Estimates and Meanings of Marital Separation

By Tumin, Dmitry; Han, Siqi et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2015 | Go to article overview

Estimates and Meanings of Marital Separation


Tumin, Dmitry, Han, Siqi, Qian, Zhenchao, Journal of Marriage and Family


In recent decades, relationship transitions have become increasingly decoupled from formal changes in marital status (Cherlin, 2004). This process has been especially apparent in the rise of cohabitation, which has overtaken marriage as the most common type of first union (Cherlin, 2010). The distinction between marital separation and divorce is analogous to the distinction between cohabitation and marriage (Amato, 2010; Bumpass & Raley, 2007). The transition from marriage to separation marks a time when the members of a couple begin "pulling apart" from one another and negotiate over whether and how the marriage should end (Radford et al., 1997; Wineberg, 1994, 1996). Many couples experience separation, and separations are often short lived (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002; Ono, 1995). Separations also often lead to divorce, but some couples may continue to maintain the separation, or they may go back to the marriage after reconciliation, a situation that resembles the blurred boundaries of cohabitation, which can begin and end without a change in legal marital status (Manning & Smock, 2005). In this study, we analyzed marital separations in a single birth cohort using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1979 cohort (NLSY79; www.bls.gov/nls/nlsy79.htm) and the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG; www.cdc.gov/nchs/nsfg.htm). Our findings illustrate how survey design, criteria by which respondents are selected to answer questions about separation (i.e., question universe), and the wording of questions about separation influence estimates of the incidence, duration, and outcome of marital separations.

Marital separation often is an informal arrangement between a husband and wife. In the United States, marital separation is frequently part of the divorce process (Bloom & Hodges, 1981; McDaniel & Coleman, 2003; Radford et al., 1997). Almost all Americans who divorced between 1970 and 1988 experienced a period of separation before the divorce took effect (Ono, 1995). It is clear that marital separation frequently signals the permanent dissolution of a marital relationship, yet the decision to separate is not necessarily equivalent to the decision to divorce (Wineberg, 1996). Separation offers a husband and wife the time and space to assess their marriage, and many couples begin the separation process without knowing its outcome. For example, data from the 1987-1988 National Survey of Families and Flouseholds show that nearly half of separated women attempted to reconcile with their husband (Wineberg, 1994, 1996). A recent study found that 6% of U.S. married couples had experienced a period of temporary separation at some point (Vennum, Lindstrom, Monk, & Adams, 2014). For other couples, marital separation may become an alternative to divorce, lasting for many years without resolving in either divorce or reconciliation (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002).

Each separation that ends leads to either divorce or reconciliation. The outcome of separation varies by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Black women are more likely than White women to reconcile (Wineberg & McCarthy, 1994), and women without a college degree are more likely to reconcile than their college-educated counterparts (Morgan, 1988). Moreover, Black women, women with low educational attainment, and women living in economically disadvantaged communities tend to remain separated for a long period of time (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002; Morgan, 1988). They may have less incentive to complete the divorce process because of their low prospects of remarriage (Ono, 1995).

Although many people experience marital separation, few are separated at any given moment because of the short duration of most separation episodes (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002). Various surveys collect data about marital separation but yield discrepant estimates of marital separation for several reasons. First, data on marital separation can be collected either retrospectively or longitudinally. …

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