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  • The Relationship Dynamics and Social Life study sheds a novel light on family formation among unmarried couples. Tweet This
  • Pregnant women were significantly more likely than non-pregnant women to experience relationship violence. Tweet This

We know that nonmarital mothers today are more likely to give birth in a cohabiting union than on their own. But what do we know about those unions and the reasons that women become pregnant? Professor Jennifer Barber of the University of Michigan gives us some new answers through the Relationship Dynamics and Social Life (RDSL) study at the University of Michigan. Her study sheds a novel light on family formation among unmarried couples—and potentially on the legal and policy debates that underlie these issues.

Professor Barber’s work builds on the well-known Fragile Families and Child-Wellbeing Study, which followed almost 5,000 children born between 1998 and 2000 in large U.S. cities; approximately three-quarters of their parents were unmarried. The Fragile Families research dramatically changed our images of unmarried families. The groundbreaking study showed that contrary to the popular assumptions of the time, the majority of unmarried mothers were in relationships with the fathers of their children at the time of the birth, and the majority of the fathers remained involved with their children for at least a period of time after a break-up with the mother.

This new research from the RDSL provides even more—and very different— information about unmarried mothers. Instead of starting once the children are born, it follows young women before they become pregnant and often before they have entered the relationships that produce the pregnancies. It also includes both women who became pregnant and those who did not, providing a robust basis for comparisons between the two groups.

RDSL, which is an NICHD-funded intensive longitudinal project, began with a random, population-representative sample of 1,003 young women, ages 18-19, living in Genesee County, Michigan (Flint), whom the researchers followed for 2.5 years. The goal of the study was to investigate the women and to gather information about their romantic relationships, and the related social and behavioral processes, that lead to unintended pregnancies in early adulthood. The baseline survey was conducted from March 2008 through July 2009. After that, the researchers collected short weekly surveys on 992 18 to 19-year-old women for 2.5 years, as well as semi-structured interviews, observations, and administrative data.

RDSL has produced a number of remarkable findings concerning young women’s likelihood to become pregnant, their contraceptive use, and their boyfriends and husbands. It promises to add significantly to our understandings of the formation and development of fragile families.

At the beginning of the RDSL, almost none of the women indicated a desire to become pregnant, but by the end of the study, approximately one-fifth of the women in the study were pregnant. The women who became pregnant were somewhat more disadvantaged than the women who did not, but the bigger differences were in their partners. Pregnant women experienced relationship violence at between two and three times the rate of those who did not become pregnant. Moreover, when the women who became pregnant had more than one partner during the study period, the women’s oldest and least educated partners were the most likely to father their pregnancies. In contrast, the pregnant women’s non-pregnancy relationships did not differ as much from their peers’ relationships that did not lead to pregnancy.

Pregnancies were more likely to occur in longer relationships (an average of 22.42 months for the relationships that led to pregnancy v. 8.15 for non-pregnancy relationships). And those relationships appeared to be somewhat more serious than non-pregnant relationships, with 83 percent describing themselves in serious, cohabiting, engaged or married unions at the time of pregnancy, as opposed to 17 percent in casual, non-exclusive dating, or long-distance relationships.1 On the other hand, after the pregnancy occurred, the relationships often deteriorated, breaking up or becoming less serious, as well as becoming more conflicted.

These findings confirm those from the Fragile Families study about what happens after the baby is born: Barber found that about half of the couples in the study broke up at least once after the pregnancy, with only 29 percent of those getting back together.2 Even more of those relationships likely dissolved after the study period, which was only 2.5 years in total. After the pregnancy, the men’s infidelity and their violence typically increased. The study focused only on the women, and the men themselves might well have different stories to tell, perhaps similar to those collected by Kathryn Edin and Tim Nelson in Doing the Best I Can.

Nonetheless, the preliminary findings already suggest that not all relationships are alike in their potential for constructive two-parent involvement. At a symposium focused on her work, Professor Barber explained that although the pregnant women understood their partners’ weaknesses, they typically believed that their partners were strongly committed to the relationship and that the relationships would last. Yet the majority of relationships proved unstable, with the circumstances that produced the pregnancy likely contributing to the instability. This suggests to us that the most effective public policy interventions may be those designed to target the circumstances that exist before the pregnancy occurs. Increasing access to long-acting forms of birth control, which do not depend on decisions made in the heat of the moment, for example, produced a 40 percent drop in births to teens and poor women in Colorado.3 Improving male employment prospects and rethinking mass incarceration policies might also enhance women’s prospects of finding better mates,4 and foster more cooperative parenting behavior

The groundbreaking results serve as a challenge to existing assumptions about the best approaches to fostering childhood development and maximizing parental capabilities among unmarried couples. Building on the RDSL Study findings should result in a reexamination of current policies on families, communities, and health care. In the meantime, we look forward to more information on the trajectory of these relationships and to a more detailed examination of the fathers, as well as the women giving birth to these children.

1. Barber, Relationship Context, (Tables 3-4)

2. Barber, Relationship Context at 23.

3 Sabrina Tavernese, "Colorado’s Effort against Teen Pregnancies is a Startling Success," The New York Times, July 5, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/06/science/colorados-push-against-teenage-pregnancies-is-a-startling-success.html?_r=1.

4. Carbone and Cahn, Marriage Markets, (Oxford University Press, 2014).