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book cover

Daniel T. Lichter's Review of
Marriage and Cohabitation

by Arland Thornton, William Axinn, and Yu Xie
Published by University of Chicago Press, 2007

Review originally in Social Forces 87.4 (June 2009): 2207(3). Reproduced with permission of the reviewer.

American young people are increasingly delaying marriage, while a growing majority of their first marriages are preceded by cohabitation. In this book, social demographers Arland Thornton, William Axinn and Yu Xie ask a straightforward question: Why do young people marry when they do? And why do they often choose cohabitation over marriage? The authors--distinguished all--take a distinctively life-course perspective that links marriage and family patterns across parental and filial generations. Marriage and Cohabitation explores the myriad forces that shape the dating and mating patterns of young people--their family backgrounds, current economic circumstances (e.g., employment), and attitudes and belief systems about the meaning of courtship, marriage and childbearing. This book marries social demography with social psychology.

The authors draw on data from the Intergenerational Panel Study of Parents and Children. This longitudinal study began in 1962 with a sample of couples in the Detroit metropolitan area who had recently given birth to their first, second or fourth child. The mothers were interviewed several times thereafter until 1993, and their children were interviewed three times between 1980 and 1993, when they were ages 18 to 31 and making choices themselves about marriage and family. By linking the marital behavior of young adults to the social and economic circumstances experienced as children living with their parents, the authors can identify intergenerational effects, including the intergenerational transmission or reproduction of family patterns (e.g., early marriage). Indeed, Marriage and Cohabitation raises important questions about demographic momentum that is currently built into the American family system. Cohabitation, early marriage and unwed childbearing in one generation are seemingly passed along and amplified in the marital and family behaviors of the next generation.

Marriage and Cohabitation is organized into three parts. The first part focuses on historical and conceptual issues, including chapters on historical trends in the Western family system over the past 500 years and on recent patterns of marriage and cohabitation. The second part examines how family circumstances--measured at the time when children mature from infancy to adolescence--shape early adult patterns of courtship and marriage. The authors focus here on the influences of family organization, the immigrant and farm backgrounds of parents, socioeconomic status, religion, parental marital patterns (e.g., early marriage or cohabitation), and parental childbearing (e.g., non-marital childbearing and family size). The third section centers mostly on parental attitudes and values (including religious values and behavior) and children's own social and behavioral characteristics (such as dating and courtship) on transitions to either marriage or cohabitation. The authors estimate "intergenerational causal pathways" that link early childhood and adolescent experiences to marital behaviors in early adulthood.

So what do we learn about marriage and cohabitation? What do we learn that is new? To be sure, each chapter is filled with interesting empirical insights that are broadly summarized in the concluding chapter along with some historical context. For example, we learn that mating behaviors are shaped in part by parents, that is, the experiences of young adults "can be traced backward for at least two generations."(154) We learn that circumstances at birth (e.g., the presence of siblings or non-marital birth status) are correlated with marital behavior in early adulthood. We learn that more parental resources during childhood are related to delays in marriage. We learn that maternal divorce and remarriage are associated with elevated rates of cohabitation among their young adult offspring (i.e., the children of the mothers in the sample). We learn that maternal church attendance and traditional sex role orientations are associated with a greater likelihood that their adult children will enter marriage early rather than cohabit. We learn that adolescents who dated early or have sexual intercourse at an early age also married and cohabited earlier than other adolescents.

If readers have any problems with this volume--with the theoretical orientation and empirical approach--it will be in connecting the pieces and fully appreciating how these detailed data and analyses inform current debates about the "retreat from marriage." It also may be hard to distinguish new or truly important findings from those documented elsewhere by the authors or by others using more recent or better nationally-representative data. The volume is based on a Detroit sample that has many unique qualities (e.g., connecting three generations and providing unusually detailed intergenerational attitude and behavioral data). But these survey data also are now getting old and are based on an entirely white sample. The city of Detroit today is more than 80 percent black. The authors acknowledge this limitation and, to their credit, they often include some post hoc discussion of possible racial or ethnic variation at the end of each of the chapters. Still, the book arguably is more backward than forward looking. It reflects a different America. Parents and their children in this sample traversed the life course at a time when cohabitation and other family forms were far less common (especially in the parental generation). Do the results and the conclusions apply to America's white population or to its increasingly racially-diverse and growing immigrant populations? Many of the putative "causes" examined in this paper--socioeconomic status, maternal marital behaviors (including divorce and non-marital fertility), and various family-related attitudes--have changed dramatically in the recent past or are distributed unevenly across different racial and ethnic groups.

This book also is couched in causal language- direct and indirect effects --but the authors admit (and most readers will quickly conclude) that this is not an analysis of causal effects. The intergeneration correlations reported here have many different pathways that are neither discussed nor measured in this study. In any study of this sort, intergenerational causal inferences are difficult to make because mother and child share many measured and unmeasured characteristics (e.g., temperament, race and ethnicity, ability, "attractiveness") that create spurious intergenerational associations. Independent of these correlated causes, why exactly do parents matter in the long run, especially with respect to marriage and cohabitation? To be sure, this is a book worth reading and studying carefully--it provides an analytical framework for future research, and it identifies some of the intergenerational factors most highly associated with entry into marriage or cohabitation. But it does not provide, as the authors claim, "a comprehensive analysis of forces shaping young people's decision to enter marital and cohabiting relationships," at least not for today's young people. Cohabitation and Marriage represents, in many ways, an historically-situated case study of white families in Detroit. Any broader lessons for marriage and cohabitation for American young people today and in the future are much less obvious.

Reviewer: Daniel T. Lichter, Cornell University