Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Substitution Hypothesis: The Impact of Premarital Liasions and Human Capital on Marital Timing

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Substitution Hypothesis: The Impact of Premarital Liasions and Human Capital on Marital Timing

Article excerpt

Nonmarital romantic and sexual relationships occur concurrently with the human capital acquisition process and contribute to delaying or forgoing marriage. Event history analysis is used to model the marital hazard rate of 341 White women born between 1960 and 1963 in a Western metropolitan area. In addition to family background, adolescent characteristics, and employment and educational histories, the structure of the women's premarital liaisons is shown to play an important role in the timing of first marriage. The greater a woman's involvement in nonmarital romantic and sexual activity, the less likely she is to be married by age 27-30. Human capital characteristics and the dynamics of relationship histories operate independently to explain marital timing. This supports the theory that women substitute premarital liaisons for marriage early in the adult life course. However, there is no evidence that highly educated women, or those who are students, are more or less likely to do so than others.

Key Words: human capital, marital timing, premarital relationships.

Current demographic trends reveal that marital delay is on the rise: Between 1960 and 1990, the median age of first marriage among women in the United States increased from 20.3 to 23.9; 32% of women 25-29 had never married in 1990 (Spain & Bianchi, 1996). Much of this increase has been attributed to the explosion of previously restricted educational and occupational opportunities that may compete with traditional social roles as wives and mothers. In the last 30 years, the magnitude of change in women's economic opportunities is matched only by the proliferation of partnering choices available to young American women. The society has gone from almost universal and early marriage to a structure that defies easy explanation. The structure of relationship opportunities include: marriage, cohabitation, long-- term noncohabitational relationships, short-term noncohabitational relationships, overlapping romantic involvements, casual dating, casual sex, abstinence and noninvolvement, and combinations of any of the above. Indeed, it is possible to imagine any one woman experiencing each of these partnering types over the course of her life (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1995). This article tests a substitution hypothesis whereby women use premarital liaisons to obtain the sexual and companionship benefits of marriage while avoiding the commitment costs that marriage tends to entail.

Early sexual debut (Hofferth, Kahn, & Baldwin, 1987) and later marriage mean that an increasing amount of women's romantic and sexual behavior occurs prior to marriage. Therefore, to be faithful to the current historical context, models of marital timing must include sexual and romantic behavior in addition to accounting for young women's expanded human capital activity. There is no reason to assume-as many studies do-that all romantic and sexual behavior by women is a precursor to marriage. This study examines the effect of young women's premarital liaisons on their marital timing and controlling for their human capital attainment.


Human Capital Theory

Broadly defined, human capital theory addresses how economic resources or the ability to garner economic resources affect outcomes, including marriage. Human capital is an individual-level characteristic representing education, training, and experience that can be converted into wages and other economic benefits in the labor force. First elaborated theoretically by Becker (1964), human capital develops differentially according to the socioeconomic status of one's family of origin. Modern theories of marriage timing take account of economic and social conditions in varying ways. For example, models to explain marriage timing during the early Post-War period emphasize family socioeconomic and structural effects. Because these models need to explain why most people married within a narrow and early age range, it makes sense that family origin is reasoned to be of preeminent importance: Few women pursued higher education, careers, or had lovers that would have an impact on marriage timing. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.