Throughout the course of their lives, people form romantic relationships, which may involve dating, cohabiting, or marrying. Recognizing the centrality of these relationships to people’s lives—and the benefits of healthy relationships to individual, couple, and child well-being—some social service agencies have invested in programs designed to support healthy relationships and marriage.1 Research shows that the formation and stability of romantic relationships have changed considerably over time. The purpose of this brief is to provide an update on these topics for the research community, as well as a concise review for practitioners.

This brief is the first in a series examining the state of the field of research on romantic relationships. In this series, we review what existing research tells us about the types of romantic relationships that people form, the stability of these relationships over time, and how these patterns vary by important sociodemographic characteristics, such as socioeconomic status or race/ethnicity. This first brief details recent demographic trends in dating, cohabitation, and marriage for the population as a whole in the United States. We present common definitions of these relationship types, provide an overview of how researchers measure them, and review published estimates and trends across various dimensions of these unions (e.g., age at first marriage, prevalence of marriage, and rate of marriage among unmarried individuals). We additionally review existing research on patterns of union dissolution over time.

The research reviewed for this brief allows us to detail trends over 25 years or more, generally up through the 2010s. However, the time periods examined may not be consistent across all measures since estimates are limited to the available research data. Additionally, discussions of romantic relationships in this brief are limited to different-gender relationships due to a paucity of published research on trends in relationship formation and dissolution among same-gender relationships.

Key Findings

Over the past several decades, patterns of union formation and dissolution in the United States have changed in notable ways.

  • Dating has become much less common among recent generations of adolescents than it was for those born earlier.
  • Growing shares of couples have met through the internet.
  • The proportion of women who have ever cohabited has nearly doubled over the past 25 years.
  • Although most young men and women aspire to marry, the marriage rate declined by roughly 60 percent over a 40-year period.
  • Delays in the age at first marriage continue to increase, approaching age 28 for women and age 30 for men.
  • About two in five marriages end in divorce.
  • The overall divorce rate has declined slightly in recent decades and is currently the lowest it has been in nearly 50 years.
  • The remarriage rate has declined in recent decades—in 2013, about one in five marriages were a remarriage for both spouses.

As these key findings indicate, patterns of dating, cohabitation, marriage, and divorce continue to change and evolve, presenting new challenges and opportunities for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners alike.


References

1 Wood, R. G., McConnell, S., Moore, Q., Clarkwest, A., & Hsueh, J. (2010). The Building Strong Families Project. Strengthening unmarried parent’s relationships: The early impacts of Building Strong Families. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica. Retrieved from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/opre/resource/the-building-strong-families-project-strengthening-unmarried-parents-1