intimate union formation and dissolution 2415

are still lower today despite the increase in
Within the US there are substantial class and
race/ethnic differences in rates of union forma
tion and dissolution. Men and women who
have more secure economic prospects are more
likely to marry than those who are economically
disadvantaged. African Americans are much
less likely to marry than are whites. This race
difference cannot be explained fully by racial
differences in economic characteristics. Marital
dissolution is also more common among those
with less education and among African Amer
icans, as compared to whites. These disparities
in separation and divorce appear to be widening
over time.
Trends in union formation and dissolution in
Western European countries are similar in sev
eral ways to those in the US. Age at marriage
has risen and nonmarital unions, sometimes
called consensual unions, have become increas
ingly common since the 1970s. Rates of divorce
have also increased in most European countries.
The combination of delayed or nonmarriage,
increasing consensual unions, and high rates
of marital instability support the claim that
marriage has become less attractive compared
to alternative arrangements.


There are two broad categories of explanations
for these trends and differentials: cultural
change and changes in economic opportunities.
Cultural explanations argue that changes in
unions occurred because of a broad shift toward
individualistic and egalitarian values. Some
trace this ideological shift to the Protestant
Reformation, while others identify a qualitative
change toward the middle of the twentieth cen
tury, sometimes called the Second Demographic
Transition. The rise in individualism fostered
investment in personal goals which sometimes
conflicted with marital goals, and resulted in
delayed marriage and increases in marital disso
lution. At the same time, a growing concern
with equality between women and men fostered
increases in womens education and labor force
participation, contributing to declines in the
number of children couples have. Without the
responsibility for children, individual spouses
have less investment in their marriage and find
divorce less costly. The driving force in these
explanations, however, is changes in values.
Economic explanations for changes in mar
riage emphasize the rise in opportunities for
wage labor, expansion of educational opportu
nities, and the relative wages of women and
men. These theories argue that marriage and
other unions are the result of cost benefit calcu
lations about whether the benefits of being mar
ried (or divorced) are greater than alternatives,
such as being single or cohabiting. Delayed mar
riage and higher rates of marital dissolution
occur because women have greater economic
independence outside of marriage than they
had earlier in the twentieth century. This inter
pretation derives from the new home econom
ics theory advanced by Gary Becker and is
consistent with Talcott Parsonss view of the
family in which there are gains to specialization
in marriage. In these theories, both husband and
wife are better off when one (typically the hus
band), who has higher earning potential, specia
lizes in market work and the other (typically the
wife) specializes in housework and childcare.
When womens earning potential increases, the
gains to marriage are relatively smaller, and
divorce rates rise.
Empirical evidence for the theories emphasiz
ing womens economic opportunities is mixed.
Several patterns suggest this explanation cannot
on its own account for trends and differentials in
union formation and dissolution. For example,
US women with higher education and earnings
are more likely to marry than women with lower
earning potential. Education also reduces
womens chances of divorce in the US. There
is also some evidence that the education dispar
ity in rates of marital dissolution has increased
A second variant of economic interpretations
focuses on mens economic prospects and secur
ity. According to this view, marriage in western
societies has long been an economic arrange
ment, a prerequisite for which was that the
couple must have sufficient economic resources
to live independently from their parents. Even
today, mens economic resources and potential
earnings are an important predictor of mar
riage. In this view, marriage is delayed or fore
gone when men have difficulty establishing