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intimate union formation
and dissolution

Judith A. Seltzer

Ten years ago studies of couple relationships
emphasized marriage formation and dissolution
(both separation and divorce). Marriage is still
the dominant heterosexual couple relationship,
but increases in rates of nonmarital cohabita
tion, the growing recognition of couple rela
tionships between individuals who do not live
together, sometimes called LAT (Living Apart
Together) couples, and same sex unions have
broadened the area of inquiry to include these
other unions as well. A benefit of the broader
perspective is that it allows for comparisons
between marriage and less institutionalized
relationships, such as cohabitation, to assess
effects of social context and laws on couples
well being.
Research on unions often distinguishes
between unions as private, intimate relation
ships and unions as public phenomena that are
a result of laws, policies, and social norms about
the rights and obligations of members of the
couple. Examples of the latter are tax policies
and inheritance laws that treat married couples
differently than unmarried couples who live
together. The public nature of unions is also
evident in attitude surveys that show general
agreement about a gendered division of labor
within marriage. The distinction between pri
vate and public unions is less useful than might
appear at first. Private aspects of couples rela
tionships are, at least in part, a function of the
laws, policies, norms, and economic organiza
tion of the public world. For instance, the rela
tive wages of men and women may affect the
timing of marriage and the kind of person some
one marries. Social norms affect how husbands
and wives divide household labor and childcare.
Policies that change how difficult it is to divorce
may also alter the quality of relationships within
marriage. When divorce is less costly, spouses
invest less in their relationship and pursue more
of their own interests than when divorce is more

The US has seen an increase in the age at which
couples marry. In 2003, half of US men were
married by the time they reached age 27.1, an
increase since 1970 of nearly 4 years. For
women, the increase in median age at marriage
to 25.3 was even greater, 4.4 years (US Bureau
of the Census 2004). During this period, sex
outside of marriage became more acceptable,
rates of marital separation and divorce rose and
then stabilized at high rates, and nonmarital
cohabitation became much more common
before and after marriage. By the late 1990s
about half of first marriages ended in separation
or divorce (some who end marriages do not
formally divorce); and over half of first mar
riages were preceded by cohabitation. The prob
ability of marital dissolution has been relatively
stable for the past 20 years, although crude
divorce rates have stabilized and even declined
slightly for some subgroups. Late marriage and
high divorce rates do not mean that individuals
have stopped pairing off. Individuals still form
couples and live together outside of marriage.
Although rates of cohabitation have continued
to rise, the increase in cohabitation has not
compensated for the rise in age at marriage.
That is, rates of union formation, where unions
include marriage and nonmarital cohabitation,