Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Informal Unions in Mexico and the United States

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Informal Unions in Mexico and the United States

Article excerpt

The dramatic rise in cohabitation in the United States and other Western industrial societies has raised substantial debate regarding the future of marriage and the well-being of children in non-legal unions or relationships (Batalova and Cohen, 2002). In many Latin American countries, however, there is a long tradition of couples living in unions without formal legal sanction (Castro Martin, 2002). These consensual unions have been seen as an alternative to legal marriage rather than a fundamentally different type of relationship. Although studies have directly compared patterns of cohabitation across developed nations (Heuveline and Timberlake, 2004) and across Latin America and the Caribbean (Castro Martin, 2002: De Vos, 1999) little research has directly compared union or relationship status in the two types of settings. To this end, we compare union status and stability in the neighboring countries of the United States and Mexico: one representing a more developed industrial country and the other representing Latin America.

Cohabitation in the US.

Marriage rates in the U.S. have declined since the 1970s, yet couples continue to form relationships at about the same rate as before, although more are informal cohabiting unions rather than formal marriage (Bumpass and Sweet, 1989). More than half of first unions in the 1990s began as cohabiting relationships; and even following divorce, couples are more likely to cohabit than they are to marry (Bumpass and Sweet, 1989; Bumpass and Lu, 2000). In the 1960s and early 70s, cohabitation was viewed as outside the mainstream of normative family relationships. It then increased dramatically as a family form beginning in the early 1980s in the United States. There were 1.3 million cohabiting couples in the U.S. in 1978, which increased to 3.0 million in 1988, and to 4.9 million in 1998 (Bianchi and Casper, 2000). This increase in cohabitation occurred across all race and ethnic groups and education levels (Bumpass and Lu, 2000).

In general non-Hispanic Whites in the U.S. have lived traditionally in nuclear families with marriage as the primary setting forchildbearing (Manning and Landale, 1996). Cohabitation is relatively short-lived among whites, with over half of their cohabiting unions ending in marriage (Schoen and Owens, 1992). Among whites, legal marriage is still the primary family form with cohabitation generally extending the courtship process prior to marriage. Black and Puerto Rican women are more likely to cohabit than white women in the U.S. Thus, for white women cohabitation is more of a prelude to marriage, in contrast to black and especially Puerto Rican women, for whom it serves more as an alternative to marriage (Bumpass et al., 1991 ;Landale and Forste, 1991;LoomisandLandale, 1994; Oppenheimer, 1988).

Half of all individuals aged 35 to 39 in the U.S. have cohabited (Waite and Gallagher, 2000). The formation of cohabiting unions generally peaks before age 40, begins to decline during middle-age, and is least prevalent among the elderly; although there is some evidence that cohabitation rates are beginning to increase among the elderly (Chevan, 1996). Union formation also varies by residential location. Nonmetropolitan women (as compared to metropolitan women) are more likely to begin a union at younger ages, and nonmetro women are also more likely to marry than to cohabit as a first union (Snyder, Brown and Condo, 2004).

In terms of socio-economic status, those with low-incomes and the less educated in the U.S. are more likely to cohabit than they are to marry (Seltzer, 2000; Clarkberg, et al., 1995; Manning and Smock, 1995). High earnings and education increase the likelihood that individuals marry. In contrast, job instability and low education are associated more with cohabitation than marriage (Clarkberg, 1999; Thornton, et al., 1995; Oppenheimer, 2003). In the U.S. living in poverty is associated with cohabitation among some subgroups of the population such as single mothers and the elderly (Moffitt, et al. …

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