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


Adolescence is a crucial time for physical and emotional development and may be a pivotal stage in the formation of ideas about intimacy and marriage. Some research suggests that the foundation for healthy, high quality marriage is shaped during adolescence (Karney et al. 2007). Teens’ expectations of what a romantic relationship should be are undoubtedly influenced by the romantic relationships of their parents or guardians. Many also begin to explore their own romantic or intimate unions through dating and sexual activity. These experiences, both positive and negative, may form the basis for later attitudes and behaviors.

In this chapter, we examine teens’ initial exposure to and experiences with romantic relationships and marriage. We focus first on teens’ family characteristics. We examine the family structure in which teens are being raised, which past research has consistently linked with later outcomes, such as marriage, divorce, and nonmarital births (Teachman 2002; Thornton 1991; Wu and Martinson 1993). Teens’ attitudes and expectations may be influenced not only by the structure of their families, but also by the quality of their parents’ relationship (compare Buehler et al. 2007). For this reason, we also examine teens’ perceptions of the quality of their parents’ relationship with each other.

Next, we discuss teens’ early romantic relationships. These relationships may lay the groundwork for later unions, as teens develop their identities as romantic partners and decide what they want from these and future relationships. Past work has typically focused relatively little on youths’ relationships and has instead primarily focused on their sexual activity (Karney et al. 2007). We examine both, since research has shown both are related to short- and long-term outcomes including academic achievement, mental health, and marriage (Giordano et al. 2008; Joyner and Udry 2000; Raley et al. 2007). We analyze teens’ reports of whether they have dated or had sexual intercourse and how the prevalence of these behaviors have changed over the past few decades. In all analyses, we highlight any substantial differences between groups based on race/ethnicity, gender, income, and geographic location.

For these analyses, we rely primarily on data from the NLSY97, which provides detailed information on family composition and some aspects of teens’ romantic relationships. In Chapter IV, we also will use data from the NLSY97 to track youth over time, examining how these early experiences relate to later relationships. In this chapter, we supplement the NLSY97 analyses with results from other data sources that offer complementary information on teens’ relationships. The use of sources other than the NLSY97 is noted in text and tables.

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