Complexity and Diversity in Union Formation, Pathways to Parenthood, and Union Dissolution in Canada




Li, Zhuolin

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Sociologists and demographers have long sought to investigate the patterns, correlates, and consequences of intimate relationships. With shifts in societal values and economic circumstances, we have gradually observed delays in and even retreats from marriage, the growing popularity of cohabitation, the growing prevalence of non-marital births, and the increasing instability of unions. Against the backdrop of these rapidly changing union and family experiences, this dissertation investigates recent developments in union formation, fertility, and union dissolution in Canada using the 2011 and 2017 General Social Surveys conducted by Statistics Canada. Findings from three studies are presented. The first study provides estimates of serial cohabitation prior to first marriage for Canadian women and men in three successive age cohorts (Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, Millennials). It also examines its risk factors and the joint risk of serial cohabitation and marriage among cohabitors. The study found that whereas the majority of women and men who experienced cohabitation had only one such relationship, approximately 11% of women and 13% of men experienced serial cohabitation before their first marriage. From Baby Boomers to Generation Xers, there was a more than a threefold increase in the prevalence of serial cohabitation. There were also notable regional differences in cohabitation experiences, with cohabitation being more common in Quebec than in other provinces in Canada. Women were more likely than men to transition from serial cohabitation to their first marriage, suggesting that cohabiting women may view cohabitation as a precursor to marriage while cohabiting men may view cohabitation as an alternative to marriage. The second study examines the prevalence, correlates and stability of pre-conception and post-conception marital and cohabiting unions among young women who bore children in Canada. The majority of first births occurred in the context of pre-conception marriages (72.47%), followed by post-conception marriages (10.25%), and a smaller proportion occurred in cohabiting unions established either before conception (9.20%) or after conception (3.20%). Compared to women in pre-conception marriages, women in all four other union types were more likely to belong to more recent cohorts and to be less educated, less likely to have been raised by biological or adoptive parents from birth to age 15, less religious, less likely to be immigrants, and less likely to live in urban areas. When considering the stability of these unions, the findings suggest that the type of union (cohabitation vs. marriage) has a greater impact on the risk of dissolution than the timing of union formation (pre-conception vs. post-conception). The third study focuses on the most common union and family life course trajectories experienced during the earlier years of adulthood among women and men in Canada aged 50 and over, and how these trajectories impact union disruption later in life. The study found that nearly 80% of respondents were in long-term ‘Marital unions with children’, while 1 in 10 had been ‘Single or cohabiting without children’ until age 50. The ‘Marriage without children’ trajectory accounted for 7% of respondents, while only 5% were in the ‘Cohabitation with children’ trajectory. Those who were ‘Single or cohabiting without children’ but who were married by age 50 were more likely to see these marital unions dissolve in later life whereas those who were ‘Married with children’ in early adulthood but who were cohabiting by age 50 were more likely to see these cohabiting unions dissolve in later life. In general, women had more complex and diverse trajectories than men. Women and those with more complex trajectories had a higher risk of marital union dissolution in middle and later life than men and those with less complex histories. In addition, Baby Boomers had a higher risk of divorce than pre-Baby Boomers. Education, although not related to marital union dissolution was positively associated with the odds of cohabiting union dissolution later in life. Finally, although people living in Quebec were more likely to experience marital union dissolution after age 50, there was no significant difference by province in cohabiting union dissolution. The findings of these studies improve our understanding of the current state of families in Canada. They offer crucial information that can be used to develop policies and programs aimed at enhancing the lives of Canadians and their families. By identifying the most common types of union and family life course trajectories as well as their correlates and outcomes, these studies can help policymakers make informed decisions about how best to support different family structures.



union formation, parenthood, union dissolution