Dissertation Abstracts

Whether, When, and with Whom? Socioeconomic Inequalities in Marriage and Cohabitation in Norway

Author: Wiik, Kenneth Aa, kaw@ssb.no
Department: Sociology and Human Geography
University: University of Oslo, Norway
Supervisor: Prof. Gunn E. Birkelund
Year of completion: 2010
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Union Formation , Relationship Quality , Socioeconomic Resources , Cohabitation
Areas of Research: Family Research , Population , Stratification


This dissertation assesses current patterns of socioeconomic inequalities in marriage and cohabitation along the dimensions of socioeconomic background, individual socioeconomic resources, and gender. The focus is on heterosexual relationships among the nonimmigrant population. Three broad groups of research questions are posed: When (i.e., the association between socioeconomic family background and timing of first union), with whom (i.e., partner choice with regard to education), and whether (i.e., whether or not cohabitors have definite plans to marry, whether cohabitors and those married differ with regard to relationship assessments, and whether women keep their given last name upon marriage). Of central importance is to investigate whether the patterns which have been found for marriage also apply to cohabitation.

No single grand theory is tested. Rather, I draw on several theoretical perspectives that are plausible explanations of the observed patterns of socioeconomic inequalities in union formation and relationship behavior (e.g., the individualization hypothesis, modified versions of RC theory and socialization theory). The main data source is The New Families Survey from 2003. I also used data from the Swedish survey of Family and Working Life in the 21st Century. Norwegian register data on all couples who got their first common child in the period from 1987 through 2001 were also used.

Synthesizing the findings of this dissertation, there clearly are continuing socioeconomic inequalities in union formation and relationship behavior. First, young adults with higher educated parents as well as those reporting material well being during childhood start their first unions later than those from less privileged backgrounds. Next, the majority of parental couples are educationally homogamous and cohabiting parental couples are more likely to be homogamous than their married counterparts. Socioeconomic resources are positively associated with cohabitors’ marriage plans. The marriage plans of female cohabitors are, however, less affected by their education and income than their male counterparts. Moreover, having a high-earning partner is positively related to commitment and relationship quality and university educated individuals are less satisfied than the lower educated. Education homogamy and home ownership are negatively related to breakup plans. Last, the vast majority of women still adopt their husband’s surnames when they get married and the likelihood of being a name keeper increases with women’s socioeconomic status. In other words, I find little support for the assumption arising out of individualization theory that union formation and relationship behavior should be less influenced by socioeconomic variables.

Two additional conclusions can be drawn on the basis of these findings. First, although there are continuing traditional gendered patterns in union formation and relationship behavior, it seems clear that it is pooling of partners’ respective resources that is the economic rationale for forming a union today. Second, cohabitors with plans to marry their current partners are no less satisfied with and committed to their relationships than are those already married. Thus, an additional conclusion to be drawn from this dissertation is that cohabitors constitute a heterogeneous group.