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Marital Intentions in Decline

cohabitation, family, intentions, MARRI, marriage, sexuality No comments

By: Patrick Fagan, MARRI Senior Fellow
      Avery Pettway, MARRI Intern

Jonathan Vespa’s study, “Historical Trends in the Marital Intentions of One-Time and Serial Cohabitors,” just published in February’s Journal of Marriage and Family, confirms what many sense: that among current child-bearing aged women attitudes towards marriage have shifted downwards, mainly through the influence of cohabitation, which is increasingly serial.

Vespa finds two compounding associations within present cohabitation trends.

  1. The downward trend in marital intentions holds steady and is significant even when controlling for serial cohabitation.
  2. There is an additional negative association between serial cohabitation and decreased marital intentions. Serial cohabitants (a rising percentage of ever-cohabited women) are less likely to enter a cohabiting relationship with plans to marry (to varying degrees, dependent on whether it is the first, second, or third union) than are one-time cohabitants. 

In short, a woman in today’s world entering a cohabiting relationship is less likely to have marital intent, and she is even still more less-likely to have marital intent if she is a serial cohabitant.

Cohabitation used to be an intentional (though relatively uncommon) stepping stone to marriage for women who engaged in it but that switched with women who were born between 1963 and 1967, and the pattern has continued unwaveringly since then.

Bottom line:  There is more of a disconnect between sexual intercourse, cohabitation and marriage.  Cohabitation is increasingly accepted as an independent entity, and choosing it has nothing to do with expecting marriage or choosing marriage.

Vespa’s study reveals that compared to women in the youngest cohort (born between 1978 and 1982), women in the oldest cohort (born between 1958 and 1962) had odds of having marital intentions that were 1.40 times higher. Such data suggests that America’s cultural assumption that marriage is sexuality’s end goal is dwindling more and more.

This obviously threatens the health (and rate) of marriage and the institution of the family’s person-forming power. As serial cohabitation rises, marital intentions decrease, and the two compound to push marriage even further into the recesses of the American mind, the stable familial space in which children have been consistently and healthily formed for generations will continue to weaken and with it the future America will be similarly weakened.  As we are seeing (and as, I predict, we will continue to see), what plagues the family plagues the other foundational social institutions of Church, School, Marketplace, and Government. As marriage becomes more of a mental side note to our sexual practices, relational instability will continue to increase first in the family, followed later by relational instability in the other institutions (as the child grows into them as an adult).

Vespa isolated the increasing disconnect between sexual union and marriage.  The country has yet to feel anxious about its effects on the children, their education, the economy and the capacity of our country to govern itself.

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