Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns. ASPE Research Brief.. Teens’ Experiences with Romantic Relationships and Marriage


Almost two-thirds of teens live with married parents and about half live with their married biological parents.  Teens generally consider their parents’ marriages to be of high quality.

Teens’ expectations of what a romantic relationship should be are undoubtedly influenced by the romantic relationships of their parents. Teens live in a mix of family structures, but most live with married parents. Among the 15- to 18-year olds in our National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97) sample, 63 percent lived with married parents — 50 percent with both their biological parents and 13 percent with a parent who had remarried (Figure 1).1  About one in four lived with a single parent. Fewer than 1 in 10 lived with neither biological parent. African American teens are much less likely to live with two married biological parents than are teens from other racial and ethnic groups. Among the teens in our sample, 24 percent of African American teens lived with both their married biological parents, compared with 55 percent of white teens and 50 percent of Hispanic teens.

Figure 1
Family Composition of Teens Ages 15 to 18
Who Do Teens Live With?

Figure 1. Family Composition of Teens Ages 15 to 18 Who Do Teens Live With? See text for explanation of pie chart.

Source:  National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97), 1999 wage.

Teens may be influenced not only by their parents’ relationship status but also by the quality of their parents’ relationship. Most teens view their parents’ marriage positively. When asked about a range of behaviors, such as compromising, showing affection, and avoiding criticism, almost 60 percent of the teens in our sample rated their parents as usually or always showing these positive behaviors. Only 7 percent gave responses that suggested that they considered their parents to have a low quality or troubled marriage. These patterns were highly consistent across racial, ethnic, and income groups. However, girls tended to view their parents’ relationship somewhat more negatively than boys did. In addition, teenagers living with a remarried parent reported that their parents had somewhat lower marital quality than those living with married biological parents.

Teens with estranged parents hold less positive views of the quality of their parents’ relationship than teens with married parents do. Most teens report that their estranged parents have mixed or unfriendly relations or have no contact with each other. However, these perceptions vary depending on whether the parents were ever married to each other. Teens with divorced parents report that their parents have more contact than teens with estranged, never-married parents do. However, divorced parents are seen as less friendly toward one another than never-married parents are.

Almost all teens date at some point; however, teenage dating has become less common in recent years.  In addition, teens appear to be delaying sexual activity more than they did 15 years ago.

Experiences with romantic relationships in adolescence may form important precursors to relationship outcomes in adulthood. Most teens date at some point. Among teens in our NLSY97 sample, 74 percent of 15 year olds reported they had dated (Figure 2). Among 18 year olds, almost all (94 percent) reported having dated. Sexual activity is much less common than dating, but is relatively common among older teens. Among 15 year olds, 22 percent reported having had sexual intercourse. Among 18 year olds, 65 percent reported that they had had sex.

Figure 2
Teen Dating and Sexual Activity, by Age

Figure 2 Teen Dating and Sexual Activity, by Age. See text for explanation of chart.

Source: National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97), 1999 Wave.

Patterns of teen dating and sexual activity vary across racial and ethnic groups. White teens are somewhat more likely to date than other teens are, whereas African American teens are somewhat less likely. Sexual activity follows a different pattern. Among teens in our sample, 41 percent of whites and 45 percent of Hispanics reported having had sex, compared with 59 percent of African American teens.

The likelihood that high school students date regularly has declined in recent years. Data from the Monitoring the Future (MTF) study indicate that the percentage of high school seniors who say they date has dropped from 86 percent in 1990 to 73 percent in 2006. The likelihood of sexual activity also fell somewhat in recent years — although less dramatically than the likelihood of dating. According to data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, in 1991, 67 percent of 12th graders reported they had ever had sex, compared with 63 percent in 2005. A clearer trend emerges for all teens in high school. In 1991, approximately 54 percent of high school teens reported having had sex, compared with 47 percent in 2005. This larger decline in sexual activity for all high school students relative to 12th graders alone suggests that some teens may be delaying sexual activity until later in high school.

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