Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Changing Institution of Marriage: Adolescents' Expectations to Cohabit and to Marry

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Changing Institution of Marriage: Adolescents' Expectations to Cohabit and to Marry

Article excerpt

Cohabitation has become part of the pathway toward marriage. Prior work focuses on expectations to marry and has ignored cohabitation. Although most young adults are not replacing marriage with cohabitation, but instead cohabit and then marry, it is important to study adolescents' joint expectations to cohabit as well as marry. Our analyses draw on recently collected data from the Toledo Adolescent Relationships Study (N = 1,293). We find that adolescents are less certain about their cohabitation than marriage expectations. Dating and sexual experience, traditional values, prosocial activities, and parents influence adolescents' union formation expectations. The findings from this work suggest that adolescents are including cohabitation as part of their future life trajectories but rarely envision cohabitation as substituting for marriage.

Key Words: adolescence, cohabitation, intergenerational, union formation, youth/emergent adulthood.

The traditional pattern of courtship in contemporary American society progresses from dating to engagement and then to marriage. In recent years, however, this progression has become more complex. Increasingly, couples move from dating to living together, which then may or may not lead to marriage (Bumpass & Lu, 2000). The majority of recently married young adults have cohabited first and have then married (Bumpass, 1998) suggesting that this is the contemporary path into marriage. The increase in cohabitation is tied to growing social acceptance of cohabitation, with young adults who approve of cohabitation more likely to do so (Axinn & Thornton, 1993). Building on prior research on adult expectations and union formation experiences, we focus on an earlier stage in the life course and ask adolescents whether they expect to cohabit and to marry. We center attention on adolescents because their expectations may foreshadow future trends in cohabitation and marriage and further demonstrate the increasing acceptance of cohabitation.

Using structured interview data drawn from the 2001 to 2002 Toledo Adolescent Relationships Study, we identify adolescents' expectations to cohabit and to marry. We draw on adolescent development, intergenerational processes, as well as adult union formation literatures. Given that most young adults cohabit and then marry, we explore adolescents' expectations to jointly cohabit and marry. Doing so moves beyond a traditional approach that solely focuses on marriage or treats cohabitation and marriage as distinct decisions.


Adolescents' expectations regarding their own cohabitation and marriage plans may provide some clues about newly emerging union formation norms. Many theories of change in the American family system emphasize the role of fundamental shifts in social norms or personal values, or both. The weakening of the institutional leverage over family life results in varied patterns that reflect individuals' particularistic needs and desires (Lesthaeghe, 1998). Broad change occurs through normative succession as younger cohorts pursue behavior that previously was viewed as nonnormative or deviant, bringing in a "new normative order" (White & Klein, 2002). Family change also occurs with societal shifts in normative climate surrounding the timing of life course events. The delay or acceleration of life events may occur with new agegraded norms regarding me appropriate timing of transitions (Shanahan, 2000). Understanding adolescents' expectations provides insight into the new normative order that makes room for the experience of cohabitation prior to marriage.

Family change may occur with growing uncertainty about the future. Adolescents may perceive cohabitation as a future union choice in a context of high uncertainty (Stanley, Rhoades, & Markman, 2006). Uncertainty can apply to specific relationships, economic prospects, and the importance of marriage. Cohabitation may be a way to move a relationship forward without making a strong interpersonal commitment (Stanley, Whitton, & Markman, 2004). …

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.