Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Continuity and Change in Marital Quality between 1980 and 2000

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Continuity and Change in Marital Quality between 1980 and 2000

Article excerpt

We use data from two national surveys of married individuals-one from 1980 and the other from 2000-to understand how three dimensions of marital quality changed during this period. Marital happiness and divorce proneness changed little between 1980 and 2000, but marital interaction declined significantly. A decomposition analysis suggested that offsetting trends affected marital quality. Increases in marital heterogamy, premarital cohabitation, wives' extended hours of employment, and wives' job demands were associated with declines in multiple dimensions of marital quality. In contrast, increases in economic resources, decision-making equality, nontraditional attitudes toward gender, and support for the norm of lifelong marriage were associated with improvements in multiple dimensions of marital quality. Increases in husbands' share of housework appeared to depress marital quality among husbands but to improve marital quality among wives.

Key Words: decomposition analysis, family change, family demography, marital quality, marriage.

The belief that the institution of marriage is in decline is widespread (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Glenn, 1996; Popenoe, 1993; Tipton, 1985; Zill & Nord, 1994). The growing popularity of nonmarital cohabitation, the increasing percentage of children born outside of marriage, the rising age at first marriage, the continuing high divorce rate, and the declining remarriage rate demonstrate that marriage is a less permanent part of adult life now than in the recent past. According to a marital decline perspective, people are turning away from marriage because it has become increasingly difficult to maintain happy and stable unions.

Other observers view recent changes in marriage as being benign or even beneficial (Coontz, 1992; Scanzoni, 2001; Skolnick, 1991; Stacey, 1996). According to this view, although it is easier for people to leave unhappy marriages these days, the proportion of unhappy marriages in the population has not necessarily increased. Indeed, because divorce removes unhappy couples from the married population, existing marriages may be of higher quality now than in the past. Moreover, increases in married women's education, employment, and income have raised women's status and given wives greater decision-making power, thus increasing the potential for less patriarchal and more egalitarian marital relationships.

With respect to marital instability, the divorce rate increased dramatically during the 1970s, peaked around 1980, then declined slightly (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000, Table 77). Therefore, although divorce is common these days, relatively little change in marital instability occurred during the last two decades. Evidence about the quality of existing marriages, however, is sparse. Using merged data from the General Social Survey, Glenn (1991) found that the percentage of people reporting that their marriages were very happy declined between 1973 and 1988. Similarly, Rogers and Amato (2000) compared a sample of young adults married between 1981 and 1997 (and surveyed in 1997) with a sample of young adults married between 1964 and 1980 (and surveyed in 1980) and found that the more recent marriage cohort reported less interaction and more marital conflict. Although these studies suggest a decline in the aggregate level of marital quality in the population, the lack of research on this topic makes it difficult to reach conclusions with certainty. The present study uses two national, representative samples of married individuals in the United States-one interviewed in 1980 and the other interviewed in 2000-to provide new evidence on recent changes in the nature and quality of marriage.


During the latter part of the 20th century, a variety of demographic, economic, social, and cultural changes in the U.S. population had the potential to affect people's marriages either positively or negatively. …

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