WMU News

U.S., U.K. differ on approach to keeping couples together

July 16, 2004

KALAMAZOO--Policymakers in both the United States and United Kingdom have been hard at work shaping initiatives to help couples stay together, but the two nations are taking different approaches, says a Western Michigan University researcher.

As part of a reauthorization of U.S. welfare reform legislation, funding has been authorized for states to promote marriage and two-parent families. The underlying rationale behind the initiative is that stable adult relationships benefit children.

That much the Americans and Brits agree on.

But research by Dr. Karen Blaisure, associate professor of family and consumer sciences, shows policymakers in England and Wales are taking a more inclusive approach than their U.S. counterparts.

"England and Wales have developed a marriage and relationship support policy," Blaisure says. "Where they support marriage, they also support all types of adult relationships. So their activities are aimed at helping people establish or maintain successful relationships with their partners, whether that partner is a cohabiting partner or married partner or whether the relationship is heterosexual or gay-lesbian."

Supporting marriage has become a priority in both nations, Blaisure says.

"Both governments have what's been called 'a sense of urgency' about supporting adults and their relationships," Blaisure says. "Here, our government focuses mainly on marriage, but in England and Wales, couple relationships are considered important in their own right as well as for their role in immediate and extended family relationships."

The goal of marriage and relationship support in England and Wales is to provide to all couples information, help, and effective and appropriate services at transitional life stages and at times of crisis, says Blaisure, who conducted her research while a visiting fellow at the University of Newcastle in the U.K. during the 2002-03 academic year. Her findings were subsequently presented at the U.S. Embassy in London in 2003 and two national conferences late last year. She now is compiling her research into a chapter for a book due out in early 2005.

Though the two countries differ somewhat in their policy approaches, marriage trends in the two nations are similar, with a few wrinkles. In both nations, people are waiting longer to get married and are living together more often than they used to. Those trends are even more pronounced in the U.K., Blaisure says.

"The rate of marriage has been declining since World War II," she says. "We're about at the same rate of marriage we were at during the Great Depression. The median age of first marriage also has been increasing. For women in the U.S. it's age 25 and for men it's almost 27 years old. About 74 percent of people marry by the age of 35."

In England and Wales, 75 percent of people marry by age 50, while the median age for first-time marriage is 27.5 for women and almost 30 for men.

The rate of cohabitation in both countries also has increased, Blaisure says. But, here again, the U.K. is a little ahead of the U.S.

"Our cohabitation rates are increasing, especially with each subsequent generation," she says. "However, cohabitation remains more common for those in poverty and those with fewer economic and educational resources."

Figures from the early '90s show 56 percent of U.S. women ages 19-44 cohabited before their first marriage, compared to 41 percent a decade earlier.

Still, marriage continues to be popular. About 2.4 million people marry in the United States every year, and couples living together often end up marrying eventually, Blaisure says. The U.S. divorce rate, meanwhile, has stabilized at about 50 percent, while in Britain the rate is 40 percent.

Marriage remains the goal for most young Americans, Blaisure says. Surveys of teenagers and college students show that between 80 and 90 percent plan to marry someday.

"However, it's not as central to their sense of happiness and well-being or quality of life," Blaisure adds. "They don't see it as the No. 1 thing to ensure happiness."

Blaisure gives several reasons for the decline in marriage. People are more educated today, so they are delaying marriage in pursuit of education. Women also are more independent and can achieve greater economic security than in the past without marrying.

"Some in the younger generation also have seen their parents divorce," she says. "They want to marry, but they want to make sure it lasts. So they will delay making the decision in hopes that when they do, it will be the right decision."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 269 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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