Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Of Sex and Romance: Late Adolescent Relationships and Young Adult Union Formation

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Of Sex and Romance: Late Adolescent Relationships and Young Adult Union Formation

Article excerpt

To better understand the social factors that influence the diverse pathways to family formation young adults experience today, this research investigates the association between opposite-gender relationships during late adolescence and union formation in early adulthood. Using data from the first and third waves of the Add Health (n = 4,911), we show that, for both men and women, there is continuity between adolescent and adult relationship experiences. Those involved in adolescent romantic relationships at the end of high school are more likely to marry and to cohabit in early adulthood. Moreover, involvement in a nonromantic sexual relationship is positively associated with cohabitation, but not marriage. We conclude that the precursors to union formation patterns in adulthood are observable in adolescence.

Key Words: adolescent relationships, cohabitation, marriage, sexual behavior.

Over the past 15 years, the typical age at first marriage has shifted to later ages, continuing a trend that began in the 1950s. In 1990, the median age at marriage for men was 26.1, whereas the median age for women was 23.9. In 2003, the estimated median age at marriage had increased to 27.1 for men and 25.3 for women (Fields, 2003). Along with this shift, the experiences of early adulthood have become increasingly varied. Some marry early, whereas others cohabit or remain single. Among the cohort of women born during 1965 -1969, approximately one-half had married (23% after cohabiting), 15% had cohabited without marrying, and one-third had formed no union by age 25 (Raley, 2000).

A life course approach helps us to better understand this variation in family transitions by recognizing that events in one stage are shaped in part by what happened in the preceding stage. That development is a cumulative and life-long process suggests that we should observe continuity between one life course stage and the next. Researchers have produced some evidence of this continuity in family patterns. For example, those whose first marriages end in divorce have greater risks of divorce in subsequent marriages even controlling for factors such as race, education, and age at first marriage (Martin & Bumpass, 1989). Patterns of divorce also suggest continuity between educational and marital careers. Marital dissolution is more common for those who start, but do not complete, a college degree than for those who never attend college or who earn a college degree (Glick & Norton, 1977; Raley & Bumpass, 2003). We do not know what produces this continuity. It may be persistent individual personality characteristics or there may be consistent factors in the social context. For example, given that people tend to live in similar neighborhoods throughout their adult lives, neighborhood factors that contribute to a first divorce might increase the risk of a second. Life course theory suggests that early life course experiences inform the developmental process and contribute to this continuity (Elder, 1975).

Although some evidence suggests continuity in the risks of the dissolution of relationships, we have much less to suggest similarity in patterns of the formation of relationships across the life course. Yet early life course experiences might be an important factor leading to variation in timing and type of union formation we observe in early adulthood. The focus of this article is on experiences with the opposite gender during late adolescence. To investigate the possible continuity between adolescent experiences and relationship formation in early adulthood, we employ data from the first and third waves of the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health. We also use data from the educational component of the Add Health, the Adolescent Health and Academic Achievement Study (AHAA). These data make possible for the first time the examination of how experiences with the opposite gender during late adolescence are associated with patterns of early adult relationship formation with thorough controls for academic behavior, which accounts for potential educational and economic opportunities in the future. …

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