Editors note: The American Family Survey is an annual, nationwide poll from the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. It studies how Americans think about marriage and parenting, their family lives, and their opinions about the most important issues affecting families today. Read more about the surveys findings at DeseretNews.com/american-family-survey.

Children whose parents are married throughout their childhood are more likely to have economic security and their own stable family life as adults — and yet commitment may be replacing marriage as the foundation on which families strive for stability. A majority (56 percent) of American young adults say personal commitment between partners matters more than legal marriage, compared to 36 percent among older adults.

That's according to the second annual American Family Survey, conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University in late July. The survey includes responses from 3,000 Americans and explores attitudes and practices in family life, marriage and parenting, as well as family economic situations and views on policy issues affecting families.

The survey finds clear ideological and age differences when it comes to marriage vs. commitment, with liberals more likely than conservatives to agree that "being legally married is not as important as having a personal sense of commitment to your partner." Liberals favor commitment over marriage across age groups while conservatives favor marriage — with the exception of young conservatives, among whom 59 percent say commitment is more important.

"Young people feel very strongly, both liberals and conservatives, that personal commitment to the partner is actually more important than legal marriage. That's something that's new," said Christopher F. Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy and an author on the report.

"That's not to say that marriage is unimportant, but it is to say that marriage may be primarily important because it implies the commitment and commitment matters most (for relationship success)," said Richard Reeves, an adviser on the survey who directs the Center on Families and Children at Brookings Institution. "People of all ideologies think that raising kids in a stable household is very important. I am glad people think that, because it is important."

The shift reflects a major change in family structure, particularly between generations. For the first time, more children are being born to unmarried mothers than to married ones among women under age 30, with many instead cohabiting, said Sara McLanahan, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, who also consulted on the survey.

According to the study, 91 percent of respondents over age 65 said they were married when they first became a parent. It's a vastly different story for people under 30, with just 30 percent married at the time they first had a child. Additionally, 56 percent said they were in a committed relationship, though not married, said Karpowitz. "That suggests that there are huge generational differences in the relationship between marriage and parenting. Increasingly, young Americans are choosing to become parents prior to getting married — or maybe not getting married at all."

What's not known is the impact these cultural changes will have, Karpowitz said. "We do know cohabiting relationships are less stable and that cohabiters have more economic troubles than other groups, certainly more economic troubles than married couples do."

Karpowitz said the survey also found that adults who grew up in homes where their parents were married through their entire childhood are less likely to have experienced recent economic crisis, more likely to be married themselves, and less likely to say their relationships are having problems.

In spite of the trend toward cohabitation, marriage as an institution retains its popularity, highly regarded even by those who postpone or eschew it. "More than half believe that society is better off when more people are married, about 60 percent believe that marriage helps to create strong families, and nearly two-thirds said that marriage helps families and children financially," the report said.

Changing patterns

Like a growing number of young adults, Jessica and Ami Tuatonga, 28 and 30, lived together before they got married in August. They have two children: Maasi, 8, and Maake, 2. The West Valley City, Utah, mom works full time as a customer service department manager, while her husband works for a gas company contractor. She describes their politics as "more Democrat, more open-minded."

Maasi says prayers before the Tuatonga family eats supper at their home in West Valley City on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. | Nick Wagner, Deseret News

The Tuatongas are among the 40 percent of all Americans, including 36 percent of those who are now married, that said they have cohabited without being married at some point. Young respondents were much more likely to report that than other groups: About 53 percent of young married respondents said they'd cohabited, compared to 40 percent of those ages 30 to 54. Only 22 percent of married respondents 65 and older said the same.

Asked if they figured they'd eventually marry when they first moved in together, Jessica said they didn't really think about it. The progression of their relationship followed a pattern that University of Denver research professor Scott Stanley calls "sliding vs. deciding." They were committed to each other, though, she said.

Kim and Ben Dubois, both 37, of Sandy, Utah, are more traditional. They call themselves conservative, though she says she's kind of indifferent when it comes to politics. Kim is a stay-at-home mom to Liam, 11, Eliza, 7, and Ollie, 4. Ben is a mechanical engineer. The couple, both college graduates, married when they were 23. They never cohabited.

The lives of the two couples reflect differences that mirror to some degree what the study found about stability and family structure. The Tuatongas say their finances are fairly tight, while Kim Dubois says they're doing OK, although when Ben was briefly unemployed in 2010, they had to really pinch pennies for a few months.

But they also reflect strong similarities in their day-to-day lives, which is also what the survey found about liberals and conservatives: Regardless of their different ideologies, they live their family lives in remarkably similar ways.

Both moms say family is everything. Both couples are close to their extended families, which rely on each other for advice and practical help. That's where each say they would turn if things were tight financially. Both moms love their kids, hope their kids will get a college education and say they're doing their best to see that the youngsters thrive.

Mostly, they both want their children to flourish, and they try to live in ways they believe will aid that process, from activities and reading with their kids to family meals and what they see as constructive rules and boundaries.

Ben and Kim Dubois with their children, Liam (11), Ollie (4) and Eliza (7). | Courtesy of Jamie Tervort

"I hope to instill in them self-worth," Kim Dubois said in an email. "I hope they continue to feel like they can do anything they set their minds to. I hope they always use their talents and gifts for good. I hope they develop a personal relationship with God, and find joy in following his commandments.

"Sometimes I struggle to find a balance between demanding obedience and letting them make their own choices, because I want them to become independent leaders — not submissive little robots — but I also want to help make their lives easy. But I think as long as they know they're loved, they'll be OK, and I feel pretty confident in my love-showing skills (most of the time)."

Jessica Tuatonga talks about raising children who are respectful, obedient, considerate and show good manners. She talks to Maasi about a future when she will be in college, because she wants the little girl to expect that of herself. Someday, Tuatonga hopes to get a degree. They try to eat dinner at night as a family and to spend as much time together as they can.

Reeves notes that stability "is not absolutely synonymous with married couples." Stable households can be headed by single parents, a grandparent, generations living together or other combinations. Those involved in whatever configuration exists must provide the stability.

Fragile lives

More than 40 percent of all children are now being born outside of marriage, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Of those, more than half are born to cohabiting parents. "That's the good news in the sense that their parents are in a relationship at the time of their birth," said McLanahan. "It's not like the story of the single mother raising a child all alone. The bad news is those cohabiting relationships are not nearly as stable as marriages are."

Married couples also break up; many divorce. But McLanahan said that is more likely to occur when parents are older and have finished having kids. The difference now, she notes, is that women who have had nonmarital births break up more quickly and in their peak childbearing years.

McLanahan said women who have had nonmarital births may repartner and even have another child quite quickly — and sometimes again and again. "A lot of these children have a lot of instability. I call it family complexity." Running a household and juggling different combinations of parents and kids can be very complicated, she said.

The children can have somewhat different childhoods, as well, depending on how the other parent is involved. In the survey, about 23 percent of the kids who were born to unmarried mothers reported their mother had two relationships while they were growing up, while about 9 percent had three or more. About 23 percent of the children have three or more half-siblings. "I think it makes these families very complicated," said McLanahan.

She said women do tend to find better partners the second time. "Even though there's confusion and instability, it looked like the new partners were more educated, more likely to be working and less likely to be incarcerated."

For stability, McLanahan recommends couples follow a more traditional pathway: "Finish school, get a job and then start a family. Do it in that order; you have a much better chance of making it."

Other findings

Among the survey's other highlights:

  • As in 2015, respondents in 2016 are optimistic and generally satisfied with their own marriages and family lives, with more than 90 percent saying they are the same or getting stronger. But fewer than half say marriage and family life in general are getting stronger or staying the same.
  • Men are much more likely to say that the division of labor at home is about equal; women don't feel that men do as much. By and large, though, couples — particularly those who are married — are supportive of their partners in the survey, Reeves said. And their levels of satisfaction with co-parenting "were a bit higher perhaps than one might have expected," he said. "Most people have quite high a degree of respect for their co-parents. I think that's very good."
  • In both the 2015 and 2016 surveys, given a list of 12 issues facing families, the top pick was "parents not teaching or disciplining their children sufficiently," with more than half selecting it as one of their three choices. The bottom concern both years was "lack of government programs to support families."
  • Forty percent of Americans reported they do nice things for their partner daily.
  • The 2015 and 2016 surveys both found that while Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives have very different ideas about policy, they live out their family lives in very similar fashion. There are no significant differences in how they work, play and relate to each other within their families, except when it comes to prayer. Just over half say they "never" pray together. But on everything else, people are pretty similar, including the regularity with which couples discuss family finances, their relationship and social and political issues with one another, engage in sex, have dinner as a family and go out together.
  • Conservatives are much more likely than liberals to say marriage is needed to create strong families (84 v. 39 percent) and that society is better off when people are married (75 v. 35 percent). And few support the notion that marriage is outdated or "more of a burden than a benefit," though the number of liberals who agree is higher than the number of conservatives.

"I think we live in a world where people want to find political differences in every way, and we magnify them by not measuring political differences as thoughtfully as we should," said Jeremy C. Pope, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy and an author on the report.

"The data here just screams there's not a big difference in terms of how many family activities you go on or what you do. There's even not an enormous difference, though there is some, in how you evaluate policies. … It's worth keeping in mind, most people living out their lives are not doing it in highly political ways."

He also noted, "Political scientists have found that when people are asked to say whether they're liberal, moderate or conservative, not everyone is thinking politics. There are lots of people who treat it as a kind of lifestyle question — a lot who answer 'I'm a conservative' but the truth is they favor a number of liberal policies. It's not as true on the other end. Someone who says he is liberal is probably fairly liberal on economic and policy issues."

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco