Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns. Executive Summary.. Research Methods


No single national data set includes all of the information needed to assess teens’ early experiences with romantic relationships, their attitudes and expectations concerning romantic relationships and marriage, and their relationship outcomes in young adulthood. Therefore, for this report, we draw on data from four different sources:

  1. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97). With a large sample of youth and annual survey waves, the NLSY97 is well suited for an analysis of the experiences and attitudes of teens and young adults. For this analysis, we focus on two waves of the NLSY97. We use data from the 1999 wave to describe the family circumstances and early relationship experiences of a nationally representative cohort of teens who were 15 to 18 years old at the time of the survey. We also use the 2005 wave of the NLSY97 to examine the dating, cohabitation, and marriage patterns of this same cohort of young people when they were young adults between the ages of 21 and 24.
  2. Monitoring the Future (MTF). Unfortunately, no data set currently tracks marriage attitudes and expectations for a nationally representative sample of teenagers. However, the MTF study tracks these items for a nationally representative sample of high school seniors. Since the mid-1970s, the MTF study has conducted an annual survey of a nationally representative sample of high school seniors. The survey includes a broad range of questions concerning high school students’ attitudes toward marriage, allowing us to track changes in these attitudes over time.
  3. The 2002 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). Additional information on teens’ attitudes toward marriage comes from the NSFG, a nationally representative survey of members of the non-institutionalized U.S. population between the ages of 15 and 44. For this report, we used data for the subsample of respondents ages 15 to 18.
  4. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). The YRBS is a large, ongoing survey of high school students designed to monitor adolescent health risk behaviors. For this report, we used information from the YRBS on trends in sexual activity among high school students.

This report is intended for a broad audience, including the developers and operators of teen relationship skills programs, policymakers, and those with a more general interest in the well-being of adolescents. Most of our analysis is descriptive, with results presented in illustrative tables and figures. In addition to presenting our original research findings, in a few cases, we review evidence from other recent studies of adolescent relationships and attitudes when that helps to complete the picture of what is currently known.

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