as a young adult also varies by region of the
country, with those who grew up in the Northeast particularly unlikely to
marry as young adults. Among young adults who grew up in the Northeast, 9
percent were married by their early 20s, compared with 17 to 19 percent for
those who grew up in other regions of the country. Southerners are the most
likely to marry as young adults, with 19 percent having married by their
early 20s. They are also somewhat less likely than those in other regions
of the country to cohabit without marrying (25 percent versus 30 to 31
Growing up with married biological parents is associated with a reduced likelihood of cohabitation in young adulthood. Among those who lived with married biological parents as teenagers, 32 percent had ever cohabited by their early 20s, compared with 46 percent among those who lived with remarried parents as teens and 41 percent of those who lived with a divorced or widowed parent who had not remarried (Table IV.2). Cohabitation may seem more familiar to young adults with divorced parents if they experienced their parents subsequent cohabitation. Research suggests that about 20 percent of children whose parents were married at the time of their birth will live in a cohabiting family before age 16 (Bumpass and Lu 2000). These early experiences may increase the likelihood that children from divorced families will grow up to form their own cohabiting relationships.
Those who grew up with a single, never-married parent are particularly unlikely to marry as young adults. Among sample members in this group, 9 percent had married by their early 20s, compared with 18 percent for the full sample (Table IV.2). For other family types, the structure of the family of origin is not strongly linked with the likelihood of marriage in early adulthood. The likelihood of an early marriage is similar for those who grew up with married biological parents, remarried parents, and divorced or widowed parents who did not remarry. We may find the association between family structure and marriage changes as young adults age. It is possible that those who lived with married biological parents will marry in later years at a rate higher than those from other family structures. Alternatively, the family structure in which young adults lived in their adolescence may be more strongly linked in their later years with divorce than with the likelihood of marriage. Young adults from different types of families may be equally likely to marry over time, but research has shown that those with divorced parents are less likely to stay married (Amato 1996; Teachman 2002).
Young adults who lived with neither biological parent as teenagers are
particularly likely to marry and cohabit. Among sample members in this group,
22 percent had married by their early 20s (compared with 18 percent for all
sample members) and 52 percent had cohabited (compared with 39 percent for
all sample members, Table IV.2). This result suggests that
those who grow up with neither biological parent may have a stronger interest
than other young adults in forming their own family and thus be particularly
likely to form serious romantic relationships in early adulthood. It may
also be that, in some cases, those who were not living with either parent
as teens were already cohabiting or married and those relationships have
persisted into early adulthood.(7)
Young adults who lived in low-income households as teenagers are more likely
to marry than those who lived in higher-income households. Among young adults
who grew up in low-income households, 19 percent had married by their early
20s, compared with 14 percent for those who lived in higher-income households
(Table IV.2).(8) Those who
grew up in low-income households were particularly likely to have both cohabited
and married by the time they were young adults (12 percent compared with
8 percent for those from higher-income households).
Young adults who have dropped out of high school are substantially more likely to cohabit as young adults than are those who finished high school.(9) Among our sample members, 50 percent of dropouts had cohabited by the time they were in their early 20s, compared with 35 percent of high school graduates (Table IV.2). In contrast, the likelihood of marriage in early adulthood is about the same for dropouts and graduates, with 18 percent of dropouts and 16 percent of graduates having married by this point.
Other work has found a strong link between education and cohabitation. Some
have argued that the increase in cohabitation over the past few decades has
been driven by increases in cohabitation among the less educated (Bumpass
and Lu 2000). Cohabitation may be a particularly attractive option for those
with less education, since it provides a means of pooling economic resources
for those with less income. High school dropouts may be hesitant to take
the step from cohabitation to marriage however, because of their tenuous
economic circumstances. Past research has consistently found that the likelihood
of marriage is positively related to economic well-being (Clarkberg 1999;
Sassler and Schoen 1999; Xie et al. 2003). Similarly, cohabiting men with
higher earnings are more likely to marry and less likely to break up with
their partners than their lower-earning peers (Smock and Manning 1997).
Early initiation of romantic and sexual relationships is related to the likelihood of cohabitation in early adulthood, but not to the likelihood of marriage. For example, 39 percent of young adults in our sample who had dated by age 16 cohabited in their early 20s, compared with 28 percent of those who started dating later (Table IV.2). In contrast, similar percentages of both groups were married by their early 20s. Engaging in sexual activity early in adolescence is even more strongly associated with the likelihood of cohabitation than early dating is. Among those who had had sex by age 16, 47 percent cohabited as young adults, compared with 32 percent of those who initiated sexual activity at a later point. As with early dating, early sexual activity was not associated with the likelihood of marriage in young adulthood. However, those who postponed initial sexual activity were somewhat more likely than other young adults to have married without initially cohabiting (7 versus 5 percent).
Why might early dating and sexual activity be associated with the likelihood
of cohabitation in early adulthood? Those who postpone dating and sexual
activity may have more traditional views concerning romantic relationships,
which in turn may make them less likely to cohabit as young adults.
Alternatively, those who postpone dating and sexual activity may have less
interest in romantic relationships, making cohabitation less likely.
In the 2000 wave of the NLSY97, adolescents were asked to rate the likelihood that they would marry in the next five years. By examining their marital and cohabitation status in the 2005 wave of the NLSY97, we are able to examine how closely their expectations aligned with their actual relationship outcomes.
Teenagers who reported a greater than 50 percent chance of marriage in the next five years were more likely than other teens to marry over the subsequent five-year period; however, most did not marry during this interval. Among this group, 25 percent married over the next five years, compared with 12 to 13 percent among those who had lower expectations of the likelihood of marriage (Table IV.2). Teens who had expressed a high chance of marriage were also more likely than other teens to cohabit over the next five years (45 percent, compared with 33 to 39 percent among those with lower expectations of the likelihood of marriage). This latter result suggests that adolescent marriage expectations may reflect a more general desire to form a committed or serious relationship, rather than a specific desire for marriage at an early age.
[ Go to Contents ]
In this chapter, we have used data from the 2005 wave of the NLSY97 to examine the romantic relationships of our NLSY97 sample members in early adulthood, when they were 21 to 24 years old. We find that most of these young adults were in a romantic relationship in their early 20s, but relatively few were married. Cohabitation was much more common than marriage for these young adults, with 39 percent having cohabited at some point, compared with 18 percent who had ever married. Young adults in cohabiting relationships tended to rate their relationship quality as high and reported relationship quality levels similar to those of young adults who were married. Even so, transitions out of cohabiting relationships were more common than transitions out of marriage. About a third of sample members who had ever cohabited were neither cohabiting nor married at the time of the 2005 interview. In contrast, only about 1 in 10 of those who had ever married was no longer married at this point.
We find that the likelihood of marriage and cohabitation varies substantially across different groups of young adults. In particular, women are much more likely than men to marry and cohabit in early adulthood, reflecting the pattern that women often marry at younger ages than men do and often form romantic relationships with men who are somewhat older than they are. We also find that African Americans are less likely than other racial and ethnic groups to marry or cohabit in young adulthood. The likelihood of marriage and cohabitation for young adults also varies by their family structure growing up. For example, those who grew up with a single never-married parent are particularly unlikely to marry as young adults. We also find that those who lived with two married biological parents as teens are less likely than other teens to cohabit as young adults. Finally, we find that the likelihood of cohabitation among young adults is associated with certain adolescent risk behaviors (in particular, early sexual activity and dropping out of school); however, the likelihood of marriage is not.
[ Go to Contents ]
1. Among the 6,646 respondents to the NLSY97 1999 wave discussed in Chapter II, 976 did not respond to the 2005 wave. The analysis sample for this chapter is limited to the 5,670 original sample members who also responded to the 2005 wave.
2. The sample is restricted to those who were ages 15 to 18 at the time they responded to the 1999 wave of the NLSY97 and who also responded to the 2005 survey wave, 98 percent of whom were 21 to 24 years old. Because of slight differences in timing across these survey waves, 2 percent were either 20 or 25 years old at the time of the 2005 survey wave.
3. Respondents are identified as dating if they report they are in a dating relationship in which you thought of yourself as part of a couple. A small number of individuals with same sex partners are excluded for this analysis.
4. We do not distinguish here whether individuals were cohabiting with their spouse-to-be or with another partner.
5. Married and cohabiting respondents were asked the following four questions: (1) How close do you feel towards [your partner]? (2) How much do you feel that [your partner] cares about you? (3) How committed would you say you are towards [your partner]? (4) On a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is no conflict and 10 is a lot of conflict, how would you rate your relationship? Conflict was reverse-coded in the summary measure. Similar relationship quality questions also were asked of respondents who identified a dating partner. The questions on closeness, caring, and conflict were identical to those asked of married and cohabiting people. For the commitment question, daters were asked, on a scale of 0 to 10, how likely it was they would be with their dating partner in six months.
6. See footnote 5 for an explanation of the difference in the wording of this question across relationship types.
7. Among sample members who were living with neither biological parent in 1999, 6 percent were married and 16 percent were cohabiting at that time. In contrast, among sample members living in other family structures in 1999, only one percent were either married or cohabiting at that time.
8. We use the income status of the household in 1999, when our sample was between the ages of 15 and 18 (Chapter II). Because economic circumstances can change, this measure may not capture all sample members who lived in a low-income household at other points during adolescence.
9. Dropouts are defined as those who have not earned a high school diploma, even if they have earned a GED certificate.
Top of Page | Contents
Main Page of Report | Contents of Report
Human Services Policy (HSP)
Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE)
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)