Recently, social demographer Dr. Sharon Sassler, a Cornell University professor, set out to learn more about how couples decide to live together, and why. In interviews conducted with 122 people, Sassler saw a surprising trend: Though her questions were primarily focused on cohabitation, respondents consistently raised the subject of divorce, even though she and her team had not solicited information on the subject. Indeed, a full two-thirds of her subjects revealed fears about their own future marriages falling apart.
Her findings, published last month in the November Journal of Family Relations, seem to correspond with a recent Pew Research Institute report, which found that men and women are getting married later and later, and the number of people who do actually make it down the aisle recently hit an all time low.
So is one finding related to the other? HuffPost Divorce spoke with Dr. Sassler to find out more about how fears of divorce might be affecting national marriage trends.
What was the most surprising finding of the study?
We actually didn't have a specific question about divorce. We were asking about what the benefits of cohabitating are relative to marriage. The fact that divorce spontaneously arose in such a large proportion of the responses was what was surprising, because we weren't looking for it, and it kind of slapped us in the face. Also surprising was that, regardless of whether the cohabitators had personally experienced their parents' divorce, they expressed concerns about divorce themselves.
Is there evidence to substantiate a claim that these fears of divorce contribute to low marriage rates?
There are a lot of factors at play that contribute to low marriage rates. Most of our couples still planned to get married, so I'd prefer to say that our findings might help explain the delay of marriage...One of the factors my respondents gave in being reluctant to take that next step was being cautious about marriage or even jaded about marriage. Since the majority of young adults live together prior to marriage, I do think it tells us something about how anxious young people are today about their ability to maintain intimate relationships. They're being more cautious and they might want to take more time.
We did find that the majority of those who do mention fears of divorce do intend to eventually get married because they think it might have some benefits. They think it would make their family happy, or that it would improve their relationship or that it's one way of showing love.
Where do these fears of divorce come from? How did they differ by gender and class?
The fears differ by social class and they differ by gender. For less-educated women, there are these strong concerns about being financially trapped in a bad relationship, and not having the means to exit it. And there were fears of what divorce would do to the children. There's also this concern that if they get married that they'd be expected to do more domestic work, and they're working women, so they viewed it as a double burden. Many of them thought, "why take on these extra responsibilities?"
The middle class group mentioned hearing the statistics all the time: they hear one out of two marriages is destined to fail, but it's incorrect. Divorce rates have been going down for the last few decades. Data indicates that the marriages are lasting longer in the early 2000s than they did in the 1990s, but they don't hear that. What they hear are the scare stories -- the Kim Kardashians who are on their second divorces. They don't realize that things have changed. Across the board, it was just a lot of this free-floating anxiety about divorce. A lot of them said they only wanted to marry once. That was the most common refrain: "I want to do it right. I only want to marry once."
For those who were children of divorce themselves, how did that affect their views on marriage?
They often referenced their families and their parents' marriages as cautionary tales, but that doesn't stop them from being in relationships, it's just an added layer of anxiety. The working classes are more likely to have experienced their parents' divorce, and they move in together more quickly, but there is an economic element to this -- they're more likely to move in more rapidly because of the financial need.
For the middle class respondents, they're much more likely to have dated for over a year or longer and that's not often the case with the working class. The college-educated respondents had held on to their apartments longer before moving in together, even though they might have been spending as much time together as the cohabiters. They still had that escape hatch. If you're working two minimum-wage jobs, it's harder to maintain that second apartment.
Slightly over a third of the sample made no mention of divorce at all. Who were they and why do you suspect divorce didn't come up in interviews with them?
We did not specifically ask about divorce, so it just might not have been on their mental map. We don't have indicators of relationship quality, but maybe they're in better relationships. Respondents who are engaged might not want to jinx themselves by thinking about divorce.