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Study: Why more couples live together but fewer marry

About one in four cohabiting women say they don't expect to marry the man they're living with, according to a new study published in the November issue of the Journal of Family Issues.

"For many couples, cohabitation is not a steppingstone to marriage, the modern equivalent of a formal engagement or part of some natural progression of commitment in a relationship," says

U-M sociologist Pamela J. Smock, co-author of an article titled "First Comes Cohabitation and Then Comes Marriage?" with Bowling Green State University researcher Wendy Manning.

More unmarried couples than ever before are living together, notes Smock, associate director of the Institute for Social Research (ISR). The latest U.S. Census Bureau survey establishes the number of such households at 4.7 million in 2000.

But according to Manning and Smock, fewer of today's cohabiting unions are resulting in marriage. In the 1990s, they point out, only about one-third of cohabiting couples married within three years, compared to about 60 percent in the 1970s. "For many couples, living together has become a viable alternative to either marriage or living alone," Smock says.

The current study, showing that a sizeable proportion of minority women do not expect to marry the man they're living with, is based on an analysis of the latest available data from the National Study of Family Growth, a federally funded survey of a nationally representative sample of more than 10,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44.

At the time they were surveyed, 772 of the women reported that they were cohabiting. Their average age was 26, with 35 percent reporting that they had been married before their current unions began. The average age of their partners was 29.

"Do you expect to marry your current boyfriend?" the women were asked. Smock and Manning analyzed their responses to see how a variety of factors, including race, ethnicity and education, as well as their partners' income and education, were related to the women's marriage expectations.

They found that older women were less likely to say they expected to marry than younger women, and that women who had been married or cohabited before were less likely than others to expect that their current union would lead to marriage. They also found that Black women were less likely than white women to say they expected to marry their live-in partners. Women whose partners had high levels of education and income were more likely to expect to marry than women living with less affluent and educated men, the researchers found.

With funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Development, Manning and Smock now are conducting in-depth personal interviews with couples, to "unpack" what cohabitation means for today's younger cohabiting couples.

With the recent emergence of federal and state policies designed to encourage marriage, particularly among low-income couples with children, Manning and Smock say it's more important than ever to understand why cohabiting unions begin and end, and how young adults who live together perceive and experience their roles as partners and parents.

"Our current results suggest that male disadvantage deters marriage plans," Smock and Manning note in the article "and to the extent that Black males are disproportionately disadvantaged, cohabitation may lead to marriage less often among Blacks than among ethnic groups with more advantaged males."

That finding, according to Smock, suggests that unless the government finds ways to improve the status of less educated and advantaged men, policies to increase the marriage rate among low-income and minority people probably will not be successful.

For more information, visit http://www.isr.umich.edu , http://www.psc.isr.umich.edu/people/pjsmock.html or http://www.bgsu.edu/organizations/cfdr/research/pdf/2000/2000 -02.pdf.

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