Marital Quality and Divorce Decisions: How Do Premarital Cohabitation and Nonmarital Childbearing Matter?

By Tach, Laura M.; Halpern-Meekin, Sarah | Family Relations, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Marital Quality and Divorce Decisions: How Do Premarital Cohabitation and Nonmarital Childbearing Matter?


Tach, Laura M., Halpern-Meekin, Sarah, Family Relations


This study used the 1979 cohort of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (N = 3,481) to test whether the association between marital quality and divorce is moderated by premarital cohabitation or nonmarital childbearing status. Prior research identified lower marital quality as a key explanation for why couples who cohabit or have children before marrying are more likely to divorce than other couples. Using event history and fixed-effects models, we found that the effect of marital quality on divorce is similar for cohabitors and noncohabitors, with cohabitors more likely to end both high- and low-quality marriages. In contrast, the relationship between marital quality and divorce is weaker for women with nonmarital births; they are less likely than others to dissolve low-quality marriages. We discuss how commitment norms and self-efficacy might explain these differences in the association between marital quality and divorce.

Key Words: cohabitation, divorce, marriage, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, nonmarital childbearing, relationship quality.

Marital quality is one of the most important predictors of whether a couple divorces: If you want to know who is going to divorce, just find the troubled marriages. To date, family researchers have assumed that the influence of maritai quality on divorce is the same for everyone, regardless of their previous relationship experiences. We challenge this assumption by asking whether the association between marital quality and divorce is moderated by the premarital experiences of cohabitation and nonmarital childbearing. Those who cohabit or have a child before marriage have unions characterized by more individualistic views (Thomson & Colella, 1992), weaker commitment (Axinn & Thornton, 1992; Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman, 2009; Stanley, Whitton, & Markman, 2004), poorer problem-solving behaviors (Cohan & Kleinbaum, 2002), and lower self-efficacy (Plotnick, 1992; Plotnick & Butler, 1991). Couples who cohabit or have children before they marry also face a host of economic, psychological, and relationship disadvantages (Rogers & Amato, 1997; Thomson & Colella, 1992), lower quality marriages (Clements, Stanley, & Markman, 2004; D. R. Johnson, Amoloza, & Booth, 1992), and higher divorce rates (Heaton, 2002; Kamp Dush, Cohan, & Amato, 2003; Martin & Bumpass, 1989). Given these differences, we hypothesized that people will react to the quality of their marriages differently if they have cohabited or had a child before marriage.

In this article, we use the female subsample of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 cohort (NLSY79) to examine whether the association between reported marital quality and divorce differs by premarital cohabitation and nonmarital childbearing status. This cohort of women has lived through great changes in the prevalence and cultural meaning of premarital cohabitation and nonmarital childbearing; they were 14-22 when the survey began in 1979 and were 43 - 50 as of the last survey wave in 2008. We improve on existing studies by using repeated measures of marital quality reported by wives at up to eight survey waves between 1992 and 2008 and by using fixedeffects analyses to account for unobserved differences between women. These theoretical and methodological improvements allow us to develop a more accurate understanding of how relationship quality influences marital dissolution.

Background

Marital quality. Previous research has established that lower marital quality is associated with increased risk of divorce Clements et al., 2004; D. R. Johnson et al., 1992; Vaillant & Vaillant, 1993). For example, the quality of premarital communication and conflict behaviors at the start of marriage are associated with the likelihood of divorce years later (Birditt, Brown, Orbuch, & Mcllvane, 20 1 0; Markman, Rhoades, Stanley, Ragan, & Whitton, 2010). Many studies, however, use reports of marital quality from only one or two points in time, making them susceptible to omitted variable bias. …

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