by Devan Clayton and Alan Hawkins
The Bottom-line First. A large majority of young adults still desire to marry. With their high hopes, however, they also recognize the risks for divorce. Those who have witnessed family instability or divorce firsthand think about their own potential for divorce. Even young adults from strong families are aware of the risks of divorce. A recent study found that young adults’ greater expectations for divorce increased the likelihood that they were unmarried and that their first union was a cohabiting union.
Marriage has undergone practical and ideological changes including fewer people marrying, a rising age of first marriage, high rates of premarital cohabitation, and high divorce rates. Despite these changes, marriage expectations among young adults in the United States remain high. Still, those who have witnessed family instability or divorce firsthand think about their own potential for divorce if they marry. And even young adults who grew up in a stable family are aware of the risks of divorce. Many young people say they want to test their relationship by cohabitating before transitioning to marriage. Others view cohabitation as the preferred or safer relationship option altogether.
Do the expectations that young adults have about a possible divorce impact their decisions to cohabit and marry? This is the question addressed by a new study using a nationally representative sample of 2,000 young adults.
Here are some key results of the study. Not too surprisingly:
- Greater expectations for divorce among young adults were significantly related to a slower pace for entering marriage and less likelihood of being married (even controlling for a long list of other factors that could influence marital timing). A one-unit increase in the scale measuring expectations for divorce (say, from “some chance” to “about 50-50”) decreased the odds of being married by 30%.
- Higher expectations for divorce also predicted a greater likelihood of first entering into a cohabiting union.
Here are some important implications for relationship educators of these results:
- Many young adults who participate in relationship education come with significant fears of divorce. Educators should address these fears directly.
- Relationship education for youth and young adults, as well as for engagd or committed couples, can help young adults understand there are many things in their control that will increase their chances for a successful marriage, regardless of their prior family circumstances. They can gain knowledge and skills that will help them maintain healthy marriages. Send a strong message that marital success is not just luck or fate.
 Cherlin, A. J. (2010). Demographic trends in the United States: A review of research in the 2000s. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 403-419; Cherlin, A. J. (2010). The marriage-go-round: The state of marriage and the family in America today. New York: Vintage; Manning, W. D., Brown, S. L., & Payne, K. K. (2014). Two decades of stability and change in age at first union formation. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 247-260.
 Boyer-Pennington, M. E., Pennington, J., & Spink, C. (2001). Students’ expectations and optimism toward marriage as a function of parental divorce. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 34, 71-87; Waller, M. R., & Peters, E. H. (2008). The risk of divorce as a barrier to marriage among parents of young children. Social Science Research, 37, 1188-1199.
 Waller, M. R., & Peters, E. H. (2008). The risk of divorce as a barrier to marriage among parents of young children. Social Science Research, 37, 1188-1199.
 Arocho, R. (2019). Do expectations of divorce predict union formation in the transition to adulthood? Journal of Marriage and Family, 81, 979-990.
 Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) Transition into Adulthood Supplement.