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Gender Differences in the Marital Plans and Union Transitions of First Cohabitations

Abstract

In an era of changing relationship norms, plans for marriage are an increasingly complex yet important indicator of the link between cohabitation and marriage. Despite qualitative evidence on this complexity, little is known about the nuances of marital plans and gender differences at the population level. This study introduces the concept of “informal” marital plans—cohabitations beginning with some intentions to marry that had yet to be formalized. Drawing on data of heterosexual cohabitors in their first coresidential union from the National Survey of Family Growth (2011–2015, n = 5545), I examine the sociodemographic correlates of marital plans as well as their consequences for men’s and women’s union transitions. The results show significant gender differences in reports of marital plans at the time of moving in together, with women more likely to report engagement and men more likely to report informal marital plans. Although having any marital intentions is positively associated with transitioning to marriage for both genders, engagement is a significantly stronger predictor of marriage than informal marital plans. Pronounced gender differences are found with respect to the dissolution of first cohabitations, as both informal and formal marital plans are more protective against dissolution for men than for women. Distinguishing informal marital plans from engagement provides meaningful new insights into the role of cohabitation in modern American union formation.

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Data Availability

Publicly available through the National Center for Health Statistics: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nsfg/index.htm.

Notes

  1. While 57% of female respondents had ever-cohabited, only 53% of male respondents in the NSFG had ever-cohabited, suggesting different selection processes into cohabitation may exist by gender that, in turn, could influence the results.

  2. These dropped observations are not systematically different from those in the analytic sample.

  3. Because of the decline in marital plans among recent birth cohorts (Vespa 2014), it is important to not only examine recent first premarital cohabitations in order to avoid inducing sample selection based on cohort differences. Across the 10-year interval, the differences in reports of marital plans are not statistically significant, which suggests that the results are not driven by recall error. Sensitivity checks show regression results are robust to a 5-year sample restriction. I present the ten-year findings due to greater statistical power, less concern over selection bias, and a longer time window to include cohabitors with slower relationship transitions (Light and Omori 2013).

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Sharon Sassler, Laura Tach, Kelly Musick, Vida Maralani, Tom Davidson, as well as the anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful feedback on earlier versions of this paper.

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Correspondence to Emily Parker.

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Parker, E. Gender Differences in the Marital Plans and Union Transitions of First Cohabitations. Popul Res Policy Rev 40, 673–694 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11113-020-09579-7

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Keywords

  • Marital plans
  • Cohabitation
  • Gender
  • Union transitions
  • Marriage
  • Dissolution