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

View full report


"papers.pdf" (pdf, 639.68Kb)

Note: Documents in PDF format require the Adobe Acrobat Reader®. If you experience problems with PDF documents, please download the latest version of the Reader®