Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns. How Do Young Adults Rate the Quality of Their Romantic Relationships?


It is not only the type of romantic relationship, but also the quality of those relationships, that has important implications for young adults. Those in troubled or conflicted relationships may experience negative repercussions, such as compromised psychological and even physical health. Marital quality, typically the focus of past research, has been linked with mental health, cardiovascular health, and immune functioning (Choi and Marks 2008; Kiecolt-Glaser and Newton 2001; Proulx, Helms, and Buehler 2007).

In this section, we examine the way in which the young adults in our sample rated the quality of their romantic relationships. We examine how those who are married, cohabiting, and dating rated their relationships and how these perceptions of relationship quality vary by gender and by racial and ethnic groups. In the 2005 wave of the NLSY97, respondents who were married, cohabiting, or dating were asked to rate their relationship on a 0-to-10 scale in terms of closeness, commitment, caring, and conflict.(5) To create a single measure of relationship quality, we averaged these four responses to create a relationship quality index that ranged from 0 to 10, with 10 indicating the highest quality relationships.

  • Young adults typically rate their relationship quality as high. Relationship quality is similar for cohabitors and those who are married.

Married and cohabiting young adults generally consider their relationships to be of high quality. For both those who were married and those who were cohabiting, the average reported quality rating was 8.8 out of 10 (Table IV.1). The ratings of those who were cohabiting and those who were married were also very similar when we examined responses to each of the four questions that make up the relationship quality scale separately. This result is somewhat at odds with past research, which has found that cohabitors tend to have poorer relationship quality than couples who are married (Nock 1995).

Table IV.1
Average Relationship Quality Rating Among Young Adults Ages 21 to 24,
by Relationship Type and Race/Ethnicity
  All White African American Hispanic

Source: NLSY97, 2005 wave.

Note: Figures represent the average response to four questions in which respondents were asked to rate four aspects of relationship quality on a 0-to-10 scale. Higher scores represent higher quality relationships. See text for more details.

For all racial/ethnic groups presented, the differences in the average quality rating between those who are married and those who are cohabiting is not statistically significant. For all racial/ethnic groups presented, the differences in the average quality rating between daters and cohabitors and between daters and those who are married is statistically significant.

* Difference between this group and other racial/ethnic groups statistically significant at the .05 level.

Daters 8.1 8.2* 7.9* 8.1
Cohabitors 8.8 8.8* 8.6 8.6*
Married 8.8 8.9* 8.5* 8.6*

We offer two possible explanations for the similarity in reported relationship quality between couples who are married and those who are cohabiting, even though earlier research has found substantial differences in relationship quality between these two groups. First, given the youth of the sample, many of these young adults may be cohabiting to “try out” their relationship with someone they are considering marrying. Past work has found that cohabitors with plans to marry have similar relationship quality to those who are already married (Brown and Booth 1996). The NLSY97 does not ask the marital intentions of all cohabitors, so we were not able to test this possibility with our sample. Second, these results may indicate a generational shift. As cohabitation becomes more common and accepted, it is possible that those who cohabit may have higher relationship quality than past cohabitors. Recent work, however, suggests that cohabitation is far more likely to end than marriage, even among younger people (for example, Osborne et al. 2007) and may be becoming less stable over time (Bumpass and Lu 2000). Thus, even if relationship quality is converging for cohabiting and married young adults, this may not translate into greater stability for cohabitors.

  • Young adults who are dating report lower relationship quality than those who are married or cohabiting.

Young adults who are dating rate their relationship quality somewhat lower than married and cohabiting young adults do. Their relationship quality responses averaged 8.1 out of 10, compared to 8.8 for married and cohabiting adults (Table IV.1). We also examined relationship quality, omitting the question on commitment, because this question was asked somewhat differently for those who were dating.(6) The gap between married and cohabiting young adults and daters narrowed somewhat but remained statistically significant, with an average rating of 8.0 for daters and 8.5 for the married and cohabiting (not shown). Thus, it is not just the level of commitment that distinguishes the relationship quality of daters from that of married and cohabiting young adults. Given the more casual nature of dating, it is not surprising that the reported quality is somewhat lower than for married or cohabiting adults.

Across all relationship types, relationship quality ratings were very similar for men and women (not shown). They differed somewhat by racial and ethnic groups, however. In particular, white young adults rated their relationship quality more highly than young adults in other racial and ethnic groups did (Table IV.1).

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