Is Fear of Divorce Keeping People From Getting Married?
In a survey of 61 cohabiting couples aged 18 to 36 in Columbus, Ohio, researchers from Cornell and the University of Central Oklahoma found that women, particularly lower-income women, were concerned about being trapped in marriage and having no way out if things went awry. The survey respondents also revealed that they had serious concerns about divorce: about 67% said they were worried about the potential social, emotional and economic fallout of splitting up. The researchers suggest that this is one of the reasons that the couples had chosen to live together instead of getting married.
The study, which was published in December’s Journal of Family Relations, is one of several in recent weeks to examine the diminishing rate of marriage in the United States. According to a Pew Research Center analysis last week, just over half of adult Americans are currently married, the lowest rate in decades. Some of the rollback is because people are getting married later, and some of it is because cohabitation rates are rising. The new study suggests that divorce is also a very real presence in couple’s minds.
Divorce is not an equal-opportunity specter, however. Middle-class couples were less spooked by it — and by marriage — than low-income couples. For poorer women who tended to feel that marriage was a trap, many reported fearing that legal union would lead to extra work and responsibilities on their part, without any additional benefits. “Middle-class respondents disproportionately asserted that marriage meant commitment, something they viewed as a positive feature of the institution,” the authors write. “When working-class women referenced commitment, on the other hand, they did not view it in a particularly positive light.”
For these female partners, the benefits to marriage were slimmer — they would get an extra person to look after but not an extra provider. Since working-class women are often the main breadwinners, they were more likely to worry that marriages would be harder and costly to exit. So they preferred to regard their relationship as impermanent. And although working-class men have seen their real earnings drop over the years, studies have shown, they still hold quite rigid views on what mens’ and womens’ roles are in the home.
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.