Saturday, November 21, 2015

Jane Austen Understood Deception and Discovery in Modern Love

Jane Austen’s most beloved novels hinge on a female character misunderstanding which man is the best man until time and circumstances reveal the truth. The resolution always comes from the discovery of character and compatibility—in time.  
Painting by Georg Friedrich Kersting

Austen’s stories are exemplars of “decisions under risk and uncertainty.” That term describes the age-old practice of analyses to limit risk to a reasonable calculation. While some people do this for a living (e.g., insurance actuaries), we all make such calculations in life and love.  

Throughout all her novels, discovery of the nature of others is the theme, and not just among her lead characters. Austen understood that, while we never have perfect information, informed decisions increase the odds of improved outcomes. She also understood deception. Sometimes, one party withholds information that would be valuable to the other. But even more, she was a master in describing how self-deception limits our access to relevant information. “How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!”[i] Indeed.

In Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, Austen’s heroines discover the truth about the men in their lives as more perfect information replaces biased observations. For some, the best decisions come just in time. Lesser characters become victims of poor timing or poor judgment, or both. Still others make do by accepting that there are better men around but that there are no better men available to them. In Pride and Prejudice, these are the story lines for Elizabeth, Lydia, and Charlotte—who make excellent, poor, and good-enough matches, respectively.

Austen provides a near fairy-tale ending for some of her heroines. Nevertheless, she writes lucidly of timeless truths about love, character, and commitment. I believe her understanding is nearly modern, aside from the necessary differences in social context (e.g., entailments) and the dramatic shifts, since then, in the stages of relationships where these dynamics unfold.  

I believe Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s best story, but it’s not my favorite book. I like Sense and Sensibility best because, in it, Austen reveals most clearly the confusion of intention that captivates me as a reader—and a researcher. She understood the dangers of ambiguity in love long before it became what we now see as a dominant aspect of romantic and sexual relationships in life before marriage.[ii]

Sense and Sensibility

If you do not know the story, here’s enough background to understand the points I make here. You can watch the movie later, but the really good stuff is in the book.

Elinor Dashwood is the lead character. She falls in love with Edward Ferrars, brother of the deliciously evil Fanny. Fanny’s husband, John, inherited the Dashwood estate and turned out his father’s second wife and her three daughters by that second marriage. That would include Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. John is weak and Fanny is cruel. Elinor has sense and wisdom, but she is emotionally reserved. She loves Edward, and Edward is a good man to love. This information about Edward is apparent enough from start to finish. It is signaled at every turn. Unlike the case of Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, it only needs confirmation, not discovery.

Marianne is Elinor’s younger sister. She is emotional and a nearly hopeless romantic. Marianne is the sensibility to Elinor’s good sense. Here, sensibility means emotion and captivity to sensation. While we might imagine the title as creatively working a double entendre, that notion relies on our modern definitions. The terms were clearly understood in Austen’s day as I have described them just now.[iii]

Marianne is enraptured by passionate love. Whereas Elinor is head with heart, Marianne is all heart, and therefore at greater risk of being deceived in love. While Elinor and Marianne are separate characters, their characters are also devices for Austen to portray the dangers of different strategies in finding a mate. Elinor’s risk is based in being reserved to the point of loneliness, even in her relationship with her sister, Marianne. Marianne’s risk lies in being blinded by passion, making it hard to see the reality of a man capable of affection but not commitment: Willoughby.

John Willoughby is dashing, gallant (at first blush), and romantic. He enters Marianne’s life as Marianne has fallen and twisted her ankle while walking through the countryside. Willoughby arrives in the need of the moment, checks her ankle to see if it is broken, and carries Marianne away—down the hill to the cottage where the Dashwood women now live. He is revealed as a lover of poetry and passion, attracting Marianne’s heart in the way Marianne believes men like Edward Ferrars never could. Marianne is carried away, body and soul.

Marianne is misled by Willoughby, who though seemingly truly enamored with her, is drawn away. Over time, Willoughby is revealed as a cad incapable of commitment. At one point, Elinor directly questions Marianne’s incautious and rapid embrace of confidence in Willoughby. Marianne fires back:

            “You are mistaken, Elinor,” said she warmly, “in supposing I know very little of Willoughby. I have not known him long indeed, but I am much better acquainted with him, than I am with any other creature in the world, except yourself and mama.  It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy;--it is disposition alone.  Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.” 

Alas, seven days are not enough. Seven days are enough time to be overtaken by the rush of infatuation but not long enough to know the nature of another. Both lasting love and heartbreak will often feel exactly the same at the start. Thus, decisions around love are decisions under risk and uncertainty. Some risks are greater than others.

Signals and Signs

The nature of Marianne and Willoughby’s relationship becomes the subject of an argument between Elinor and their mother, Mrs. Dashwood. They are both concerned about Marianne after Willoughby abruptly departs and Marianne is crushed. I find this conversation to be a master class on the nature of ambiguity in romantic and sexual relationships in modern times. The essence of the argument lies in Elinor being convinced that something is awry while her mother—Marianne’s mother, too, of course—defends Willoughby, seeing him as a victim of circumstances beyond his control.

As I and others have noted, the nature of constraints changes the degree to which behavior accurately signals intention,[iv] and Mrs. Dashwood is placing her bet here as she strains to believe the best about Willoughby. She feels his commitment to Marianne is genuine but that he is constrained by his family’s desires. Elinor sees something more in the less that was before her, though she also wants to believe the better interpretation of Willoughby. A central question hinges on whether or not Marianne and Willoughby had become secretly engaged. If so, it would have fit with the strength of what they had all been seeing before Willoughby abruptly left. This is not the only instance of actual or suspected secret engagement in this and in other works by Austen. She understood that secret commitment may not be lasting and mutual.    

Mrs. Dashwood:  But you really do admit the justice of what I have said in his defence?--I am happy--and he is acquitted.

Elinor:  Not entirely.  It may be proper to conceal their engagement (if they ARE engaged) from Mrs. Smith--and if that is the case, it must be highly expedient for Willoughby to be but little in Devonshire at present. But this is no excuse for their concealing it from us.

Mrs. Dashwood: Concealing it from us! My dear child, do you accuse Willoughby and Marianne of concealment? This is strange indeed, when your eyes have been reproaching them every day for incautiousness.

Elinor: I want no proof of their affection…but of their engagement I do.

[Moments later in the dialogue.]

Mrs. Dashwood: Have we not perfectly understood each other? Has not my consent been daily asked by his looks, his manner, his attentive and affectionate respect?  My Elinor, is it possible to doubt their engagement?  How could such a thought occur to you?

Elinor: I confess, replied Elinor, that every circumstance except ONE is in favour of their engagement; but that ONE is the total silence of both on the subject, and with me it almost outweighs every other.

As it should. Commitment is declarative, and engagement is one of the most powerful signals of commitment. It was in Jane Austen’s time and it is now. Valid signals of commitment are powerful because they contain useful information that reduces uncertainty in the face of risk. Austen understood that evidence of attraction does not provide much information about commitment. Nor, for example in modern times, does cohabitation, itself, provide much information about it. By contrast, engagement or mutually declared plans for marriage says a lot about commitment.[v]

While Willoughby’s affections for Marianne are evident to all, Marianne’s broken heart leads her to understand that his love was “every day implied, but never professedly declared.” Jane Austen knew that affection may signify an attachment but romantic attachment, much less mere attraction, is not commitment.[vi] She knew that commitment declares itself. The more public the declaration, the more reliable the information.


Austen describes a beautiful transformation in Elinor and Marianne’s relationship that is fueled by their broken hearts. In life, Pain will teach if Suffering will learn. Sensibility moves toward better sense, and Sense becomes more sensible. While a happy ending is not had by everyone in this story, Sense and Sensibility come into balance and both find committed love.

Here’s some modern advice. Seven days are not enough to see what needs seeing. Take it slow. And consider with care what you believe signifies commitment in a prospective mate. Affection has a look but commitment has a voice. 

[i] Jane Austen, 1818, Persuasion.
[ii] Ambiguity is one of my favorite themes, and in our age, reigns.
[iii] For more on the meaning of Sense and Sensibility, see here.
[v] For more on this, see these examples of what I have written on this subject: “Decoding Commitment: When Sally Met Harry,” October 18, 20; First Comes Love, Then Comes…What?,” September 15, 2010; But also, I believe that cohabitation may, in fact, be informative about commitment in some contexts: “Marriage and Cohabitation: Another Take, Building on the Discussion of Selection,” September 9, 2011.
[vi] Interested in a more academic treatise on what I argue here? See Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2, 243-257. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Are Parents Less Happy? Are Couples with Children Less Happy?

You probably were not waiting to decide if you want to have children in life based on the latest answers from social science. But if you are wanting to know the answer, like the old status on FaceBook, it's complicated. If you want a good sense how and why, I have two pieces to recommend to you.

First, there is a brand new post over at Science of Relationships ( for you to read: “Parents Are Less Happy”: Fact or Fiction? It's an excellent piece by Andrew Willis Garcés that focuses on overall life happiness.

Want more? My favorite blog post ever was on this very subject, 6 years ago. I find that it holds up quite well. Here you go. Cleanup on Aisle 9 (at 35,000 Feet) This piecefocuses on what research suggests happens in terms of marital or couple happiness when people have a child.

The point that will come out strongly in both pieces is how complex the nature of contentment and happiness really is in life. I also make the point in my piece that we (those who study the effects on the couple) don't really measure something I'd call family happiness in social science. Rather, we have pretty thin measures of personal and couple-level happiness that likely don't capture something many people experience when it comes to fulfillment and meaning in life that I'd call happiness as a family.

Sure, some people are more miserable in life because they had children. Some couples have more strain that seems--and sometimes is--unending. Some children are challenging and/or difficult--and this can be unrelated to the quality of the parenting and upbringing they received. And some people are pretty lousy parents, and the whole world might have been better off if they had been better parents or not parents at all.

Children. They are not for everyone. But some of you will be great parents, even if it sometimes harshes your buzz in life to take it on.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Impact of Cohabitation on Young African Americans’ Marriage Attitudes

A study just out suggests that cohabitation may serve to “reposition” African-American young adults toward more positive attitudes about marriage. Ashley Barr, Ronald Simons, and Leslie Gordon Simons examined changes over time in marital attitudes in a sample of African American youth who were followed from fifth grade to when they were in their early to mid-twenties. While their methods did not allow for assessing actual transitions into marriage and marital outcomes, the authors were able to track relationships, relationship quality, transitions into cohabitation, and attitudes about marriage. Their working assumption was that cohabitation changes people regarding marriage in a number of ways, and that some of those changes might be positive. Indeed, they found that early cohabiting experiences generally led to more positive attitudes about marriage among these young African Americans.

This study is well-conceived and written, and has very strong methods. Of course, a lot of what’s important for understanding the conclusions lies in the details, so let’s dig deeper.

As Barr and colleagues note, various scholars have argued that cohabitation has become an alternative to marriage for many, perhaps especially so among African Americans. But what if, they wondered, it also changed attitudes about marriage in a positive direction for young African Americans? They worked from two theories about how cohabitation may impact marrying behavior. First, they drew on the work of Sandra McGinnis showing that cohabitation reduces both the perceived costs and benefits of marrying, but in a way that ultimately made marriage more likely. Second, they drew on the theory our team at the University of Denver has put forth: that cohabiting increases the costs of breaking up (compared to dating), making it more likely that some people marry a particular person out of “inertia,” even if relationship quality is not so great. Either theory suggests that cohabitation “repositions” people with regard to marriage. I believe this is true, yet very complicated.

Here are just a few of the complications in the types of questions Barr and colleagues tackle. First, cohabitation has become increasingly common, but it has also become less likely than ever before to lead to marriage.[i] Second, while there are ongoing debates about the impacts of premarital cohabitation, there is a lot of evidence that sliding into cohabiting without having clarified a mutual, long-term commitment to marry is associated with lower odds of success in marriage (read more here). Thus, Galena Rhoades and I have long argued that cohabitation is not a costless, inert relationship form. It can have many effects that people don’t anticipate when moving in together—such as getting stuck with someone they otherwise would have left, or having a child with someone who has no shared commitment to raising that child.

Third, Barr and colleagues focus on African Americans, who are less likely to marry and more likely to divorce than other groups.[ii] However, the race-related marriage gap may not be as large as one might suppose. Philip Cohen recently posted some preliminary analyses on his blog examining the lifetime odds of marrying for African American and white women. He concluded that “85.3% of White women, and 78.4% of Black women . . . are projected to marry before they die—a surprisingly small gap.” He was surprised, and so was I, but I believe the finding. Part of what is in play here is that African Americans tend to marry at even later ages than the already high and seemingly ever-increasing average age of marriage. So cohabitation may not have replaced marriage among African Americans as much as it has come to play an even larger role earlier in life, on average, compared to others.

Returning to the new study, Barr and colleagues measured perceived benefits of marriage (Does marriage bring a happier or fuller life?), perceived costs of marriage (e.g., Is marriage associated with a loss of friends or freedom?), the importance of marriage (e.g., “How important is it to you to have a good marriage?”), and the personal salience of marriage (e.g., “Getting married is the most important part of my life”) among respondents. Importantly, the design they used is especially strong for assessing how individuals change over time. They were able to compare individuals’ attitudes about marriage before and after cohabiting (among those who cohabited during the study). Galena Rhoades and I used pretty similar methods in a study on the impact of cohabitation, comparing results from more typical cross-sectional analyses to results from the more sophisticated analysis of changes over time within individuals on reports of relationship quality.[iii] It’s that ability to look at how people change in comparison to themselves that makes such methods especially valuable for addressing questions about how an experience like cohabitation might change people.

Other Findings from Barr, Simons, & Gordon Simons

As I mentioned at the outset, Barr and her colleagues found that cohabiting made young African Americans more positive about marriage. Other of their findings included:

·       Higher relationship quality (for those cohabiting or dating) was associated with more positive views of marriage.
·       Consistent with the findings and arguments of Brian Willoughby,[iv] individuals’ beliefs about marriage changed throughout adolescence and early adulthood based on their experiences.
·       Being in any romantic relationship was associated with an increased likelihood to believe that marriage is important. And while both cohabiting and dating experiences were associated with increases in marital salience and the perceived benefits of marriage, this was more true for the experience of cohabiting.
·       Most of these effects were stronger for young women than for young men. Cohabiting had a particularly strong impact on women’s perceptions of the importance of marriage.

It is important to note (as the authors do) the two greatest limitations of the study. First, they were unable to assess participants’ long-term outcomes in marriage. Second, they were unable to compare the pattern of associations they found with a comparable sample of non-African Americans.

Those limitations matter, of course, because while these authors found that cohabitation positively impacts attitudes about marriage, especially for young African American women, that does not necessarily mean that those who cohabited became more likely to marry or more likely to succeed at marriage than their never-cohabiting (or later-cohabiting) peers. Further, I wonder if the same findings might be obtained for others who are not African American. Why? Because intense relationship experiences may universally deepen the desire for long-term attachment, regardless of the quality of those relationships (which Barr and colleagues controlled for; wisely, I think).

We can’t really conclude from this study if cohabitation serves as a bridge to marriage among young African Americans or if it makes marriage a bridge too far. Having an increased aspiration for marriage does not necessarily mean an increased realization of marriage. That is an important quibble; however, the study is excellent and it adds to the overall discussion.

The findings of Barr, Simons, and Gordon Simons reinforce three truths that we should continue to grapple with in understanding marriage and family formation.

First, things may well not work the same way for all groups. While it likely distresses some who follow my work for me to say it, it is entirely reasonable to expect that there will emerge evidence that some conditions of cohabitation make marriage—and even success in marriage—more likely among some groups. While I do not believe that cohabitation, on average, tells us much about partners’ mutual commitment, it may carry different impacts and implications in certain cultural or economic contexts. In some groups, cohabitation may be a meaningful signal of commitment; I think it depends in large degree upon what other signals of commitment are available in a specific, societal context.

Second, while a lot of people in social science are not comfortable with such things, Barr and colleagues find evidence that romantic relationship development tends to work differently for women than men. Why might that matter? I remain of the belief that sliding transitions are associated with greater odds of relationships forming where there are substantial differences in the level of commitment between two partners. Historically, Galena Rhoades and I find that, when there is substantial asymmetrical commitment, women draw the short end of the stick about two-thirds of the time; that is, they are more apt to be the more committed partner stuck with someone who is less so. Whether male or female, you, dear reader, likely don’t want it to be you or your children living that life.  

Third, Barr and colleagues show that higher relationship quality is associated with more positive attitudes about marriage for both daters and cohabiters. The usual suspects complicate causality here, but this nevertheless suggests that those who want to foster positive attitudes about marriage may do well to support work to help teens and young adults have higher-quality relationships. If you look around, it seems like there is plenty of work to do.

[i] Lichter, D.T., Turner, R.N., Sassler, S. (2010). National estimates of the rise in serial cohabitation. Social Science Research, 39, 754–765; Vespa, J. (2014). Historical trends in the marital intentions of one-time and serial cohabitors. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 207–217. 
[ii] e.g., Amato, P. R. (2012). Research on divorce: Continuing trends and new developments. Journal of Marriage & Family, 72(3), 650–666.
[iii] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2012). The impact of the transition to cohabitation on relationship functioning: Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(3), 348–358. 
[iv] Willoughby, B. J. (2010). Marital attitude trajectories across adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 39, 1305–1317.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Safety as the Hallmark of Successful Marriages

When you think of safety, what comes to mind? OSHA standards for workplace practices? Guidelines for preventing accidents at home? How about factors that contribute to or characterize success in marriage? That’s my focus here. Specifically, I focus on the critical role that types of safety play in having a “healthy” marriage.

Why the emphasis on healthy? The reason is historical. “Healthy marriage” became an important way to express one of the chief goals of efforts over the past 15 years to help people strengthen their relationships and families through community-level programs funded by the government. As various leaders in this movement expressed early on, marriage for the sake of marriage was not the goal as much as were healthy marriages (and relationships); those are the types of relationships that most contribute to adult, child, and family well-being. While there remain numerous ongoing discussions (and arguments) about programs and strategies, the emphasis on healthy was helpful, and it remains so to this day.

So, what are the characteristics of healthy marriages and family relationships that help adults and children to thrive? My colleague Howard Markman and I have long argued that one of the best ways to answer this question is by considering four types of safety[i]:  physical safety, emotional safety, commitment safety, and community safety. These categories encompass the vast array of research and theory about success in relationships, marriage, and family—even where the literatures rarely use the term “safety.”

Physical Safety

This type of safety is a bedrock requirement for a healthy marriage or other relationship. There should be no threat of being physically harmed, nor should either partner be physically or emotionally intimidated by the other. I have had extensive discussions with many experts in domestic violence over many years’ time, and one red flag that they widely agree on is fear—fear of being hurt or controlled by one’s partner, or fear that others will be hurt. Unfortunately, not all who are in danger have as much fear as they should, which can be one factor contributing to their remaining in harm’s way, but many of the people in the most unsafe relationships have chronic fear of their partners.   

Beyond situations of extreme danger, many couples have had arguments that crossed the line into aggressive behavior such as pushing, shoving or slapping. While such behaviors may not rise to the level of abuse that those who work in domestic violence shelters typically see, such aggressive behavior is common in the relationships of young people,[ii] including in the premarital history of couples who are newly married.[iii] Unsurprisingly, aggression in relationships is associated with lower relationship quality and a host of other risks.

All aggression in intimate relationships can be dangerous. The most dangerous patterns involve aggression that leads to injuries and/or ongoing control and intimidation.[iv] If you or someone you know is in an unsafe relationship, know that there are people who are eager to help. The phone number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-7233.

(For a discussion on the complexity of domestic violence and challenges in helping individuals and couples in the context of relationship education, see this paper.) 

Emotional Safety

There are scores of studies documenting that couples who struggle in marriage, and who are most likely to divorce, tend to have more frequent and intense conflicts.[v] Howard Markman and I refer to specific patterns of negativity as “communication danger signs while similar patterns were more creatively named the “four horsemen of the apocalypse by John Gottman.
Regularly getting into heated exchanges or withdrawing into silence is common—but so is divorce. The patterns we and others describe are hallmarks of marital distress.

Negative patterns of interaction are not hard to spot. It’s pretty clear when an argument is escalating or when one partner is putting down or showing contempt for the other. What’s not as obvious is the way such patterns wear away what people deeply desire in marriage: emotional safety. Emotional safety means being able to be yourself and feel connected to your partner. When a couple has this, each partner can raise concerns and express vulnerabilities without fear of rejection. Emotional safety is a work in progress for most couples, and it does not mean arguments never get heated. But if each partner does what he or she can to make their relationship emotionally safe, that couple is well on the way to a great marriage.   

Commitment Safety

A couple in a thriving, healthy marriage does not merely have a solid, day-to-day connection. There will also be an abiding sense of having a future together, a sense that provides a secure attachment that benefits both the spouses and children.[vi] Security about the future—commitment safety—is crucial because most people do not invest in something, whether a financial asset or a relationship, without some reasonable confidence in what is out there on the horizon.

A robust literature demonstrates that a strong sense of commitment is associated with curtailing various negative impulses while fostering behaviors that are good for the relationship.[vii]  For example, small and positive sacrifices are believed to signal commitment from one partner to the other, enhancing the sense that the relationship can be trusted.[viii]  Commitment in action also means prioritizing the relationship among competing alternatives, including protecting a marriage from neglect or affairs.

It takes two to tango, as they say. When both partners are committed to the dance, it’s likely to be a lasting and close one.

Community Safety

Every theme I’ve covered so far has to do with attitudes and behavior. Although we often think of these things as under the control of individuals, attitudes and behaviors do not operate in a vacuum. Community safety refers to the context of a marriage. Is the environment safe? Are there sufficient resources? Jobs? Health care? Is there stress from poverty or anxiety about crime? Are transportation and good food accessible? These are far from academic questions for many families, and they highlight how important context is for marital health.

Think of a couple like a plant. All other things being equal, the plant with better soil, nutrients, and mix of rain and moisture thrives. While some hardy plants make it in poor soil, the odds are longer. Paradoxically, it may be both more difficult and more crucial for couples in the toughest contexts to hang together and support each other in life. But such couples will have a harder time. In terms of personal advice, we all ought to try to play the hand we are dealt as well as we can, but make no mistake—the hand matters, and many couples need more of a different sort of hand to help them up.  

Policy-makers can keep looking for ways to alleviate contextual strains on families through wiser incentives, elimination of disincentives to family stability, and policies that may increase resources for those who are most vulnerable.

Putting It All Together

These four types of safety are interrelated in the overall health of a marriage. For example, Howard Markman and I have observed that couples who are not able to manage emotional safety tend to threaten the whole future of their marriages when their arguments escalate. “Why did I marry you anyway?” “Why should we stay together?” “Maybe you should move out!” Such statements are often uttered in moments of great frustration, but they do lasting damage to whatever level of commitment safety a couple has built up. Conversely, as noted earlier, commitment favors preserving the relationship. It not only inhibits negative impulses of the moment, but can lead to an expansive sense of a shared future that leads to positive investments by both partners for the good of the marriage.

Contextual stress decreases the odds of marital success and family stability in many ways.[ix] External stressors exacerbate negative patterns of interaction, for instance.[x] Further, financial hardships make it difficult for some who value marriage to contemplate the possibility of achieving a lasting marriage themselves.[xi] These are complex challenges to overcome.

The good news about the interrelatedness of these dimensions of safety is that making progress on one dimension can help lead to growth in another. I have heard plenty of people argue that one dimension is pre-eminent, and, therefore, that dimension should get the most attention. I say, instead, to go after the one that is nearest. Start making progress on any dimension while you consider how to tackle the others. That goes for your own life as well as for all your efforts to help others.   

Few would say that safety is the chief end of life. Without safety and security, however, there isn’t much of a platform for those things that have the deepest meaning in family life. Thus, some types of safety comprise the means to the most important ends.

[i] The comprehensive list of four aspects of safety, as discussed here, appears in our relationship education curricula, with the full model first appearing in: Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., Jenkins, N. H., Rhoades, G. K., Noll, L., & Ramos, L. D. (2006). Within Our Reach Leader Manual. Denver: PREP Educational Products, Inc.;  We presented earlier discussions of safety as a theme for understanding relationship quality and health in various publications, including: Stanley, S.M., Markman, H.J., & Whitton, S. (2002). Communication, conflict, and commitment: Insights on the foundations of relationship success from a national survey. Family Process, 41, 659-675.; Stanley, S. M. (2005). The power of commitment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.; Stanley, S. M. (2007). Assessing couple and marital relationships: Beyond form and toward a deeper knowledge of function. In S. Hofferth & L. Casper (Eds.), Handbook of Measurement Issues in Family Research (85 - 99). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associations.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Who Will Clip Your Toenails When You Cannot?

I am not at a stage of life where I need help doing my own toenails. Barring unforeseen circumstances, I’m expecting to be my own mani/pedi provider for a good two decades or more, but you never know how life will turn out. I am, however, in that sandwich generation. Or I was. Since my father passed on a few years ago and my mother passed on a year and a half ago, the sandwich is somewhat more like open-faced tuna melt than a club. I have two emerging adult sons in the home and I have two brothers beyond it. One of those two brothers has had serious health needs of late, and that inspired this piece.

Here’s something they never tell you when you are a kid: One day you may end up clipping and filing the toenails of those you love. Earlier in life, I could not have imagined that, at some point, I would clip my father’s toenails, my mother’s toenails, and my brother’s toenails. I am cured (pedi, in fact) of my naïve beliefs. Sure, my wife and I trimmed our sons’ nails when they were little. We are good parents! Besides, if you’ve had a baby, you know those baby nails can be wicked sharp. Trimming them is simple self-preservation. But that was long ago—before the one son started using clippers on his own and the other son started trimming his own toenails with his teeth (he was really flexible back then).

In recent months, one of my brothers has had serious health issues and he’s been unable to trim his own toenails. That’s how I came to do it. Twice. I never, ever, thought I’d be doing that, but there I was, clipping, filing, and buffing. No polish, though. Shiny was not our goal. Besides, in our family, we don’t get fancy.

Years ago, my parents lived in a retirement home. For a while there was someone who provided this service for them but something interrupted that for a time. That’s how I came to trim the toenails of my parents a time or two.

You may be thinking, “That’s no big deal, Scott, let me tell you what I’ve had to do for a family member.” Indeed, this is a small thing. Ten small things at a time, in fact. Some of you are real family heroes, doing incredible things, year in and year out, for a loved one. I claim no contest. Still, toenails are a metaphor for the whole range of little things that many of us will need help with at some point, for a season or for the rest of our lives.  

Toenails and the Future of Families

This all got me thinking about the future of families and about toenails. A stretch, you say? I think it’s all related.

One day, when visiting a loved one in a nursing home, I asked a nurse about toenails. I wondered how people who could no longer trim their own got it done. She told me that in this particular place, and I suspect it’s far from the only one, staff were not allowed to do the toenails of patients. Liability. So some people needed to have an outpatient visit to a podiatrist to have their toenails trimmed. Think about that a moment. The cost. The hassle. I got to wondering if it’s a reimbursable medical expense to have a podiatrist do your toenails.

I think a growing number of people are going to have only one of two options for their toenails: Howard Hughes mode or services provided by a family member or friend. Sure, the government has programs for many things, but I’m not sure there’s one coming for toenails.

So, I’m asking a serious question. Who will clip your toenails when you cannot?

Digital Inequality

Families have become more fragmented than in past. Children are less likely to be raised by their own two parents and more likely to experience churning (turnover) in family relationships. For an increasing number of people, there is instability around who is in the home. Someone will wish to argue the point, but I don’t see how these changes could fail to impact lifelong bonds within families. I think we will see a net decline in the number of committed and emotionally bonded family members that the average person can draw upon in times of need. Combine this with the fact that the people who are having families are having smaller ones. That means there will also be fewer siblings as potential resources, regardless of other changes. If you have a relationship with a relatively responsible sibling or two, and you’ve not yet begun to think of them as possible resources in your future, start being a little more imaginative. Not all assets are financial.

Strong attachment bonds start with the level of commitment and emotional availability children receive from their parents. In turn, attachment bonds throughout the family promote lifelong commitments among family members, such as from child to parent and sibling to sibling. These forces have operated throughout history to make it more likely—though far from guaranteed—that family members will take care of each other when needs arise.

No matter how large government’s role becomes in the lives of those who are older, there will be gaps to fill around simple needs. This is yet another way that inequality is partly, but inexorably, connected to the nature of families. Everyone has toenails but not everyone will have a family member to step in and help. If you needed one more reason to work to help families form stronger bonds, now you have it.

Personal Advice

Surely you know the joke about treating your children well because they will pick your nursing home. Forget that. You should hope they will willingly and carefully trim your toenails.

More broadly, we’d all do well to build and keep strong bonds with family and friends. You never know when you might be the one who needs help rounding up your little piggies, all the way home.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Marriage Factoids from Scott Stanley

While likely coming down, the lifetime estimated risk of divorce remains high, at 40 to 50%.

31% of marriages are seriously distressed.

By middle adulthood, most people will have lived with someone outside of marriage.

Unmarried cohabiting couples are now more likely to break up than to marry.

Source: Journal of Marriage and Family: Guzzo, 2014 & Vespa, 2014

48% of first births in the U.S. are to unmarried women.

Children born to cohabiting parents are much more likely to have their parents break-up than children born to married parents.

Living together before marriage is not associated with improved odds of success in marriage, and many variations are associated with worse odds.

Having multiple sexual partners before marriage is typical (median = 5); having sexual partners beyond the person one marries is associated with reduced odds of success in marriage.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Eight Ideas for Protecting Your Marriage from Divorce

I recently gave advice to singles and dating couples about how to lower their future odds of marital breakdown. Now, I’m focusing on those already married. In that prior piece, I listed some risk factors for divorce, so if you want a recap on those, see that post first.

What can couples do to avoid divorce? Hundreds of books, articles, workshops, and lectures have tackled that question. If there were a surefire way to “divorce-proof” a marriage, we would have found it by now. It doesn't exist. But there are some things married couples can do to minimize their risk of divorce.

Before I get to advice, I want to make three points clear. First, if your relationship is dangerous, focus on safety. My advice below is not designed for violent or abusive relationships. If you are in a dangerous relationship, get help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-7233, and in most areas there are also local groups you can contact.

Second, don’t confuse having risk factors for divorce, like the ones I documented in my last post, with being certain to divorce. I will tell you a well-kept secret. Experts aren’t good at predicting the likelihood that a specific couple will divorce. Researchers are good at finding variables that are associated with risk in samples of people, but we are not good at predicting the future of a given couple. Higher risk is higher risk but it’s not destiny. Nor is lower risk.

Third, people who are truly at very low risk for divorce shouldn't worry about it. If you and your spouse get along well, manage issues with respect, feel connected, and you are confident of a mutually high level of dedication, relax. Your risk is probably very low. Sure, things can go wrong and strain your relationship in ways no one foresees in the present. But if you seem to have a great marriage, you probably do. Just protect it and live your life.

What You Can Do to Avoid Divorce

There are two categories of advice below: To individuals and to couples. Spouses often have different opinions of the strengths and happiness of their marriages. Even if you have concerns, your partner may not. Further, you might realize that your partner is not interested in even talking about it. Hence, you might need to focus on what you can do and not what the two of you can do—at least for now. That leads me to a word of caution: Unless you have serious concerns, don’t make your efforts to strengthen your marriage something that undermines it. If your mate is not interested in doing something different right now, don’t blow that up into a big deal unless there really is a big problem.

As you will note, I have more advice below for couples than to individuals. The reason is that I think it’s harder to navigate what you may try, together, than what you can do on your own.  

               Just To You

1. Do your part. There is a lot an individual can do to strengthen a marriage. As my colleagues and I say in all our resources, “Do your part.” I won’t list a bunch of ideas here because there’s not really enough space and that’s what good books and resources are for. But if you are concerned about your marriage, the sooner you start to turn things around within yourself, the better. There are plenty of ideas one person can pursue as an individual to keep a marriage on track. If you want to read about one of my favorite strategies for one person to act on, check this out.

               To Both of You

If you are both willing to make changes, these ideas are for you.

2. Talk. Sit down and talk together about strengthening your marriage. Rather than trying to dig into deeper issues or past hurts, I’d focus on positive steps you could take as a couple to stay on the best path. I am certainly not against deeper talks about issues and history, but the better strategy for most couples is to focus on what you want to try, now, together, to boost and protect your marriage. If talking about how to nudge your relationship forward works well for the two of you, you could sit down and talk once a month about how to stay on course. If you have difficulty with conflict or there are deeper struggles where you do need to take things deeper, see some of the upcoming ideas.

3. Read a good book (on marriage). Read a book or two on marriage and try out some ideas. Don’t try to do a lot of things. Just find an idea or two that you both like and pursue those. Do something; don’t try to do everything.

4. Boost fun and friendship. People get busy, life gets strained, and spouses get distant. My colleague Howard Markman has always emphasized how important it is to keep fun and friendship alive in a relationship. You can make that happen by following this simple advice that is in all of our books (e.g., here and here): 1) Make time for doing enjoyable things together. 2) Protect those times from conflict. For example, suppose you have carved out some time for going out on a date or taking a walk together. Have an understanding between you that issues and problems are off-limits during those times. Deal with issues in some other time and place and don’t let hassles intrude on your opportunity to relax and be together.

5. Consider a relationship education workshop. Such workshops are widely available in some parts of the country. Some may be offered by religious organizations and others may be offered by community groups (who might have government funding to provide such services for free). Also, some relationship experts regularly do workshops for couples, for a fee. Search the web and ask around to see if anything is available in your area.

6. If conflict runs high… Learn to get it under control. If you need to, get help in how to manage issues more constructively. If you have children, this advice goes double. Children are negatively affected by exposure to conflict between their parents.[i] Don’t fool yourself by saying you are “keeping it real” in front of the kids. Bunk. Sure, if you handle issues extremely well as a couple (e.g., with great listening, respect, and resolution), that may be good for children to see. But, in general, conflict between parents—especially with escalation and invalidation—is bad for children to be around. And it’s not great for you, either.

One strategy to keep a lid on things is to learn to take time-outs as a couple. We talk about how in our books, but here’s the skinny. Agree on a signal that you will both honor when things are getting heated. I mean a word or a sign that means to both of you, “let’s cool it, now.” Agree that when either of you signal for a time-out, you’ll both do your best to honor it. Taking a time-out doesn't mean avoiding dealing with something important. It just means deciding not to slide (further) into nastiness in the moment. Some couples find it useful to agree on a typical amount of time to cool it before talking again about whatever lit things up. This type of time-out is not like what you use with a young child. Neither of you are putting the other in the corner. This type of time-out is like a sports team that’s losing control of the game and needs to take a break and get its act together.

7. Don’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater. I’m not talking about flicks and popcorn. Rather, don’t threaten divorce in the heat of frustrating arguments. I think a lot of couples say things that should not be said because they are in the heat of battle: “Why did we ever marry?” “Should we just split up?” “Why don’t you just move out if you feel that way?” Sensitive questions to bring you closer together, right? If you do that and you want your marriage to work, stop it. You cannot nurture the desire to invest in your future if you keep reminding each other that there might not be one. Don’t talk about divorce unless you really mean to talk about divorce. Again, learn to take a time-out.

8. Get professional help. Obviously, some people become deeply unhappy in their marriages. Yet one report I was involved with presented findings showing that many people who report being unhappy at one point but remain married rebound to a much better place within a few years.[ii] In another study I helped author, 34 percent of married respondents reported that, at some point in the past, they thought their marriage was in serious trouble and considered divorce. Of these folks, 92 percent reported that they were glad they were still together.[iii] On the other hand, some experts argue (from data) that those who become deeply maritally distressed are unlikely to get better on their own.[iv] If you have sunk into chronic unhappiness in your marriage, think about getting help.

Most couples in serious trouble wait far too long to get professional help. If both of you know something is seriously amiss, seek help now. When both partners are motivated, a lot of good things can result from seeing a skilled counselor. If you want to pursue this, ask friends, clergy, or your doctor for recommendations. And if you do see someone, plan to talk together (just the two of you) after a couple of sessions about whether you think the person you are seeing can help the two of you. If not, try someone else. Not all counselors are right for all couples.


A few married couples almost never have any downs—only ups. But most couples with very good marriages have ups and downs. That’s normal. One of the most important things you can do to avoid divorce is to hold reasonable expectations. You didn't marry someone who is perfect (only your mate did—smile). Expect joy and strains, maddening moments and laughter. Expect a real life.

Disclosure: I am co-author of two books I referenced here, and I am a partner in the company that publishes the online intervention, ePREP, that is linked in the resource list noted above. Since helping people improve their odds in marriage is my area of specialty, it seemed unwise to avoid recommending anything that my colleagues (such as Howard Markman) and I are associated with.

[i] Cummings, E. M., & Davies, P. (1994). Children and marital conflict. New York: Guilford.; Grych, J., & Fincham, F. (1990). Marital conflict and children's adjustment. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 267-290.
[ii] Waite, L. J., Browning, D., Doherty, W. J., Gallagher, M., Lou, Y., & Stanley, S. M. (2002).  Does Divorce Make People Happy? Findings from a study of unhappy marriages.  New York: Institute for American Values.
[iii] Johnson, C. A., Stanley, S. M., Glenn, N. D., Amato, P. A., Nock, S. L., Markman, H. J., & Dion, M. R.  (2002).  Marriage in Oklahoma:  2001 baseline statewide survey on marriage and divorce (S02096 OKDHS).  Oklahoma City, OK: Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
[iv] Beach, S. R. H., & Fincham, F. D. (2003).  Spontaneousremission of marital discord:  A simmering debate with profound implications for Family Psychology. The Family Psychologist, 19, 11-13.