It is estimated that about 90 percent of American adults will eventually marry (Cherlin 2009). This is a decline from several decades ago, and may be declining further as cohabitation becomes more common. Furthermore, Americans have been getting older when they walk down the aisle and having children out-of-wedlock has become more common.  Some of the decline in marriage is attributed to a fear of divorce, a decline in the economic necessity for women to marry, the separation of childbirth and marriage, and the evolution of socially acceptable alternatives to marriage.  Finally, the divorce rate, although it is the highest of any industrialized nation, has stabilized since its peak in the 1980's.

Marriage and divorce status are not just demographic descriptors, they are social indicators. Marriage today has become a social ideal for some and something unnecessary for others.  This Collection seeks to compile resources that summarize the various social trends and factors that have led to a change in marriage and divorce in the United Sates.  

This is not intended to be a comprehensive collection of resources, but a selection of recent documents which have informed the field and that are, for the most part, easily accessible (when possible on line).  Additional publications and resources will be posted periodically as they come to our attention.

We thank the Administration for Children and Families Office of Financial Assistance for their support in the preparation of this Collection by Topic. Any views expressed in the papers and resources presented in this Collection do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the NHMRC.

We also thank the following persons who contributed to the development of this collection:  Courtney Harrison, MPA, National Healthy Marriage Resource Center (NHMRC), Daniel Hubler, MS, Doctoral Student in Family Science, Oklahoma State University, Sarah (Byington) Murrell of the NHMRC, and  Kelly M. Roberts, MS, Clinical Instructor, Oklahoma State University.  Additionally, thank you to Theodora Ooms, MSW, a couples and marriage policy consultant, and Bill Coffin, Special Assistant for Marriage Education, for their review of this Collection.

Table of Contents:

  1. The Decline in Marriage and Shifts in Family Structure
  2. The Social Consequences of Shifts in Marriage and Divorce
  3. Attitudes and Beliefs about Marriage


The Decline in Marriage and Shifts in Family Structure

The following general resources provide a background for demographic trends in marriage, divorce, and cohabitation. They have been compiled in order to provide a contextual understanding of how marriage and family structure have changed over time. Embedded within these works are years of interdisciplinary research which suggest that educational prevention to strengthen relationships and marriage may be an effective intervention for all levels of society.

Bumpass, L. L. & Lu, H. H. (2000). Trends in cohabitation and implications for children's family contexts in the United States. Population Studies, 54, 29-41.
Increasing cohabitation in the United States and the implications of this trend for the family lives of children are documented. About two-fifths of all children spend some time in a cohabiting family, and the greater instability of families begun by cohabitation means that children are also more likely to experience family disruption.

Carlson, M., McLanahan, S. & England, P. (2004). Union Formation in Fragile Families. Working Paper #01-06-FF. Center for Research on Child Wellbeing.
The authors use multinomial logistic regression to estimate the effects of economic, cultural/interpersonal, and other factors on whether (relative to having no romantic relationship) parents are romantically involved living apart, cohabiting, or married to each other about one year after the child's birth.

Cherlin, A. (1992). Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 
A demographic history of marriage since World War II is provided in this book.  It then discusses cohort-based and period-based explanations for these trends, as well as the trends' consequences for society.  Lastly, the book provides a description of racial differences in marriage patterns.

Cherlin, A. J. (2005). American Marriage in the Early Twenty-First Century. Marriage and Child Wellbeing.  The Future of Children.  The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution.
A historical review of the cultural and societal changes that have affected the institution of marriage today are discussed.  Issues such as changing job markets and effective birth control have seemingly reduced the importance of child-bearing in te context of marital relationships. 

Cherlin, A. J. (2009). The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and Family in America Today. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
This book explores the state of marriage in America today; its evolution culturally and with regard to religion and the law; how and why the present state of marriage-a merry-go-round of partnerships-developed, and the implications for parents and children.

Coontz, Stephanie. (2005) Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage.
What traditional marriage was and what it is now, and the changing institution of marriage over time, are described in this book.

Fein, D. (2004). Married and Poor: Basic Characteristics of Economically Disadvantaged Couples in the U.S. Abt Associates. Supporting Healthy Marriage.
A compilation of recent descriptive statistics on the formation, stability, characteristics, and quality of marriages in the low-income population of the U.S. are provided. In addition to culling findings from published reports, it also provides new findings from several recent surveys.

Fincham, F.D. & Beach, S. R. H. (in press). Marriage in the New Millennium: A Decade in Review. Journal of Marriage and Family, Volume 72, Number 3, 630-650.
Broad themes characterizing marital research in the past decade are a focus of this review. Continuing themes in the field like conflict, violence, and impact on physical and mental health outcomes are identified and the impact of the healthy marriage initiative on marital research and recent advances in methodology are addressed.

Goldstein, J. R. (August, 1999). The Leveling of Divorce in the United States. Demography, Vol. 36, No.3, pp. 404-414.
The author uses statistical analyses to determine the factors behind the plateau in crude divorce rates that has occurred since 1980.  The author examines whether compositional changes – including the aging of baby boomers, the increase in the age of first marriage, and the increase in cohabitation – are responsible for the leveling divorce rate and concludes that they are not. The author also predicted that the current rate of divorce will remain steady for the foreseeable future.

Malone-Colon, L. (2007). Responding to the Black Marriage Crisis: A New Vision for Change. Center for Marriage and Families: Institute for American Values, Brief #6.
The author describes the declines in marriage rates among Black Americans and the negative effects that these declines have on adults and children. She also outlines a positive vision with steps towards a "healthy Black marriage culture in America."

Cherlin, Andrew. (Speaker). (2010). 2010 census data on marriage and cohabitation. National Public Radio Interview National Public Radio. 

National Public Radio Special Series: Newly Wed In America. (June – July 2010).
More than 2 million couples will get married in the United States this year. Newly Wed in America, takes a look at the way the institution of marriage has changed — sometimes radically — in the last 50 years. This series discusses marriage and kids, marriage in the black community, intermarriage and marriage education in a variety of audio articles.

Pew Research Center. (2009). Marriage and Divorce: A 50-state tour. Washington, DC.
An interactive map, published by the Social and Demographic Trends division of the Pew Research Center, provides data from the 2008 American Community Survey.  The map includes statistics on both men and women for the following categories: currently married, currently divorced, median age at first marriage, and married three or more times.  Each category includes statistics by state in comparison with the national level.

Smock, Pamela. (2004). "The Wax and Wane of Marriage: Prospects for Marriage in the 21st Century." Journal of Marriage and Family, 66(4): 966-973.
The retreat from marriage and its possible causes; the continued high value placed on legal marriage; the relationship between marriage and socioeconomic inequality; and the importance of social context for marriage stability are discussed.

The Social Consequences of Marriage and Divorce

As the prevalence of marriage, cohabitation, childbearing and divorce have shifted, their social consequences have been studied. Divorce laws changed and, in the 1980's, divorce rates peaked creating a larger generation of youth who experienced the divorce of their parents.  The 1990's saw an increase in out-of-wedlock births and a delay in marriage to an older age by both genders.  These shifts led to a variety of papers examining characteristics of marriage and divorce such as commitment and conflict. Many articles also address what being raised in a two-parent family means for children in light of these social changes.

 Amato, P., Booth, A., Johnson, D. R., & Rogers, S. J. (2007). Alone Together: How Marriage in America is Changing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Two marital quality studies conducted twenty years apart are reviewed in this book. The authors conclude that marriage is highly adaptive and though marriage has become less cohesive, it has also become less confining.

Amato, P. R. & Booth, A. (1997). A Generation at Risk: Growing Up in an Era of Family Upheaval. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
A picture of how youth coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s have been affected and formed by the significant domestic changes of the last three decades is offered. Based on a fifteen-year study begun in 1980, the book considers parents' socioeconomic resources, their gender roles and relations, and the quality and stability of their marriages. It then examines children's relationships with their parents, their intimate and broader social affiliations, and their psychological well-being.

Blankenhorn, D. (1995). Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem. New York: Basic Books.
Fatherlessness is the leading cause of declining child well-being, providing the impetus behind social problems such as crime, domestic violence, and adolescent pregnancy. Challenging the basic assumptions of opinion leaders in academia and in the media, this book debunks the prevailing wisdom about fathering.

Fincham, F. D. (2003). Marital Conflict: Correlates, Structure and Context. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12, 23-27.
Marital conflict has deleterious effects on mental, physical, and family health, and three decades of research have yielded a detailed picture of the behavior that differentiates distressed from non-distressed couples.  Review of this work shows that the singular emphasis on conflict in generating marital outcomes has yielded an incomplete picture of its role in marriage.

Gottman, J. M. (1994). What Predicts Divorce? The Relationship between Marital Process and Marital Outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 7, 57-75.
The study was designed to provide an empirical foundation for understanding what makes marriages work and what factors underlie divorce. It identified both the basic skills associated with satisfying marriages and the skill deficits that typically accompany unhappy unions. 

McLanahan, S. & Sanderfur, G. (1994). Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Over half of all children in the current generation will live in a single-parent family–and these children simply will not fare as well as their peers who live with both parents.  Based on four national surveys and drawing on more than a decade of research, this book demonstrates the connection between family structure and a child's prospects for success.

Nock, S. L. (2005). Marriage as a Public Issue. The Future of Children, 15, 2. 
Social and demographic trends that have weakened the role of marriage and relationship between marriage and child-rearing are explored.  The author compares these cultural changes to the abundant research that links marriage to healthier living and economic well-being for adults and children. 

Popenoe, D. (1996). Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence that Fatherhood and Marriage Are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society. New York: Free Press.
Examining evidence from social and behavioral science, history, and evolutionary biology, this book shows why fathers today are deserting their families in record numbers. The disintegration of the child-centered, two-parent family and the weakening commitment of fathers to their children that more and more follows divorce, are central to many individual and social problems.

Scafidi, B. (2008). The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing: First-Ever Estimates for the Nation and All Fifty States. Institute for American Values and the Georgia Family Council.
The first rigorous estimate of the costs to U.S. taxpayers of high rates of divorce and unmarried childbearing both at the national and state levels are provided.

Shapiro, A. & Keyes, C. L. M. (2008).  Marital Status and Social Well-Being: Are the Married Always Better Off? Social Indicators Research, 88, 329-346.
Looking at nationally representative data, the research findings indicate that married persons do not have a significant "social well-being" advantage over non-married individuals in general, but married persons do have this advantage over those in cohabiting relationships.

Waite, L. J. & Gallagher, M. (2000). The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier and Better off Financially. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Waite and Gallagher contradict societal assumptions that marriage is a detriment for those involved.  They examine the emotional, physical, economic, and sexual benefits that marriage brings to individuals and society and conclude that being married is actually better and healthier than being divorced or single.

Why Marriage Matters, Second Edition: Twenty-six Conclusions from the Social Sciences. (2005). Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values Report September 2005.
Research on the changing trends for American families in terms of family structure and the value of marriage and child-wellbeing is reviewed. It highlights themes in marriage-related research including the following: Marriage is losing ground but not its value in minority communities, marriage benefits those with low incomes, marriage has biological and social implications on children and partners, and relationship quality predicts relationship stability and marital status.

Whitehead, B. D. (1997). The Divorce Culture. New York: Alfred Knopf. 
The argument that Americans need to strengthen their resolve with regard to divorce prevention, new ways of thinking about marriage, and a new consciousness about the meaning of commitment is expanded.

Yu, T., Pettit, G. S., Lansford, J. E., Dodge, K. A., & Bates, J. E. (2010). The Interactive Effects of Marital Conflict and Divorce on Parent-Adult Children's Relationships. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 282-292.
The main effect and interactive models of the relations between marital conflict, divorce, and parent – adult child relationships and the gender differences within them are examined. Results indicated that both marital conflict and divorce are associated with poorer quality parent – adult child relationships.

Attitudes about Marriage

There is a debate about marriage being an outdated institution. This is supported by the increase in age at first marriage, increase in cohabitation rates and de-linking of marriage and child-bearing. However, many people in attitudinal surveys report a desire to be married. The following resources are provided as a survey of historical, relational, and attitudinal beliefs about the institution of marriage. 

Glenn, N. D. (2005). With this Ring…A National Survey on Marriage in America. National Fatherhood Initiative. Bureau of Justice Assistance.
A national telephone survey of 1,503 Americans age 18 and older conducted late in 2003 and early in 2004 asked questions about attitudes toward marriage, aspirations for marriage, and past experiences with marriage. The survey yielded several findings including a majority of the respondents expressed pro-marriage attitudes.

Waller, M. R., & McLanahan, S. S. (2005). "His" and "Her" Marriage Expectations: Determinants and Consequences.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 53-67.
In most unmarried couples, both partners expect to marry, and their shared expectations are the strongest predictor of marriage and separation following their child's birth. Marriage and relationship stability are more likely when at least one parent expects to marry. Factors including children from previous relationships, distrust, and shared activities are also discussed.  See also:

Wilcox, W. B., & Wolfinger, N. H. (2007). Then Comes Marriage? Religion, Race, and Marriage in Urban America. Social Sciences Research, 36, 569-589.
The role that religious participation plays in encouraging marriage among new parents in urban America is examined. Using longitudinal data, the authors find that urban mothers who have a non-marital birth are significantly more likely to marry within a year of that birth if they attend church frequently.

Economics and Aspirations

Many low-income parents aspire to marriage, but have separated marriage and child-bearing. Economic and educational hurdles are often cited as reasons for not marrying, despite the reported desire to do so.

Cherlin, A. J., Cross-Barnet, C., Burton, L. M. & Garrett-Peters, R. (2008). Promises they can keep: Low-income women's attitudes towards motherhood, marriage, and divorce. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70, 919-933.
Utilizing data on low-income mothers in three cities, the authors tested three propositions regarding mothers' attitudes toward childbearing, marriage, and divorce. The authors found strong support for the proposition that childbearing outside of marriage carries little stigma, limited support for the proposition that women prefer to have children well before marrying, and almost no support for the proposition that women hesitate to marry because they fear divorce.

Edin, K., Kefalas, M. J. & Reed, J. M. (2004). A Peek Inside the Black Box: What Marriage Means for Poor Unmarried Parents. Journal of Marriage and Family. 66(4): 1007-1014.
The authors explore the meanings of child-bearing, cohabitation, and marriage for low-income residents of large cities.  This article also focuses on unmarried parents who have children together and looks at how parental status plays a unique role in shaping views and actions regarding cohabitation and marriage.

Gibson, C., Edin, K., & McLanahan, S. (2003). High Hopes but Even Higher Expectations: The Retreat from Marriage Among Low-Income Couples. Center for Research on Child Wellbeing working paper, 67, 5, 1301-1312.
Qualitative interviews from a nationally representative survey were used to examine what new unmarried parents say about their plans and expectations for marriage and to determine why they do not marry. The data shed light on an apparent contradiction that arises from the quantitative analysis, that most unmarried parents hold positive views towards marriage and say they plan to marry, but only a few actually do so by the time their child is a year old.

Lichter, D., Batson, C. & Brown, B. (2004). Welfare Reform and Marriage Promotion: The marital expectations and desires of single and cohabitating mothers. Social Service Review.
Using nationally representative data, this examination of marital expectations, desires, and behaviors of single and cohabitating unmarried mothers suggests that a majority of un-married women, including disadvantaged single and cohabitating mothers, value marriage as a personal goal. The problem lies in identifying and reducing barriers that prevent single women from realizing marital aspirations.

McLoyd, V. C., Cauce, A. M., Takeuchi, D., & Wilson, L. (2000). Marital Processes and Parental Socialization in Families of Color: A Decade Review of Research. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 1070-1093.
This study describes some of the demographic trends, concepts of marriage, and research on parenting for various groups of color including African American, Latino, and Asian American families. The authors also highlight some of the advances and challenges that accompany the study of families from various cultures.

What Young People Think

Many young people have seen their parents' divorce.  Further, a great deal of this population view cohabitation as socially acceptable and often as a precursor to marriage.  Social pressures to marry may no longer exist.  The following studies examine trends in cohabitation and marriage among young adults and their attitudes surrounding gender roles.

Scott, M.E., Steward-Streng, N.R., Manlove, J.,Schelar, E., and Cui, C. (2011). Characteristics of Young Adult Sexual Relationships: Diverse, Sometimes Violent, Often Loving.  Child Trends Research Brief.
Limited information exists on the characteristics of young adult relationships and partners. This research brief seeks to fill this knowledge gap by focusing on these characteristics. To develop this brief, Child Trends analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Results indicate that young adult relationships are fairly diverse; that these relationships have both positive and negative dimensions; and that partner and relationship characteristics and patterns of contraceptive use vary considerably by relationship type, gender, and race/ethnicity.

The National Marriage Project. (2007). The State of Our Unions 2007: The Social Health of Marriage in America. Technical Report. Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
A look at recent social trends shows that, while the United States is still the most marrying of Western nations, it is gradually moving toward the weaker marriage systems of other modern societies. This paper highlights trends in marriage, divorce, and cohabitation and includes a closer look at family behavior.

Popenoe, D. & Whitehead, B. (2000). Why Wed? Young Adults Talk About Sex, Love, and First Unions. National Marriage Project.
The study had four main objectives (1) to explore attitudes about first union formation (cohabitation and marriage) among a crucial but neglected population of young adults (2) to explore attitudes about marriage as an economic partnership (3) to explore attitudes on cohabitation and (4) to gain a better understanding of gender differences in attitudes and expectations about marriage.

Sassler, S. L. and Cunningham, A. M. (2004). Cohabitation and Childbearing Desires: Does Marriage Matter? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.
Studies indicate that cohabiters hold less traditional attitudes towards familial roles than do married adults. Cohabiting couples are more egalitarian on a variety of dimensions than are married couples, for example, demonstrating greater parity in earnings and housework than married couples.

Grady, W. R., Klepinger, D. H., Billy, J.O.G., and Cubbins, L. A. (2010). The Role of Relationship Power in Couple Decisions about Contraception in the U.S. Journal of Biosocial Science, 42, pp 307-323.
This study uses information from the 2006 National Couples Survey conducted in the US, which was obtained from both partners in intimate heterosexual relationships to investigate the relative impact of the male and female partner's method preferences on the type of method they use together. It also investigates the extent to which differences in power between the partners, measured on multiple dimensions, may weigh the decision-making process toward one partner or the other. The results suggest that men's and women's method preferences are both significantly related to the couples' method choice. Further, there is no evidence of a significant gender difference in the magnitude of these relationships, although women in married and cohabiting relationships appear to have greater power over method choice than women in dating relationships.

State-Level Surveys

Marriage and divorce can vary by culture and geography. The following reports reflect trends and opinions of marriage and relationships by geographical region, as collected through attitudinal surveys.

Broman, C. (2000). State of the State Survey: Marriage in Michigan: Factors that Affect Satisfaction.  Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, Michigan State University. 
Data from the State of the State survey conducted by the Institute in 1999, which interviewed nearly 1,500 residents on their volunteer activities, mental health, families, and marriage, are used. The report examines factors that contribute to happy marriages in Michigan, and the extent to which marital happiness differs across social and economic status.

Barlow, B. (2003). Marriage in Utah: 2003 Baseline Statewide Survey on Marriage and Divorce.
A summary of the attitudes and marital events that are taking place in Utah is provided.  Findings explore the attitudes and behaviors of the rising generation of younger adults.

Gomez, S., Howell, P., Krafsky, J., Stoica, D., Wilson, D. (2008). The State of California's Unions: Marriage and Divorce in the Golden State. California Healthy Marriages Coalition.
The goals of this study were to (1) determine how California residents view marriage, divorce and marriage education; (2) gain understanding about residents' past and present marriages and relationships including relationship quality; and (3) examine findings by demographic variables including gender, age, income, ethnicity, political affiliation, and religious involvement.

Harris, S. M., Glenn, N. D., Rappleyea, D. L., Diaz-Loving, R., Hawkins, A. J., Daire, A. P., Osborne, C., & Huston, T. L. (2008). Twogether in Texas: Baseline Report on Marriage in the Lone Star State. Austin: Health and Human Services Commission.
The report measures and analyzes attitudes and beliefs related to healthy marriage. Researchers conducted over 2,500 phone interviews with Texans, asking them questions on marriage, divorce, cohabitation and family roles.

Heath, C., Bradford, K., Whiting, J., Brock, G., & Foster, S.  (2004). The Kentucky Marriage Attitudes Study, 2004 Baseline Survey.  Research Center for Families and Children. University of Kentucky.
The study was designed to provide benchmark data to evaluate outcomes of potential future relationship education /marriage initiatives.

Johnson, C. A., Stanley, S. M., Glenn, N. D., Amato, P. R., Nock, S. L., Markman, H. J., & Dion, M. R. (2002). Marriage in Oklahoma: A Statewide Baseline Survey on Marriage and Divorce, 2001-2002. Oklahoma Marriage Initiative.
To develop programs to promote healthy relationships and strengthen marriage for Oklahoma residents, the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI) commissioned a survey to understand marriage and divorce rates in the state, as well as Oklahomans' attitudes towards marriage. The survey included questions on attitudes about relationships; demographic data on marriage, divorce, remarriage and patterns of cohabitation; intent to marry/remarry; relationship quality; and views toward marriage education.

Karney, B. R., Garvan, C. W., & Thomas, M. S.  (2003). Family Formation in Florida: 2003 Baseline Survey of Attitudes, Beliefs, and Demographics Relating to Marriage and Family Formation. University of Florida.
The Florida Family Formation Survey had three specific aims: (1) to describe the range of family structures in Florida, (2) to describe the attitudes of Florida residents towards family issues, and (3) to identify correlates of healthy family relationships. More than 4,500 adult residents in Florida were interviewed over the phone regarding these and related topics.

Schramm, D., Marshall, J., Harris, V., & George, A. (2003). Marriage in Utah: 2003 Utah Baseline Statewide Survey on Marriage and Divorce.  Salt Lake City: Utah State University Extension.
Highlights of the 2003 Utah Baseline Statewide Survey on Marriage and Divorce prepared by researchers at Utah State University, in conjunction with Oklahoma State University's Bureau for Social Research are provided. It includes demographic data on marriage, divorce, remarriage, and patterns of cohabitation among Utah residents. It also explores Utahans' perspective on the quality of their marriages, as well as overall attitudes towards marriage and divorce, with particular attention to the thoughts of young adults and low-income residents.