Indicators of Child, Family, and Community Connections, Companion Volume of Related Papers. 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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