Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns. Contents


Marriage patterns in the United States have changed substantially in recent decades. People are marrying later in life than they did 40 years ago and young adults today are spending more time unmarried than earlier generations did (Schoen and Standish 2001; Fields 2004). Over this same period, cohabitation and nonmarital childbearing have become increasingly common (Bumpass and Lu 2000; Chandra et al. 2005; Martin et al. 2007). These shifts in marriage patterns have sparked considerable interest among researchers and policymakers, as well as some concern about their potential social impact-in particular, their possible adverse effects on the well-being of children (McLanahan and Sandefur 1994; Amato 2001).

In this report, we examine some of the potential precursors of these changes in adult marriage patterns. In particular, we examine the experiences and attitudes of teenagers, in order to gain a better understanding of factors that may influence their views of marriage and their relationship choices in adulthood. We focus on teenagers’ initial exposure to and experiences with romantic relationships and marriage, as well as their general attitudes toward marriage. We also examine marriage and relationship patterns among a recent cohort of young adults and identify factors in adolescence associated with the likelihood of choosing various relationship pathways in early adulthood. Previous research has examined the factors that put teens at risk for early involvement in sexual activity (Kirby 2007). However, there is less evidence concerning teens’ attitudes toward marriage and their more general experience with romantic relationships and dating (Crouter and Booth 2006; Florsheim 2003; Karney et al. 2007; Giordano 2003).

The information provided in this report is useful for several reasons. First, trends in teenage attitudes toward marriage can provide an indication of whether current trends in adult marriage patterns are likely to continue. In addition, information on teen romantic relationships is an important indicator of adolescent health and well-being, as national surveys of teens consistently show that issues surrounding romantic relationships and sexual activity are among adolescents’ biggest concerns (Kaiser Family Foundation 2003). Finally, the growing interest in marriage and relationship skills programs that serve adolescents has created a need for improved research evidence concerning teens’ romantic relationships and attitudes toward marriage (Karney et al. 2007). This information can help program developers design relationship and marriage education programs that are age-appropriate and in tune with the experiences of today’s youth. It can also help policymakers and program operators better assess the needs of teens in their communities and choose program models that are most appropriate for the teens they serve.

This report adds to the research evidence on teens’ romantic relationships and attitudes toward marriage. Drawing on data from four large national surveys, the report provides new research evidence on teens’ experience with romantic relationships, their attitudes and expectations concerning romantic relationships and marriage, and their relationship outcomes during the transition to young adulthood. The specific questions addressed in the report fall into three broad categories:

  1. What experiences do teens bring to the issues of romantic relationships and marriage? What kinds of families do they come from? What is their parents’ marital status? How do the teens perceive the quality of their parents’ relationships? How common is it for teens to date and how has their dating behavior changed over time? What is the quality of their dating relationships? How does this vary by gender, race/ethnicity, and socio-economic status?
  2. What are teens’ attitudes and expectations concerning romantic relationships and marriage? What are their attitudes toward marriage, cohabiting, divorce, and single parenthood? How likely do teens think it is that they will marry in the next five to six years? How have these attitudes and expectations changed over time? How do these attitudes and expectations vary by gender, race/ethnicity, and socio-economic status?
  3. What are the typical relationship pathways of young adults in the years after high school? What percentage of young adults marry or cohabit by the time they are in their early to mid-20s? How many enter serious, committed relationships by this point? How do the relationship pathways of young adults vary by gender, race/ethnicity, and socio-economic status?

The report is intended for a broad audience, including the developers and operators of teen relationship skills programs, policymakers, and academic researchers. Most of our analysis is descriptive, with results presented in illustrative tables and figures that highlight the main patterns and trends. In addition to presenting new research findings, the report reviews and discusses evidence from other recent studies of adolescent relationships and attitudes.

In the remainder of this chapter, we briefly review prior research evidence concerning adolescent romantic relationships and describe the data sources and methods we use in our analyses. We end the chapter by outlining the remainder of the report.

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