Relationship-Specific Investments, Family Chaos, and Cohabitation Dissolution Following a Nonmarital Birth

By Dush, Claire M. Kamp | Family Relations, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Relationship-Specific Investments, Family Chaos, and Cohabitation Dissolution Following a Nonmarital Birth


Dush, Claire M. Kamp, Family Relations


Predictors of two types of cohabitation dissolution, dissolution with a continued romantic relationship and without (i.e., breakup), were examined using data from mothers cohabiting at the time of a nonmarital birth in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (N = 1,624). Life tables indicated 64% of unions dissolved within 5 years; of these, 76% broke up. Black mothers had the highest rates of dissolution. Maximum likelihood discrete-time event history results revealed that younger mothers were more likely to experience cohabitation dissolution into a breakup. Fewer relationship-specific investments and more family chaos were also associated with greater risk of cohabitation dissolution into a breakup. Mothers' multipartnered fertility and fewer relationship-specific investments were associated with greater risk of cohabitation dissolution with a continued romantic relationship. Postdissolution, mothers who maintained a romantic relationship were more likely to reenter a union with their former partner whereas mothers whose union broke up most often remained so.

Key Words: breakup, cohabitation, cohabitation dissolution, chaos, relationship-specific investments.

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

As the U.S. divorce rate rose in the 1960s and 1970s, family scholars began to examine the predictors of divorce and its effects on adults and children. The increase in cohabitation in the past 30 years (Fields & Casper, 2001) has led to the rise in a different kind of union dissolution: cohabitation dissolution. Like marriage, many of these cohabiting unions involve children. Indeed, 41% of all births in the United States in 2008 were to unmarried women (Hamilton, Martin, & Ventura, 2010), and recent estimates are that about two fifths of nonmarital births in the United States are to cohabiting couples (Carlson & McLanahan, 2002). Because these unions are often unstable (Lichter, Qian, & Mellot, 2006), it is of particular concern that family scholars know very little about the process of cohabitation dissolution, particularly among the most vulnerable of cohabiting couples: couples with children.

The first goal of this study was to provide estimates of cohabitation dissolution rates within the first 5 years of a nonmarital birth by type of dissolution: cohabitation dissolution as a breakup and cohabitation dissolution with a continuing romantic relationship. The second goal was to identify demographic, relationship, and family predictors of each type of cohabitation dissolution among parents. The final goal was to compare, after the initial cohabitation dissolution, the relationship status of formerly cohabiting mothers by type of cohabitation dissolution 2 to 4 years after dissolution. Longitudinal data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (N = 1,624) were used to examine these associations in a large sample of low-income cohabiting families with a recent birth. Additional knowledge regarding the predictors of cohabitation dissolution among low-income parents could aid in the design and implementation of interventions to either prevent cohabitation dissolution or support children and parents experiencing it.

A FAMILY SYSTEMS PERSPECTIVE ON RELATIONSHIP TRANSITIONS

Emery and Dillon (1994) posited that the central task of relationship change is the redefining of relationship boundaries. Borrowing from family systems theory (Minuchin, 1974), relationship boundaries were defined as the explicit or implicit rules that govern family relationships. Boundaries in marriage develop over time through role expectations, discussions of the roles and rules, and the behaviors of family members (Emery & Tuer, 1993). Thus, at the conclusion of a marriage, particularly when children are involved, boundaries must be redrawn and new rules to govern roles and behaviors of family members must be established.

Relationship boundaries after cohabitation dissolution must also be redefined. …

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