Story updated at 10:50 am Dec. 21
Many committed couples aren't marrying because they fear divorce, a new study indicates, though many other reasons for and against marriage abound in young adults from different social classes.
Social pressures and thoughts of deeper commitment may promote wedding vows in middle-class young adults, while fears of extra responsibilities and the costs of exiting the relationship make working-class women more fearful of marriage.
A study earlier this month from the Pew Research Center indicates that marriage rates are at their lowest ever, with about half of American adults currently married. Median age at first marriage is also older than ever for both men and women, that survey found.
In the new study, the researchers performed in-depth interviews with 122 people (61 couples interviewed as individuals) who lived with their partner in or around Columbus, Ohio, between July 2004 and June 2006. The respondents were organized into two groups: middle-class or working-class, based on their education and annual income. They were asked open-ended questions on several topics as a part of a larger study, and about their thoughts and plans for marriage. [6 Scientific Tips for a Successful Marriage]
The most excited about marriage were middle-class participants, who viewed living together as a natural stepping stone to tying the knot. But the social, legal, emotional and economic consequences of divorce were a big worry for 67 percent of the study participants.
Divorce came up in 81 of the 122 interviews, which covered four main topics. Being sure they had found "the one" before entering a marriage was a big concern for many of the respondents. Other concerns included the social and economic impact of divorce, the prominence of divorce in society and previous experience of one's parents or friends divorcing.
"The most common refrain among our respondents was their strong desire to ensure that when they wed, they 'did it right' and only married once," the authors, from the University of Central Oklahoma and Cornell University, wrote. "Included in this perspective are those who asserted their intentions to defer marriage until they were ready to take their vows seriously, those who referenced strong religious strictures against divorce, and those who felt that preparing themselves personally, financially and emotionally for marriage would ensure that they made good marital decisions."
Specifically, working-class women had strong doubts about marriage and fear that it might be hard to exit if things went wrong. They also had fears about the sticky situations that would come about if their relationship took a turn for the worse: They were twice as likely as middle-class women to admit fears about being stuck in marriage with no way out once they were relying on their partners’ share of income to get by.
"Respondents expressed concerns about the legal, financial, social, and/or emotional consequences of leaving a marriage, not to mention the consequences of divorce for children," the authors write in the December 2011 issue of the journal Family Relations. "For these respondents, these potential pitfalls of divorce made them question whether marriage itself was worth it."
They also didn't see many benefits to wedding their partner, but the women figured it would lead to more responsibilities because of the "expectations" for a wife. The working-class cohabitating couples were more likely to think of marriage as "just a piece of paper," indicating it probably wouldn't change their existing relationships.
"Practitioners working [at] premarital counseling programs should bear in mind these concerns and tailor their programming to address them," the authors concluded. "For example, special attention should be paid toward helping working-class couples, in particular, clarify their expectations for the household division of labor prior to marriage."
Editor's note: Story was updated to note the study researchers' institutional affiliations.
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Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor and a regular contributor to Live Science. She also has several years of bench work in cancer research and anti-viral drug discovery under her belt. She has previously written for Science News, VerywellHealth, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, WIRED Science, and Business Insider.