This paper has been written to provide a broad overview of union formation and dissolution in the United States. Our primary goal in writing the paper is to consider the current state of knowledge concerning the formation and dissolution of unions. We discuss a broad range of things that are currently understood about union formation and dissolution, and, more importantly, consider some of the important things that are currently unknown or very dimly understood. An important element of the paper is to provide recommendations concerning steps that can be taken to enhance further our understanding of these important processes. Because of the breadth of the union formation and dissolution topic, we recognize that our review cannot be exhaustive in covering all dimensions of the topic.
We begin our paper with a discussion of the institution of marriage. We focus on the meaning of marriage and the ways in which the cultural and institutional underpinnings of marriage vary from other union forms such as nonmarital cohabitation. This section also briefly considers the role of the legal system and public policy in union formation and dissolution. The paper then turns to a brief discussion of some of the historical changes which have occurred in union formation and dissolution. We consider trends in both behavior and the norms and values underlying the formation and dissolution and unions. Our next broad area concerns the causes and consequences of union formation and dissolution. Here we address such issues as the processes leading to the formation or dissolution of a union. We also consider the factors that might influence the rate of union formation and dissolution. Also discussed are factors that would move people toward different kinds of unions such as marriage, cohabitation, and unions that do not involve coresidence. An important element here is the ways in which childbearing and childrearing are involved in, influence, and are influenced by the processes and decisions of union formation and dissolution.
In the latter part of the paper we turn our attention to future research. We consider some of the important gaps in our knowledge and make recommendations concerning approaches for furthering our understanding. Of particular importance here are the changes which have occurred in union formation and dissolution and the ways these changes influence our data collection system. We discuss ways in which our data system could be enhanced to further our knowledge of union formation and dissolution. While much of our current knowledge is drawn from large-scale quantitative data sets, we explore the potential usefulness of qualitative approaches–both by themselves, and also in combination with quantitative approaches. Again, we acknowledge that the breadth of the topic of union formation and dissolution makes any attempt at a full and comprehensive review beyond the scope of this paper. We end the paper with a brief summary of the main recommendations for additional data and research.