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Most women look to marry live-ins

BOWLING GREEN - Though fewer live-in couples are getting married, it hasn't stopped most girlfriends from hearing wedding bells.

That's one of the findings in a new study, co-authored by a Bowling Green State University professor, that measures expectations of marriage among women living with their boyfriends. The study appears in this month's Journal of Family Issues.

“I was surprised there hasn't been a decline in the expectation of marriage,” BGSU's Dr. Wendy Manning said.

In the 1970s, an estimated 60 percent of unmarried couples eventually got married within three years. That wasn't too far from the expectations of women, measured in the 1980s as about three in four women who thought they'd marry their live-in boyfriends, according to the study.

By the 1990s, the number of unmarried couples exploded, with nearly half of all young adults living in cohabitation at some point. But the percentage getting married within three years dropped to about a third.

Still, using a special set of 1995 survey data, Dr. Manning and co-author Dr. Pamela Smock of the University of Michigan found the percentage of live-in girlfriends expecting to marry remained about three in four.

“It gives further evidence that cohabitation isn't replacing marriage. This vast percentage still wants to go on and marry,” said Dr. Manning, of BGSU's Center for Family and Demographic Research.

Another key finding was that, while girlfriends apparently didn't choose their live-in boyfriends based on economic potential, they predicted marriage based upon it. In fact, a boyfriend's healthy socioeconomic status - such as income and education level - had more to do with a girlfriend expecting to marry him than her own socioeconomic status, according to the study.

Beyond a boyfriend's income and education, a girlfriend was more likely to expect a wedding if she had no children, he hadn't been married before, and they hadn't been living together long. For every year of living together, girlfriends' expectations to marry dropped 6 percent.

It also helps if the boyfriends are younger. Women expecting marriage lived with men whose average age was 27. For women not expecting marriage, their mates' average age was 31.

The study found African-American women had lower expectations of wedding live-in boyfriends: only two in three. The study suggests the lower rate is because black men historically have had lower socio-economic status.

Dr. Manning cautioned that the study is just reflective of live-in girlfriends' thoughts, not what actually happens.

But, other than a reality check for live-in girlfriends, the study could have implications for federal policy. President Bush argued in the spring that one way to boost single mothers out of poverty was to spend $300 million on programs that pushed them to marry.

Dr. Manning said programs like that may not work unless they focus on boosting the boyfriend's socioeconomic status, which appears the greater impetus to the pair strolling down the aisle.

“It's really about economic stability,” she said. “Once people feel that they're more economically stable, they're more likely to make this move into marriage.”

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