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Marriage researchers try to define family's role at BGSU


Susan Brown, left, and Wendy Manning, Bowling Green State University researchers, are tracking the changing face of marriage. Their project has received federal support.


Families have changed so dramatically in recent decades that mothers and their children frequently disagree about defining them.

While mom tells researchers hers is a two-parent household, her children say it s a single-parent home, as they consider mother s live-in companion as outside the family circle, said Wendy Manning, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University who specializes in marriage and families.

The changing landscape of family life is one of the many issues a new National Center for Marriage Research at BGSU will track over the next five years. A $4.34 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with a $1.17 million contribution from several BGSU departments, creates the first federal research center of its kind under the direction of Ms. Manning, a Ph.D. in sociology, and Susan Brown, Ph.D. researcher in sociology and demography.

The Center for Marriage Research will bring together the academics doing basic research on marriage, the policy community, and the growing field of practitioners who are involved in marriage promotion and marriage education, as well as train the next generation of researchers, Ms. Brown said.

The variety of ways parents and children describe their own families shows how the Ward and June Cleaver model of marriage often gives way to the Desperate Housewives mode of life but with fewer of the trappings of wealth with cohabitation commonplace, a revolving door for male adults a frequent reality, and children navigating it all.

The American family is complicated, said Ms. Manning, the author of multiple research papers on cohabitation, marriage, and relationships among adolescents. Children are experiencing a diverse set of families we need to account for the full array of family experiences that children go through.

Melissa Pardue, deputy assistant secretary for human services policy for Health and Human Services, said the study of marriage and family is critical.

Research over the last decade has highlighted the important role that marriage and family structure play in building a healthy society. We have now a really growing body of research showing that marriage has benefits, Ms. Pardue said.

We are starting to see from the research side, that not examining family structure really leaves us with a big gap in our knowledge in how we can sort of promote the well-being of children, and how marriage is good for us, and why we see a benefit in marriage, said Jennifer Burnszynski, HHS project officer.

But for some 38 percent of children born today, the Beaver Cleaver life of married biological parents is not possible. The percentage represents the number of children born outside of marriage. In 1960, 95 percent of children were born to married parents.

So what then promotes well-being for those families? And also the children who experience their parents divorce, what promotes well-being in those families? Ms. Manning asks.

Research shows that children in cohabitating do not fare as well as those in married families, Ms. Brown said. The children on average perform less well academically and have more behavioral problems.

These are very small differences, but they re consistent across studies, Ms. Brown said.

But why that occurs isn t certain, the researchers said.

Children who said they lived in single-parent families, ignoring mother s cohabiting partner in their account of family life, also report being less close to their mothers, Ms. Brown said. And of course, parent-child closeness is integral to child well-being, to making a child feel secure and loved.

These same children also report greater levels of autonomy than those who agree with their mothers about family structure.

The confusion about what makes a family increases as parents move away from the traditional ideas of marriage, the researchers said. While nearly all children agree with their mother s family description if they live with married biological parents, only a third of children 12 to 17 agree with their mother s description when their mother lives with someone to whom she is not married.

That ambiguity extends to who is recognized as a sibling. Is a step-brother? Are the children of your father s new live-in girlfriend who you visit on the weekend?

So there s certain expectations that you re supposed to do something for your biological brothers or sisters, but does that extend to step-brothers? Ms. Manning said.

The changing family structure has roots in the 1980s, when marriage failure reached its current plateau of one in two marriages ending in divorce, the researchers said.

While divorce has generated major changes in family life, so has a steady rise in the age at first marriage, the researchers say. In the 1950s, the median age for brides was 20, and her groom was 23. Today the median age for marriage is 25 for women and 27 for men, according to U.S. Census statistics.

The trend has created a whole new life stage, which professors Manning and Brown refer to as emerging adulthood, those years from 18 to 24. And with this life stage comes a new breed of relationships.

They re not just sitting at home with their parents doing nothing, Ms. Manning said. Much of this delay in first marriage is accounted for by corresponding increases in cohabitation. So people are forming unions at the same age. It s just that they re increasingly cohabitating unions rather than marital unions.

Living together has replaced dating as the most common pathway to marriage, Ms. Brown said. It s become a stage in the courtship process.

Families have become increasingly diverse, and this diversity means we have to pay more careful attention to how we are actually measuring children s living arrangements and family structure. We take for granted these categories, but they re perhaps a little fuzzier than we first thought, Ms. Brown said.

Contact Jenni Laidman at: or 419-724-6507.

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