College women's rankings of the most undesirable marriage and family forms.
Women college students (Surveys)
Billingham, Robert E., Sr.
Perera, Pitiyage Bilesha
Ehlers, Nicole A.
Pub Date:
Name: College Student Journal Publisher: Project Innovation (Alabama) Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2005 Project Innovation (Alabama) ISSN: 0146-3934
Date: Dec, 2005 Source Volume: 39 Source Issue: 4
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
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The purpose of the study was to investigate college women's were unwillingness to participate in 24 alternative marital and family forms. Data were collected through the use of anonymous questionnaires distributed in classes. The analysis revealed "One man married to two or more wives" (95.1%), "Man has 'right' to sex outside of marriage" (94.2%)," "Group marriage" (91.3%) and "Woman has 'right' to sex outside of marriage" (91.3%) were the most undesirable forms of marriage. Even the most "undesirable" forms of marriage had individuals who were willing to participate in them. This study confirms that among college age women, the expectations of what is considered an abnormal or undesirable form of marriage is more vague and flexible than assumed.


During 2004, more than ever, the definition of marriage and family has been opened to public debate. However, these are not new debates. In 1972, Jessie Bernard wrote, The Future of Marriage and Axelson and Strong (1972) concluded that the field of marriage and family would be dominated by the study of alternative family forms. Bernard's (1972) work, arguably, deals more with the changing roles of women than with alternative marriage and family forms, but it can be argued that the two may go hand in hand. As more women entered the work force, there was greater pressure for the development of egalitarian or even role reversal marriages. In addition, even though the definition of marriage remained, "one man married to one woman," this definition too had undergone change from traditional monogamy (one man married to one woman until death) to include serial monogamy (one man married to one woman at a time) so that society could respond to the rapid rate of divorce and remarriage. From these changes in marriage came changes in definitions of family, so that "family" now included divorced families, both mother and father headed households, never-married single parent (mothers and fathers), paternity issues, minority families, and dysfunctional families. However, there remained a paucity of research on what continued to be fringe or alternatives forms of marriage and family; even though many of these alternative marriage and family forms are both practiced and legal in other cultures of the world (polygyny and polyandry as examples).

There were some notable exceptions. White and Wells (1973); Jurich and Jurich (1975); Stinnett and Taylor (1976); Strong (1978); and Billingham and Sack (1986) have all studied how willing college students are to participate in various alternative marriage and family forms. In each of these studies it was found that many students expressed a willingness to participate in non-traditional monogamous marriages or other alternative marriage and family forms. It may be argued that college students are at the forefront of the social evolution of the redefinition of marriage and family. In 1986 Billingham and Sack found that 64.7 percent of women college students were unwilling to participate in a cohabiting relationship. In 2003 that percentage had dropped to 28.9 if the intent of cohabiting was marriage (Billingham, unpublished manuscript). Likewise, in 1986, 91.1 percent of women said they were unwilling to participate in "Serial monogamy." In 2003 that percentage dropped to 19.5. Thus both cohabiting and serial monogamy had moved from an undesirable marital and family form in the 1980's to a much more acceptable form of "marriage" in the 21 century.

Since societal evolution involves alternative behaviors by a minority of individuals that later become acceptable to mainstream society, the purpose of this study was to identify those forms of marriage and family that are currently considered most undesirable by college aged women. Then to determine if there are some women who would be willing to participate in these undesirable form of marriage and family. We anticipate that this might offer a window into the future of marriage and family in America's future.



The data were collected from students enrolled in large lecture classes at a large university in the mid-west. Students were informed that their participation was voluntary and that they were not to put any identifying information on the questionnaire. This would help assure their responses would be both confidential and anonymous.

The students were also informed that they could choose not to participate in the study and they could withdraw from the study at any time during the data collection period. The protocol allowed for data collection only after the class had ended and students had a chance to leave the classroom before the study was introduced. While the effect of this protocol varied from classroom to classroom, the overall effect was that a smaller number of students choose to stay and complete the questionnaire than had been hoped.

Only the responses of the women students were compared in this study. Finally, only women who identified themselves as single, never married and heterosexual were used in this comparison. This resulted in a usable sample of 111 respondents.


After approval from the Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects in Research was received, permission from instructors to collect data in their classes, was obtained. Either the project director or the class instructor introduced the study and invited the students to participate. This was done after the instructor had ended the class. The students completed the questionnaire and, once finished, placed the questionnaire in a box provided by the project director. Students were invited to shuffle the questionnaires if they wished.


A questionnaire requesting background information and containing a list of 24 alternative marriage and family forms was distributed. The list of 24 marriage and family forms was compiled from earlier studies on this topic, and from discussions with students and colleagues about what kind of living arrangements were not included on our list.

The students responded to each of the 24 marriage and family forms using the categories: 1--"I would Never participate," 2--"Very Unwilling," 3--"Unwilling," 4--"More unwilling than willing," 5--"More willing than unwilling," 6--"Willing," or 7--"Very willing." In this study we focused exclusively on those responses in the "I would never participate" category. We did this because this is the only "absolute" and "inflexible" category available to the students, and is thought to represent the "absolute limits" of the acceptability for any given marriage or family form on the list.

Results and Discussion

Table 1 presents the results of the analysis. The 24 marriage and family forms are listed in order based on the highest number and percent of women who reported that they would "Never" participate in the marriage form. The marriage form that the greatest number of women reported they would never participate in is "One man married to two or more women" (95.1%). This form of marriage is polygyny, and on a world-wide cultural bases is widely practiced and accepted.

There were four marriage forms listed for which over 90 percent of women reported they would "Never" participate. These are: 1) One man married to two or more women (95.1%); "Man has 'right' to sex outside of marriage" (94.2%); "Group marriage" (91.3%); and "Woman has 'right' to have sex outside of marriage" (91.3%).

One third (33.3%) of women reported they would never participate in a "Child free marriage." Thus, for one third of women, both their, and their future partner's future plans must include children.

Fifteen women (14.4%) reported that they would "Never" "remain single." It is not clear as to whether these women believe that marriage will simply be a natural occurrence in their lives or that they will do whatever it takes to be married one day.

Interestingly, 10.7 percent of women reported that they would "Never" participate in a "Traditional sex role segregated marriage." This may indicate that, for these women, the definition of "traditional sex role segregated marriage" has changed, or it means that they simply are unaware that even today, women end up doing most of the household tasks than their partners.

Since this study focused on the "absolute" or "extreme" end of willingness to participate in a list of alternative marital and family forms, i. e. "I would 'Never,' participate" these results indicate that even though there are some forms of marital and family forms that the overwhelming majority of women chose not to participate in, there are still individuals in our society to whom these forms may be acceptable. Thus, marriage and family in a pluralistic society may call for a reevaluation and perhaps redefinition of marriage and family so that they can become more flexible, inclusive and reflective of the members of the society.

Since these results indicate that there are a wide variety of marriage and family forms that at least a minority of individuals find desirable, and seem willing to consider participating in, there is a possibility that should any one form of alternative marriage and family be legalized, society would be hard pressed to deny legal equality to the others.


Axelson, L. J., and Strong, L. D. (1972). Some personal characteristics and organizational attitudes of NCFR membership. The Family Coordinator, 21, 337-346.

Bernard, J. (1972). The Future of Marriage. New York World Publishing.

Billingham, R. E., and Sack, A. R. (1986). Gender differences in college students' willingness to participate in alternative marriage and family relationships. Family Perspective, 20, 37-44.

Jurich, A. R, and Jurich, J. A. (1975). Alternative family forms: Preference of non-participants. Home Economic Research Journal, 3,260-265.

White, M., and Wells, C. (1973). Student attitudes toward alternate marriage forms. In Roger W. Libby and Robert N. Whitehurst (Eds.), Renovating Marriage. Danville California: Consensus Publishers, Inc.



Indiana University


Purdue University--Calument
Table 1
Number and percentage of college women who selected they would
NEVER be willing to participate in the marriage and family
forms (N = 111)

                                                       "I will Never

                                                          n      %

One man married to two or more wives                     98    95.1
Man has "right" to have sex outside of marriage          97    94.2
Group marriage                                           94    91.3
Woman has "right" to have sex outside of marriage        94    91.3
One woman marred to two or more husbands                 92    89.3
Non-Consensual extramarital sex                          88    85.4
Bi-sexual marriage                                       87    85.3
Consensual extramarital sex                              86    83.5
Spouse Swapping                                          86    83.5
Same sex relationship (WITH children)                    82    80.4
Rural commune                                            82    79.6
"Swinging"                                               79    77.5
Arranged marriage                                        79    76.7
Same sex relationship (WITHOUT children)                 78    75.7
Marriage arranged by a "matchmaker"                      76    73.8
A five year evaluation and renewal                       45    43.7
A "Child Free" marriage                                  34    33.3
Long term cohabitation
  (with no intent to marry your partner)                 21    20.2
Remain Single                                            15    14.4
Traditional sex role segregated marriage                 11    10.7
Serial Monogamy                                          10    09.7
Long term cohabitation
  (with intent to marry your partner)                    07    06.7
Role reversal marriage                                   03    02.9
Egalitarian marriage                                     00     --
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Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.