The Relative Stability of Remarriages: A Cohort Approach Using Vital Statistics

By Clarke, Sally Cuningham; Wilson, Barbara Foley | Family Relations, July 1994 | Go to article overview

The Relative Stability of Remarriages: A Cohort Approach Using Vital Statistics


Clarke, Sally Cuningham, Wilson, Barbara Foley, Family Relations


Remarriages constitute an increasing proportion of all marriages in the United States. In 1988, in the United States 46% of marriages were remarriages for one or both partners. This involved more than 2 million men and women annually (National Center for Health Statistics [NCHS], 1991a). Interest in the stability of remarriages relative to first marriages is not new, hut the issue is increasingly relevant as a consequence of that growth. Furthermore, the matter becomes more complicated because the proportion of divorced men and women who marry single partners has also increased (Wilson, 1989). As a result, it is important to consider the combined marital histories of both spouses when comparing the stability of first marriages and remarriages.

Are remarriages more likely to end in divorce than first marriages? Findings from previous studies of the stability of remarriages are equivocal. These studies have used a variety of data sources and analytic techniques. Using data from Iowa and Missouri in the 1940s, Monahan (1952) concluded that remarriages were not as successful or enduring as first marriages. Some recent studies have supported this finding (Cherlin, 1977; Martin & Bumpass, 1989; McCarthy, 1978). However, Glick and Norton (1971) analyzed the 1967 Survey of Economic Opportunity (SEO) and found no significant difference in the average annual probability of divorce between first and second marriages. Weed (1980) also found very little additional risk of divorce for remarriages. Espenshade (1983) found that remarriages were less likely to end in divorce than first marriages were because a larger proportion ended in the death of a spouse. Using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) to develop a joint model of marital childbearing and marital disruption, Lillard and Waite (1993) found, "when one takes into account the relationship between childbearing decisions and potential marriage stability, women in second or later marriages are no more likely to dissolve their marriage than are those married for the first time" (p. 679). Most of these studies focused on women and did not consider the previous marital status of both spouses.

There have been a few studies that examined the stability of marriages by using the combined marital histories of both spouses. Monahan (1958), by comparing marriages to divorces that occurred in Iowa, found that the ratio of divorces per 100 marriages was twice as high for couples in which both partners had been divorced as for couples in which both partners were previously single. Bumpass and Sweet (1972) showed that women in first marriages divorced more often if their husbands had been previously married, but their analysis did not extend to women in remarriages or to men. Aguirre and Parr (1982) found that the most important predictor of dissolution of women's first marriages, but not of their remarriages, was the previous divorces of their spouses, and that, in comparison, all other predictors were unimportant. Findings for the first marriages of men were the same as those for women, although the relationship between the previous divorces of their spouses and their own marital stability was weaker. For remarriages of men, the level of stability was actually enhanced when their wives were in second marriages.

The studies cited above had limitations imposed by the selection of the data sources. Monahan's analyses (1952, 1958) were limited to Iowa and Missouri. Bumpass and Sweet (1972) and McCarthy (1978) studied women only. Studies using the National Survey of Family Growth (Aguirre & Parr, 1982; McCarthy, 1978) were limited to women 15-44 years of age, thus excluding the significant minority of remarriages (18% in 1988) that involved women over 45 years of age (NCHS, 1991a). Furthermore, as with any survey, marital history information ends with the survey date; therefore, the methodology must be chosen to adjust for this truncation because many of the women who were married at the survey date would eventually divorce. …

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