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Journeys to the Altar

Dr. Linda Burton (left) shares a light moment with HDFS faculty Kate MacTavish and Alan Acock

Dr. Linda Burton (left) shares a light moment with HDFS faculty Kate MacTavish and Alan Acock

It’s not just a matter of buying the rings and saying “I do.” For many families, the journey to the altar is a long, hard road–sometimes impassable. According to Dr. Linda Burton, James B. Duke Professor of Sociology at Duke University, “The decline of marriage as a social institution has been greatest among low-income populations…. Yet despite considerable scholarly attention to the topic, we still do not fully understand why there are so few lasting marriages or even long-term cohabiting unions among low-income women and men.”

She embarked on the largest ethnographic study in the country on the topic. The guiding forces behind her research were the current administration’s interest in the decline of marriage, particularly with welfare reform, and the implications of the administration’s Marriage Initiative, which in part was intended to encourage low-income families to marry as a means of bringing single mothers out of poverty.

“We found that women who have been physically or sexually abused are substantially less likely to be married or to be in stable, long-term cohabiting relationships,” Dr. Burton explained. Women who experienced the “double whammy” of childhood sexual abuse and adult physical abuse are most likely–76 percent–to be in transient unions–a series of short-term relationships with brief intervals between. Women who had experienced physical abuse as adults but not as children are most likely–83 percent–to take a “time out” from relationships to reflect on their behaviors and the behaviors of their ex-partners before they move on to another relationship.

“Our study suggests that abuse is a widespread and serious problem,” Dr. Burton concluded. “If we are concerned about the decline in stable, long-term unions among the poor and near-poor, then we may need to consider measures that would directly reduce the high levels of physical and sexual abuse that women must bear.”

Dr. Burton spoke at OSU as part of the Duncan and Cindy Campbell Risk and Resilience Speaker Series, which brings nationally recognized experts to OSU to disseminate the latest findings on childhood risk and resilience.

Dr. Burton also spoke to graduate students and faculty on “Big Science Ethnography” as part of the college’s effort to enhance qualitative research. “She demonstrated how qualitative, ethnographic methods can complement quantitative methods and provide a far richer understanding than either approach can do independently,” says Alan Acock, OSU’s Knudson Endowed Chair in Family Policy.

“OSU and HHS have a commitment to helping Oregonians in rural areas,” Alan adds. “Dr. Burton’s analysis of the problems rural families face gave us ideas for how we can better serve the needs of rural Oregon.”

“Her talk certainly stretched our thinking,” says Kate MacTavish, assistant professor of HDFS, whose recent study of poor rural women living in trailer parks will be published in the journal Family Relations. “Understanding how individuals manage a pathway toward resilience despite familial and structural challenges has important implications for policies and interventions aimed at ending patterns of risk and alleviating the detrimental effects of poverty.”