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book cover

Sharon Sassler's Review of
Marriage and Cohabitation

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

Review originally in Contemporary Sociology 37, 5. Reproduced with permission of the reviewer.

Family formation processes have changed dramatically in recent decades. Increases in cohabitation, non-marital parenting, and family disruption, in conjunction with changing gender roles, challenge the primacy of marriage. Given the broad array of choices facing contemporary young adults regarding the formation and progression of intimate relationships, Thornton, Axinn, and Xie set out to examine the factors affecting the timing of union formation, and whether young adults cohabit or marry. A central goal of the book is to historicize recent developments in intimate relationships.

Thornton and colleagues argue that many issues marking contemporary family change-such as the privileged status of marriage and the public versus private nature of intimate commitments-are firmly rooted in northwest European family practices extending back several centuries. This serves as their springboard for exploring intergenerational effects on the relationship tempo, timing, and outcomes of American adults who were born in 1961 and came of age in the final decades of the twentieth century. While the authors convincingly depict the myriad ways that families of origin influence young adult outcomes for multiple generations, both directly and indirectly, their attempts to tie contemporary family change to historical shifts is less persuasive. Their coverage of historical transformations in family and marital behavior provides much useful material for those interested in family social patterns. Yet their history discussion is seldom specifically connected to the questions the book examines-what factors account for the pace with which young adults enter into cohabiting and marital unions, and the attributes and attitudes associated with selecting one union form over the other or transforming cohabitation into marriage.

Most of the book, social history aside, focuses on unpacking the results of numerous analyses drawn from the Intergenerational Panel Study of Parents and Children, a study of white couples in the Detroit Metropolitan area who in the summer of 1961 had given birth to a first, second, or fourth child. Data were gathered over a 31-year period, with the final interview of children taking place in 1993. Repeated surveys enable the researchers to assess how family factors at varying points in both parents' and children's lives shape the union progression of the offspring who came of age in the 1980s and early 1990s. This allows the authors to ask how the behaviors of this 1961 cohort were shaped by parents (and grandparents). The amount of intergenerational information is prodigious, and repeated interviews with the children also provide a broad array of details on the young adults whose unions they study. These data are used to first examine how parental factors shape children's union choices. They next explore how young adults' own behaviors and views influence union choices, net of parental factors. Their meticulous approach enables them to assess which parental factors are most important in accounting for relationship formation processes, and how family factors are attenuated (or not) by young adults' own views.

The book tells a story that is consistent with the bulk of studies on union formation based on other, more diverse samples. Family transmission processes are important. There are strong associations between parental education, financial resources, and young adults' delayed entrance into marriage or cohabitation. Furthermore, some of these connections extend past two generations; the religiosity of grandparents is negatively related to cohabitation of young adults. Parental behaviors such as early marriage, premarital pregnancy, and experiences with divorce also strongly condition young adults' entrance into cohabiting unions. The findings are often new and interesting, such as those relating to parents' and young adults' attitudes and beliefs about sex, abortion, marriage, and single life, and the way they influence the choice between cohabitation and marriage. The appendices also serve as important resources, laying out the extensive array of variables utilized and suggest intriguing avenues for future research.

In identifying factors shaping entry into marriage or cohabitation, the authors sometimes lose sight of their initial goals. They conclude that cohabitation is not much different from marriage in previous centuries. What distinguishes modern-day cohabitation from common law marriage in the past, they claim, is the involvement of church and state in making marriages official. But while suggesting that many of the cohabitors in their study would have been considered married under the definitions and understandings of earlier times-because many of them intend to marry upon moving in together, or develop that desire over time-they never adequately address the effect of cohabitation on marriage. It is unclear which cohabiting unions result in marriage, which do not, and how these groups differ. Nor do we learn much about the marriages of those who wed directly vis-a-vis marriages preceded by cohabitation. This is an important comparison because many of the 80% of women and 70% of men who had married by age 32 first lived with their spouse. Additionally, short shrift is paid to the dramatic changes reshaping the United States over the twentieth century. More detail on the industrializing Midwest, the confluence of immigrant, rural, and black resettlement, the expansion (and then contraction) of the automobile industry, and shifts in the residential make-up of Detroit would help readers situate these changes in young adults' family formation patterns in an American context.

Still, Marriage and Cohabitation is a thought-provoking and thorough piece of work. The authors explore issues that will only become more important as the institution of marriage faces new challenges resulting from the demographic momentum of earlier family change. While this study may not reorient how family scholars think about the challenges facing the institution of marriage, it illustrates the need to broaden the historical lens used to study family change.