Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Economic Consequences of the Dissolution of Cohabiting Unions

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Economic Consequences of the Dissolution of Cohabiting Unions

Article excerpt

Although the economic effects of divorce have been well studied, a similar exploration of cohabitation has not been conducted. For this analysis, we use a sample from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (N = 2,372) documenting changes in economic well-being at the end of a cohabiting relationship and comparing these results to a sample of divorced respondents. After dissolution, formerly cohabiting men's economic standing declines moderately, whereas formerly cohabiting women's declines much more precipitously, leaving a substantial proportion of women in poverty. This effect is particularly pronounced for African American and Hispanic women. Though the end of the relationship does reinforce gender stratification, it is also an "equalizer" between married and cohabiting women, leaving them in strikingly similar economic positions.

Key Words: cohabitation, divorce, economic well-being, gender, race, union dissolution.

Unmarried cohabitation has become commonplace in the United States, with the majority of young people having cohabited at least once and most marriages now beginning as cohabitations (Bumpass & Lu, 2000). Cohabitation appears to be quite fluid and short lived, however, with half lasting a year or less (Bumpass & Lu). Further, compared to previous decades, cohabitation is now more likely to end rather than lead to marriage, a change that is particularly pronounced for African American women (Raley & Bumpass, 2003). Thus, the dissolution of a cohabiting union will affect an increasing proportion of the population.

Given the growing centrality of cohabitation in the adult life course, it becomes important to ask the same kinds of questions about cohabiting unions we ask about marital unions. Past research has focused on the economic changes following the end of marital unions (e.g., Holden & Smock, 1991), finding that women fare poorly compared to men in the aftermath of separation or divorce, yet very little is known about economic well-being following the end of cohabitation. This article examines the association between the dissolution of cohabiting relationships and the economic outcomes of individuals and households. Drawing on panel data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), we document levels and changes in men's and women's economic well-being (personal earnings, household income, income-to-needs, and poverty) upon the termination of a cohabiting relationship. We also compare cohabitors to men and women whose marriages end. We thus contribute to a more thorough understanding of the ramifications of unmarried cohabitation for individual and family well-being.


Scholars generally agree that marriage has retreated in its centrality as the basis for U.S. family life. Although divorce rates have plateaued, an estimated one half of first marriages will be disrupted if current levels persist (Bumpass, 1990; Cherlin, 1992; Raley & Bumpass, 2003; Schoen & Standish, 2001). In addition, the median age at first marriage for women is now higher than at any time in the past century. Important socioeconomic and racial and ethnic differences in the prominence of marriage suggest that marriage is not merely being delayed for some population subgroups. Although the proportion of White, college-educated women expected to marry is approximately 90%, the figure is substantially lower for African Americans and for women without a college education (Goldstein & Kenney, 2001). In 1995, for example, by age 30, 19% of White women had never been married compared to 48% of African American women (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002).

As the ubiquity of marriage has diminished, unmarried cohabitation has increased. The rise in cohabitation over the past few decades has been dramatic, with most people now in their 20s and 30s having cohabited at some point during their lives (Bumpass, 1990; Casper & Bianchi, 2002; Smock, 2000). …

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