2416 intimate union formation and dissolution

themselves in the labor market and earning a
family wage, that is, among those who are less
educated and minority group members. New
research in this area, however, suggests that for
recent cohorts both womens and mens earning
potentials affect who marries and the kind of
person they marry.
Although cultural and economic explanations
for changes in unions are often posited as com
peting interpretations, efforts to compare them
typically demonstrate that neither is sufficient
on its own to explain either temporal or cross
sectional variation in union patterns. It is more
likely that both ideological and economic fac
tors contributed to changes in the formation
and dissolution of marriage.


In the US the popular notion of finding a
spouse is that two people fall in love and then
marry. That marriage depends on more than
love is evident from data on assortative mating,
or the extent to which spouses resemble each
other on social and demographic characteristics.
Husbands and wives are very likely to have the
same racial identification. They are also likely to
be similar in the amount of schooling they have
completed. In addition, spouses are likely to
come from similar religious backgrounds, but
religious intermarriage has been increasing in
the US. Couples who are cohabiting are some
what less homogamous or similar than married
couples. This is probably in part because coha
bitation is a period when individuals are evalu
ating whether or not they are a good match for
each other, and in part because the social norms
about what constitutes an appropriate marriage
partner are different from those governing other
unions. Members of cohabiting couples who are
more similar have a greater likelihood of marry
ing. Marriages between more similar spouses are
also more stable and less likely to end in divorce.
Similarities between spouses or partners
characteristics are the result of a matching pro
cess in which each person seeks the best partner
who will also have him or her. Social scientists
sometimes describe the process of spouse selec
tion as a marriage market. This analogy assumes
that spouses find each other through an
exchange process. The actors in marriage mar
kets differ across cultures. Although in the US
the potential spouses themselves are the primary
actors, in some cultures matches are formed by
kin groups seeking alliances with each other for
political reasons or to protect property, and in
other settings parents themselves or a third
party matchmaker bring a couple together.
Marriage markets also differ in the charac
teristics considered desirable in a potential
spouse. For instance, in a secular society in
which technical skills are highly valued, finding
a highly educated spouse may be more impor
tant than marrying someone who is of the same
religion. In the US, religious homogamy has
declined at the same time educational homo
gamy has increased. There may also be gender
differences in the characteristics desired in a
spouse. If the roles of husband and wife differ,
as in the Parsonian breadwinnerhomemaker
model of middle class marriage, then the marital
division of labor dictates that men with higher
earning potential and women who are attractive
and emotionally supportive would be highly
sought after on the marriage market. Mens
attractiveness and womens earning potential
would be relatively less important compared to
the characteristics that help fulfill the gendered
role requirements of marriage.
Finally, marriage markets are also constrained
by formal rules about who is an appropriate
marriage partner (e.g., whether or not first
cousins are allowed to marry; and whether racial
intermarriage was permitted under previous US
state laws governing marriage). Informal aspects
of social organization also affect marriage market
outcomes. Daily interaction between persons of
the same race or education level in neighbor
hoods, schools, and work settings increases the
likelihood of homogamous unions. By choosing
where to live or where to send their children to
school, families indirectly affect childrens later
decisions about whom to marry.


Finding a spouse takes longer when it is unclear
whether or not potential spouses have the
desired characteristics. Physical appearance is
easy to observe at a young age, but signs that