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date: 29 November 2022

Marriage and Domestic Partnershipfree

Marriage and Domestic Partnershipfree

  • Elaine M. MaccioElaine M. MaccioAssociate Professor, School of Social Work, Louisiana State University


This entry briefly covers the history, demographics, research, clinical practice, diversity, debates, and trends surrounding marriage and domestic partnership in the United States. Who marries and why, when, and at what rate people marry is covered, as are some of the statistics behind alternatives to marriage, such as cohabitation, domestic partnership, and civil unions. It is beyond the scope of this entry to discuss in detail relationship dissolution and divorce, although information is provided insomuch as it relates to marriage and domestic partnership.

The ability to form close relationships with others is a crucial component of life span development. In fact, an inability to do so may be considered partial criteria for some types of mental disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Psychologist Erik Erikson (1980) theorized that young adults must master intimacy over isolation if they are to move successfully through his proposed stages of psychosocial development. Apart from these theoretical obligations, much of global society sanctions the forming of close relationships that it deems appropriate. Proms, engagements, weddings, and anniversary celebrations serve to socially reinforce (usually heterosexual) couplings and the norms surrounding acceptable relationships.

Marriage is the legal, and most often consensual, partnering of two persons of either sex. Domestic partnership can refer to any unrelated persons 18 years of age or older living together for a minimum specified period of time (for example, one year) and in a financially interdependent relationship. Both unmarried heterosexual couples and same-sex couples can apply for domestic partner status in those jurisdictions, companies, and institutions that recognize it. However, such distinction still falls short of the 1,138 federal benefits and protections afforded to legally married couples (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1997, 2004). For example, access to a partner's Social Security benefits, Medicaid and Medicare benefits, and veterans' pensions, and the exemption from gift and estate tax liabilities, are just a few of the laws mentioned in the U.S. Code that are affected by marital status. Only marriage offers couples such entitlements; civil unions, a proposed substitute for same-sex marriage and available in only a handful of states, afford no federal benefits and protections.


  • Couples and Families
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Policy and Advocacy
  • Social Justice and Human Rights

Updated in this version

Statistics updated. Updated the language to include marriage equality and removed the use of –traditional marriage.” Added information on states and countries that passed marriage equality legislature.


Following an extensive survey of marriage definitions across time and cultures, Coontz (2005) summarizes what many definitions of marriage share: the ascription of rights and responsibilities within the immediate and extended families and society, and the generational transmission of inheritance.


Traditional marriage (referred to by some as institutional marriage) has been defined by strict gender roles in which the husband meets the family's financial needs while the wife fulfills its social and emotional needs. More egalitarian and less role limiting is companionship marriage in which friendship and role sharing take center stage (Steinmetz, Clavan, & Stein, 1990).

Wilcox and Nock (2006) refer to this power-sharing model as companionate marriage. A departure from this view is the equity model, in which women are less concerned with equality than equity. An equitable division of labor may follow along traditional gender lines, but it is seen as acceptable by women who perceive their domestic orientation as innate. This differs from institutional marriage, which Wilcox and Nock define as one valued for its moral and religious underpinnings and the normative support the couple receives. Last, feminist theory views marriage as the result of gender socialization, traditional gender norms, and social pressure to conform to those norms (Schwartz & Scott, 2000), a theory that loosely resembles Wilcox and Nock's gender model of marriage.

U.S. Perspective

In a survey of more than 2,000 Americans (Patterson & Kim, 1991), 36% indicated love as the reason they married. Lagging behind were companionship or fear of aging alone (14%), desire to have children (12%), sex (10%), happiness (9%), money (5%), and habit or convenience (5%). However, these figures belie the trend of decreasing rates of marriage and increasing rates of divorce. Amato, Booth, Johnson, and Rogers (2007) propose two models to explain the increase in marital instability. First, marital expectations have increased while divorce barriers have decreased. In the second model, marital expectations have not changed, but marital quality has declined overall.

Marriage has until recently been limited to the legal, and in most cases religious, union of one man and one woman. In 2004, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, following the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's finding unconstitutional the limiting of marriage to heterosexual couples, challenged this definition by issuing licenses to same-sex couples wishing to marry (Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, 2003). Since then, Connecticut (in 2008), Iowa (2009), Vermont (2009), the District of Columbia (2010), New Hampshire (2010), and New York (2011) have followed suit (Human Rights Campaign [HRC], 2011). Similarly, California (1999/2005), New Jersey (2007), Washington (2007/2009), Oregon (2008), Nevada (2009), Illinois (2011), Rhode Island (2011), Delaware (2012), and Hawaii (2012) passed domestic partnership or civil union legislation, affording same-sex couples in their respective states most of or all the same rights granted to married couples. Despite this progress, all but nine states have instituted laws or constitutional amendments against same-sex unions (HRC, 2012). These initiatives go above and beyond the preexisting Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996, which allows states not to recognize same-sex unions granted by any other state.

International Perspective

North American and European societies permit individual selection of marital partners, compared with most other societies in which future spouses are chosen by the family (Georgas, 2006). Whom one can marry (endogamy) and cannot marry (exogamy) varies to some extent across cultures. For example in some societies, upon her husband's death, a wife may be expected to marry his brother (endogamy), while in almost all societies, marrying her own brother would be widely prohibited (Georgas, 2006).

Much of international, particularly Western, society's understanding of marriage has come under scrutiny in recent years, with more countries broadening their legal protection and benefits to include same-sex partners. The Netherlands (in 2001), Belgium (2003), Spain (2005), Canada (2005), South Africa (2006), Norway (2009), Sweden (2009), Portugal (2010), Iceland (2010), and Argentina (2010) now permit same-sex marriage nationwide, as does Mexico City, Mexico (2009). Several other countries, such as The United Kingdom, offer civil partnerships, stopping just short of using the term marriage. Many countries in Africa and the Middle East, however, still consider same-sex sexual behavior punishable by law and even death (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2011).


Few would argue that the face of marriage, divorce, and cohabitation has changed in the early 21st century. However, the interpretation of those statistics as being for the better or worse remains subjective. What is certain is that the rush to marry has slowed (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004), those choosing cohabitation have found an alternative path to partnership (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010a), and the percentage of persons who have ever divorced has increased (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010b) as the barriers to divorce have diminished.

Prevalence and Incidence

Slightly fewer than half (48.8%) of persons 15 years of age and older in 2010 reported being currently married and 2.2% separated. Nearly one-third (32.1%) identified as never married, with 6% and 10.9% currently widowed and divorced, respectively. More Asians (57.9%) and whites (53%) were married than blacks (29.3%) and Hispanics (44.2%) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010b). Trends since the mid-1990s show a decline in marriage, from 56.9% in 1996, and an increase in the percentages of persons never married, up from 27.5%, and divorced, up from 8.9% (U.S. Census Bureau, 1996).

In 2010, for the first time in history, same-sex married couples in the U.S. were officially recognized in the decennial census (O’Connell & Feliz, 2011). The U.S. Census Bureau (2011) reported 131,729 married and 514,735 unmarried same-sex households that year. By definition, persons in domestic partnerships are counted among the never married. Unmarried couples are accounted for only if they live in the same household. In 2010, there were more than 7.7 million unmarried couples living together (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010a). According to researchers at the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) of the Centers for Disease Control, individuals married at a rate of 6.8 per 1,000 people in 2009 (Tejada-Vera & Sutton, 2010), down from 7.5 per 1,000 in 2005 (Munson & Sutton, 2006) and 8.8 per 1,000 in 1996 (NCHS, 1999). Likewise, the rate of divorce dropped from 4.3 per 1,000 in 1996 (NCHS, 1999) to 3.6 in 2005 (Munson et al., 2006) to 3.5 in 2009 (NCHS, 2013).

Marital Age and Duration

The age at which individuals marry for the first time continues to rise. In 1983, men entered their first marriage at age 25.4 and women at 22.8 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004). Nearly 30 years later, in 2010, those ages jumped to 28.7 and 26.7, respectively (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010c).

Although 96.1% of the men who married for the first time between 1955 and 1959 made it to their fifth wedding anniversary, only 89.6% of men married for the first time between 1995 and 1999 made it. Even fewer women saw their fifth anniversary: 94% married between 1955 and 1959 compared with 89.5% between 1990 and 1994 (Kreider, 2005; Kreider & Ellis, 2011). First marriages that end in divorce do so after a median of 8 years for men women. Second marriages that end in divorce endure only slightly longer: 8.5 years among men and 8 years among women (Kreider & Ellis, 2011).

Latest Research and Best Practices

Work with couples can be divided into two realms: prevention before problems begin and intervention after problems have appeared. Although prevention can be considered an intervention in itself, it is meant here in terms of its temporal relationship to the onset of couple difficulties.

Interdisciplinary Connections and Contributions

Interpretations of prevention and intervention in couple therapy can vary across disciplines. Couple therapy, the specialty of marriage and family therapists, is also practiced by professionals in other fields, including social work, psychology, counseling, and nursing. The social work perspective on working with couples is similar to its person-in-environment approach with other systems (Williams, Karls, & Wandrei, 1989). Social workers recognize simultaneously the needs of each individual within the couple dyad as well as the couple as a unit. From a systems perspective, each partner is a subsystem within the couple system, just as the couple is a subsystem within the larger society. Ecologically speaking, social workers assess and establish goals and objectives for improving the fit between couple and environment through collaboration with the couple.


With the growing visibility of alternative relationships, many clinicians and scholars recognize the appropriateness of referring to intimate relationships inclusively as “couples” rather than using the more limiting “marriages” (Gurman & Jacobson, 1995). Yet much of the literature focuses still on the marital dyad. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the prevention efforts that typically surround premarital education and counseling. Initiatives aimed at preventing destructive marital patterns take on various forms, from informal to formal and from traditional to contemporary. In a random household survey of four mid-American states, premarital education was associated with greater marital satisfaction and spousal commitment and lower odds of divorce (Stanley, Amato, Johnson, & Markman, 2006); Cordova et al. (2005) developed the Marriage Checkup (which incorporates motivational interviewing) for at-risk couples and found that participants fared better than their control group counterparts. Even mindfulness meditation has found its way into the realm of relationship enhancement (Carson, Carson, Gil, & Baucom, 2004).

One well-known model is the skills-based Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP). PREP involves six 2- to 2.5-hr sessions delivered weekly or condensed into a weekend and addresses such skill-building areas as communication and problem solving (Floyd, Markman, Kelly, Blumberg, & Stanley, 1995). Extensive research has demonstrated PREP's effectiveness across delivery settings and disciplines (see Suggested Links for PREP resources).


Three couple therapies whose effectiveness is widely published are behavioral couple therapy (BCT), cognitive behavioral couple therapy (CBCT), and emotionally focused couple therapy (EFCT). In their review of the literature, Christensen and Heavey (1999) indicated that none of these is better than another and instead point to the possibilities in matching couples to the most appropriate treatment. A meta-analysis by Wood, Crane, Schaalje, and Law (2005), however, found EFCT significantly more effective than behavior marital therapy (that is, BCT) in treating moderate levels of marital distress. Integrative behavioral couple therapy (IBCT) is a relatively newer treatment that combines BCT with a component of emotional acceptance (that is, helping couples accept in each other what they cannot change). IBCT was shown to be similar to BCT at posttreatment (Christensen et al., 2004) and at a two-year follow-up (Christensen, Atkins, Yi, Baucom, & George, 2006) in treating marital distress.

Diversity and Vulnerable Populations

Cultural expectations and societal limitations affect one's decision and ability to partner and/or marry. Aside from the legal implications of same-sex partnerships for lesbians and gay men, other (but not necessarily mutually exclusive) populations experience their own expressions of and challenges to partnership and marriage.

Race and Ethnicity

The availability of mates, cultural norms, and filial responsibility to parents affect partnerships and marriages among populations of color. For example, the disproportionately high rates of incarceration and homicide and low rate of sustainable employment among African American males limits viable partner selection for women (Bonhomme, Stephens, & Braithwaite, 2006). The probability of Latinas marrying is less than that for white women but more than that for African American women; comparatively, it is higher among non-U.S.-born than U.S.-born Latinas (Lloyd, 2006). Some Asian cultures, even when exposed to Western cultures, continue to value filial responsibility. Aging Chinese American and Japanese American parents are more likely than their white counterparts to live with their adult children, particularly those adult children who are or have ever been married (Kamo & Zhou, 1994).

Antimiscegenation laws, which existed through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, prohibited interracial marriages between whites and either blacks or Asians (Trask & Koivunen, 2007). Since the repealing of these laws, racial heterogamy increased between 1980 and 2000, as did the marital quality of these relationships (Amato et al., 2007). Interracial marriage is more likely between white and nonwhite groups than between two nonwhite groups. However, whites and African Americans have the lowest rates of interracial marriages; American Indians are among the groups with the highest rates (Lee & Edmonston, 2005).


Karasik and Hamon (2007) aptly point out that marrying in later life is subject to social and cultural norms. Because women typically outlive men, yet are expected to seek out mates their own age or older, there is a paucity of available partners. This, coupled with society's discomfort with sexuality among elderly individuals, makes for an environment that denies, if not discourages, elder partnering.

Physical and Mental Ability

The lack of autonomy in decision-making may be one of the greatest obstacles to marriage, if not partnership, for persons with disabilities. The inability of an individual deemed incompetent to provide consent, or guardians who do not grant consent, can prevent those with physical or mental disabilities from marrying. The high prevalence of partner violence against persons with disabilities can also make this decision very difficult for the individual with the disability and, if relevant, his or her guardian (Jordan & Dunlap, 2001).


Persons living in poverty or at the margins have particularly been the target of an institutionalized marriage push via welfare reform. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of1996 and its subsequent reauthorization in 2006 included funds allocated for the Healthy Marriage Initiative, which seeks to promote marriage as a means of shrinking the welfare rolls (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2007). The success of such programs remains to be seen, as early reports show that more than half of cohabiting relationships among poor women end by the fifth year, leaving fewer than half of these relationships surviving or transitioning to marriage (Lichter, Qian, & Mellott, 2006).

Debates Including Ethical Issues and Dilemmas

The prevailing debate in the United States in the 2010s regarding partnership and marriage is that of marriage equality. In 2004, President George W. Bush called for the Constitution to be amended, once and for all defining marriage as between one man and one woman, fearing that DOMA may one day be overturned.In early May 2012, however, President Barack Obama’s pronouncement in favor of same-sex marriage was seen as a watershed moment in the history of marriage equality in the United States (Earnest, 2012). This followed his 2011 directive to the Department of Justice to refrain from defending DOMA (U.S. Department of Justice, 2011), which in late May 2012 was found by a federal appeals court to be unconstitutional, setting the stage for a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The National Association of Social Workers' (2008) Code of Ethics calls on social workers to “prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, or mental or physical disability” (§ 6.04 Social and Political Action). Social workers who support the extension of marriage to same-sex couples see this issue as fully within the bounds of social justice as spelled out by the Code. Social workers who oppose same-sex marriage—nearly 30% in one study (Green, 2005) believed that state laws regarding consensual behavior among gay men and lesbians should not be loosened—may not view the lack of such legislation as discriminatory.

Trends and Directions

The proportion of women ages 19–44 who have ever cohabited has increased over the years, from 33% in 1987 to 45% in 1995 (Bumpass & Lu, 2000) to 54% in 2002, the greatest increase most recently being among Hispanics and among high school graduates (Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008). The proportion of premarital cohabitation has likewise increased, up from 16% in 1980 to 41% by century's end (Amato et al., 2007). Marital breakups rose in the decades spanning the 1950s through the 1970s but leveled off into the 1980s. The probability that a second marriage would break up, however, continued to increase through the 1980s, even though the likelihood of remarriage decreased over the years (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002).

According to a public opinion poll conducted in July 2006 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (PRCPP, 2006), 35% of Americans favored same-sex marriage, while 56% opposed it. By April 2012, those numbers had changed to 47% and 43%, respectively (PRCPP, 2012). A May 2012 Gallup News Service poll (2012) reported slightly higher favorability (50%) and greater opposition (48%). Civil unions, which provide legal recognition and some of the same rights afforded to married couples, have also gained acceptance (57%) (PRCPP, 2009).

Between the years 2000, when Vermont enacted this country's first same-sex civil union legislation, and 2003, 6,683 civil unions were established (Vermont Department of Health, 2005). Shortly thereafter, in 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to permit same-sex marriage. In the eight years since, more than 8,500 lesbian and gay couples have taken advantage of the legalization (MassEquality, 2012).

Implications for Social Work

Social work is a profession that easily adapts to the changing environment. Judging by the trends and directions discussed above, social work's ability to respond to the transformation of marriage and domestic partnership is indispensable. By virtue of their required education and training, professional values and ethics, and regulated practice standards, social workers are aptly qualified to engage in intervention with couples. Indeed, social workers provide the majority of mental health services in the United States.

Social workers are in an ideal position to work with all types of couple relationships, especially those comprising individuals from traditionally underserved populations. Working with the partner dyad to decrease destructive patterns and enhance healthy interactions is just one level of intervention. With an emphasis on social justice, social work seeks to dismantle prejudice and discrimination against those couples whose legal options have been traditionally limited, for example, same-sex and mentally challenged couples. Furthermore, social workers are called on to advocate for couples whose access to and benefits of domestic partnership and marriage have been negatively impacted by racial, economic, age, and gender inequality. Understanding the intersection of political, social, and economic realities at the various concentric proximities to the couple will serve social work well, as marriage and domestic partnerships undergo continuous reshaping and redefinition in the future.


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Further Reading