Babies, Shotguns, and a College Degree


My relationship narrative with my wife follows this trajectory: We dated. (For five years.) We were engaged (for a year of those five years). We got married at 24. We moved in together. At some point (maybe), we’ll have children.

When I discuss relationships with 20/30-something New Englanders, both clients and friends, I realize that our relationship path is becoming the minority of coupling experiences. My main research interest concerns the sociology behind increased cohabitation, with my main hypothesis centering around the link between the delay of marriage and our previous generation’s failures with marriage–the “50%” divorce statistic. This interest doesn’t seek moral judgment towards those whose stories fit outside of my narrative, but hopes to inquire further about 21st-century relationship trends.

As I mentioned in a previous post, in 2008, 27% of American infants were born to single mothers not married to nor living with their partner. USA Today reports that around 20% of births during the 2000s involved cohabiting couples.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the kids “song” involving you and so-and-so sitting in a tree. (I heard it ringing any time I overtly flirted with a girl in public when I was between the ages of 7 and 10.) First comes love. Then comes marriage. Then comes (insert couple’s name here) and a baby carriage.

Dr. Christina Gibson-Davis of Duke collaborated with LSU’s Dr. Heather Rackin to explore the rates by which 21st century couples are changing the order by which they couple, cohabit/marry, and get pregnant. In “Marriage or Carriage? Trends in Union Context and Birth Type by Education”, published in June’s Journal of Marriage and Family, the sociology professors distinguish between couples that cohabit pre-conception and post-conception, and evaluate the impact of education levels on these processes.

Although the media has accentuated the attempts of Scarlett Johansson, name-your-Kardashian, and others to marry to their baby’s daddy, research suggests that shotgun weddings, marrying post-conception, are declining in rapid numbers. Eight percent of expecting, unmarried couples have gotten married by the time of the child’s birth, while 25% marry within three years. In the 1970s, 29% of unmarried couples had shotgun weddings before the child was born, with 51% marrying within three years. Likewise, as Gibson-Davis and Rackin discover, 45% of first-time mothers were married at the time of their child’s birth in 2008, with 30.5% of first-time mothers cohabiting.

Even though American shotgun weddings are declining, Gibson-Davis and Rackin argue that shotgun weddings (and cohabitations) are becoming a social class issue. They revealed that mothers with high college education (in this study, women at least a Bachelors degree) were far more likely to be married before conceiving than mothers without/with limited college education. Their results echoed previous research stating that cohabiting prior to conception is on the rise in all education classes, but learned that shotgun cohabiting exists primarily for women with limited college education. In fact, these women are three times as likely to cohabit/marry after they are pregnant than before they are pregnant.

There are two implications of this study that I’d like to think about, both here and in future posts.

1) Shotgun weddings/cohabitations are responses of limited volition. Okay, these couples had the choice to have sex, perhaps not use appropriate protection methods, etc. However, the rhetoric behind cohabiting/marrying post-conception is “it’s the right thing to do”, not necessarily for the couple, but for the baby, under the assumption that having two parents present for the child is better than having one. How many of these couples commit to each other out of moral responsibility rather than independent choice, and how successful are these relationships, especially given what we know about the importance of the coupling process?

2) Education increases the volition of women. There are numerous studies that support this notion. For instance, 70% of women with associates degrees participate in the workforce, as opposed to only 30% of women who did not complete high school and 50% who only have a high school certification. I use the word “volition” because relationships tend to fail when partners report “feeling stuck” in certain roles in their relationship. Their volition has been compromised, if not eliminated. Women with higher levels of education seem to begin their relationships with greater volition–in this study, the capacity to plan the order of milestones in their relationships, including the ability to plan for a child.


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