Nonmarital Relationships and Changing Perceptions of Marriage among African American Young Adults

By Barr, Ashley B.; Simons, Ronald L. et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, October 2015 | Go to article overview

Nonmarital Relationships and Changing Perceptions of Marriage among African American Young Adults


Barr, Ashley B., Simons, Ronald L., Simons, Leslie Gordon, Journal of Marriage and Family


Cohabitation has become increasingly widespread in the United States over the past decade. In fact, cohabiting unions are now the modal route to marriage and a common experience in the lives of young people (Cherlin, 2010; Smock, 2000). Such trends have given rise to debates about the relation between cohabitation and marriage. These debates have centered around not only what cohabitation might mean for individual marriage experiences and trajectories (e.g., Manning & Cohen, 2012) but also, more broadly, what the increased prevalence of cohabitation might mean for the future of marriage as an institution (Cherlin, 2004; Heuveline & Timberlake, 2004; The National Marriage Project, 2010; Wilcox & Cherlin, 2011).

In her model of marriage entry, McGinnis (2003) shed some light on these debates by arguing that cohabitation, by affecting the costs and benefits associated with marriage, "appears to significantly change the context in which decisions about marriage are made in romantic relationships" (p. 105). Stanley, Rhoades, and Markman (2006) made a similar argument about the potential for cohabitation to change relational partners' standpoint with respect to marriage. In particular, their inertia perspective argues that the constraints associated with cohabitation versus dating increase the difficulty of ending a relationship, hence "tipping the scale toward staying together and, for some, marriage" (Stanley et al., 2006, p. 504).

Although these perspectives draw on different theoretical frameworks, both suggest that cohabitation repositions romantic partners with respect to marriage. In the current study we further explored this possibility by examining how cohabitation, relative to both dating and singlehood, is associated with changes in marital beliefs among young African Americans. These marital beliefs-perceived marital costs, perceived marital benefits, the general importance of marriage, and marital salience (the relative importance placed on marriage at the current point in the life course)-tap into several of the multiple dimensions of "marital paradigms" highlighted by Willoughby, Hall, and Luczak (2015), including beliefs about "being married" and beliefs about "getting married." We addressed two primary questions: (a) To what extent is cohabitation, relative to dating and singlehood, associated with intra-individual change in marital beliefs and (b) to what extent is the effect of cohabitation gendered?

It is important to note that we tackled these questions using a recent, all African American sample of young people during the transition to adulthood. As we discuss further below, marriage politics in the United States intersect heavily with racial politics in ways that call for a deeper understanding of marriage, in practice and in principle, in the lives of African Americans. Although such a sample has limitations, it allows for a nuanced investigation of marital perceptions among a population that is often at the center of debates surrounding the perceived declining importance of marriage. Compared to Whites, African Americans are more likely to cohabit rather than marry as a first union, and they are less likely to transition from cohabitation to marriage (Copen, Daniels, & Mosher, 2013; Manning & Smock, 1995). Furthermore, African American cohabiting partners are more likely than White cohabiting partners to share children (Lofquist, Lugaila, O'Connell, & Feliz, 2012). Such indicators suggest that cohabitation might serve as an alternative to marriage more so for African Americans than for Whites (Heuveline & Timberlake, 2004). Although group comparisons were beyond the scope of this study, understanding the extent to which cohabitation is distinctly associated with changes in the marital beliefs of young African Americans will enable a deeper understanding of the meaning and place of cohabitation and of marriage today.

COHABITATION: INCREASING THE APPEAL OF MARRIAGE? …

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