Marriage, divorce, remarriage, age, education (Coontz tabs edition)

Stephanie Coontz has an excellent Op-Ed on the front of today’s New York Times Sunday Review, which draws out the implications for family instability of the connection between increasing gender equality on the one hand, and increasing economic inequality and insecurity on the other. The new instability is disproportionately concentrated among the population with less than a college degree. To help with her research, I gave Stephanie the figure below, but it didn’t make the final cut. This shows the marriage history of men and women by education and age. She wrote:

According to the sociologist Philip N. Cohen, among 40-somethings with at least a bachelor’s degree, as of 2012, 63 percent of men and 59 percent of women were in their first marriage, compared to just 43 percent of men and 42 percent of women without a bachelor’s degree.

I highlighted those numbers in the figure. Also striking is the higher percentage of divorced people among those with less than a BA degree (and higher widowhood rates). Click to enlarge: age marriage history Cross-posted on the Families As They Really Are blog.

7 thoughts on “Marriage, divorce, remarriage, age, education (Coontz tabs edition)

  1. I would argue that the type of relationship instability, though not necessarily relationship instability per se, is related to education, and thus social class more generally. For example, serial cohabitation (usually measured as two or more), while growing across various population groups in the U.S., is far more prevalent among the economically disadvantaged, including those without a high school degree. Conversely, serial marriage (usually measured as three or more) is much more common among high school graduates and those with some college than it is among their less and more educated peers. However, if we were to look at all romantic relationships (say, those lasting a year or longer), and not just cohabiting and marital relationships, my guess is that the link between education and serial monogamy wouldn’t be nearly as strong. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if college educated persons are more likely than other education groups to have had multiple relationships that do not lead to cohabitation and/or marriage. This appears to be the normative pattern among college educated emerging adults.

    What’s the difference between these two hypothetical individuals? One marries at age 20, divorces a few years later, marries again at age 25, divorces again a few years later, and then marries for a third time at age 33. The other has a serious, long-term, non-cohabiting relationship in college, another one in his/her mid-twenties, and then cohabits and marries for the first time in his/her early 30s? The difference is probably not big if no children are involved. Unfortunately, because marriage and cohabitation are more strongly associated with having children, it’s probable that the kind of serial monogamy that non-college grads are more likely to engage in (either marriage or cohabitation) is more costly than the kind of serial monogamy that college grads are more likely to engage in (nonmarital, non-cohabiting). This is because children are at greater risk for a variety of problem when they encounter multiple transitions.

    By the way, in addition to high school grads and those with some college, serial marriage is also more prevalent among whites, Southerners, older people, especially Baby Boomers, veterans and those in the military, and those above the poverty line — in short, people who are more likely to be conservative and vote Republican. I also found in my research in the St Louis area, that there may be an urban-suburban difference. In St Louis City, about 6% of recently people are in their third or higher order marriage and 10% of recent marriages include either a bride or groom in their third or higher order marriage. In St Louis County, which includes the suburbs on the Missouri side, the numbers are 9% and 15% respectively,


  2. I always wonder how these studies deal with families like my family of origin– my parents divorced, my mother remarried, divorced her second husband, and remarried my father. So, was she on her third marriage or her first? Since she died, is my father widowed from his first marriage or his second?

    It must be a small percentage of divorced people who remarry the same person–definitely less than 10 percent– but it’s not vanishingly rare, either. Maybe we need an “it’s complicated” category like Facebook has?


    1. Good question. In this case the ACS is a survey in which it’s up to each person how to answer that question. If the person asked for instructions I believe they would be asked to count the two marriages to the same person as two different marriages, if they were divorced in between. The question is basically “how many times have you been married,” not, “how many people have you been married to?”


  3. It would be interesting to see how education relates to finance and whether that played a major role. People with less education typically earn less money – and finances are often a reason why people argue during a marriage and wind up getting divorced.


  4. Well, education is just proxy for IQ.

    Huh. I always though education was a proxy for income, job stability, and social class.


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