Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns. Summary of Main Results


In this chapter, we have used data from the 2005 wave of the NLSY97 to examine the romantic relationships of our NLSY97 sample members in early adulthood, when they were 21 to 24 years old. We find that most of these young adults were in a romantic relationship in their early 20s, but relatively few were married. Cohabitation was much more common than marriage for these young adults, with 39 percent having cohabited at some point, compared with 18 percent who had ever married. Young adults in cohabiting relationships tended to rate their relationship quality as high and reported relationship quality levels similar to those of young adults who were married. Even so, transitions out of cohabiting relationships were more common than transitions out of marriage. About a third of sample members who had ever cohabited were neither cohabiting nor married at the time of the 2005 interview. In contrast, only about 1 in 10 of those who had ever married was no longer married at this point.

We find that the likelihood of marriage and cohabitation varies substantially across different groups of young adults. In particular, women are much more likely than men to marry and cohabit in early adulthood, reflecting the pattern that women often marry at younger ages than men do and often form romantic relationships with men who are somewhat older than they are. We also find that African Americans are less likely than other racial and ethnic groups to marry or cohabit in young adulthood. The likelihood of marriage and cohabitation for young adults also varies by their family structure growing up. For example, those who grew up with a single never-married parent are particularly unlikely to marry as young adults. We also find that those who lived with two married biological parents as teens are less likely than other teens to cohabit as young adults. Finally, we find that the likelihood of cohabitation among young adults is associated with certain adolescent risk behaviors (in particular, early sexual activity and dropping out of school); however, the likelihood of marriage is not.

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