Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Vetting and Letting: Cohabiting Stepfamily Formation Processes in Low-Income Black Families

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Vetting and Letting: Cohabiting Stepfamily Formation Processes in Low-Income Black Families

Article excerpt

Family structure is growing increasingly varied, complex, and stratified in the United States (Cherlin, 2010; McLanahan, 2004; Stykes & Williams, 2013). In recent years, single-parent households have increased, and cohabitation has emerged as a common family form (Chambers & Kravitz, 2011; Dunlap, Golub, & Benoit, 2010; Raley, 1996; Rinelli & Brown, 2010). Cohabitation is especially common among Black families (Bumpass & Lu, 2000; Chambers & Kravitz, 2011; Golub, Reid, Strickler, & Dunlap, 2013; Ruggles, 1997). This means that children, especially Black children, are increasingly likely to spend at least part of their childhood in a cohabiting family (Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008). Accordingly, family researchers have begun to examine cohabiting families as an increasingly important population for understanding broader family dynamics (Brown, 2003) as well as both adult (Williams, Sassler, & Nicholson, 2008) and adolescent (Brown, 2004; Williams, Sassler, Frech, Addo, & Cooksey, 2013) health and socioeconomic disparities.

Research suggests that cohabitation is not a singular phenomenon but an arrangement that varies on the basis of the life circumstances of the partners in the union. Impoverished and Black individuals are less likely to transition from cohabitation to marriage than nonpoor and White individuals (Brown, 2000; Guzzo, 2009; Lichter & Qian, 2008; Manning & Smock, 1995; Raley, 1996). Lichter, Qian, and Mellot (2006) suggested that cohabitation among poor women is more likely to be an alternative to or substitutefortraditionalmarriagethanamongnonpoor women. Despite the seeming variation in cohabitation across subpopulations and cultural and policy attention focused on the partnering behaviors of low-income Black mothers specifically, few researchers have examined the processes of cohabiting union formation in this population.

In this study, we examined cohabiting union formation processes among Black low-income single mothers of adolescents and their partners by analyzing in-depth interview data collected from both partners in 15 currently cohabiting couples. Prior research, which we review below, suggests that cohabiting union formation involves gradually sliding into a relationship as opposed to deliberately deciding to cohabit, conceptualized in the literature as the sliding model. Most couples in our study described their transition into their cohabitating relationship as a gradual but also very deliberative process. Mothers reported vetting their partner for whether he would be a good parent and be compatible with her children before letting him move in. Their partners largely reported that they understood and sought to pass this deliberative vetting process. Therefore, we refer to the family formation process we observed as vetting and letting. Mothers described a greater focus on this vetting process than on when they came to officially coreside with the partner. We identify four strategies mothers described using in the vetting process and argue that vetting and letting is a child-centered family formation process as opposed to a partner-centered union formation process.


In this section, we review current literature on family formation patterns and cohabitation to provide a background for our analysis.

Contemporary Family Formation Trends

Romantic union and family formation processes in the United States are becoming more varied and complex, as evidenced by the decoupling of marriage and childbearing and declining marriage rates in general (Cherlin, 2004; Sassler, 2004; Seltzer et al., 2005). As marriage rates decline, cohabitation is becoming more common. Cohabitation rates are now at an all-time high, with 54% of all women spending time in a cohabiting relationship by age 44 (Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008). The rate of serial cohabitation-an individual having two or more premarital cohabitations-increased nearly 40%, from 8. …

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