Sociology Ph.D. Dissertations


Keeping All the Balls in the Air: Social Class and Stress, Relationship Commitment, and Marital Expectations among Cohabiting Young Adults

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Wendy Manning, PhD (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Susan Brown , PhD (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Kara Joyner, PhD (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Gary Lee, PhD (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Shannon Pelini, PhD (Committee Member)


There exists a marriage divide between moderately educated young adults with less than a four year degree and those who have a college degree or higher. Working class cohabitors desire to form romantic unions, but often lack the resources to transition to marriage. While cohabiting, they occupy social roles such as parent, worker, and student, which may produce stress; this may make it difficult for young adults to juggle multiple roles and “keep all the balls in the air” while thinking about relationship commitment and plans to marry. Using data from the fourth wave of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), this dissertation examines how social class and social roles and stress, relationship commitment, and marital expectations are interrelated among a sample of young adult cohabitors aged 24-32. This study draws upon the life course perspective and the Stress Process Model to examine 1) social class differences in social roles and perceived stress among cohabiting young adults 2) whether and how social class and social roles are related to relationship commitment, and 3) marital expectations. Findings indicate that advantaged cohabitors score significantly lower on stress than moderately and the least educated cohabitors. Although disadvantaged and working class cohabitors experience stress similarly, stress impedes commitment and marital expectations to a greater extent for working class cohabitors. In addition, moderately educated cohabitors have more social roles than their least and most educated counterparts, working to “keep all the balls in the air”. Contrary to expectations, the juggling act does not produce stress. Rather, social roles are tied to lower stress. However, social roles also reduce commitment to one’s partner, but social roles are not related to marital expectations. Meanwhile, advantaged cohabitors have higher odds of expectations to marry compared to moderately educated cohabitors, but commitment to one’s partner is similar across social class. These findings support the notion that the working class use cohabitation as an alternative to singlehood, which suggests a retreat from marriage among the moderately educated.