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Pathways to a Stable Union? Pregnancy and Childbearing Among Cohabiting and Married Couples

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Abstract

This study analyzes the stability of cohabiting and marital unions following a first birth. But unlike previous research, it compares the subsequent trajectories of unions that began with a pregnancy to those in which conceptions came after coresidence. The U.S. data from the 2006–2010 and 2011–2013 cross-sectional files of the National Survey of Family Growth indicate that roughly 1-in-5 first births were associated with rapid transitions from conception into either cohabitation or marriage. Moving in together following a pregnancy—especially an unintended one—is unlikely to lead to marital success or union stability. Compared with marital unions, dissolution rates following birth were particularly high for couples who entered a cohabiting union following conception. Only a small minority of these couples married (i.e., less than one-third), and these marriages experienced high dissolution rates. The results also suggest that the most committed cohabiting couples got married after finding themselves pregnant, leaving behind the most dissolution-prone cohabiting couples. The American family system is being transformed by newly emerging patterns of fertility among cohabiting couples.

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Notes

  1. In our sample, 55 % of women who married after the conception but before the birth were cohabiting at the time of conception, while 45 % were not living with their partners at the time of conception. In analyses not shown but available upon request, we treated these two groups separately in all analyses. We found that these two groups had similar demographic characteristics and similar dissolution rates following a first birth, and for simplicity we group them together as ‘post-conception marriages.’

  2. For example, in France, 51 percent of all first births occurred to unmarried mothers, but roughly 90 percent of unmarried mothers were cohabiting at the time of birth (Perelli-Harris et al. 2012). In the Netherlands, 76 percent of non-marital births were to cohabiting couples. In the Scandinavian counties, these percentages were similarly high (e.g., 92 percent in Norway). In Italy, where marital births account for 86 percent of all first births, the large majority of non-marital births are born to cohabiting women (roughly two-thirds).

  3. Carrying a pregnancy to term, therefore, introduces some selection among couples and may influence decisions to cohabit or marry. Whether these couples are positively or negatively selected in terms of separation rates warrants further analysis that is beyond the scope of this paper.

  4. Because we use a person-month data file that contains multiple observations per person, we cluster the standard errors at the person level in all models. This allows for correlation of the errors within person, adjusting for the fact that monthly observations of the same person over time are not independent of one another.

  5. In some additional analysis, we also consider other functional forms in this relationship. For example, we include age as a continuous variable, but also include a quadratic term to pick up non-linearities in the age profile. These results yield conclusions that are similar to those reported here, but are available from the authors upon request.

  6. We acknowledge that there is an active discussion about the appropriateness of this measure in the NSFG, especially in distinguishing mistimed and unwanted pregnancies and births (Santelli et al. 2009; Schwartz et al. 2010).

  7. We also re-ran results in Table 5 using a cross-sectional file, ignoring the duration aspect of the analysis (i.e., analyzing a file of one observation per person and then the outcome is whether they ultimately break up or not). The results are slightly different from those reported in Table 5. The new analyses have less power but most of the variables that were significant in the person-month file were also significant in the cross-sectional file. The one difference is the effect of having a birth after 2003, but this is purely because those people have less opportunity to break up than those that were born before 2003. Using the person-month file address the duration bias, which argues for using the person-month file.

  8. In some additional analyses (not shown), we also controlled for duration of union before the birth of the baby. The expectation was that relationships of longer duration would be more likely to transition into unions, especially marital unions, but this was not the case. In addition, we entered a quadratic term for duration to see if that affected the results. Although the quadratic term was statistically significant and negative in the full model (meaning that dissolution risk declines with duration), any effects on other variables were very small.

  9. We also replicated these analyses using Cox proportional hazard models. In these supplemental analyses (available upon request), the hazard ratio for pre-conception cohabitation was 2.69, while the hazards for post-conception cohabitation and post-conception marriages were 2.34 and 1.57, respectively. All of these coefficients are statistically significant at the 0.01 level or lower, and confirming the conclusions based on results reported in Table 6.

  10. Although the independent variables in our event history models are strictly exogenous, we select on couples that have had a first birth at the time of the survey. Hoem and Kreyenfeld (2006) provide a useful discussion of the inferential issues involved in using characteristics measured at the time of the survey to model life-course transitions.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported by the Cornell Population Center through funding by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The authors acknowledge the helpful comments of Jessica Su, several anonymous reviewers, and the editor. The second author acknowledges post-doctoral fellowship support from The Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through grant R305B110001 to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.

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Correspondence to Daniel T. Lichter.

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Lichter, D.T., Michelmore, K., Turner, R.N. et al. Pathways to a Stable Union? Pregnancy and Childbearing Among Cohabiting and Married Couples. Popul Res Policy Rev 35, 377–399 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11113-016-9392-2

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11113-016-9392-2

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