The New Chronology of Union Formation:Strategies for Measuring Changing Pathways


Indicators of Child, Family and Community Connections:

The New Chronology of Union Formation: Strategies
for Measuring Changing Pathways


Steven L. Nock
University of Virginia
November 2003


In the short span of half a century, the pathways to union formation in America have become much less predictable. And a greater variety of intimate unions now exists than in the past. It is currently impossible to understand the wide range of intimate relationships because we lack appropriate data. Nor is it possible to measure the customary expectations associated with different types of relationships. The development of mutual commitment is the most crucial dynamic dimension in the pathway to stable unions. Therefore it is now essential to have additional information about how commitment develops in the new landscape of union formation options. This paper outlines a strategy to answer three questions. 1) What types of relationships now exist in America? 2) How do these relationships resemble, and differ from traditional monogamous heterosexual marriages? and 3) How do these relationships foster or impede the development of commitment sufficient to sustain the couple?

Paper prepared for
Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, HHS
for the contract, Indicators of Child, Family and Community Connections,
(Contract no. HHS-100-01-0011 (05).)


  1. Introduction: The Changing Chronology of Union Formation
  2. Changing Patterns of Courtship and Dating
  3. Factors Contributing to Changes in Union Formation
  4. How Do We Currently Measure Pathways to Union Formation?
  5. What Do We Need to Know?
  6. Conclusion


I. Introduction: The Changing Chronology of Union Formation

How do adults meet and form intimate relationships? And what unites them as a couple? Whether these processes are driven by love, sex, money, status, biology, or fate, the end result is enormously important for those who are united. But it is also vitally important for a society because intimate unions are the engines of reproduction, social control, and social order. Over time, the pathways into unions have become more varied, particularly given an increasing period of time during which young adults are not typically married. Union dissolution is also more commonplace, making the measurement of commitment and the pathways following union formation more salient. Measuring couple formation has become more challenging, not only due to these more varied pathways, but also due to an ever-changing vocabulary used to describe them. In this paper I discuss my views on how the path to union formation has changed, and the implications of this for measuring relationships.

In any healthy and stable union, each partner accrues benefits that create dependence on the other. Dependencies unite couples by creating exit costs. That is, dependency is a measure of commitment.(1)

While there are many important aspects of a healthy marriage or relationship, one critical element is a sufficient degree of commitment to unite the couple in those inevitable times when love and affection cannot.

The way unions are formed influences their development and stability, which in turn influence society as much, if not more, than any other single force. A dramatic change in the ways intimate unions are formed will therefore have significant implications, not just for individuals, but also for the entire society. At the personal level, the way couples come together influences whether, when, and how many children they have. It influences decisions about participation in the labor force and affects the standard of living. It influences how long people remain together as well as their health and longevity.(2) Collectively, the aggregate consequences of union formations are crucial for the economy and the social fabric. Therefore, it is not surprising that extensive formal and informal rules, laws, and customs have traditionally governed mate-selection. And almost all such regulation through history was related to marriage because there were few, if any, acceptable alternative forms of intimate unions.(3)

This paper presents an historical perspective on pathways to unions and outlines one possible strategy to gather the new data that would be needed to assess recent transformations in union formation. The proposed strategy has three primary objectives. First, it would allow researchers to describe and catalogue the variety of contemporary relationships in America. Second, it would explore and describe the content and nature of those relationships. Third, it would chart the development ofcommitment among relationship types and over time. The resulting information would allow researchers to understand the pathways to marriages or other intimate relationships as they differ by ethnicity, age, or stage in life. This is not currently possible.

This last point needs to be emphasized. Existing secondary sources (e.g., Census products such as the Current Population Survey, national longitudinal surveys such as the National Survey of Families and Households, National Longitudinal Surveys, or National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, or national cross-section surveys such as the General Social Surveys) typically provide only limited evidence germane to the issue of pathways to union formation. These limitations spring primarily from the designs of the studies which usually focus on co-residential unions (cohabiting or married partners) specific age-groups (especially youths) or restricted cohorts. I will elaborate on one design (National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health) that provides a model of how the pathways to union formation might be studied. Generally, understanding the pathways to unions requires that we move beyond a focus on co-residential unions to include the vast complexity that leads to such unions. This will require the development of new measures and data. These are described in the final section of this paper.

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II. Changing Patterns of Courtship and Dating

The pathways to stable intimate unions are best understood as developmental trajectories in which a series of steps, or stages, lead to a marriage or other intimate relationship. There are typical, or customary patterns of mate-selection found in all societies, ranging from arranged marriages by parents to virtually unfettered individual free choice by the couple themselves. At the same time, these cultural patterns change, often quickly, in response to larger social conditions. To put the current situation in perspective, I offer an abbreviated history of American courtship and dating customs.

Largely as a result of their ethnic composition, mate-selection of the early American settlers closely resembled the European customs of courtship. Parents were heavily involved in courtship because the consequences of marriage had implications for them (in the form of offspring, property, or social alliances.) At least until the middle 19th century, couples met and associated mainly in public, at church, dances, picnics, or other communal gatherings. As things progressed, young men would call on young women at their homes where parents would supervise. Not until the couple was betrothed were they allowed much privacy or sexual intimacy (which meant kissing and petting.)(4) But the barriers to privacy were ended by the early 20th century as youths began to enjoy greater financial and social independence. Parents became less involved in courtship as the primary consequences of marriage shifted from the older generation to the younger couple themselves. Mass, mandatory public education meant that all youths were segregated among other single youths for most of a new phase of life that came to be called adolescence.(5) Increasing numbers of young adults (including women) in newly developing urban centers had their own ability to earn incomes. And changing technologies such as movie theaters and automobiles (and back seats) allowed much greater privacy.

Courtship was replaced by dating in the first two or three decades of the 20th century.(6) Dating stressed physical attractiveness, some sexual intimacy, and competition rather than the more traditional concerns over family name and homogamous economic position. More importantly, dating, unlike courtship, was peer supervised. A date took place away from home and was not chaperoned by parents. Not the occurrence of emotional or physical intimacy but the question of whose advice guided young people in developing heterosexual ties was the critical difference between dating and the practice of "calling" and "keeping company" (i.e., courtship) that is was rapidly supplanting in the 1920's.(7)

Dating, though much less subject to parental (and community) scrutiny, was still highly organized and regulated. The regulation, however, was mainly by peers rather than parents. Dating was a competitive form of recreation in which boys and girls attempted to be both good dates, and maintain good reputations. Especially for girls, this meant avoiding the label of being "easy." Youths segregated themselves into cliques based on their attractiveness and restrictiveness. High school dating cultures developed to enforce conformity. The involvement of parents was more indirect than it had been in earlier times. Parents sought to influence their children's choice of dates, though there was less overt attempt to control such decisions. Pairings were strongly regulated by one's status in the dating market in a pattern that was described as "rating and dating."(8) Strong norms, in short, were quite evident. Beyond visible symbols, word of mouth was powerful when everybody was likely to know everybodyGossip, of course, regulated behavior, and chiding served to educate boys to the proper ways of behaving toward girls so that the rules of the dating system might be learned even by those more backward among them.(9)

Engagement intervened between dating and marriage for most of the 20th century, as had betrothal during courtship. The relationship during an engagement period was a more serious stage in the family-formation process lasting, on average, six months to a year. Engaged couples were held to much less restricted sexual standards. But most importantly, once couples were engaged, they became more immune from monitoring and control from peers or parents.

The children of the Baby Boom (children who were in high school in the latter 1960s and 1970s) continued to date, as their parents had. But a new pattern in dating emerged, going steady. Already evident by the latter 1950s, the more serious monogamous relationship of a dating couple was associated with greater individual freedom and, accordingly, less competition.

Until the middle of the 20th century, however, couples moving toward marriage lived at home until they were, in fact, married.(10) In the mid and late 20th century, a new pattern emerged for growing numbers of youths, the establishment of an independent household prior to marriage. Lengthened educational preparation and later ages at marriage meant that youthful dating in high school assumed much less importance as a pathway to a serious intimate union.

The custom of dating ended during the 1970s and 1980s. Challenges to gender roles were part of the reason. Dating had been an asymmetrical form of male-female relationship. It required a rather formal type of reciprocity, initiated (and paid for) by the male. The formality and competition of dating, as well as the rigid structures it imposed on relationships were rejected by the youths of the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of dating, more casual, mixed sex group activities became popular. Hanging out replaced dating. Girls could initiate a pairing up, as could boys. But the freedom and variety associated with these casual types of associations meant that there was less structure imposed on relationships by youthful peers. The control of heterosexual relationships among youths, in short, had moved from parents (courtship,) to peers (dating,) to partners (casual groups and hanging out) in the course of a century. As noted earlier, pathways to unions are typically organized, but often change quickly. We are now in such a period of rapid change.

Unions are now formed through a variety of ways, and marriage, if it occurs at all, occurs much later. By comparison with the early and mid 20th century, there is now much greater variety in how people meet and in the relationships they form. Demographers Lynne Casper and Suzanne Bianchi summarize the extensive demography of union formation with these vignettes:

  • Consider the life of a young woman reaching adulthood in the 1950s or early 1960s. Such a woman was likely to marry straight out of high school or to take a clerical or retail sales job until she married. She would have moved out of her parents' home only after she married, to form a new household with her husband. This young woman was likely to marry by age 20 and begin a family soon after. If she was working when she became pregnant, she would probably have quit her job and stayed home to care for her children while her husband had a steady job that paid enough to support the entire family.
  • Fast forward to the last few years of the 20th century. A young woman reaching adulthood in the late 1990s is not likely to marry before her 25th birthday. She will probably attend college and is likely to live by herself, with a boyfriend, or with roommates before marrying. She may move in and out of her parents' house several times before she gets married. Like her counterpart reaching adulthood in the 1950s, she is likely to marry and have at least one child, but the sequence of those events may well be reversed. She probably will not drop out of the labor force after she has children, although she may curtail the number of hours she is employed to balance work and family. She is also much more likely to divorce and possibly even to remarry compared with a young woman in the 1950s or 1960s.(11)

An historically abrupt change occurred when a sequence of events lost its chronological predictability (viz., dating, going steady, leaving home, an engagement, marriage, and childbearing.) Union formation is no longer so strongly associated with nest leaving. Rather, it occurs much later in life, after several possible routes that could include college attendance, occupational training, moving back into the parent's home, one or more unmarried cohabitating arrangements, and even childbearing. A uniform and rather predictable set of events (variously referred to as courtship, dating, or going steady) has been replaced by a diverse set of vaguely defined options including casual groups ("hanging out,") informal and occasional sexual encounters ("hooking up,") more serious boyfriend/girlfriend arrangements of varying types ("friends,") or co-residential cohabitation ("partners.").(12)

Demographic changes have produced an entirely new stage of life. Intervening between late adolescence and mature adulthood is a stage of life that lasts almost ten years. Legal emancipation occurs at age 18, though many youths continue to receive substantial support from parents after that. The median age at marriage in 2003 was 26.9 for men and 25.3 for women. Between leaving home somewhere around age 18, and marrying in the mid to late 20s, an entirely new stage of life has emerged. Never before in our history has such a period existed. It is during this uncharted stage of life that the pathway to marriage or some alternative arrangement now typically occurs.(13) It is also after marriages end, much later in life, that union formation increasingly occurs. These are the uncharted times and processes for which we must develop measures.

It is currently impossible to understand the wide range of relationship types found among adults looking for intimate unions. Nor is it currently possible to measure the customary expectations associated with each type of union. Relationships are governed by fewer social norms and expectations. When a college student tells her roommate that she and a man "hooked up" last night, this may mean that they kissed, had oral sex, had intercourse, or any combination. The term is intentionally vague to permit students to use it without implying any degree of commitment or emotional engagement. When a young person describes another as her "friend," this may imply a sexual relationship, or not. It may imply a serious degree of commitment, or not. It may imply an exclusive sexual arrangement, or it may not. Quite simply, we do not know the types of relationships that currently define the pathways to marriage (or cohabitation). Nor do we know the behaviors and values associated with each.

The most crucial dynamic dimension in the pathway to a stable union is the development of mutual commitment. Commitment varies to the extent that an individual perceives costs to terminating a relationship. And those costs are the consequence of extensive inter-dependencies. The anticipated costs of ending a relationship are central for understanding why it persists. Knowing such perceived "exit costs" would reveal a great deal about the degree of commitment to a relationship. Were an individual to perceive absolutely no costs to terminating a relationship, we could describe that person as having virtually no commitment to it. It is crucial that we collect data to provide an understanding of the development of commitment in the new landscape of union formation options.

Commitment can be viewed as the imagined costs of ending a relationship. Not until each partner sees large negative consequences of ending a relationship is it possible to describe the couple as mutually committed to one another and to their relationship. The development of commitment is thus the single most important issue to chart as people navigate the pathways to marriage or other intimate relationships.

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III. Factors Contributing to Changes in Union Formation

The pathways to union formation are affected by the religious and cultural backgrounds of Americans, which have changed notably due to shifts in immigration streams. They are also influenced by changes in the economy that altered both the significance of women's earnings, and young adults' routes to self-sufficiency. Other influences include medical advances in birth control, high rates of divorce, high rates of unmarried cohabitation, and changed social and legal norms. Each of the following is an important factor that affects the formation of relationships, their trajectories, and their type. Many may limit the appeal of marriage. Others complicate the pathways to marriage.

Religious and cultural factors. Intimate relationships are viewed as sacred in this, as in most cultures, and are governed by strong religious and cultural norms. Patterns of mate-selection vary greatly among the world's cultures. Therefore, as the composition of the U.S. population shifts due to immigration, so will the patterns of mate-selection. The cultural and religious patterns brought by immigrants to this country have always been important forces influencing mate selection patterns. In some cultures, marriages are arranged for the benefit of large lineages. In others, marriages are viewed as choices made strictly by the two individuals involved. Between these two extremes, societies differ in degree and emphasis.

Immigration to the U.S. has increased dramatically for the past five decades and the countries of origin have changed compared with a century ago. Throughout the 19th century until the early 1950s, immigrants came mainly from Europe and Canada. Today, immigration is mainly from Asia, Mexico, and other parts of Latin America including the Caribbean. "The new immigration from Asia, Mexico, and other parts of Latin America is having a profound effect that perhaps rivals the effects on the United States of the new immigrants of a century ago, who were from Southern and Eastern Europe."(14) As more and more Latin Americans and Asians arrive, a corresponding change in the way couples meet and form relationships has occurred. Increasing numbers of Americans have cultural backgrounds that include informal marriages (e.g., Caribbean traditions of consensual union), arranged marriages or strong family involvements in union formation (e.g., Asian and Mexican traditions). Undoubtedly, the ethnic composition of our nation has fostered many changes in the pathways to partnerships, though we know little about this topic. The methods outlined below would address this void.

Routes to self-sufficiency. Both economic and educational forces relate to an individual's ability to achieve economic self-sufficiency, historically a necessity for marriage (at least for husbands.)(15) Between the end of World War II and the end of the 20th century, the American economy went through several long booms and busts. Shortly after the War, jobs were abundant, and wages high, allowing couples to marry young and live a comfortable middle-class life supported by one earner who had completed high school. Macroeconomic changes toward a service economy, and global events such as the oil crisis of 1973, ushered in poorer job prospects for those with less schooling, declining wages, and steep inflation. All encouraged longer educational preparation, later entry into stable occupations, later marriage, and heavier reliance on the earnings of both partners. The economic turnaround of the 1990s resulted in job and wage growth. However, economic prospects differed for those with and without higher education. For young people with only a high-school (or less) education, jobs were harder to find, and wages lower than had been true for their parents.(16) In short, large shifts in our economy influence the age at which individuals may achieve economic independence, as well as the need for higher education.(17)

Changing economies of marriage. Changes in the economy are also responsible for a shift in the micro-economies of intimate relationships. Marriage has increasingly become a mutually dependent economic arrangement in which the financial contributions of both partners are involved. In 1999, 73% of marriages of working-age adults included two employed spouses. In 22% of marriages, husbands and wives earn roughly equal incomes.(18) Accordingly, both men's and women's potential earnings and economic position factor into decisions about relationships. Most Americans appear to believe that a certain standard of living is necessary before marriage is considered affordable. Sara McLanahan has found the same results among unmarried mothers.(19) National surveys reveal that unmarried individuals consider a lack of good job prospects the most undesirable trait of a potential spouse, for women and men (worse than having been previously married, having children from a prior relationship, being unattractive, etc.). We have learned that a lack of marriageable men (without sufficient earnings capacities) may be an obstacle to marriage among lower-income African Americans.(20) But it is just as likely that there is a growing lack of marriageable women due to high rates of unmarried fertility and associated problems with education and employment. Quite simply, both men and women appear unwilling to marry someone without good earnings prospects.

Effective birth control. Many aspects of mate selection changed markedly when effective birth control became available in the late 1960s. By 1970 over a third of all married women in America were using oral contraceptives. Laws and policies designed to limit the availability of birth control were declared unconstitutional. In 1965, The Supreme Court invalidated a Connecticut law that forbade the use of contraceptive devices by married couples. Seven years later, the U.S. Supreme Court extended unmarried women the same rights to contraception.(21) Writing for the Court majority in Griswald v Connecticut (1965), Justice Douglas explained that various guarantees of the Bill of Rights "create zones of privacy" and "the very idea of prohibiting the practice of birth control is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship." Sexual relationships, that is, are increasingly viewed as private choices made by consenting adults, with little or no involvement by others. The right to individual privacy in sexual matters was extended to homosexuals earlier this year.(22)

Birth control fostered a different view of sex in relationships and ushered in a more tolerant view of unmarried sexual encounters. Studies in the U.S. show that only a quarter of 19-year-old women had had intercourse in 1970. By 1991, nearly three fourths (72%) had. Among Americans born in the 1963-1972 cohort (who turned 20 between 1983 and 1992), only 10% of men and 9% of women were virgins at age 20.(23) Social norms changed with behaviors. In 1972, about half (47%) of adult Americans thought that sex before marriage was wrong. By 1998, only a third (35%) felt that way.(24)

Divorce. Almost half (46%)of all marriages in America are remarriages for at least one spouse(25) Approximately 12% of all Americans over the age of 30 are currently divorced.(26) Many, if not most, are looking for some form of intimate relationship. The elderly have become a growing factor in the overall landscape of union formation. Increasingly, marriages and cohabiting unions are formed following the end of a marriage. The pathways to relationships after marriages end are thus increasingly important, and may be as significant as the pathways young adults follow into their first marriage or relationship.

Unmarried cohabitation. The possibility of sex outside of marriage, combined with longer delays in achieving independence, fostered a growing acceptance of unmarried cohabitation. In 1970, the U.S. Bureau of the Census estimated that there were 520,000 heterosexual unmarried couples living together in America. By 2000, there were 4.8 million such couples.(27) Cohabitation may be an alternative to marriage for some, but it is also a pathway to marriage for many. In other words, cohabitation is replacing marriage for growing numbers of Americans, and replacing courtship (or dating) for most Americans. Indeed, declines in marriage rates are almost completely explained by increases in rates of cohabitation. One form of co-residential relationship is replacing the other. Most Americans under age 30 have cohabited at least once. One in four unmarried women aged 25 to 29 now lives in a cohabiting union. The majority of first unions (54%) in America are now cohabiting unions. The majority of marriages (56%) in America are formed from cohabiting unions. Four in ten births to unmarried women are to cohabiting couples.(28)

Changing legal and social and norms. The social and legal stigma of having an illegitimate child has declined in recent years. The U.S. Supreme Court declared most legal limitations due to illegitimacy unconstitutional between 1968 and 1972 (e.g., limits on inheritance, eligibility for government transfer payments, and rights of interstate succession of private property.) Social norms and values marched in tandem with the large demographic and economic trends of the latter 20th century. As more women sought and obtained higher education, they also developed different expectations about relationships and partners. As women entered the labor force in higher numbers, they came to expect equal treatment by men, both at work and at home. As their earnings rose, their sense of independence (from men and marriage) increased apace. Growing numbers of women came to view the traditional model of marriage that dominated the American landscape for most of the 20th century as unacceptable. The power imbalances in marriage that placed men at the head of the household were increasingly challenged, and alternatives to marriage became more desirable, even if they had previously been viewed as deviant (e.g., living together without marriage).

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IV. How Do We Currently Measure Pathways to Union Formation?

Household rosters, marital and fertility histories

Though it is not currently possible to map the full variety of relationships, nor the pathways to each, there are limited indicators that may give clues to both. There are two primary sources. First, abundant information about household relationships, marital, and fertility histories now exists in most large national surveys. These allow us to determine whether an individual is living with a romantic partner in a cohabiting or marital relationship. Related fertility histories permit an estimate of the relationship between mother and father in longitudinal surveys. Basic demographic household rosters and fertility histories, in short, have furthered our understanding of the role cohabitation and unmarried partnerships play as a pathways or alternative to marriage.

The availability of such information has made it possible to conduct extensive work on the pathways out of cohabiting unions, (into marriage or breaking up) and on fertility in cohabiting unions. Pathways into or among cohabitating unions are poorly understood, and information on this is typically gained from static comparisons of cohabiting and non-cohabiting individuals on basic demographic characteristics (education, race, age, etc.).(29)

The obvious limitation of any enumeration of household members, or fertility histories, is that they will almost always miss any relationship or person that is not co-residential.(30) Only those relationships that exist as cohabiting or married couple situations will be available for study based on this strategy. In the absence of new longitudinal evidence, this is a serious limitation because it prevents us from knowing the precursors to cohabitation or marriage, as they currently exist. In short, we cannot adequately study the pathways to co-residential unions in this fashion because there is little, if any, information about the other person until he or she is co-residing with the respondent.

The most valuable resource for studying union formation, at present, is probably the National Survey of Families and Households.(31) This longitudinal, national survey is now in its third wave, having been launched in 1987. The NSFH includes detailed information on union transitions (into and out of cohabiting and marital unions) as well as some attitudinal information about the advantages or disadvantages of cohabitation or marriage. The` longitudinal design permits an analysis of transitions into and out of relationships, and considerable work has already been done on transitions into and out of cohabiting unions.(32) Moreover, the broad range of respondents included would permit an analysis of union formation among middle aged and elderly individuals. NSFF, as with most surveys, gathers scant information about romantic partners who are not yet co-resident.

Studies of high school students, college females, and unmarried mothers

The other primary source of information comes from surveys and qualitative studies specifically designed to consider youthful attitudes and behaviors as they relate to relationships and marriage. Studies of high-school age students, for example, have shown how teenagers feel about marriage and divorce every year since 1975.(33) At least one national study of female college students has been conducted to assess the current dating customs on American college campuses.(34) And intensive research has focused on unmarried women who have just given birth.(35) Other national surveys of high school students exist, though they are limited in the information gathered about romantic and intimate relationships or the dynamics of such relationships with one obvious exception.(36)

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) focuses on an in-school cohort of 7th to 12th graders in 1994 studied through 2001-02.(37) Data were collected from adolescent respondents on best friends, romantic partners, and sexual partners. The sampling design generates many pairings for which both participants are respondents. This allows for the analysis of the process of pair formation and dissolution. Especially valuable is a list of relationship events or characteristics (e.g., where you met, age and race of partner, whether exchanged gifts, whether told others you were a couple, types of sexual expression, etc.) that can be sequenced (allowing one to determine the order of events in relationships). A sample of 1,507 partners of respondents were interviewed at Wave III. The sample consists of one-third married, one-third cohabiting, and one-third dating partners. The available data are for respondents seven or eight years after the first interview - age 18 to 26. As such, a growing number are now approaching the typical ages for transitions into serious romantic (cohabiting or married) relationships. The third wave of Add Health focuses primarily on the pattern of, attitudes about, and influences on transitions. Future waves will be especially valuable for understanding pathways to union formation among young adults.

The indicators included in Add Health serve as a model for how trajectories to union formation might be studied among youths and adults. To do so would require a different sampling design (to capture adults in all stages of the life course) and other significant modifications of administration and follow-up. Still, in my opinion, this is the best model we currently have for how to study pathways to union formation because it explicitly includes romantic and non-residential partners.

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V. What Do We Need to Know?

In light of the extremely limited knowledge we possess about the types of relationships that lead to, or substitute for, marriage, the most pressing need at the moment is to document the variety and nature of such relationships. Having done that, we need to understand the ways various types of relationships develop.

In any attempt to measure and analyze union formation, specific attention must be given to ethnic and cultural differences as these increasingly define our population. Gender differences are of obvious importance. We must also be attentive to pathways to union formation among those in mid or later life. Most divorced people remarry. Many widowed individuals remarry.(38) Each group may have its own patterns of mate selection, and its own pattern of relationships.

In the following section, I propose the information that would be needed and a strategy for obtaining it. Three topical areas of information could be gathered through national data collection efforts, including longitudinal surveys (e.g., NLSY97, SIPP.) First, is information to learn what types of relationships exist and what they are called. Second, is information to characterize those relationships with respect to traits associated with traditional marriage, such as sexual fidelity and the sharing of resources. Third is a sequence of questions measuring the degree of commitment to the relationship. These items follow the logic of Add Health, though they would be suitable for individuals of any age.

What types of relationships exist in America?

For classification purposes, we need to know the names used for contemporary relationships. This will require the use of an open-ended question. This is especially important in light of the ethnic and racial differences in America. It is also of growing interest to those concerned with gay and lesbian partnerships. The following information gathering efforts could identify the types of relationships that currently exist.(39)

  • Asking whether the person is currently involved in a romantic relationship with another person, a man or woman thought of as a steady, a lover, a partner or a relationship by some other name (YES/NO).
  • If yes, following with an open-ended inquiry into the nature of the relationship--what does the person call this relationship and how do they describe it.
  • If no, asking what type of relationship would the person be interested in having at this point in his or her life.

What are the characteristics of these types of relationships?

Once we have identified the different types of relationships and the various ways they are referenced, we turn to gathering information designed to characterize those relationships. I suggest that we do this by focusing on those relationship traits associated with a traditional monogamous marriage. I use traditional monogamous marriage as the reference because it is the most common, and most conventionally regarded end of courtship. As such, these characteristics serve as a useful benchmark, especially when considering how other types of relationships may foster or hinder progression to marriage. It is important to realize that this strategy would permit a researcher to understand any type of intimate relationship, heterosexual or homosexual, marital or otherwise. The choice of marriage as a comparison reference is not meant to imply that all relationships should be compared with marriage. Rather, it is simply an analytic strategy.

While there is no official rulebook for what marriage implies, there are clear consistencies in domestic relations laws, western religious customs, and social convention. In the United States, marriage is a free choice, based upon love. It involves co-residence and sexual fidelity. It is the traditional venue for childbearing. It involves some mixing and sharing of finances. It involves some division of labor in regards the management of tasks. And it involves the adoption of a conspicuous marital identity.(40) The sequence of questions that follows would assess the degree to which each type of relationship resembles this model of marriage.

Below are examples of the types of information that could be gathered on a national panel study. The information could be used to characterize all forms of relationships, marital and non-marital, heterosexual as well as homosexual, in sufficient detail to understand their broad outlines as relationships formed, dissolved, and resolved into new types. Combined with standard demographic information (on most surveys) about the respondent's age, ethnic/racial identity, marital history, fertility history, and sex, it would be possible to locate each relationship type in the life course, and characterize it by its similarity to a traditional model of marriage. For each person having a romantic relationship, one could enquire:

  • Whether person or partner has ever been married to someone else
  • Age, gender and race or ethnic identify of person and partner
  • Whether person's family and partner's family encouraged the relationship
  • Whether person and partner live together
  • Whether person and partner have sexual relations with one another
    If so, whether
    • person and partner have promised to be sexually faithful
    • person and partner are sexually faithful
    • whether person and partner had child together
    • if no then whether person and partner hope some day to have a child together
  • Whether person or partner spends some of the other's money
  • Whether person or partner does some of the other's chores every week
  • Whether person or partner earns enough to live comfortably without the other's income.
  • Whether person or partner have told friends or family about the relationship

Whether person or partner hopes to be together for life

How much commitment exists in each type of relationship?

Here the goal is to understand how contemporary relationships differ in the level of commitment involved. More generally, the concern is to understand how different types of relationships may foster or hinder the type of commitment found in stable marriages or enduring relationships.

In this paper, I focus on the 'exit costs' or the losses anticipated if the relationship were to end as one way of measuring commitment in contemporary relationships. The measures required to capture commitment were developed for the National Survey of Families and Households.(41) The sequence requires the respondent to imagine the consequences of ending his or her relationship for a number of areas of life. The individual who sees absolutely no negative consequence of ending her relationship may be thought to have no commitment to it. Alternatively, that person is independent of the relationship. In either case, the relationship is not likely to withstand the customary challenges faced by couples in the course of a long marriage.

Following efforts to gather information on the nature of the relationship, outlined above, people could be asked about the various areas of their lives that might be different if they separated from their partner, even if they think separation is very unlikely, and whether these areas are much worse, worse, same better, or much better. These areas might include, for example:(42)

  • standard of living
  • social life
  • job opportunities
  • overall happiness
  • sex life
  • being a parent
  • leisure time
  • friendships

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VI. Conclusion

The pathways to union formation are increasingly diverse and occur throughout life. Contemporary understanding of this diversity is limited, especially as it varies by ethnic identity, age, and stage in the life course. Though we know vastly more today about who cohabits, marries, or divorces than we did two or three decades ago, we lack basic information about the variety of relationships that currently exist in America. I recommend that three sequences of questions be developed as outlined above. Including these in nationally representative panel surveys and other national data gathering techniques to routinely collect basic demographic information about the respondent (including marital and fertility history) would allow researchers to a) catalogue the variety of contemporary relationships, b) explore the content of those relationships as they resemble traditional monogamous heterosexual marriage, and c) chart the development of commitment among relationship types and over time. Combined with other information typically gathered in large surveys, it would also be possible to analyze the individual and couple characteristics that are associated with each type of pairing (e.g., income, educational attainment, labor force involvement, etc.). In short, these three categories of information would allow us to chart the pathways to union formation in America.

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(1) See Nock, Steven "Commitment and Dependency in Marriage." Journal of Marriage and the Family. Vol 57:503-514. See also, generally, Steven L. Nock. 1998. Marriage in Men's Lives. New York: Oxford University Press.

(2) The foregoing assertions are, themselves, the subject of debate. The current concern over marriage, for example, is driven by the conviction that marriage changes men and women. Many believe it does. Some believe it does not. More generally, the debate is between those who believe that varying types of relationships affect individuals, and those who believe that different types of relationships are simply the consequence of self-selection. I believe both are true. See Steven L. Nock. 1998. Marriage in Men's Lives. NY: Oxford University Press; "A Comparison of Marriages and Cohabiting Relationships." Journal of Family Issues. Vol. 16 (Jan): 53-76.

(3) Historical accounts of the role of formal and informal law in regulating marriage may be found in Mary Ann Glendon, 1989. The Transformation of Family Law: State, Law, and Family in the United States and Western Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. For an understanding of the role of marriage in social order and the operation of democratic government, see Nancy F. Cott. 2000. Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

(4) Ellen K. Rothman. 1984. Hands and Hearts: A history of courtship in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

(5) See Joseph Kett. 1977 Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present. New York: Basic Books.

(6) Steven L. Nock. 1993. The Costs of Privacy: Surveillance and Reputation in America. NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

(7) John Modell. 1989. Into One's Own: From Youth to Adulthood in the United States, 1920-1975. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

(8) Willard Waller. 1937. "The rating and dating complex." American Sociological Review 2 (October): 727-34.

(9) Modell, op cit. at 102.

(10) Frances K. Goldscheider and Julie DaVanzo. 1980. Pathways to independent living in early adulthood: marriage, semi-autonomy, and premarital residential independence." Demography, 26 (4): 597-614. The historical record shows that many youths moved to and from their parent's home prior to marriage, largely in pursuit of training or apprenticeship (see Joseph Kett1977 Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present. New York: Basic Books.

(11) Lynne M. Casper and Suzanne M. Bianchi. 2002. Continuity and Change in the American Family. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications (at p3).

(12) Whether these are the terms used by most young adults is debatable. Part of the task outlined in this paper is to identify the types of relationships that currently exist, and learn what they are called.

(13) Steven L. Nock. 1993. The Costs of Privacy. NY: Walter de Gruyter, Inc.

(14) Barry R. Chiswick and Teresa A. Sullivan. 1995. The New Immigrants. Pp 211-270 in Reynolds Farley (Ed.) State of the Union: America in the 1990s. New York: The Russell Sage Foundation, at 214.

(15) Steven L. Nock. Marriage in Men's Lives. 1998. New York: Oxford University Press.

(16) Reynolds Farley. 1996. The New American Reality: Who we Are, How we got Here, Where we are Going. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

(17) Casper and Bianchi, 2002.

(18) Nock, Steven L. 2001. "The Marriages of Equally Dependent Spouses." Journal of Family Issues 22 (6):755-775

(19) The "Fragile Families" project under the direction of Sara McLanahan at Princeton has investigated pathways to marriage and cohabitation among unmarried women who have just given birth. See, especially, Marcia Carlson, Sara McLanahan, and Paula England "Union Formation and Dissolution in Fragile Families." See, also, Megan M. Sweeney. 2002. "Two Decades of Family Change: The Shifting Economic Foundations of Marriage." American Sociological Review, 67:132-147 for a summary and review of related works.

(20)William Julius Wilson. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, The Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

(21) Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 US 479 (1965). Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438 (1972)

(22) See Lawrence, et al. v Texas. 200 US 321 (2003)

(23) Laumann, Edward O., John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael, and Stuart Michaels. 1994. The Social Organization of Sexuality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

(24) 1972-1998 General Social Surveys.

(25) U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, Vital Statistics of the United States, annual, National Vital Statistics Reports; see also Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1998, Table 157.

(26) U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1999. Marital Status and Living Arrangements: March 1998. CPS. Table 1.

(27) U.S. Bureau of the Census. 2002.

(28) Larry Bumpass and Hsien-Hen Lu. 2000. "Trends in cohabitation and implications for children's family contexts in the United States." Population Studies, 54:29-41.

(29) See Judith A. Seltzer. 2000. "Families Formed Outside Marriage." Journal of Marriage and the Family 62: 1247-68 for a review of literature and findings in these areas.

(30) There are rare exceptions. In the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth (original 1979 cohort and the current cohort) and the National Survey of Families and Households, for example, information about the non-resident parent is gathered, albeit with severe omissions.


(32) See, for a review, Judith A. Seltzer. 2001. "Families formed outside of marriage." Journal of Marriage and the Family 62 (4): 1247-68.

(33) The primary source is Monitoring the Future. Each year since 1975, approximately 50,000 high school students have been surveyed on a range of issues, including attitudes and beliefs about marriage and related issues See also,, 1993. Robert Bella, Ed, America's Youth in the 1990s . Princeton, NJ: The George H. Gallup International Institute.

(34) Norval Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt. 2001. Hooking up, hanging out, and Hoping for Mr. Right: College Women on Dating and Mating Today. Institute for American Values.

(35) See, for example, the "Fragile Families" project under the direction of Sara McLanahan at Princeton has investigated pathways to marriage and cohabitation among unmarried women who have just given birth.

(36) See, for example, the National Educational Longitudinal Survey of 1988 ( or the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (


(38) National Center for Health Statistics. Centers for Disease Control. 2002. "Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States." Series Report 23, Number 22.

(39) This sequence is adapted from the General Social Survey. The open-ended question might be administered once in a national survey. Once this has been done, subsequent research using the additional questions outlined (below) could offer respondents a list of relationship options from which they could select one.

(40) See Steven L. Nock. 1998. Marriage in Men's Lives. NY: Oxford University Press for a discussion of the agreed-upon dimensions of American marriage.

(41) Alpha reliabilities vary depending on samples. However, the commitment measure routinely generates alphas in the range of .79 to .83.

(42) This sequence is based on the National Survey of Families and Households, Wave 2. for cohabiting partners, and for married partners.

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