The Influence of Union Transitions on White Adults' Attitudes toward Cohabitation

By Cunningham, Mick; Thornton, Arland | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 2005 | Go to article overview

The Influence of Union Transitions on White Adults' Attitudes toward Cohabitation


Cunningham, Mick, Thornton, Arland, Journal of Marriage and Family


Data from the Intergenerational Panel Study of Parents and Children are used to identify the influences of adult union transitions on changes in attitudes toward cohabitation among a sample of 794 young adults. The analysis examines the extent to which attitudes about cohabitation change as a result of entry into and exit from cohabitation and marriage. A dynamic interpretation of union transitions is formulated, and results demonstrate that entry into a first cohabitation and divorce after direct entry into marriage are associated with increasingly positive attitudes toward cohabitation between the ages of 18 and 31. Some evidence suggests that direct entry into stable marriage leads young adults to view cohabitation less favorably.

Key Words: attitudes, cohabitation, divorce, life course, marriage.

Rising rates of cohabitation and divorce imply that the experience of contemporary family life is marked by an increasing number of union transitions for many young adults. The majority of individuals in the United States continue to marry, but individuals are also likely to cohabit, dissolve a cohabitation, or divorce. Despite extensive evidence about the incidence of union formation and dissolution experiences, we know relatively little about the way that union transitions influence individuals' attitudes about family life. Research conducted by Lesthaeghe and colleagues in Europe suggests that union transitions are strongly associated with value orientations, although much of this research is based on cross-sectional data (Lesthaeghe & Moors, 2002; Surkyn & Lesthaeghe, 2002). The current investigation draws on longitudinal data to demonstrate how the type and sequence of union transitions influence attitudes toward family life. We focus specifically on attitudes toward cohabitation, in part because cohabitation rates have increased dramatically in recent decades and in part because cohabitation has been associated with increased levels of marital instability among cohabitors who subsequently marry (Booth & Johnson, 1988; Bumpass & Lu, 2000; Dush, Cohan, & Amato, 2003).

The central goal of the current paper is to identify influences of union transitions during adulthood on attitudes toward cohabitation. Previous research has considered the influence of entry into cohabitation on cohabitation attitudes (Axinn & Thornton, 1993), but we also examine the influences of exit from cohabitation, entry into marriage, and divorce. The data demands for such an investigation have presented a significant barrier to this kind of study to date, requiring prospectively designed panel data spanning long periods of time. One data set, which approximates these characteristics, is the Intergenerational Panel Study of Parents and Children. These panel data, which provide information about young adults and their parents spanning 31 years, allow us to identify influences associated with multiple types of union transitions on cohabitation attitudes in a probability sample of individuals who reached adulthood in 1980.

We begin our investigation by discussing potential theoretical mechanisms through which union transitions might influence attitudes toward cohabitation. After introducing our data and analysis strategy, we present a set of multivariate models designed to identify the influences of union transitions on change in attitudes about cohabitation during young adulthood.

BACKGROUND AND HYPOTHESES

Although only 10% of marriages between 1965 and 1974 were preceded by cohabitation, approximately 50% of first marriages between 1990 and 1994 were preceded by cohabitation (Bumpass & Lu, 2000; Bumpass & Sweet, 1989). In addition to recent increases in the incidence of cohabitation, the proportion of people expressing favorable attitudes toward cohabitation has also risen (Thornton & Young-DeMarco, 2001). Our central hypothesis is that experiences with particular union transitions will shape individuals' views about the acceptability of cohabitation.

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