Some research suggests that cohabitating couples are less likely to marry when the male partner lacks full-time work or earns less than his female partner, while other research suggests that economic dependence tends to strengthen a couple’s commitment and sense of obligation to one another.
A new study at Cornell University, however, suggests it’s none of the above.
The study, conducted by Dr. Patrick Ishizuka, a postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Population Center, is the first to offer empirical evidence that cohabitating couples are likely to get married only when they earn as much as their married peers. And when each person in a cohabitating partnership earns the same amount, they are less likely to separate, Ishizuka said.
“Once couples have reached a certain income and wealth threshold, they’re more likely to marry,” said Ishizuka, who researches work, families, and social inequality. “Economically disadvantaged couples are also more likely to separate.”
The new study confirms a theory known as “the marriage bar,” which posits that the closer a couple is to reaching the economic standards associated with marriage — such as having enough money to buy a house — the more likely they are to get married.
Qualitative studies have suggested that economically disadvantaged couples strongly value marriage, but they struggle to reach what they perceive as the high economic standard required to get married.
“They want to have a house and a car and enough savings to have a big wedding; and they also want to have stable jobs and a steady income,” Ishizuka said.
The new findings reflect a growing socioeconomic divide in family life, he said. “Marriage is increasingly reserved for couples that have achieved a high economic standard. Rising divorce rates since the 1960s have also been steepest for individuals with less education.”
The study also found that cohabiting couples who earn an equal amount of money are more likely to stay together than couples with unequal earnings. “Equality appears to promote stability,” he said. “Equality in men’s and women’s economic contributions may hold these couples together.”
In addition, unmarried couples who live together tend to have more egalitarian views on men’s and women’s roles than couples who go from singlehood straight into marriage.
This could explain why the study found no evidence that men’s income or employment status is more important than a woman’s when it comes to predicting whether or not they stay together or marry. “It’s really the couple’s combined resources that seem to matter,” Ishizuka said.
The new findings are published in the journal Demography.
Source: Cornell University