The Specter of Divorce: Views from Workingand Middle-Class Cohabitors

By Miller, Amanda J.; Sassler, Sharon et al. | Family Relations, December 2011 | Go to article overview

The Specter of Divorce: Views from Workingand Middle-Class Cohabitors


Miller, Amanda J., Sassler, Sharon, Kusi-Appouh, Dela, Family Relations


Young Americans increasingly express apprehension about their ability to successfully manage intimate relationships. Partially in response, cohabitation has become normative over the past few decades. Little research, however, examines social class distinctions in how emerging adults perceive challenges to sustaining intimate unions. We examine cohabitors' views of divorce and how these color their sentiments regarding marriage. Data are from in-depth interviews with 122 working- and middle-class cohabitors. More than two thirds of respondents mentioned concerns with divorce. Working-class women, in particular, view marriage less favorably than do their male and middle-class counterparts, in part because they see marriage as hard to exit and are reluctant to assume restrictive gender roles. Middle-class cohabitors are more likely to have concrete wedding plans and believe that marriage signifies a greater commitment than does cohabitation. These differences in views of marriage and divorce may help explain the bifurcation of cohabitation outcomes among working- and middle-class cohabitors.

Key Words: class, divorce related topics, family and romantic relationships, family demography, gender differences.

Over the past several years, qualitative scholars who study the meaning of marriage in young people's lives have noted a high level of apprehension about divorce (Edin & Kefalas, 2005; Manning & Smock, 2009; Reed, 2006). Even though they are delaying marriage, today's young adults are not forgoing intimate relationships. Over the past two decades, cohabitation has become a normative living arrangement for unmarried adults (Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008; Lichter, Turner, & Sassier, 2010). In fact, many adolescents believe that living with a partner is a good way to assess compatibility for marriage (Manning, Longmore, & Giordano, 2007; Thornton & Young-DeMarco, 2001). Although recent research has begun to challenge the association between premarital cohabitation and union instability (Lichter & Qian, 2008; Teachman, 2003), various family scholars assert that cohabitation is a threat to the institution of marriage and results in higher levels of divorce (Stanley, Rhoades, & Markman, 2006; Whitehead & Popenoe, 2000). The role high rates of divorce play in shaping young adults' marital views, however, has received less attention.

Young Americans increasingly express apprehension about their abilities to form enduring marital unions. Thornton and YoungDeMarco (200 1 ) noted that 36.7% of female high school seniors and 43.1% of their male counterparts interviewed in the late 1990s thought it was uncertain or unlikely that they would stay married to the same person if they got married. Such concerns about marital instability are not unwarranted. Perhaps half of first marriages initiated in the 1980s are expected to end in divorce (Raley & Bumpass, 2003). On the basis of this evidence, it is not surprising that contemporary young adults are wary of entering into marriage and that many think it advisable to first live with the person they might marry as a way to "test drive" the relationship (Manning et al., 2007; Manning & Smock, 2009; Thornton & YoungDeMarco, 2001).

Even as rates of marital disruption have stabilized, social class disparities in the likelihood of experiencing marriage and divorce have widened. Those who are college educated are now more likely to get married than their less-educated counterparts (Goldstein & Kenney, 2001; Goodwin, Mosher, & Chandra, 2010; Taylor, Fry, Velasco, & Dockterman, 2010). This holds true whether or not the couple cohabited prior to marriage (Goodwin et al., 2010; Lichter, Qian, & Mellott, 2006; Taylor et al., 2010). Further, divorce has decreased significantly among women with 4-year degrees at the same time that rates of marital disruption increased for less educated women (Martin, 2006). Although little is known about the potential role that cohabitation plays in social class disparities in relationship transitions, new research has begun to explore this gap in the research. …

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