Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns. Marriage Attitudes and Early Romantic Relationships

10/01/2008

As described in the previous chapter, most teens have some experience with romantic relationships and dating by the time they reach late adolescence. In the 2006 MTF study, nearly three-quarters of high school seniors reported having ever dated, and 65 percent of 18-year-olds in the NLSY97 reported having had sexual intercourse. In this section, we examine how these early experiences with dating and sexual activity relate to teens’ attitudes and expectations concerning marriage.

The data for this section come from two different sources. The MTF study collects information on high school students’ dating experience but not on their experience with sexual activity. By contrast, the NSFG collects information on sexual activity but not on dating experience. Therefore, we use the MTF study to examine the association between dating experience and high school students’ attitudes toward marriage and the NSFG to examine the association between teenage sexual activity and attitudes.

  • High school students who date regularly have more positive attitudes toward marriage; they are also more accepting of cohabitation.

Data from the 2006 MTF study suggest that high school students who are dating regularly have more positive views of marriage. For example, the percentage of students who said that having a good marriage and family life was either “quite important” or “extremely important” to them was higher for those who reported dating at least two or three times a month (94 percent) than for those who reported dating once a month or less (89 percent; Figure III.9). Students who reported dating regularly were also more likely than other students to say they expect to get married at some point (86 versus 76 percent). Dating experience was also associated with greater support for cohabitation. When asked whether it is usually a good idea for couples to live together before marriage, the percentage of students who expressed support for cohabitation was higher for those who reported dating at least two or three times a month (67 percent) than for those who reported dating once a month or less (59 percent).


Figure III.9
High School Seniors’ Attitudes and Expectations Concerning Marriage,
by Dating Experience

Figure III.9 High School Seniors' Attitudes and Expectations Concerning Marriage, by Dating Experience. See text for explanation of chart.

Source: 2006 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey.

* Difference is statistically significant at the .05 level.


This correlation between dating and attitudes is generally consistent with the findings of prior research (Crissey 2005). However, it does not necessarily imply that teens’ attitudes toward marriage are fully determined by their early dating experiences. For example, another possibility is that teens with little interest in marriage do not make as much effort to date. The correlation between dating and attitudes may also reflect personality differences among teens. For example, teens with more outgoing, confident personalities may be more likely to date than other teens and also be more likely to expect to get married.

  • Teens’ attitudes toward marriage are similar regardless of their experience with sexual activity. However, support for both cohabitation and nonmarital childbearing is higher among sexually active teens.

Data from the 2002 NSFG show that teens’ general attitudes toward marriage are not related to their early experience with sexual activity. As described earlier in this chapter, when asked whether it is better for a person to get married than to go through life being single, 64 percent of all teens in the NSFG agreed that it is better to get married (Figure III.1, above). This level of support for marriage was similar for teens who had previously had sexual intercourse and those who had never had sex (not shown).

However, when asked about their attitudes toward nonmarital childbearing, 66 percent of sexually active teens agreed that it is acceptable for an unmarried female to have a child, compared with 48 percent of teens who had never had sex (not shown). This difference was statistically significant at the 5 percent level. Teens who had previously had sexual intercourse were also more likely than other teens to approve of cohabitation before marriage (not shown). These findings suggest that, although sexually active teens are just as likely as other teens to express support for marriage, they are less likely to see marriage as a necessary first step before having a child or living with someone.

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