The Economic Foundations of Cohabiting Couples’ Union Transitions

Abstract

In recent decades, cohabitation has become an increasingly important relationship context for U.S. adults and their children, a union status characterized by high levels of instability. To understand why some cohabiting couples marry but others separate, researchers have drawn on theories emphasizing the benefits of specialization, the persistence of the male breadwinner norm, low income as a source of stress and conflict, and rising economic standards associated with marriage (the marriage bar). Because of conflicting evidence and data constraints, however, important theoretical questions remain. This study uses survival analysis with prospective monthly data from nationally representative panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation from 1996–2013 to test alternative theories of how money and work affect whether cohabiting couples marry or separate. Analyses indicate that the economic foundations of cohabiting couples’ union transitions do not lie in economic specialization or only men’s ability to be good providers. Instead, results for marriage support marriage bar theory: adjusting for couples’ absolute earnings, increases in wealth and couples’ earnings relative to a standard associated with marriage strongly predict marriage. For dissolution, couples with higher and more equal earnings are significantly less likely to separate. Findings demonstrate that within-couple earnings equality promotes stability, and between-couple inequalities in economic resources are critical in producing inequalities in couples’ relationship outcomes.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    As Becker (1981:14) stated, “Specialization in the allocation of time and in the accumulation of human capital would be extensive in an efficient family if all members were biologically identical; indeed, . . . biological differences probably have weakened the degree of specialization.”

  2. 2.

    CPS-Outgoing Rotation Group data was obtained from IPUMS-CPS.

  3. 3.

    SIPP data used in this study are publicly available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Data can be accessed at http://www.census.gov/sipp/.

  4. 4.

    Estimates are substantively identical when the marriage bar is defined at the census division or national level, but BIC model fit statistics are improved significantly when the marriage bar is defined at the state level.

  5. 5.

    I exclude states grouped in the SIPP: Maine, Vermont, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

  6. 6.

    Comparing marriage bar specifications in Table S3 (Online Resource 1) for men’s, women’s, and couples’ earnings ratio shows that increases in earnings below the marriage bar are positively associated with the risk of marriage, although women’s earnings ratio below the marriage bar is smaller in magnitude than couples’ and men’s earnings ratio and not statistically significant (p = .08).

  7. 7.

    The SIPP does not collect data consistently across waves on the value of assets and debt. Although there are wealth topical modules in select waves of each panel, I rely on consistently available wealth indicators.

  8. 8.

    This restriction aims to avoid oversampling individuals who are especially prone to union instability, and leads to a reduction from 5,890 cohabiting couples to 5,406. Missing covariate data produces a final analytic sample of 5,303 couples.

  9. 9.

    Subfamily cohabiting unions are those in which neither partner is the household head.

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Acknowledgments

This research received generous support from the Cornell Population Center and the Office of Population Research. I am grateful to Sara McLanahan, Kelly Musick, Viviana Zelizer, and the editors and anonymous reviewers for valuable comments and suggestions.

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Ishizuka, P. The Economic Foundations of Cohabiting Couples’ Union Transitions. Demography 55, 535–557 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-018-0651-1

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Keywords

  • Cohabitation
  • Marriage
  • Union dissolution
  • Inequality