Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

"Everything's There except Money": How Money Shapes Decisions to Marry among Cohabitors

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

"Everything's There except Money": How Money Shapes Decisions to Marry among Cohabitors

Article excerpt

Cohabitation is now the modal path to marriage in the United States. Drawing on data from 115 in-depth interviews with cohabitors from the working and lower middle classes, this paper explores how economics shape marital decision making. We find that cohabitors typically perceive financial issues as important for marriage, and we delineate several key themes. Whereas some social scientists speculate that cohabitors must think that marriage will change their lives in order to motivate marriage, our findings suggest that cohabitors believe marriage should occur once something has already changed-in this case, their financial status. Our results also imply that political and scientific discourse on financial problems as deterrents to marriage should be broadened beyond a focus on poor unmarried parents.

Key Words: cohabitation, economic well-being, family, marriage, qualitative methods.

The last few decades have ushered in significant changes in family patterns (Casper & Bianchi, 2002; Thornton, Fricke, Axinn, & Alwin, 2001; Thornton & Young-Demarco, 2001). After a brief period characterized by early marriage and low levels of divorce after World War II, recent decades have been marked by lower levels of childbearing, higher divorce rates, increases in the average age at marriage, rising nonmarital childbearing, and rising levels of cohabitation. Although most Americans still marry at some point and the vast majority express strong desires to marry, unmarried cohabitation has dramatically transformed the marriage process. Today, the majority of marriages and remarriages begin as cohabiting relationships. Most young men and women have cohabited or will cohabit, cohabitation has increased in all age groups, and cohabitation is increasingly a context for childbearing and childrearing (Bumpass & Lu, 2000; Casper & Bianchi; Manning, 2002).

Given that cohabitation is now the modal path to marriage, an important issue is whether and under what circumstances cohabitation leads to marriage. A long line of research in the social sciences has drawn on data from surveys to examine the economic determinants of marriage. More recently, studies have emerged examining similar issues for cohabiting unions (e.g., Clarkberg, 1999; Oppenheimer, 2003; Sassler & McNally, 2003).

Our paper builds on this body of work by analyzing in-depth interview data with a diverse sample of cohabiting young men and women. One goal is to elaborate the findings of recent quantitative research about the influence of economics on marriage by exploring the meaning of economic factors and their influence on cohabitors' feelings and thinking about whether and when to marry. A second goal is to build on past qualitative research that, while grappling with similar issues, has focused primarily on disadvantaged mothers or unmarried parents (e.g., Edin, 2000). Our study elaborates this work by investigating how cohabiting workingand lower middle-class men and women perceive the connection between money and marriage. Most broadly, with the majority of marriages now beginning as cohabitations, our study has important implications for what has become known as the "retreat" from marriage.


Quantitative studies in demography, sociology, and economics have generally demonstrated that the occurrence and stability of marriage are linked to good economic circumstances. People with higher education and better economic prospects are more likely to become married, to stay married, and to have children within marriage (e.g., Carlson, McLanahan, & England, 2004; McLaughlin & Lichter, 1997; Smock, Manning, & Gupta, 1999; Sweeney, 2002). Recent estimates by Raley and Bumpass (2003), for example, suggest that 60% of marriages among women without high school degrees will end in separation or divorce, compared to one third for college graduates.

To provide a context for the current study, Table 1 shows the findings of several quantitative studies that examine the economic determinants of marriage among single or cohabiting people. …

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.