Reds and Blues on Cohabitation and Marriage

Reds and Blues on Cohabitation and Marriage March 19, 2012

(Last on a theme from Premarital Sex in America…)

Blues are pragmatic about sex and marriage. Reds are idealistic about them. Sociologist Maria Kefalas gets at this by talking about marriage “planners” and marriage “naturalists,” although I don’t think those terms map nicely onto blue and red because while the number of marriage “naturalists” out there are shrinking by the day, there are still plenty of reds.

Since blues are so pragmatic about relationships, cohabiting is fine. End of story. It’s the default, expected option among the majority of them. Marriage will often follow, but pressure toward that end will most likely emerge slowly, over several years. For reds, cohabiting can be a long-term arrangement—especially among less-educated reds—but it continues to be imagined as a temporary fix, with traditional marriage understood as the preferred arrangement. Among many reds, however, the temporary fix is getting longer and starting to look more and more permanent.

As noted in previous weeks, reds and blues often chase similar things: they both like sex, they’re serial monogamists, and most still esteem marriage. For both, sexual attraction and romantic love, once considered too fragile to sustain marriage, have instead become the primary criteria both for entering and exiting the institution. Some blues intellectually object to marriage and will intentionally form permanent cohabitation arrangements, while some reds will accidentally do the same (minus the ideological part). Educated young reds see the realities of the marriage market more clearly than blues and tend to commit comparatively early. Blues are more apt to ignore the market or insist that it doesn’t matter because they dislike key aspects of it: the double standard, the gendered fertility schedule, and the train of emotional sentiment in sexual relationships. So there are apt to be more blue unmarried 30-somethings. Both reds and blues still marry in comparable numbers—just at different ages—and both expect a great deal from marriage. Reds have more children, but not double the number blues do. And reds tend to have them earlier.

The evidence, then, suggests that blues and reds have plenty in common but place themselves on different timetables.

Reds—even those that value and pursue higher education—seem to take on substantial relationship commitments more rapidly than blues. The table appearing below displays the percent of college graduates in the Add Health (nationally-representative) data—up to age 27—who said they had ever gotten married or were currently cohabiting. The results are striking evidence of red-blue differences in relationship settings.

Fully 39 percent of all college-educated, politically-conservative women reported having already gotten married, but only one percent of them said they were currently cohabiting. For them, marriage is 30 times more preferable than cohabitation. Blue women who are college graduates, however, tip way in the other direction: 19 percent of them are currently cohabiting, while 12 percent report having married. Seldom do social scientists witness such stark contrasts as this one. Among men, the same pattern continues, although here again, the differences are not as striking as among women. Triple the share of red males are married, compared with cohabiting, and slightly more blue males are cohabiting than are married. Blue men seem in no hurry to marry, at seven percent. 

Cultural conservatives are more likely to get married—and sooner—than are cultural liberals. And they link their personal happiness more closely to family and marriage than do cultural liberals. (But we suspect cultural liberals obsess about their romantic and sexual relationships no less than conservatives do.)

Thus one obvious way in which reds and blues are quite distinguishable is in their
marital-timing norms. For blues, it is not normative to marry before age 25, though some do. They aim first for other goals, such as completing college, securing a good job, or pursuing graduate education. For reds, marriage by 25 is more common, and failure to attract a spouse by then can be perceived as a modest risk (of having trouble finding a spouse). During early adulthood, then, these two moral claims—establishing an acceptable career trajectory and finding a spouse—often conflict with each other for reds, since getting married too young is viewed by many as an impediment to one’s life chances. Red emerging adults must navigate this time of life by managing the competing demands of two different narratives with different conceptions of the ideal life trajectory.

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