Marital Meaning and Reasons For Lack of Marriage Joel Muraco & Melissa Curran Family Studies and Human Development University of Arizona
Abstract The institution of marriage offers countless benefits to its participants; however, the rate of marriage is decreasing, while cohabitation is increasing in the United States. Using Symbolic Interactionism (SI) to understand marital meaning in individuals, we find four clusters of marital meaning: Contractual, Optimistic-Realistic, Idealizing, and Apathetic. We use these four clusters to predict reasons why daters and cohabitors do not want to marry their current partner. We discuss how understanding varying meanings of marriage is important, as marriage is still an important institution for individuals, and how, depending on the meaning they attribute to marriage, their reasons for not marrying vary.
Background Decreased rates of marriage and divorce, and increased rates of cohabitation (Bumpass & Lu, 2000; The National Marriage Project, 2009; U.S. Census, 2009), suggest that the institution of marriage may be taking on new meaning for individuals. With a number of individuals growing up in families outside of marriage today’s individuals may hold a new and unprecedented definition of marriage. Given this focus on meaning about marriage for individuals, symbolic interactionism (SI) is a useful theoretical framework to document and understand these individual’s views of marriage. According to Blumer (1969) three basic tenets of SI exist: 1. Individuals act towards symbols, things, physical objects, other people, categories, institutions, guiding ideals, activities of others, and everyday situations, on the basis of the meaning the thing has. 2. Through interactions with others (such as family members, friends, relatives, neighbors, societal influences, etc.), these symbols take on meaning. 3. Through the interpretative process, meanings are understood or modified to help the individual deal with symbols they encounter. Marriage, as an institution, is a symbol for individuals. Meaning is created about this symbol of marriage through interactions with other and through an interpretive process individuals use.
Methods Participants: At least 18 years old, involved in a heterosexual relationship for over 6 weeks, and not married. To assess meaning of marriage: We asked the following open-ended question: “What does marriage mean to you? That is, when you think about marriage, what do you think of, or how would you describe it?” To assess reasons for not wanting to marry the current partner: We constructed a number of possible reasons, including financial instability, inability to pay for a wedding, quality of the relationship, etc. (See Table). Individuals rated each item on a 1 (not at all a reason for me) to a 7 (very true a reason for me) point scale.
Results We found that 89% of respondents provided a response to our open-ended question. Cluster analysis using average linkage in SPSS resulted in 4 clusters: (1) Contractual, who are low in love and high in lifetime commitment, n = 46 or 33% of the sample; (2) Optimistic-Realistic, who are high in love and high in lifetime commitment, n = 42, or 30% of the sample; (3) Idealizing, who are high in love and low in commitment, n = 18, or 13% of the sample; and (4) Apathetic, who are low in love and low in commitment, n = 31, or 22% of the sample.
Conclusions and Implications For Optimistic-Realistic individuals reasons involving the quality of their current relationship, infidelity, blended/stepfamilies, or doubts about the partner as a spouse (marginal) are less likely to explain their reasons for not marrying their partner compared to other groups of individuals. One explanation is that the meaning of marriage for Optimistic-Realistic individuals may be of willingness to let some things “slide” with their partners in terms of desire to marry. Apathetic individuals reported that reasons due to financial instability, infidelity, and doubts about the partner as a parent (marginal) were significantly less of a reason not to marry their partner compared to individuals in the other groups. It may be that for Apathetic individuals these aforementioned reasons are commonplace and to be expected. From SI this meaning of marriage was likely formed through interpretations of experiences and interactions with others they have had concerning the institution of marriage. Contractual and Idealizing individuals were not very different in their reasons not to marry. The point of contrast for these two groups concerned the blending of families or the creation of stepfamilies, which was less of a reason not to marry for Contractual individuals. Idealizing individuals may have a meaning of marriage such that marriage represents the creation of their “own” family rather than bringing in children from previous relationships. These results are important because by identifying cluster memberships and reasons why individuals chose not to marry, a picture of the meanings individuals ascribe to marriage is created and a better understanding of marriage can be assessed. Understanding meanings for marriage for each of these clusters is important because such meanings allow us to understand how current individuals think about and define marriage as well as how such meanings can influence the thoughts and behaviors of future generations. Continuing to study meanings of marriage can help us understand trends for marriage and cohabitation in the United States.
In previous research on individuals’ meanings of marriage, work by Nock (1998), Wyatt (1999), Coontz (2000), and Waite and Gallagher (2000) have all examined marital meaning in some fashion, whether it be by developing commonly shared ideals (Nock, 1998), understanding the experience of companionship (Coontz, 2000), or focusing on young adults’ beliefs, expectations, standpoints, and attitudes toward marriage (Hall, 2006). Our study is unique in that we not only address what meaning marriage has for individuals, but how these meanings predict reasons individual may not want to marry their current partner. The goal of the current study is to identify clusters of individuals in terms of their meanings of marriage, and to understand better the reasons why these individuals, currently in dating or cohabiting relationships, do not choose to marry their current partner.
Acknowledgements The authors acknowledge funding from the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, and Families. Thanks also to Caroline Sethney for help during the coding process.