Is Fear of Divorce Keeping People from Getting Married?

A new study suggests that young cohabiting couples are saying "I don't" so as to avoid the heavy toll of divorce

  • Share
  • Read Later
Rubberball / Mike Kemp / Getty Images

Marriage, it is sometimes argued, is a feminist institution, put in place to offer legal protection to women from being abandoned by men who wish to sow their seed in ever greener pastures. It’s a slightly antique (and misandrist) view, formulated at a time when home and hearth were a woman’s horizons. Plus, as a new study suggests, it is often women, rather than men, who view marriage as a trap.

In a survey of 61 cohabiting couples ages 18 to 36 in Columbus, Ohio, researchers from Cornell and the University of Central Oklahoma found that women, particularly lower-income women, were concerned about being trapped in marriage and having no way out if things went awry. The survey respondents also revealed that they had serious concerns about divorce: about 67% said they were worried about the potential social, emotional and economic fallout of splitting up. The researchers suggest that this is one of the reasons the couples had chosen to live together without getting married. While that sounds a little bit like choosing to stick with the shrimp appetizers for fear that the main dish will give you food poisoning, these young couples tended to think the legal and financial upheaval caused by a divorce wasn’t worth the risk.

(MORE: 5 Secrets of Happily Married Parents)

The study, which was published in the December issue of Journal of Family Relations, is one of several in recent weeks to examine the diminishing rate of marriage in the U.S. According to a Pew Research Center analysis last week, just over half of adult Americans are married, the lowest rate in decades. Some of the rollback is because people are getting married later, and some of it is because cohabitation rates are rising. The new study suggests that divorce is also a very real presence in couple’s minds.

Divorce is not an equal-opportunity specter, however. Middle-class couples were less spooked by it — and by marriage — than low-income couples. For poorer women who tended to feel that marriage was a trap, many reported fearing that a legal union would lead to extra work and responsibilities on their part, without any additional benefits. “Middle-class respondents disproportionately asserted that marriage meant commitment, something they viewed as a positive feature of the institution,” the authors write. “When working-class women referenced commitment, on the other hand, they did not view it in a particularly positive light.”

For these female partners, the benefits to marriage were slimmer — they would get an extra person to look after but not an extra provider. Since working-class women are often the main breadwinners, they were more likely to worry that marriages would be harder and costly to exit. So they preferred to regard their relationship as impermanent. And although working-class men have seen their real earnings drop over the years, studies have shown that they still hold rigid views on what men’s and women’s roles are in the home.

(LIST: Top 10 Marriage Stories of 2011)

Several studies have shown that higher-income couples use cohabitation as a runway to lifting off to married life, while lower-income couples are more likely to taxi around the cohabitation tarmac. This could be because low-income couples often lack the financial stability that helps them feel secure enough to get married. It could also be because their limited employment prospects means they may have to move away from each other to find work.

In some cases, financial circumstances brought about cohabitation rather than an intention to build a life together. This study suggests that it’s not that people no longer want to get married; they just want to get married once.

Luscombe is an editor-at-large at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @youseless. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.