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Next Brown Bag

Mon, Jan 22, 2018, noon: Narayan Sastry

book cover

Megan Sweeney's Review of
Marriage and Cohabitation

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

Review originally in Population Studies. Reproduced with permission of the publisher.

In Marriage and Cohabitation, Thornton, Axinn, and Xie provide a rich portrait of patterns and correlates of union formation among a recent cohort of young adults in the USA. These authors take an intergenerational approach to their subject and place recent patterns of union formation within a broader historical context.

The bulk of the book is devoted to empirical analyses of data from the Intergenerational Panel Study of Parents and Children (IPS), a longitudinal study based on a sample of white married women who had a first, second, or fourth birth in the Detroit metropolitan area during the summer of 1961. The book focuses on the unions formed by these offspring when they were between the ages of 18 and 31. The children were interviewed 3 times over the course of the study, in 1980 (at roughly age 18), in 1985 (at roughly age 23), and again in 1993 (at roughly age 31). The children's mothers were interviewed fully 8 times over the course of the study.

The data are well suited to the purpose of investigating intergenerational influences on union transitions in young adulthood among members of this birth cohort. The children of the IPS came of age during years of rapid change in gender roles, attitudes, and family patterns, and thus the temporal specificity of the analyses is balanced by the particular significance of this cohort. Although the parent generation of the IPS sample is limited to white mothers, the authors frequently draw on findings from other studies to describe potential race and ethnic variation in the family patterns they examine. While the IPS sample is also geographically limited, the authors note that estimates from these data are generally comparable to those from nationally representative samples.

The first part of the book (Chapters 2-4) provides a careful review of historical and conceptual issues relevant to understanding recent patterns of union formation in the USA. In an effort to do justice to the complexity of their subject, the authors lay out five different approaches to conceptualizing the union formation process: cohabitation as similar to being single, cohabitation as similar to marriage, being single and cohabitation as independent alternatives to marriage, marriage and cohabitation as alternative choices conditional on deciding to live with a partner, and cohabitation as part of the marriage process. The authors use these multiple conceptualizations to varying degrees in the analyses that follow. While Thornton et al. acknowledge that their approach is eclectic, they argue that this complexity is necessary for an accurate account of the diversity of meanings and motivations associated with contemporary union formation. While family scholars may quibble about whether it might have been more effective to focus on a smaller number of conceptual models, or whether the empirical analyses might have been used more forcefully to adjudicate among these different perspectives, few would disagree that no single model can fully capture the diverse experiences of union formation among recent cohorts of young adults.

The second part of the book (Chapters 5 and 6) investigates how characteristics of parents (particularly mothers) influence the union formation process of young adults. These analyses point to powerful intergenerational influences on union formation during young adulthood, including socio-economic standing during early childhood, mother's religiosity, sex-role attitudes in later childhood, and the enduring effects of parents' own marital and childbearing histories.

The third part of the book (Chapters 7-11) considers the combined influence of both parents and children on patterns of union formation during young adulthood. Taken together, these analyses turn an ambitiously broad lens on the correlates of union formation. For example, the authors identify links between early and intense experiences of courtship and an accelerated pace of union formation* particularly as related to entrance into cohabiting unions. They note that highly religious people, while no more likely to enter unions than the less religious, are more likely to choose marriage over cohabitation. They find that being a student more strongly reduces the likelihood of marriage than of cohabitation and also find strong links between men's employment and union formation.

Finally, in the book's concluding chapter, Thornton et al. note that cohabitation among young adults in the IPS sample was most often short-lived and that decision making about cohabitation was closely related to decisions about marriage. They argue that understanding the roots and meanings of contemporary cohabitation requires an understanding of the ways in which the process of marriage has itself changed over time. Although these authors highlight substantial heterogeneity in motives for cohabiting, they also note that the modal form of cohabitation among the IPS offspring shares many features with marriages of the past, including sexual intimacy, an independent household, and plans to marry in the future.

Few would disagree that intimate relationships present 'moving targets' for family scholars. Indeed, recent evidence suggests that unions formed among young people at the turn of the twenty-first century tend to differ even from those formed in the 1980s and early 1990s, when many of the IPS offspring were making decisions about marriage and cohabitation. For example, couples are increasingly extending the time spent cohabiting with an unmarried partner and qualitative evidence suggests that many contemporary couples are 'sliding' across a sometimes fuzzy boundary between remaining single and cohabiting (e.g., Manning and Smock 2005; Kennedy and Bumpass 2008). Marriage and Cohabitation deserves recognition for the remarkable breadth and depth of understanding it offers about union formation among young adults at the close of the twentieth century. But this important book should further provide a baseline for comparison with the union formation experiences of more recent cohorts, particularly given the careful attention paid to factors such as attitudes and aspects of parental influence, which are arguably difficult to measure retrospectively. In this way, Marriage and Cohabitation's careful analysis of a single birth cohort also has much to contribute towards understanding the nature of subsequent trajectories of family change.


Kennedy, Sheela and Larry Bumpass. 2008. Cohabitation and children's living arrangements: new estimates from the United States, Demographic Research 19: 1663-1692.

Manning, Wendy D. and Pamela J. Smock. 2005. Measuring and modeling cohabitation: new perspectives from qualitative data, Journal of Marriage and Family 67: 989-1002.

MEGAN M. SWEENEY, University of California, Los Angeles