Canadian Journal of Sociology Online January - February 2001

click on ISBN to order book through Indigo

Linda J. Waite, editor, Christine Bachrach, Michelle Hindin, Elizabeth Thomson, and Arland Thornton, co-editors,
The Ties that Bind: Perspectives on Marriage and Cohabitation
New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 2000; 416 + ix pp.
$Cdn. 76.95 cloth (0-202-30635-6), $Cdn. 38.50 paper (0-202-30636-4).

Over the last 30 years, one of the most profound social changes in industrial societies has been the decline in marriage. Family scholars, demographers, and policy advocates have pointed to the delay and the decline in marriage (or remarriage), the decline in marital fertility, and the increase in divorce and births out of wedlock as signs that marriage, as one of the oldest social institutions, is in trouble. If contemporary societies cannot support marriage as a social institution, is there a substitute in sight?

The decline in marriage has been concurrent with the rise in nonmarital cohabitation, commonly known as common-law union in Canada. Cohabitation shares several important traits that generally are found in marriage: being an intimate sexual union, sharing a common residence, pooling resources, and providing a family environment where children are born and raised. Although nonmarital cohabitation has been around for centuries in Western societies, the recent trends of cohabitation are unprecedented. Cohabitation has posed a serious challenge to the institution of marriage as an alternative form of family living.

The Ties that Bind makes a timely contribution to the understanding of the recent trends in marriage and cohabitation. The volume grew out of an interdisciplinary conference by the same title held June 29-30, 1998, at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland and was included in the Aldine de Gruyter Series of Social Institutions and Social Change. It brings together perspectives from demography, sociology, economics, history, and psychology to explain how the timing and formation of intimate sexual unions have changed over time and how they may vary across populations and social groups. The collective message is that recent trends of marriage and cohabitation are the consequences of the past and ongoing economic, technological, and social and cultural changes. Despite all these changes, the institution of marriage remains alive and healthy. Marriage continues to be valued, and it is not going out of style soon.

The Introduction is followed by 18 chapters that are organized into four parts. Part I, “Trends in Marriage and Cohabitation”, sets the stage for the volume by providing the demographic trends of intimate sexual relationships. R. Kelly Raley describes the recent trends and population differentials in the United States. Catherine Fitch and Steven Ruggles put these trends into an historical context by examining the trends and differentials in American marriage since 1850. They found that marital behaviour was responsive to the prevailing economic conditions and economic prosperity, time and again, coincided with marriage booms. In the last chapter of this section, Kathleen Kiernan provides a comparative analysis of similar trends and variations in Europe, showing that Nordic countries and France are the leaders in terms of the changes in union life and corresponding legislative changes.

Part II, “Perspectives on How Unions Are Formed”, shifts the attention to the forces underlying the changes in the formation of intimate sexual unions. Martin Daly and Margo Wilson offer a perspective from evolutionary psychology. They conclude that “marital alliance is so much a part of the human adaptation that the satisfactions of marital partnership are no more likely to be abandoned as obsolete than is competitive status striving, or parental love” (p.106). The chapter by Robert Pollak offers an economic perspective on marital behaviour. Two economic models are emphasized, one based on matching and the other based on search. The matching model assumes that marriage-market participants have full information about potential partners; whereas, the search model assumes that participants have less than complete information and that acquiring more information requires time and resources. Both models assume that participants behave rationally in light of their preferences and alternatives available to them. Andrew Cherlin’s chapter proposes a synthesis combining the economic approach with the structural and cultural (sociological) approaches, which he calls the “new home socioeconomics of family formation”.

Part III, “Values, Attitudes, and Norms about Marriage”, includes seven chapters focusing on explanations of marital behaviour from sociology and social psychology. William Axinn and Arland Thornton discuss the changing meaning of marriage in the United States. Using national survey data, they describe the changes in attitudes about a variety of social issues such as marriage, cohabitation, singlehood, divorce, childlessness, premarital sex, premarital and marital childbearing, and gender division of labour. They argue that the changes to more permissive and less traditional attitudes are responsible for the recent changes in marital behaviour. Using data from 21 US cities, M. Belinda Tucker reports the racial differences in marital values and expectations. She observes that Mexican-Americans value marriage most highly, followed by African-Americans, and then Whites. The chapter by R. S. Oropesa and Bridget Gorman looks at the attitudes among various ethnic immigrant groups and how the process of assimilation shapes the family values and attitudes. Guy Moors’ chapter proposes a recursive model between family values and behaviour. His empirical analysis lends credence to the model. Evelyn Lehrer’s piece is also empirical, looking at the role of religion in union formation. She argues that the effects of religious faith are more likely to operate via the differences among religious groups in such things as education, attitudes, and desired fertility. However, her analysis shows that when some of these characteristics are controlled for, the effects of religion remain. This suggests that religion may have some independent effects as well. The chapter by Catherine Surra and Christine Gray examines insiders’ and outsiders’ views of commitment processes. They identify two types of pathways couples develop to personal commitment, one is relationship driven and the other is event driven. Their analysis of a local sample in Austin, Texas shows that the pathway of the former is made up of mostly positive changes and that of the latter is of more variable and volatile changes.

Part IV, “Economics, Role Specification, and the Returns to Marriage”, examines the economic aspect of marriage and the consequences of marriage. Valerie Oppenheimer discusses the role of economic factors in union formation, emphasizing men’s economic position. She demonstrates that the recent decline in marriage reflects the deterioration of men’s economic position. Robert Moffitt also looks at the role of economic factors, particularly wage rates of men and women. His trend data for White Americans are generally consistent with the economic model that an increase in the gender gap in wages and in the sum of female and male wages should both raise marriage rates. Also from an economic perspective, Jeffrey Gray and Michel Vanderhart look at the positive effect of marriage (marriage premium) on labour market wages. Their analysis of micro-level data shows a reciprocal relationship between divorce and marriage wage premium, i.e., an increase in divorce probabilities lowers the marriage wage premium and an increase in marriage premium also raises the likelihood of divorce. Shifting to sociology of family, Paula England asks whether marriage is good for women, for men, and/or for gender equality. She concludes that marriage is likely to be of benefit more for men than for women and that marriage increases gender inequality except for the provision of income. Beth Shelton looks for explanations of gender inequality in household division of labour, and suggests that the “gender display” approach – which suggests that housework is not simply to produce a clean house, but is used to display or express gender – holds great promise to understanding the unequal distribution of housework between sexes. In the concluding chapter, Linda Waite discusses the benefits of marriage and examines whether these benefits have declined over time. Her trend data show that married men and women are generally better off than unmarried people along such dimensions as psychological well-being, health, job satisfaction, and economic well-being. These benefits have not eroded over time. Also there is little evidence that marriage benefits men more than women, which contradicts England’s conclusion. It seems that the issue of whether marriage is good for men, good or bad for women is far from resolved.

This volume is a welcome addition to the literature on marriage and cohabitation, and should be of interest to students and scholars of family, sociology, demography, economics, and psychology.

Zheng Wu
University of Victoria
January 2001
© CJS Online