Divorce fears keep couples unhitched

CORNELL (US) — With the share of married adults in the US at an all-time low, new research finds that fear of divorce may be keeping young people from tying the knot.

For a study published in the journal Family Relations, both men and women expressed widespread apprehension about divorce—even in those with no personal experience of divorce.

More than two-thirds of the respondents, ages 18-36, worried about their ability to form enduring marriages and feared facing the potential social, legal, emotional, and economic consequences of a failed marriage.


“Today’s young adults express a great deal of concern about their ability to ‘succeed’ at marriage, and many who are living together question whether their relationships really differ that much from the state-sanctioned version,” says Sharon Sassler, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, and director of the research project.

The study included 61 cohabiting, heterosexual couples in and around Columbus, Ohio, who had been living with their partners for at least three months. Respondents were classified as either working or middle class based on educational attainment, occupational status, and annual income.

The researchers sought to understand the individuals’ attitudes toward marriage, including how it differed from cohabitation, and why or why not they hoped to someday marry.

Roughly 67 percent of the interviewees expressed concern about divorce. The most common concern was a desire to “do it right” and marry only once, to the ideal partner, leading some to see cohabitation as a “test-drive” before making “the ultimate commitment.”

The belief that marriage is difficult to exit was mentioned nearly as frequently, with examples of how divorce causes emotional pain, social embarrassment, child custody concerns, and legal and financial problems.

Respondents also suggested that the rewards of marriage are not worth the risk of a potential breakup, citing high divorce rates—including the popular myth that one in two marriages fail—as a cautionary tale, with some saying that because of those odds they hesitated to marry and to “fix something that was not broken.”

Important social class distinctions in cohabitors’ attitudes about marriage and divorce were also detected. Middle-class respondents spoke more favorably about marriage and were more likely to view living together as a step toward marriage than their working-class counterparts.

Less-educated women disproportionately expressed doubts about marriage as a “trap,” fearing it would be hard to exit if things went wrong or that it would lead to additional domestic responsibilities but few benefits.

Working-class cohabitors were more apt to view marriage as “just a piece of paper.”

While many of the couples interviewed are likely to eventually marry, “the broad diffusion of such anxiety further challenges the institution of marriage,” Sassler says.

The authors say the findings can help premarital counselors to better tailor lessons to ease fears of divorce and to target the specific needs of various socio-economic classes.

Co-authors on the study are lead author Amanda J. Miller of the University of Central Oklahoma, and Dela Kusi-Appouh, a Cornell doctoral student in development sociology.

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