Family Structure History: Links to Relationship Formation Behaviors in Young Adulthood

By Ryan, Suzanne; Franzetta, Kerry et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Family Structure History: Links to Relationship Formation Behaviors in Young Adulthood


Ryan, Suzanne, Franzetta, Kerry, Schelar, Erin, Manlove, Jennifer, Journal of Marriage and Family


Using data from three waves of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (H = 4,667), we examined the inter generational link between parental family structure history and relationship formation in young adulthood. We investigated (a) whether parental family structure history is associated with young adults' own relationship formation behaviors, (b) which dimensions of family structure history are most predictive of children's later relationship formation behaviors, and (c) if the association between family structure history and young adulthood relationship formation differs by gender. Our findings provide evidence of an intergenerational link between parent relationship histories and their offspring's own relationship formation behaviors in young adulthood over and above confounding factors.

Key Words: family structure, intergenerational transmission, living arrangements, National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), youth/emergent adulthood.

Growing up outside of a married, two-biological- parent family or experiencing family structure change during childhood may have detrimental effects for youth across their life course. Although most children living in single-parent, cohabiting, or stepfamilies have positive outcomes, they are at greater risk for behavioral, cognitive, and health problems (Smock, 2000). Furthermore, youth who experience a greater number of changes in their family structure tend to have more socioemotional and behavioral problems, poorer educational outcomes, more instability in adolescent romantic relationships, and earlier sexual debut (Brown, 2006; Cavanagh, Crissey, & Raley, 2008; Cavanagh & Huston, 2008; Fomby & Cherlin, 2007; Hao & Xie, 2002; Osborne & McLanahan, 2007; Wu & Thomson, 2001).

Research also has found that the negative consequences continue to manifest themselves into young adulthood. Children of divorce or those who experienced multiple family structure transitions during childhood are more likely, as adults, to have negative attitudes toward marriage (Thornton & Camburn, 1987), poorer psychological well-being (Sigle-Rushton, Hobcraft, & Kiernan, 2005), lower educational and socioeconomic attainment (Aquilino, 1996; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994), poorer self-rated health (Heard, Gorman, & Kapinus, 2008), and a greater risk of a nonmarital birth (Hill, Yeung, & Duncan, 2001; Wu & Martinson, 1993) and to form early cohabitations and marriages and experience union instability themselves (Amato, 1996; Goldscheider & Goldscheider, 1998; Teachman, 2002, 2003, 2004; Wolfinger, 2001). Relatively few of these studies that have focused on young people's own relationship formation behaviors, however, have used a comprehensive, longitudinal view of children's family structure experiences that includes parents' marriage and cohabitation experiences. Instead, studies that use full, longitudinal family structure histories have typically focused on child and adolescent well-being outcomes or on young adult outcomes other than union formation.

This study helps to fill that gap by using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to examine the intergenerational link between parents' union formation and dissolution behaviors and their offspring's own early relationship formation behaviors in young adulthood, hypothesizing that family structure turbulence in childhood will be associated with earlier formation of coresidential unions (cohabitations or marriages). We focus on four critical dimensions of parental family structure history (number, type, and timing of transitions and duration of time in specific family statuses) in addressing the following research questions:

1. Is turbulence in family structure history associated with young adults' own relationship formation behaviors?

2. Which dimensions of family structure history are most predictive of children's own relationship formation behaviors in the transition to adulthood? …

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