Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Normative Beliefs about Marriage and Cohabitation: A Comparison of Non-Latino Whites, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Normative Beliefs about Marriage and Cohabitation: A Comparison of Non-Latino Whites, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans

Article excerpt

Contemporary research on union formation in the United States largely focuses on how economic deprivation impinges upon union formation decisions by race. Union formation among specific Latino subgroups, particularly Mexican Americans, is relatively understudied. Mexican Americans are of special interest because they exhibit marriage behavior similar to that of non-Latino Whites, and have a relatively precarious economic existence. This directs attention to the normative foundations of marriage. Using the 1987-88 National Survey of Families and Households, this research examines nonnative beliefs about marriage and cohabitation among non-Latino Whites, Mexican Americans, and mainland Puerto Ricans. The results indicate that Mexican Americans tend to be more pronuptial than non-Latino Whites. They evaluate marriage more positively relative to singlehood, and marriage intentions significantly boost their approval of cohabitation. The former is particularly evident among the foreign born. Such differences cannot be explained fully by socioeconomic background or beliefs about nonmarital sex and childbearing. Puerto Ricans are least disapproving of cohabitation in the absence of plans to marry, primarily because of their beliefs about nonmarital sex and childbearing.

Profound transformations in family formation processes have swept the United States during the latter half of the 20th century. Among the best documented are the decline in fertility, and increases in premarital coitus, age at marriage, out-of-wedlock childbearing, and marital dissolution. Collectively, these trends reflect fundamental changes in union formation norms. In recent years, there has been "a dramatic and pervasive weakening of the normative imperative to marry, to remain married, to have children. ... That is, the power of the socially shared beliefs that individuals 'ought to' or 'should' follow these particular family patterns has been diminished" (Thornton, 1989, p. 873; but see Oppenheimer, 1994, for a different conclusion). The weakened normative imperative to marry is particularly evident in the growth of nonmarital cohabitation as a common experience during the life course (Bumpass, 1990; Bumpass & Sweet, 1989). Moreover, the recency of these trends has contributed to confusion about the meaning of cohabitation. Cohabitation may be a phase of courtship, a stage of marriage, or simply a relationship that is an end in itself. In short, marriage is allegedly losing its lustre with changes in norms regarding nonmarital sexual activity, childbearing, and cohabitation.

Although these changes are broad, it is premature to conclude that they are reflected equally in the diverse groups that compose the U.S. social landscape. Studies of marriage behavior suggest considerable variation in marriage norms across racial groups (Bennett, Bloom, & Craig, 1989; Espenshade, 1985; Schoen & Klugel, 1988) due to inequalities in access to economic opportunities (see Lichter, McLaughlin, Kephart, & Landry, 1992; South & Lloyd, 1992; Wilson, 1987), and due to cultural traditions (Cherlin, 1992). However, Mexican Americans and non-Latino Whites have similar marriage patterns despite dissimilar socioeconomic profiles (Bean & Tienda, 1987). In the 1990 U.S. Census (5% Public Use Microdata Sample), approximately 65% of non-Latino, White, 25-year-old women (47% of non-Latino, White men) were ever married, versus 67% of their Mexican American counterparts (49% of Mexican American men). Mainland Puerto Rican men and women have the lowest chances of marrying by age 25 among all Latino subgroups. Approximately 56% of Puerto Rican women aged 25 are ever married (44% for men). This is consistent with their status as the most economically deprived Latino subgroup (Bean B Tienda, 1987). Thus, a comparison of non-Latino Whites and Mexican Americans reveals a paradox of nuptiality -- high rates of marriage under relatively poor socioeconomic conditions for the latter group. …

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