With the share of married adults at an all-time low in the United States, new research by demographers at Cornell University and the University of Central Oklahoma unveils clues why couples don’t get married -- they fear divorce.
Among cohabitating couples, more than two-thirds of the study’s respondents admitted to concerns about dealing with the social, legal, emotional and economic consequences of a possible divorce.
The study, “The Specter of Divorce: Views from Working and Middle-Class Cohabitors,” is published in the journal Family Relations (December 2011) and is co-authored by Sharon Sassler, Cornell professor of policy analysis and management, and Dela Kusi-Appouh, a Cornell doctoral student in the field of development sociology.
Roughly 67 percent of the study’s respondents shared their worries about divorce. Despite the concerns, middle-class subjects spoke more favorably about tying the knot and viewed cohabitation as a natural stepping stone to marriage compared to their working-class counterparts. Lower-income women, in particular, disproportionately expressed doubts about the “trap” of marriage, fearing that it could be hard to exit if things go wrong or it would lead to additional domestic responsibilities but few benefits.
One Reason Why Couples Don’t Get Married
The study also found working-class cohabitating couples were more apt to view marriage as “just a piece of paper,” nearly identical to their existing relationship. They were twice as likely to admit fears about being stuck in marriage with no way out once they were relying on their partners’ share of income to get by.
Approximately one quarter of women living with a man say they don't ever plan on marrying him. This result suggests that for many people, living together is not a step on the road to marriage, study author Dr. Wendy D. Manning of Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
More couples live together out of wedlock than ever before, and the reasons why some roommates prefer to stay unwed likely vary, she said. Some may believe that marriage would not alter their situation enough to make it worthwhile. Others may move in with a mate with no plans to marry him, Manning suggested, preferring the intimacy and companionship that comes from a roommate, and not from a date or husband.
The authors hope that their findings could help premarital counselors to better tailor their lessons to assuage widespread fears of divorce and to target the specific needs of various socioeconomic classes.