Saturday, February 6, 2016

Giving Up Options Before Making a Choice--a 24 Minute Audio on The Risks of Sliding

If you are interested in a 24 minute talk on how Sliding (vs Deciding) can lead to losing options before making a choice, I have a new audio for you. Click here. That will take you to a recording of a talk I gave yesterday at an event at the University of Denver. The talk might be just what someone you know needs to know to make wise choices in dating, romance, and marriage.

In the talk, I discuss:

  • Puppy Love
  • The ambiguity of relationships in this age
  • Sliding vs. Deciding
  • A brief review of findings on cohabitation before marriage (and why it is especially more risky for some people, at least before engagement)
  • How people are often giving up options before making a choice
  • The nature of commitment and the anchoring force of decisions
If you want to watch (and not just hear) the Relationship DUI video I use during the talk, it is here.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Is Living Together All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

According to a recent headline in the Washington Post, “Living together is basically the same as marriage, study finds.” Is that true? I do not think so, but it is worth grappling with the study and related findings. The article is based on a study by Sara Mernitz and Claire Kamp Dush, who found that people experienced gains in emotional wellbeing after moving in with a partner, whether or not they got married first.  

The Post’s headline is reminiscent of others on marriage and cohabitation that overstate narrowly bounded empirical findings. Here’s a similar 2012 headline, which I wrote about here: “Marriage is overrated and health and happiness benefits for wedded couples are a MYTH.” While I respect the authors and methods of these studies, and researchers do not control the headlines and emphasis of such media pieces, the message many emerging adults would receive from them is misleading.

What Mernitz and Kamp Dush Found

Mernitz and Kamp Dush examined changes in measure of emotional distress (think of this in reverse, as a measure of emotional wellbeing) across various relationship transitions, including moving in together, getting married without living together first, and marrying after living together. Using a large U.S. sample, they looked at the first and second transitions of these sorts for people in their twenties. Quoting from their Journal of Family Psychology article, they found:  
  •         “[E]ntrance into first cohabiting unions and direct marriages, and all second unions, were significantly associated with reduced emotional distress.”
  •          “Gender differences were found for first unions only; for men, only direct marriage was associated with an emotional health benefit, while both direct marriage and cohabitation benefited women’s emotional health.”  
  •          “[T]ransitioning into marriage from a first, current cohabitation (Table 2, Model 3) was not associated with change in emotional distress; these results held for second unions in that transitioning into marriage with a second, current cohabiting partner was also not associated with a change in emotional distress.”
These results are not surprising to me. There are plenty of reasons that indviduals would experience a gain in personal wellbeing, at least in the short term, when they move in with a partner (with or without marriage). You have two people who are in love, who are likely relatively early on in a relationship, who are going to have more time together (and sex, for a while)—it is not surprising that such things might be associated with emotional gains. Mernitz and Kamp Dush’s methods cannot speak to long-term differences between cohabitation and marriage, however, because their comparisons were based on measurement in two-year increments and not trends over longer periods of time. An even greater limitation—which they noted—is that they did not (and likely could not) analyze changes in relationship quality over these transitions. That’s an important variable that one would expect to be associated with long-term emotional wellbeing. Hence, to me, their methods do not support the conclusion that cohabitation has the same benefits as marriage, long-term, for most couples.

Consider two facts.

First, cohabiting relationships are far less stable than marriages. While many marriages end in misery, far more cohabiting relationships break up than end in lasting love or family stability.[i] Most couples who cohabit these days do so before having formed or signaled a commitment to the future (marked by marriage, engagement, or a declaration to others that they intend to stay together). I believe that this point is routinely missed by researchers and family policy experts. Part of the power of marriage, for all its historical flaws, lies in the way it can signal an intention of a lifelong commitment between two partners and to those around them in a particular sequence; the formation of commitment prior to living together or pregnancy provides for better relationship outcomes on average. For more on that subject, see this article that I wrote in 2014. I believe it to be the second most important thing I’ve ever written.

Second, the relative instability of cohabitation has important implications for children. An ever greater number of unmarried, cohabiting couples have children, and these couples are far less likely than married ones to raise their children together.[ii] And it has become increasingly clear that children tend to fare best when raised by their own two parents. In fact, as Wendy Manning makes clear in a recent review, unmarried biological parents who are continuously raising their children together are likely to see outcomes for their children rivaling those for married couples.[iii] But as Manning also points out, “Only one out of three children born to cohabiting parents remains in a stable family through age 12, in contrast to nearly three out of four children born to married parents.” This matters because family instability is well understood to be a risk factor for the wellbeing and development of children.[iv]

Some cohabiting couples are highly committed and will build lasting, loving relationships without ever marrying. But, in the main, cohabitation is simply not like marriage when it comes to the level of commitment[v] and the likelihood of achieving lasting stability. One can argue that they are alike when controlling for commitment and intention, but that would miss the main difference between the two.   

Mernitz and Kamp Dush also found that those entering a second cohabitation (or marriage) after breaking up from a first showed important gains in emotional wellbeing with that second transition. They suggested that this implies serial cohabitating may be less detrimental than others have argued. I have more trouble believing this to be true for most people than believing their basic findings about improved emotional wellbeing from moving in together. Mernitz and Kamp Dush noted that this interpretation is not consistent with other research, but they also suggested that their methods are superior in some ways to those of prior studies on this subject. But I think their findings are really not comparable because they did not analyze long-term outcomes like divorce or marital happiness.[vi] It’s not that I don’t believe that some people learn something from living with a partner that leads to breaking up, and then subsequently find a better match. It’s more that I believe the complications and risks of cohabitation—such as the inertia of living together, which puts people at risk of getting stuck—prior to marriage or at least engagement outweighs potential benefits for most people.

Based on what I see in the literature, I don’t believe people should expect to cohabit with a number of different partners before settling down, and assume that doing so will improve their odds of lasting love and family stability. That may be the case in the future, but I do not see evidence that that’s how things work now. If you are thinking about this path, consider how you might learn about who is a good partner for you without making it harder to break up in the process.   

Emotional Wellbeing or Relationship Quality: An Empirical Quandary

My colleagues Galena Rhoades and Howard Markman and I examined changes in relationship dynamics across the transition into living together in a paper published in 2012 (in the same journal as Mernitz and Kamp Dush’s study).[vii] Mernitz and Kamp Dush noted they were unable to study dimensions such as relationship quality; our study methods were optimized for doing just that.  

Both their study and ours had a substantial strength not typical for this literature. Both used methods that allowed people to be compared to themselves, before and after the transitions being examined. It is more typical in this field to contrast one group (say, married people) with another entirely different group of people (say, cohabiters) while trying to control for important selection differences between the groups. Methods that compare people to themselves across transitions control for some elements of selection characteristics.[viii] (For more on the subject of selection and how it confounds researchers, see these pieces I’ve written: here and here and here.)

In contrast to Mernitz and Kamp Dush, we were able to look at both levels and directions (slopes) of variables before and after people moved in with their partners. So, for example, we could see not only the average level of commitment to one’s partner before and after moving in together, but also if that variable was rising or falling leading up to the transition and what direction it started going afterward. Mernitz and Kamp Dush had the benefit of a much larger sample; we had the benefit of many more time points close to the transitions, and of more variables related to the quality of the relationships.

Here are a few highlights from our study (all on average, of course):
  • Dedication to one’s partner increases in the lead-up to moving in together but then levels off after the transition. It does not become as high as what you’d expect for those who are going to have a successful marriage.
  •  Different types of constraints—factors that make break-ups less likely regardless of partners’ dedication[ix]—show large increases upon moving in together[x] and then start to grow more rapidly. 
  •  Conflict increases and starts to climb steadily after moving in together.
  •  The frequency of sex moves up modestly after a couple moves in together and then declines steadily to become lower than it had been before the transition.
Are these findings contradictory to what Mernitz and Kamp Dush found? Not necessarily. There are many ways that serious relationships can benefit individual wellbeing. At the same time, we did find compelling evidence that relationship quality declines after moving in together while the constraints on remaining together increase and start to build more rapidly.

In case you are wondering, my colleague Galena Rhoades and I expect pretty much the same pattern to be true of marriage but with one important difference: partners who wait until marriage or at least engagement to cohabit tend to have higher and more mutual levels of dedication to a future together.[xi] If your goal is lasting love with a strong relationship as a foundation for a family, think carefully about the conditions under which you’d move in with someone. And decide if you think marriage and cohabitation are essentially the same—for your life.  

[Thank you to Anna Sutherland at the Institute for Family Studies for editing this and other posts I have written that first appeared there.]

[i] Vespa, J. (2014). Historical trends in the marital intentions of one-time and serial cohabitors. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76(1), 207-217.  doi: 10.1111/jomf.12083
[ii] Kennedy, S., & Bumpass, L. (2008). Cohabitation and children’s living arrangements: New estimates from the United States. Demographic Research, 19(47), 1663–1992; Manning, W. D., Smock, P. J., & Majumdar, D. (2004). The relative stability of cohabiting and marital unions for children. Population Research and Policy Review, 23(2), 135-159.
[iii] Manning, W. D. (2015). Cohabitation and child wellbeing. The Future of Children, 25(2), 51–66. 
[iv] Manning, W. D. (2015). Cohabitation and child wellbeing. The Future of Children, 25(2), 51–66; McLanahan, S., & Beck, A. N. (2010). Parental relationships in fragile families. The Future of Children, 20(2), 17-37. 
[v] While the sample we used is older, I do not believe any recent trends would change the finding that married couples have higher average levels of commitment than cohabiting couples: Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., & Markman, H. J. (2004). Maybe I do: Interpersonal commitment and premarital or nonmarital cohabitation. Journal of Family Issues, 25(4), 496-519. doi: 10.1177/0192513X03257797. And sociologist Steven Nock predicted, in what I believe is the last piece written by him before his untimely passing, that the differences between marriage and cohabitation would become starker over time: Nock, S.L. (2009). The growing importance of marriage in America.  In H. E. Peters and C. M. Kamp Dush (Eds.), Marriage and family: Perspectives and complexities (pp. 302-324). New York: Columbia University Press. 
[vi] Lichter, D., & Qian, Z. (2008). Serial cohabitation and the marital life course. Journal of Marriage & Family, 70(4), 861-878.; Rhoades, G. K., & Stanley, S. M. (2014). “Before ‘I Do’: What do premarital experiences have to do with marital quality among today’s young adults? Charlottesville, VA: National Marriage Project. 
[vii] Rhoades, G. K., StanThe impact of the transition to cohabitation on relationship functioning: Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(3), 348-358.  doi: 10.1037/a0028316
ley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2012).
[viii] This is the subject of a paper I like a lot: Johnson, D. (2005). Two-wave panel analysis: Comparing statistical methods for studying the effects of transitions. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67(4), 1061-1075. 
[ix] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2012). A longitudinal investigation of commitment dynamics in cohabiting relationships. Journal of Family Issues, 33(3), 369-390. doi:10.1177/0192513X11420940
[x] As we predicted in Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55(4), 499-509.
[xi] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J. (2006). Pre-engagement cohabitation and gender asymmetry in marital commitmentJournal of Family Psychology, 20(4), 553-560.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Top Three Posts on This Site for 2015

The three most popular entries on this blog for 2015 were these, two of which focused on how to lower your odds of divorce. It was not a year where I could write a lot of entries, but these were the winners for interest. Numbers 2 and 3 first appeared at another site I blog for: The Institute for Family Studies.

Number One: Doing that Thing You Do 
(On upping your game on little sacrifices for a loved one.)

And honorable mention, my last entry from 2014, which would have been read the most in 2015.

Here’s to a great 2016, everyone.

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 Garc├ęs 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.