Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sunk Costs and Sunken Hopes

Megan McArdle, the popular writer on economics, wrote eloquently and with brutal honesty this Valentine’s Day about the problem of sunk costs in dating and cohabiting relationships: Happy Valentine's Day! Now Cut Your Losses. She describes everything I often write about here and elsewhere, and that my colleague Galena Rhoades and I emphasize in our research on cohabitation and dating. Quoting McArdle:

I'm talking to you, 30-something woman who has been dating the same guy for a couple of years (or more), maybe already moved in together and started picking out that furniture. The one who is ready for those babies, or at least a joint tax return, and would like to get the matter settled as soon as possible. The one who is anxious that her partner doesn't seem as eager as she is but is afraid to deliver an ultimatum for fear the answer will be "OK, bye."

Here's the thing, though: The guy who leaves you because you deliver an ultimatum is probably also the guy who is going to leave you a couple of years later, having wasted more of your prime dating years on his dithering.

That is right on. McArdle, being an economist, recognizes this situation as the problem as a form of the sunk cost fallacy. Humans are prone to hanging onto something because of what is already invested. We seem optimized to avoid losses. Thus, people tend to hang onto some investments where the loss is already irrecoverable. In business parlance, one is throwing good money after bad. This happens a lot because people tend to believe, even want to believe, that their past behavior was rationale: “If I've already put this much into this relationship, it's got to have been smart and it's got to pay off!” Sunk costs are too often not sunken treasure when it comes to waiting for commitment--that's the fallacy as applied here.

In many relationships where one partner is more committed than the other, and waiting for the other to step up, those investments may be already lost. As McArdle so eloquently describes, waiting too often means taking even bigger losses when the day of reckoning finally comes.

Galena Rhoades and I believe that cohabitation plays a large role in this because of the way it increases inertia to stay together, often well ahead of the development of mutually high and clear dedication to be together. (Anything that makes it substantially harder to break up before it's really clear that two people have a future together can play this role: babies, deep one-sided attachment, and so forth.) For example, we have shown in many studies* that those who cohabit before clear, mutual plans to marry (as in marriage or engagement) do not tend to fair as well in marriage. Nothing here means people are doomed or anything. We're talking about relative odds of achieving the best possible outcome in life.

As you can see above, McArdle identifies the problem of waiting to marry someone who never will get there--and she notes how it's often associated with cohabitation. While she's focused on those for whom marriage is not coming with a given partner, we have also noted the problem of the constraints being great enough that some people marry someone they otherwise would have left--before marriage.  None of these paths are ideal.

What I like so much about McArdle's piece is that it's personal. She's describing her own life and what it took to accept the fact that her past partner was not ever going to marry her. She got up, moved out, and moved on. Life is much better now. See her story. It’s really all about what we call asymmetrical commitment in dating and cohabiting relationships. It is noteworthy that, in one of our studies, we found that asymmetrical commitment before marriage is far more likely among those couples who cohabited before rather than after being either married or at least engaged, and that these substantial asymmetries continued right on into marriage. It matters how clear things are before you do something that makes it harder to break up.

In the report we did last year for the National Marriage Project, Galena Rhoades and I presented analyses from our national data set on premarital factors that are associated with marital quality. We found that when one partner perceived his or her commitment as being stronger than the other partner’s before marriage, he or she later reported lower marital quality than those who did not perceive such a difference in commitment. It was one of the strongest premarital predictors of eventual marital quality that we studied. (see the Before "I  Do" report, pages 12 & 22.)

You may wonder how people get stuck so easily in the wrong place. It's not rocket science. The video our team released last week explains this in about as clear of terms as possible (Relationship DUI). It will take 4 minutes of your time to watch it, and it will make sense. It's really quite simple but it describes what people too often do not see until they see it all too clearly.  

If you are looking for lasting love for life in marriage, be careful about things that make it harder to break up before you’ve actually made your choice--and that choice needs to be mutual.

* If you want a narrative summary of our studies and papers related to these themes, with citations and abstracts, see this document.

Disclosure: I am a partner in the company that publishes the online intervention, ePREP, that is linked as a resource. at the end of the Relationship DUI video. 


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Problem with Inertia in Dating and Cohabitation

Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote a piece in the New York Post on our work highlighting the risks for those searching for a partner of making it harder to break up before really knowing if you are in a relationship that can go the distance. If you follow our work, you know we believe that many people make it harder to break up, by increasing the constraints for staying together, way too soon in a developing relationship.

Her piece is here: How Shacking up Leads to Divorce. The piece is particularly good. Now, you can tell I'm not in the Newspaper business because, as a researcher, I ended up in the Nuanced-paper business. I probably would have titled that piece "How Shacking up May Lead to Divorce" since it clearly does not, for many people. However, the article really captures the essence of the added risk in cohabiting that many people just do not see coming until they are in it. The piece includes the best short video our team at PREP ever developed to help explain to young adults why it’s risky to get locked in too soon. That video is also at YouTube: Relationship DUI.

If you want more background on why cohabiting before marriage has risks for some couples that they do not see beforehand, check out my earlier piece here, on The Mystery: Why Isn't Living Together Beforehand Associated with Improved Odds in Marriage?

Disclosure: I am a partner in the company that publishes the online intervention, ePREP, that is linked as a resource. at the end of the Relationship DUI video. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

What Is the Divorce Rate, Anyway?

This is a lengthy follow-up to all the recent buzz about the divorce rate. 

“Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce.” You’ve probably heard that claim several times—just as you may also have heard from other sources that it’s inaccurate. As I’ll explain below, the real number is likely lower, but perhaps not by a lot. One thing is for sure.  Arguments over what the divorce rate is and whether it’s dropping are ongoing and unlikely to end anytime soon.

Just last month, Claire Cain Miller argued in the New York Times that the divorce rate has been coming down for a long time even while the odds of divorce remain greatly exaggerated in the minds of many. She highlighted the conclusions of economist Justin Wolfers, who told her that “If current trends continue, nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce.” In a follow-up piece, Wolfers explained more about the complexity of the issue and defended his claims.  

Some go even further than Cain Miller, arguing that the likelihood of divorcing has never been anything like 50 percent. For example, Shaunti Feldhahn, the author (with Tally Whitehead) of a recent book on the subject, argues that it was never true that half of newly married couples would end up divorced, and that 30 percent is closer to the mark. While not a social scientist, Feldhahn has studied the history of the divorce rate and believes people are too pessimistic about the odds of success in marriage. Although I’m not persuaded that the risk of divorce is that low, I agree with her that many people avoid marriage for fear of divorce even when their own risks are quite low. 

In contrast to those who argue that the divorce rate has been coming down, or that it was never that high, demographers Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles argued in an article last year that divorce did not level off or decline in recent decades but actually continued to rise from 1980 to 2010. In fact, Ruggles commented on Cain Miller’s and Wolfers’ New York Times pieces, here and here, arguing that conclusions in both are likely incorrect and that most professional demographers have not accepted the notion that the overall risk of divorce declined during the period in question. 

While these researchers may not agree about what has happened in past decades, they all seem to suggest that the risk of divorce has become lower, or is likely to be dropping, among those who are younger and marrying now. Kennedy and Ruggles examined an “age-standardized refined divorce rate” and found no support for an overall decline in divorce, but noted that this is largely due to the fact that divorce rates have continued to climb over the years among baby boomers in comparison to other cohorts (see also Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin).

Arguments over the risk of divorce are not new, which raises the question as to why there is so much room for disagreement.

At Any Rate, It’s Confusing

Kennedy and Ruggles titled their paper “Breaking Up Is Hard to Count: The Rise of Divorce in the United States, 1980–2010,” and with good reason. They lay out the history of challenges in tracking divorce, detailing issues about public records, differing data sets, and various cohort issues. Wolfers’ New York Times article and the comments by Ruggles further illuminate the vast complexity facing researchers who try to come up with definitive statements about the risk of divorcing.

I will not attempt to capture all that complexity here, but I can focus on a couple of the reasons why this subject is so confusing to most people. Let’s start with the fact that there is no single metric on divorce. There are many. One of the simplest is the number of people who divorce, per year, per 1000 people in the U.S. (the so-called “crude” divorce rate). By this measure, the divorce rate peaked at 5.3 divorces per 1000 people in 1981 (CDC) and has come down steadily since to 3.6 in 2011 (CDC). A variation on this type of metric is the number of people who divorce per year, per 1000 married women—such as used in this National Marriage Project report.

Another simple metric is the percent of people, at any given time, who have already been divorced. For example, based on their 2007-08 national survey, the Barna Group found that 33 percent of ever-married adults, and 25 percent of adults overall, have experienced divorce. Even these seemingly straightforward numbers can be difficult to interpret because of societal changes in the number and nature of people who marry today compared to the past.

Predicting the Lifetime Divorce Risk

All three of these metrics are different from the likelihood of divorce for a couple marrying for the first time, which is what the oft-repeated “50 percent chance of divorce” is about. Coming up with a number for lifetime divorce risk is crazy complicated because it’s a projection about what will happen in the future based on what has happened in the past. As I understand it, those demographers who have constructed such projections do so based on careful analyses of the likelihood of divorcing in various years of marriage based on the history of divorce within existing samples.

It’s hard to know the original source of the 50-percent statistic, but it seems to originate from projections of this sort made by scholars in the early 1980s, around the time when the crude divorce rate was peaking. For example, in 1984, Paul Glick published a study saying, among other things, “About one-half of the first marriages of young adults today are likely to end in divorce.” Subsequent projections, like this 1992 projection by the Census Bureau, came up with similar estimates—but each projection only applies to couples marrying at the time the projection is made.

Such era-bound estimates are as good as researchers can do, because no one can know the precise number for the lifetime risk of divorce for those marrying right now. Here’s one illustration showing why that’s the case. Suppose we undertook a study following a representative sample of 20,000 people from birth to death, while gathering complete marital histories along the way. We will not know exactly how likely our subjects are to divorce until all of them are dead (or, technically, until all are dead, divorced, or widowed—that would work, too).  When we get there, the number for the lifetime divorce risk will be rock solid.

What’s wrong with this mythical study? A lot. First, it would be extraordinarily expensive and difficult to follow such a sample without losing track of people. Two, the original researchers will be dead by the time the answer comes in. (This dampens enthusiasm to start the study.) Three, once you get this robust answer about the likelihood of divorcing, it’s old news. The answer will apply to a generation that has almost entirely died out, not to those who are young when the study ends. People want to know the future, not the past.

Moreover, all projections of this type are affected by societal trends that can change—and a lot has changed in recent decades when it comes to marriage and divorce. For example, those at lower levels of income and education are less likely to marry than in the past while those with college degrees are the most likely to succeed at marriage. Glick noted this in 1984, and, in my favorite paper about the risk of divorce, R. Kelly Raley and Larry Bumpass showed in 2003 that this differential increased from the early-mid 1980s to the mid-1990s. It may be increasing still. 

The Lifetime Divorce Risk for Newlyweds Today

Even if projections about divorce are always tentative and subject to change, many will want to know: If the 50-percent statistic dates to the 1980s and there is some evidence that divorce rates have declined for those starting out now, what’s the right number for today?

I periodically ask sociologist Paul Amato what he believes a solid prediction would be for couples getting married now for the first time, and I did so again last week. He noted that it is, indeed, “difficult to know what’s going on with the divorce rate.” But taking everything he knows into account—including the most recent elements of the debate noted here—he believes that the lifetime risk of divorce today is 42 to 45 percent. “And if you throw in permanent separations that don’t end in divorce,” he added, “then the overall likelihood of marital disruption is pushing 50 percent.”

Amato relies a good deal on the calculations of Schoen and and Canudas-Romo (2006), and their conclusion that "it is premature to believe that the probability of divorce has begun to decline" (p. 756). But he hastened to add that it is very difficult to predict the future divorce rate. Nevertheless, he noted that young married adults are not divorcing at the same rate as their parents did at similar ages, so it is likely that the divorce rate will decline in the future, once the baby boomers (who were and continue to be highly divorce prone) leave the population. Thus, as others have suggested, the future may well be brighter than the 42 to 45% risk estimate suggests, but we do not yet know this will be the case. And there are factors that work in both directions; for example, as Wolfers noted, health gains mean people are living longer which also means added years for the possibility of divorce.

Whatever the future holds for the risk of divorce, divorce isn’t the only family stability metric that matters today (a fact that Raley and Bumpass, and others, have emphasized). While the divorce rate for young couples starting out in marriage may be coming down, I believe that the percentage of children impacted by family instability keeps going up due to the combination of divorce and never-married parents breaking up (as the majority of them do by the time their child turns five). This is why I have written that we may be approaching a perfect storm with regard to children and attachment insecurity, and that the timing of marriage relative to childbearing remains a big deal. As sociologist Andrew Cherlin has argued, American families have become marked by turbulence and churning, and this is not without consequence.

Naturally, young people worry less about societal trends than about their own likelihood of divorcing, a worry that leads some to avoid marriage altogether. Of course, that clearly does not mean avoiding the pain of breaking up. Many others who are already married wonder if they will make it. There is, however, some good news in all this. For example, there are things people can do to lower their own risks of divorce and to increase their chances of having a lasting, loving marriage. And there are many people who are at a substantially lower risk of divorce than they think—a key point argued by people such as Feldhahn. Projections do not have to be destiny. I’ll take up that subject soon. 

This post first appeared on the blog for the Institute for Family Studies on 1-22-2015 with a small addition on 1-23. I would like to thank Anna Sutherland at IFS for her help in editing this piece. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

More on "Divorce Rates": UP or DOWN?

In my prior piece, I noted a lot more reasons for pessimism about divorce rates than expressed in the recent pieces in the New York Times.

I came across this compilation of criticisms of the work put forth by Justin Wolfers, especially noting the criticisms by demographer Steven Ruggles. This is worth a read if you are in the camp of skepticism about if the divorce rate has actually come down at all. I do not otherwise know of this blog (Dalrok) but the quotes by Ruggles are worth the price of admission.

I tend to believe the rate has come down but not as much as some suggest and that, regardless, the overall news is not optimistic about marriage--and it's worse for family stability for children. And, Ruggles has argued that the divorce rate may have, in fact, been going up not coming down at all, based on his recent publication with Sheela Kennedy.

He notes (from the blog link above):

The number of demographers who believe that overall divorce risk has declined is small. Other than Stevenson and Wolfers, we identified only Heaton (2002) and Ivers and Stevenson (2010). The consensus of most demographers, as Schoen and Canudas-Romo (2006) put it, “it is premature to believe that the probability of divorce has begun to decline.” You are entitled to argue that ACS is wrong and SIPP is right. Nevertheless, I think you should acknowledge that the decline of divorce narrative is a minority viewpoint among professional demographers.

Have at it if you are following all this.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

You Fall In Love with the Front End of the Puppy

There are a lot of ways to explain why commitment is so important in lasting love—especially in marriage. This is my favorite.

Think about puppy love. Many people understand what it is like to have a strong, immediate reaction of attraction to a puppy—even cat lovers can understand this. If it’s a puppy you end up with, it’s not an exaggeration to say you fell in love with that dog.

How’s this illustrate the importance of commitment? Simple.

You fall in love with the front end of the puppy, but every puppy has a back end.

Think about what a successful relationship with a dog requires. You don’t have to work out how to be attracted to the cute end of the dog. You have to work out, and work through, how to handle—together—the back end. What does that require? Without going into any more detail that this illustration requires, the back end of the puppy is what takes the most work, especially in the early stage of the relationship, and it's always the least fun part of the relationship.The back end is a lot about regulating time and place. As in where and when. It all takes effort.

Even when that’s all working well and the expectations are clear, the back end of the dog is still the part that requires you to sometimes go outside when it’s cold, or to carry around little bags as you walk around the neighborhood (or really large bags in some cases), or to hold your nose. The back end requires you to accommodate your life to the urgent needs of the dog. That requires commitment because it involves investment and ongoing sensitivity to the needs of another.

Of course you have to feed the cute end, not just deal with the back end. That also requires commitment but let’s keep the metaphor pure, here. As pure as the “business” end of the dog can be.

So, if you are committed to loving someone, realize that part of the whole deal is the work that the back end of the relationship takes. Lasting love is not only about the cute and easy part. Sometimes love stinks. Sometimes you have to pick up something you’d rather let lie. And sometimes you really ought to leave something behind.

Love takes commitment, just like the back end of the puppy.

Oh, in case you wondered, that’s our dog Odie in the picture. This is either the first or second photo I ever took of him. It was taken the first night we brought him home. He’s 13 years old now. That’s 13 years of lasting love. We fell in love with the front end of this puppy, but, yes, he’s got a back end, too. They all do.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The New York Times Piece on Divorce: Overly Optimistic

There is a lot of buzz this week about this piece in the New York Times by Claire Cain Miller, The Divorce Surge Is Over, but the Myth Lives On. The upshot is that the divorce rate surged a good number of years ago and the current likely, lifetime divorce risk for a newly married couple is substantially lower than it was a couple of decades ago.

I believe the article is quite correct to note that statements suggesting that the divorce rate is “50 percent and climbing” are truly off base. The divorce rate has been steadily coming down. That really is good news, and it is a myth that the divorce rate climbs ever higher. It has not. There is something important that is still climbing, but I’ll come to that.

The New York Times article describes a lot of the complex changes in society that may go into all of what has changed about the odds of divorce.

As my colleagues know, while being a cheery sort, I am well able to articulate the pessimistic side in family trends. Working to make things different? Sure. Recognizing what’s really happening? More surely.

So, let’s take this happy moment and put a couple of dents into it. 

First, even in the most optimistic estimate offered by economist Justin Wolfers, over a third of couples newly marrying are likely eventually to divorce. That’s way better than 50% or more but it’s still a strong chance of divorce among those who do get married.   

Second, and much more importantly in my view, there are a number of other trends that are consequential that go hand-in-hand with the declining divorce risk among those who marry. In part, what has been happening is that an increasingly select group makes up the overall group of who marries. This group is select for having lower overall risk in their life circumstances and also for being more likely to enter marriage with the type of timing and sequence that makes success in marriage far more likely. I am talking about college graduates. In contrast, marriage rates have been falling off for others, especially for those with great economic disadvantage and those in the working class. For more on that latter point, see this report, When Marriage Disappears

The New York Times piece does describe these divergent trends based on wealth, class, education, and disadvantage. 

While there is an overall net good thing happening with the trends toward less divorce, another phenomenon still grows: As far as I understand, the number of children being born in low commitment contexts continues to go up. That’s not so rosy a picture. My term—low commitment contexts—is purely descriptive. I simply mean that a child arrives before two parents have decided on a future together or on raising a family and this child together. I believe this is an issue that rarely receives the attention it deserves, and it lies at the intersection of various types of bad news about current trends. I have written about this issue in a piece at the Institute for Family Studies blog, wherein I also addresses some of the recent and important discussions around this subject. If you are interested in more thought on the issue of timing and the formation of commitment, here you go:  Marriage and Positive Child Outcomes: Commitment, Signaling, and Sequence.  

Want More On The "Divorce Rate"? 

If you are interested in more about divorce numbers, I have something you may find useful. Many years ago, I wrote a little document on “What Really Is the Divorce Rate?” In it, I tried to address a lot of confusion I would hear in others over the years about what the “divorce rate” really is—confusion that stems from the considerable complexity that lies behind what the average person expects to be a simple number that someone should be able to nail down in a way that’s understandable. There are, in fact, a lot of different types of numbers that people latch onto when it comes to divorce. So, it’s not simple. I update that document ever year or two, and did so last year. I am not a demographer and I do not play one on TV (nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn recently). Nevertheless, I was looking over what I have in the current version of that document and I thought it holds up pretty well for explaining some of the confusion people have about divorce numbers. It also talks about some of the complex counter currents such as I briefly alluded to above. So, if you are interested, have at it.

If you are a demographer and you read that document and you think I got something wrong, let me know. I have had input from a number of demographers over the years and am always happy to update this type of document to make it more useful.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Ron Haskins' new book: Show Me The Evidence

"Our nation's social programs, especially ones for children and families, do not work," so said Ron Haskins in a talk today at the Brookings Institution. In his talk, Haskins noted a fact that few people seem to know regarding government programs: that "80-90% of programs are not working." He added, "Experience shows that most social programs produce modest or no impacts that last."

Ron Haskins is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, which just published his new book called Show Me the Evidence: Obama's Fight for Rigor and Results in Social Policy. In his book (written with colleague Greg Margolis), Haskins writes about strategies that could turn the dismal reality of ineffective government policies and programs around. Their book focuses on the Obama Administration's emphasis on increasing the reliance on research and evidence in the development, testing, and refinement of social policy.

I have known Ron Haskins for a long time. He is as fine of a thinker in family policy circles as I have ever known. He was one of the architects of the 1996 welfare reform law--a Republican who demonstrates that it is possible to work across parties and ideology to improve how things are done.

If you are interested in such things, I can recommend this book and also the presentation today from Brookings. Following Haskins talk, there is a panel discussion featuring notables Peter Orszag, Jason DeParle, Melody Barnes and numerous others. The presentation is available at the Brookings site.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Soft Break-Up: Psychology Today piece on ambiguous break-ups

I wrote awhile ago on what I called "The Soft Break-Up." I gave that term to the fact that even break-ups are ambiguous now--along with so much else in unmarried romantic and sexual relationships. Matt Huston at Psychology Today interviewed both me and Galena Rhoades, and wrote a terrific piece on this theme.

It's right here for the reading

Dating: The Soft Break Up

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Sawhill and Venator on The Hopes of Marriage Traditionalists vs. Village Builders

Isabel Sawhill is an economist at Brookings who has just published an important book on the changes in families in the U. S. over the past decades (Generation Unbound, 2014). She describes how we’ve arrived at a nation that, increasingly, is made up of drifters versus planners when it comes to sex, childbearing, and parenting. Her book details the large consequences of these changes, including covering the staggering increases in the number of children born outside of marriage and being raised by single parents.

Sawhill wrote a recent piece that appeared in the New York Times, entitled Beyond Marriage, in which she talks about both the problem and her belief in solutions involving long-acting birth control methods that could change the default from people having children without planning to people needing to plan to have children. As you can imagine, elements of those ideas are controversial. But her description of the issues and problems is not controversial. She unflinchingly describes the massive ways our society has changed (for many but not all people, of course) when it comes to family formation and the wellbeing of children. Drifting, indeed, has become common, and drifting, like sliding, does not bode well for relationship transitions that are fundamentally life-altering (and, in this case, life creating).

In a piece on the Brookings site, What Liberals and Conservatives Are Missing in the Marriage Debate, Sawhill and Joanna Venator contrast the hopes of liberals and conservatives for what we could possibly do about the declines in marriage as a foundation for childbearing and childrearing. As they note, “Traditionalists” hope to bring marriage back and “Village Builders” hope to increase the supports and resources around single parent families in order to make up for some of what is lost in terms of resources available to parents and children.

Sawhill and Venator make this compelling point along the way. They write:

“…for every child removed from poverty by a social program, another one is entering poverty because of the breakdown of the family. The growth in single parent families since the 1970s has caused child poverty to rise by roughly 5 percentage points as much as the poverty-reducing effect of some of our biggest safety net programs, such as Food Stamps.”

Here’s the nifty graphic from the Brookings piece that illustrates that quote.

Sawhill and Venator write cogently about the reasons for pessimism when it comes to what either Traditionalists or Village Builders hope for at this point. The one thing I appreciate above all else in Sawhill’s recent arguments is that she’s dealing with reality. I want to be an optimist about marriage, but I’m not. Don’t get me wrong on this point. I think marriage is the best path for the greatest number of people. Among many reasons, marriage is powerful for child outcomes because, historically, marriage set a strong(er) context of commitment around a couple before there was a family. (See my prior post here or at the Institute for Family Studies on this crucial point.)

So, while I am pessimistic in a number of ways about marriage, I work toward the vision of the optimists when it comes to the institution. But the cultural trends are huge. Along with my concerns about the future of marriage, I am as or more pessimistic about our society having enough resources to, in any realistic way, support strategies sufficient to cope with the massive changes we now confront. Even if we did a lot more than we now do—as Sawhill wishes we were doing—I don’t see how such efforts can make up for what is increasingly left out of the equation for a growing number of children and families, which is a settled commitment between two partners before they become parents together (that sounds like marriage, I know).

I’m left with three beliefs about the problems Sawhill identifies in the recent pieces and in her book. One, I think we should continue to try to strengthen and support marriage, which includes figuring out how to counter the cultural trends that push people away from believing what is obvious: that a prior settled commitment between two parents makes a real difference for children. Two, I believe we should accept that government programs won’t be able to make up for the ways children will have differential resources and opportunities in life as a result of how families form. Should we invest in programs try to make up for what is lacking? I think so, but hopefully in thoughtful ways; which is another point that Sawhill addresses in identifying the need for increasing efforts that are geared toward self-sufficiency. Third, you may or may not feel ready for it, but it’s clear we are going to be having the cultural and societal discussion Sawhill directly addresses in her argument for one way to change the default from drifting to planning when it comes to how children enter this American life. Be thinking, because thinking and talking is on the agenda.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Understanding Why Marriage is Associated with Positive Child Outcomes: Commitment, Signaling, and Sequence

Why is marriage associated with positive child outcomes when compared to non-marriage? In The Marriage Effect: Money or Parenting?, Kimberly Howard and Richard Reeves argued that the primary mechanisms through which marriage benefits children are based on income and parenting quality. Emily Badger wrote a piece on their work with a title that captured what the take-away was for many: Children with married parents are better off— but marriage isn’t the reason why. While I agree with a number of their points, I believe something substantial is missing in Howard and Reeves’ overall argument. BradWilcox outlined one set of concerns. My focus here is in a different direction—on the development and timing of commitment.

Howard and Reeves unflinchingly declare that there are substantial advantages for children raised by married parents compared to others. While I think the notion of “settled science” is conceptually dangerous, this fact seems broadly recognized.[i] Howard and Reeves are particularly interested in two questions: (1) “is it the marriage itself that matters? and (2) if not, what do we do to help? Their findings show that the association between marriage and positive child outcomes may be substantially accounted for by greater income and more engaged parenting among marrieds. Based on this, they argue that intervention efforts should focus on parenting and not on marriage, per se.

I respect this logic. My colleagues and I have long argued that relationship oriented interventions should focus on variables that are dynamic (i.e., putatively changeable) rather than those that are relatively static.[ii] That may seem obvious, but people sometimes misunderstand why prevention-focused experts will put more emphasis on variables of lessor predictive power that are arguably dynamic (e.g., the number of sexual partners) than on variables that account for more variance but are immutable (e.g., race). Knowledge of static risk factors is nonetheless also important because it points to where to concentrate efforts to help people. For example, while there has been a lot of press on the meager outcomes from recent federal studies on relationship education provided to couples at lower incomes, there is some good news about who may benefit the most related to relatively static risk factors.[iii]

Marriage: a Mere Commitment Device?

EmilyBadger quotes Reeves on the income and parenting engagement points: 

"Those two factors taken together explain most of the better outcomes for the children of married couples," Reeves says. "Not all. But most. And I think the takeaway here is not to mistake a commitment device – which marriage is – for an explanatory device."

The argument is further clarified in this quote from Howard and Reeves in their originalpiece: “Is it marriage itself that matters, or is marriage the visible expression of other factors, that are the true cause of different outcomes? And if so, which ones?”

I think this argument shows a serious under-appreciation for the importance of “visible expressions” of commitment. Signals of commitment are important across a wide swath of societal life because people will often make better decisions with clearer information about the level of motivation in others,[iv] and signals about commitment are, arguably, of great importance in the development and maintenance of romantic and family relationships.[v] Reeves seems to be arguing that the signal value of marriage is not as consequential as behaviors such as parenting, but what that view fails to account for is how marriage has most typically been a potent signal of commitment with a distinct placement regarding the sequence and timing of childbearing. At the root of it, what is signaled by marriage is a commitment comprised of “us with a future.”[vi] Sure, reality has very often been messier than the tidy ordering of love, marriage, and a baby carriage; and many marriages do not go the distance. But marriage is likely, in some large respect, explanatory regarding child outcomes because marriage most often is a strong and credible signal of commitment prior to childbirth.

Put another way, Howard and Reeves seem to focus on childrearing (parenting) with little emphasis for the role marriage often plays in sequencing of commitment and childbearing. I believe that the quality of the parenting a child will receive is situated in the context of the level of commitment his or her two parents have to parenting together. Danielle Kurtzleben at highlighted one key part of this puzzle related to that idea of “together”:

There is a common-sense reason to why this bump is so great. A pair of mediocre married parents will have way more time to spend with their kids than even an exceptionally devoted single dad . . .

Even here, there may be an under-appreciation for how (and if) the partnership to parent formed in the first place. The fact is that marriage is associated with a far greater likelihood that a child’s parents will continue to parent together than other contexts.[vii] At one end of a spectrum are parents who married before the child arrived, where those children have a relatively high likelihood of receiving extensive co-parenting. At the other end of this spectrum would be children born to parents who had not developed much, if any, commitment to each other beforehand, much less a commitment to parent a child together before having one. Those children, on average, have more of an uphill climb in life, and, as Howard and Reeves note, economic and social mobility are impacted. Such children are not disadvantaged because they don’t have a parent who cares, but because they are going to land, on average, the furthest from having the economic and social capital of two people pulling together to start them off in life. One can argue that the benefits of having two committed parents can exist apart from marriage. I agree. So why would I argue that marriage has special explanatory value regarding child outcomes?

Back to signals and sequence.

While not always, and perhaps less so now than before, marriage serves as a strong signal that two people are tacitly committed to raising a family together. Further, and for more complex reasons than I want to develop here, signals are the most informative when they are fully under the control of those sending them—by which I mean, when the behavior has fewer prior constraints so that it reflects something true about the individual. That means that signals about commitment are more informative before a child arrives than after because having a child increases life constraints. When marriage precedes two people having a child, the question of intention about a shared long-term time horizon was settled before things got messy with baby drool and poop. For couples with this foundation already in place, even unplanned and mistimed children are still landing in a relatively rich context regarding bi-parental commitment. One can (and should) believe that various socio-economic disadvantages govern a lot in this big lottery of life, but we should not lose sight of how sequence plays a consequential and causal role in child outcomes.

I am far from alone believing this. I think the greatest change in families impacting children in this era is that so many are born into low commitment contexts. This seems to be exactly the point that Isabel Sawhill argues in her forthcoming book, Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex andParenthood Without Marriage. In her NewYork Times piece on 9-14-2014, she wrote:

We’ve been worrying about these trends for years, and wondering: Can marriage be restored as the standard way to raise children? As much as we might welcome a revival, I doubt that it will happen. The genie is out of the bottle.

I would love for Sawhill to be wrong about marriage, but I share her pessimism. Further, by arguing for what is needed, Sawhill draws attention to what is increasingly missing.

What we need instead is a new ethic of responsible parenthood. If we combine an updated social norm with greater reliance on the most effective forms of birth control, we can transform drifters into planners and improve children’s life prospects.

In her book and article, Sawhill focuses a lot of attention on complex issues related to birth control. I will sidestep that issue for now to focus on drifting versus planning. This is familiar territory for me and my colleagues. Whether you think about drifting versus planning or sliding versus deciding,[viii] the underlying point is that it matters how and when (and if) intention forms when it comes to the consequences of life altering transitions such as having a child. Commitments are decisions, and decisions support the strongest follow-through.

What about Howard and Reeves’ finding about engaged parenting? They note that “It is plausible that parents who commit to each other through marriage may also have a stronger joint commitment to raising their children.” That’s exactly what I believe is being given short shrift in the current discussion. In fact, I suspect that their parenting variable is partly a proxy for the mutual commitment to parent that is implicit in marriage.

While I can see plenty of value in efforts to provide more education about parenting to both couples and single parents, I also believe we need to work to increase the odds that children are born into high commitment contexts. Such efforts might include helping people better understand how sliding into having a child together, in a relationship with an unclear future, leads to worse outcomes for adults and children. Emphasizing this reality may be unpalatable to some who worry that such messages can be retroactively stigmatizing for those who are already downstream from consequential drifting. If so, the importance of emphasizing this may be as controversial to some as Isabel Sawhill’s suggestions about birth control are to others. Either way, it does not reflect how life really works to ignore sequence as we all grapple with solutions.

Marriage is, indeed, fading in front of our eyes, and with it goes a lot of signal clarity about commitment in the context of sequence. Maybe those elements can be constructed behaviorally on a broad scale, but we should recognize the difficulty we face in trying to make up for the loss of something with real explanatory power.

[ii] e.g., Stanley, S. M. (2001). Making a case for premarital education. Family Relations, 50(3), 272-280.;  Markman, H. J., Stanley, S. M., & Blumberg, S. L. (2010). Fighting for your marriage. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. NOTE: It is a separate and challenging matter in social interventions to demonstrate that the variables targeted are the mechanisms of change. 
[iv] The seminal paper by Nobel Prize winner Michael Spence is: Spence, A. Michael. (1973). Job Market Signaling. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 87(3), 355-374. In his Nobelspeech, Spence noted that that “the information carried by the signal can be productive itself. This will occur if there is a decision that is made better or with greater efficiency, with better information.” I believe this is relevant to the points I make here (though I make no claim to understanding all of the nuances of Spence’s work).
[v] Rowthorn, R. (2002).  Marriage as a signal.  In A. W. Dnes and R. Rowthorn (Eds.), The Law and Economics of Marriage and Divorce (pp. 132 - 156).  New York: Cambridge University Press.; 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.; 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.
[vi] Jones, W. H., & Adams, J. M. (1999).  Handbook of interpersonal commitment and relationship stability.  New York: Plenum.;  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.
[vii] Sawhill, I. V. (2014). Generation unbound: Drifting into sex and parenthood without marriage. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Which Door? Thoughts on The Consequential Choices of Researchers and Other Humans

In the frenzy of all the attention regarding the National Marriage Project report, co-authored by Galena Rhoades and me, and recently released, we wrote a conceptual piece posted at The Institute for Family Studies on issues that arise in how researchers think about causality and personal choice, and how statistical approaches intersect with what researchers do and what they conclude.

It's somewhat more technical than most things I post, but the piece is more conceptual than statistical if you are interested in the subject.

Which Door? Thoughts on The Consequential Choices of Researchers and Other Humans