Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns. Directions for Future Research


We end this report with a few thoughts on promising directions for future research. As reported in Chapter II, our analysis of MTF data indicates that the likelihood of dating among high school students has declined substantially in recent years. As noted in that chapter, it is possible that this decline represents a change in adolescent vocabulary rather than a change in adolescent behavior. In particular, what the term “dating” means to teens may have changed over time, which may have contributed to the decline in the proportion who report that they date. Future research using more qualitative methods could examine whether this is indeed the case. In addition, if teenage dating is in fact declining, additional research could further an understanding of the reasons for this decline and what its implications may be for the likelihood that today’s adolescents will go on to form serious romantic relationships and marry as adults. Our examination of MTF data also reveals evidence that high school students may be delaying sexual activity until later in high school. It would be helpful to examine whether other national data sets, preferably those that include all teenagers (not just those enrolled in school), confirm this pattern. If this pattern is confirmed, future research could explore more fully how and why patterns of teenage sexual activity have changed in recent years.

As noted in Chapter III, the best data on teenage attitudes toward marriage come from the MTF study. However, these data refer only to high school students and do not include the substantial fraction of teens that have dropped out of school. Better information on general attitudes toward marriage that includes all teens, including high school dropouts, would be useful. In addition, future studies could examine how teens’ general attitudes toward marriage relate to their later relationship outcomes in adulthood. In particular, future research could explore how changing adolescent attitudes toward cohabitation may be influencing cohabitation and marriage trends among young adults. Recent studies have found that teens’ early experiences with romantic relationships can have long-term consequences for their chances of forming and sustaining healthy adult marriage (Raley et al. 2007). However, there is less evidence linking teens’ general attitudes toward cohabitation and marriage with their adult relationship outcomes. Research in this area is important for determining whether adolescent relationship skills programs can influence adult relationship outcomes by focusing on teens’ attitudes toward marriage.

In Chapter IV, we report findings based on data from the 2005 wave of the NLSY97 that indicate that cohabiting and married young adults report very similar levels of relationship quality. As noted in that chapter, this result differs from the findings of previous research, which has found that cohabitors tend to have poorer relationship quality than couples who are married (Nock 1995). It would be helpful to use other data, including future waves of the NLSY97, to explore this result further and determine whether there has been a generational shift in this pattern.

Finally, future research in this area could explore more rigorously how teens’ attitudes, expectations, and circumstances influence their later relationship outcomes as adults. The evidence presented in this report is based primarily on descriptive analysis that examines how adolescents’ attitudes and relationship experiences differ across groups defined by various demographic and personal characteristics. These methods provide a useful description of the attitudes and relationship experiences of U.S. adolescents; however, additional research using more rigorous research methods would help to determine whether there are causal links between teens’ early relationship experiences and attitudes and their relationship pathways as adults. As additional waves of the NLSY97 become available that follow this cohort further into adulthood, this more detailed analysis of the link between teenage attitudes and experiences and adult relationship outcomes will become more fruitful.

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