Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Mystery: Why Isn't Living Together Beforehand Associated with Improved Odds in Marriage?

For decades, people have believed that living together should increase their odds of doing well in marriage. The core of this idea is that cohabiting would provide a test of a relationship. This seems logical but, mysteriously, decades of research do not show this benefit. In fact, until recently, the overwhelming majority of studies showed that cohabitation before marriage was associated with poorer odds of stability and happiness in marriage.[i] This has changed; recent studies suggest that the association with higher risk has dissipated or disappeared for some groups.[ii] And while the headlines tend to say there is no longer any risk, that’s misleading and I’ll explain why. Understanding what I describe here can help a person make better, more informed decisions in their relationships.

Let’s start with what the current research shows. For those readers who are either ideologically pro or against the idea of living together before marriage, I am not making any ideological point here. I’m talking about findings.  

Among those who cohabited before marriage, people who fit the following categories are likely to have marital outcomes similar to those who did not live together before marriage. That is, those having these characteristics do not show the type of added risks that have been associated over the past few decades with living together before marriage.

·       Only ever cohabited with the person they marry.[iii]
·       Only began to cohabit after having clear, mutually understood plans to marry their spouse.[iv]
·       Did not cohabit until the age of 23 or later.[v]

That leaves the mystery. Note that the comparison group to which some premarital cohabiters do as well as, not better than (on average) is those who do not cohabit before marriage. How could the widely held belief that cohabiting before marriage actually improves one’s odds have virtually no evidence to support it? (I hedge slightly here because there are a few, rare findings showing this or that group cohabiting and having improved odds.)

There are several explanations for how cohabiting could seem so logical but still not be generally associated with improved odds. I’ll cover the two I think matter most. First, those who cohabited before marriage tend to already be at greater risk in marriage because of other factors, for example: having parents who divorce or never married, having poorer economic resources, less education, and so forth. These are called “selection” factors among researchers. Selection suggests that, for a lot of people, some part of their odds for how their relationships or marriages turn out was already baked in their cake, and an experience like cohabitation may not have altered those odds. There is a lot of evidence that selection is an important part in understanding this mystery I am addressing. The same types of selection factors are associated with greater odds of cohabiting with numerous partners (serially) and cohabiting prior to having clarified plans for a future.

The second explanation is in contrast to what’s baked in the cake. It’s about what you do with your cake after it’s baked. If you like a different metaphor, everyone is dealt a hand of cards, and some people get dealt better hands than others. But no matter what hand you were dealt, it will also matter how you play that hand.


All other things being equal, compared to dating without cohabiting, if two people are sharing one address, they will have a harder time breaking up, even if the relationship has serious weaknesses or problems. That is, cohabitation has more inertia than dating (while not cohabiting). Sure, loads of cohabiters break up—see my last post. But it’s harder to break up if cohabiting than if dating and not sharing an address.

This concept of inertia is based on the fact that many people increase their constraints for staying in a relationship before they have clarified a mutual dedication to being in the relationship.

The idea here is a little scary. We believe that some people marry someone they would not have married if they’d never moved in together. They got inertialized too soon. That’s gets to why we (my colleague Galena Rhoades and I) have predicted and found (over and over again) that couples who wait to cohabit until marriage or until they have clear, mutual plans to marry report, on average, more marital happiness, less conflict, more compatibility, and so forth.iv  Those couples are less likely to be prematurely caught in inertia.

For some individuals who made it harder to break up before deciding on a future with their partner, cohabitation probably decreased their odds of happiness in marriage. To be clear, I am sure that there are many people who move in together before having clarified anything but who do fine in marriage and/or life together. It’s just that the risk is greater in this group than in the other group, and it makes sense why that would be the case.

You may be thinking, “I don’t really believe in marriage anyway, so what’s this got to do with me?” Inertia is important to understand in any relationship. If you are not already in a committed relationship and you’d like to be, the relevant personal questions are these: What things could I avoid that could make it harder for me to break it off with someone before I’m sure I want to be with that person? How would I do that?

Ring, Ring

I’m a geek. I found this article a few years ago by Marguerite Reardon who nailed the way inertia works—in an article describing her commitment dilemma with her iPhone: Should I break up with my iPhone for Nokia's Lumia 900?

Her piece is a couple years old, so insert the name for some hot Samsung model (really, a super model) into her title.  Here’s a quote from her article.

But sadly now I’m feeling a bit stuck with Apple. I’d like to check out other smartphone platforms, but doing so is going to require some work on my part. Like many who have been sucked into Apple’s clutches, it was innocent in the beginning. . . . Initially, I didn’t realize the commitment I was making. I didn’t think about the fact that I was locking myself into a platform for the rest of my life. But with each new product I bought from Apple, the deeper I fell into the borg. And now I feel like it would be painful to break up with Apple. Not because I love the products or company so much, but because it would be a huge pain in the butt to transfer all my stuff to a new platform.

This is a great definition of what I call iNertia. If you check out her story, she actually goes on to liken the mobile phone dilemma to living together. It’s a fun and insightful piece. Take careful note of this. Most people think readily about inertia related to their mobile plan and being locked in for a year or two. Reardon is addressing a more powerful type of constraint that produces inertia based in the difficulty of moving on because of the depth of what you are already into. 

Inertia is really not all that mysterious once people see it clearly. We all experience it in many ways in modern life. But a lot of people think it’s only an issue when it comes to marriage, not cohabitation. It’s actually everywhere.  When it’s time to really commit to someone, it’s worth accepting that commitment requires making a choice to give up other choices. But before that time, too many people give up options before making a real choice. 

[i] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509.
[ii] For example: Manning, W. D., & Cohen, J. A. (2012). Premarital cohabitation and marital dissolution: An examination of recent marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 377 - 387.
[iii] For example: Teachman, J. D. (2003). Premarital sex, premarital cohabitation, and the risk of subsequent marital dissolution among women. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(2), 444-455.
[iv] For example (all findings controlling robustly for selection): Kline, G. H., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., Olmos-Gallo, P. A., St. Peters, M., Whitton, S. W., & Prado, L. (2004). Timing is everything: Pre-engagement cohabitation and increased risk for poor marital outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 18, 311-318.; Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). The pre-engagement cohabitation effect: A replication and extension of previous findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 107-111.; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Amato, P. R., Markman, H. J., & Johnson, C. A. (2010). The timing of cohabitation and engagement: Impact on first and second marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 906-918.
[v] Kuperberg, A. (2014). Age at coresidence, premarital cohabitation, and marriage dissolution: 1985-2009. Journal of Marriage & Family, 76(2), 352-369. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Moving In and Moving On: Cohabitation is Less Likely Than Ever to Lead to Marriage

First posted on Institute for Family Studies Blog on 7-23-2014
Roman numerals are for footnotes at bottom of post, where you can also find further links.

In a new paper, Bowling Green State University sociologist Karen Guzzo analyzes how the odds of cohabitation leading to either getting married or breaking up have changed over the years. Before getting to her findings, let’s review some of the cohabitation trends she highlights in her report (based on prior studies).

  • The majority of people in their 30s have lived with someone outside of marriage.
  • Cohabitation, rather than marriage, is now the more common form of first union.
  • Fewer marriages than in the past start out with the couple having intentions to marry.[i]
  • People are more likely than ever to cohabit with multiple partners in succession—what I have called “CohabiDating.”[ii]
  • More children than ever before are born to cohabiting couples, and this explains most of the rise in the number of children being born out of wedlock.

Guzzo notes, as have others, that cohabiting has become a normative experience in the romantic and sexual lives of young adults. As young adults put off marriage until later in life, cohabitation has inhabited much of the space that used to be made up of married couples. I think this dramatic change in how relationships form matters for at least two reasons. First, cohabiting couples have become increasingly likely to have children, but they are less likely than married couples to have planned to have children[iii] and they are much less likely to remain together after having children.[iv] That’s not my subject today, but it should not be hard to see why it matters. Second, most people want lasting love in life, and most people still intend to accomplish that in marriage. However, the ways cohabitation has changed in the past three decades make it less likely that people who have that goal will succeed in it. That’s closer to my focus here.

It is obvious that cohabitation has become de-linked from marriage. Guzzo addresses a complicated question related to this change. Is it because all types of cohabiting couples have become less likely to marry or are there subgroups of cohabiters who are driving the increasing disconnect between moving in and moving on in life together? For example, it used to be the case that a couple who moved in together was very likely to get married—and, engaged or not, had an awareness of this when moving in together. But most experts believe that has changed. Guzzo wondered if those who already planned marriage before moving in together are as likely as ever to marry while all the other groups in the growing and diverse universe of cohabiters might be less likely to marry. Similarly, she examined if demographic changes in who cohabits, when, and under what circumstances changed the way cohabitation relates to marriage (e.g., analyzing variables such as race, education, and the presence of children from a prior relationship).

To simplify and summarize, what Guzzo found is that the increasing diversity in the types of cohabitation and cohabiters does not explain much about why things are so different from the past when it comes to increased odds that cohabiting couples will break up or not marry. Rather, on average, all types of cohabiting couples have become more likely than in the past to break up or not transition into marriage. Here’s a quote from her paper (pg. 834).  

Relative to cohabitations formed between 1990 and 1994, cohabitations formed from 1995–1999, 2000–2004, and 2005 and later were 13%, 49%, and 87%, respectively, more likely to dissolve than remain intact. The lower risk of marriage over remaining intact occurred only for the last two cohabitation cohorts (2000–2004 and 2005 and later), which were about 18% and 31% less likely to marry than remain intact, respectively.

Moving in together is becoming less and less likely to lead to having a future together. That’s not to say that all cohabiters are in the same boat regarding their destination. Those who are engaged (or have clear plans to marry) before moving in together are far more likely to eventually marry—but as Guzzo shows, even they are becoming less likely to do so. Related to this, my colleagues and I have shown, in numerous studies, that couples with clear plans to marry before cohabiting, along with those who marry without cohabiting, tend to have happier marriages and lower odds of divorce than those who move in together before having a clearly settled commitment to the future in marriage.[v] (We believe this is largely because, while cohabiting unions obviously break up often, they are harder to break off than dating relationships because it becomes harder to move out and move on. So some people get stuck in a relationship they would otherwise have not remained in.)

Based on both findings and theory, I have long argued that if a couple tells you they are cohabiting and you know nothing else, you know very little about their level of commitment. Cohabitation is fundamentally ambiguous.[vi] In fact, that is part—but just part—of why I believe it has become so popular. Sure, there are many cohabiting couples for whom living together was understood as a step-up in commitment, but, on average, research shows it is not associated with an increase in dedication to one’s partner.[vii]

If a couple tells you that they are married, you know a lot about their commitment. That does not mean that all is perfect, of course. Likewise, if a couple tells you that they have clear, mutual plans to marry, you can infer there is a lot of commitment. Even apart from marriage, I believe that a couple who says they have a lifetime commitment together is telling you something important about a strong level of intention and commitment. Those things all signal commitment. Cohabitation, per se, very often does not. (As a very complex but important aside, I do think the socioeconomic context of some couples makes marriage nearly impossible economically; for some of these couples, I believe cohabitation can be a marker of a higher level of commitment.)

Practically speaking, what do Guzzo’s findings tell us? First, taken with the growing body of research in this area, I think we are seeing cohabitation headed toward becoming more ambiguous than ever regarding commitment. Actually, that’s not quite right. Cohabitation seems to be moving toward being, unambiguously, a form of dating with no implications about the odds of marrying. Second, these societal changes make it more important than ever for people who do want to succeed in marriage to be careful about how their romantic relationships before marriage unfold.  

If you want to marry, be careful about cohabitation. Sure, more and more people are cohabiting, but it’s also less likely than ever to lead to marriage. In fact, people are increasingly cohabiting in ways that are associated with greater risks to the aspiration of marital success. If you are aiming for marriage, aim for a solid choice in a partner and then look to form a public, mutual promise to marry. While all couples may be more likely to break up before marriage now than in the past, look toward something that really signals commitment to figure out whether you and a partner have what it takes to go the distance.

[i] See study by Vespa(2014).
[iii] See thisnews story; see also thisdocument from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
[iv] For example: Sheela Kennedy and Larry Bumpass, “Cohabitation and Trends in the Structure and Stability of Children’s Family Lives” (paper presented at Population Association of America Meeting, Washington, DC, 2011).
[v] For a detailed but non-technical summary, see here.
[vi] For example, see Lindsay(2000).
[vii] For example, see study by Rhoades,Stanley, & Markman (2012).

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

weCloud: Thoughts on Leaf Blowers vs. Brooms

Whatever happened to brooms? I know they still exist. We actually have a couple of them around our house, and, shocker, we use them. We have two regular sized ones; one for indoors and one for out. We also have a big ole push-broom for the patio and side walk and such.

I think about brooms whenever I see lawn care people out and about using leaf blowers to “clean up” after mowing a lawn. Have you ever thought about this? This style of “cleaning up” is not “sweeping up” nor, if there must be a noisy machine, even vacuuming up. What we all see instead is the (now) common practice of just blowing the crud all over the place—into the street, onto cars, into the air, or back into the lawn.

Just to be clear. I’m not super green. In fact, I’ve been around the block and know a thing or two—just like those amazing men in the Viagra commercials who can do anything because they are at the age of knowing how. (I’m not just like them, by the way. Just sayin. Um, got sidetracked. I am at the age of being sidetracked.)

That’s not what I mean by green. I meant I’m not a big enviro type. I do pretty seriously recycle and I try to use energy efficient stuff where I can. You could say I’m enviro-conscious and responsible but it’s not my big deal in life. But I do get annoyed with all these leaf blowing machines. For one thing, they are loud. That bugs me. I have sensitive hearing which I am trying to preserve for rock and roll and, you know, listening to people and all. But it does actually bother me to see all the dirt and dust and detritus regularly being blown into the air. It’s got to cause a short-term, serious spike in at least some type of air pollution for that immediate area.

Today, while driving home from work, I happened to notice one lawn guy blowing all the crud into the air in a tidy little cloud that was hovering around his coworker—who did not seem to notice or mind. Cough, hack, “thanks Jack.” No mask.  

Oddly enough, I have an idea about marriage and relationships here. I think a lot of couples never actually sweep up their messes. They mostly just make a lot of noise and blow all the dirt all over each other, the kids, and maybe the neighborhood. They don’t have to live that way.

I know we’re all increasingly living in “the” cloud; at least everyone keeps saying they have all their stuff there. (By the way, I think it was the Rolling Stones who, long ago, first sung about the now common topic of security in the Cloud. “Hey, hey, You, you . . ..”) Serious point arrives now. Recognize that, in your relationship, you don’t have to live in a dirty haze. Instead of living in weCloud, try a broom. Sweep some stuff up and throw it out. Do your part. In fact, if you sweep up a bit and put the dirt in a bag, in most places, nice people will come by within a week and cart it away. Doesn’t that sound good? I’m not saying it’s easy to sweep up messes, but it is doable. Now, think creatively about what the metaphor means for you and your relationship.

Brooms. They’re gonna be big. 


Friday, June 27, 2014

Some Good News in Who Benefits from Family-Strengthening Programs

First posted at Institute for Family Studies on 6-25-2014.
Roman numerals are for footnotes at bottom of post, where you can also find further links.

Whatever your political views, you likely share in concerns many hold over the difficulties facing socially and economically disadvantaged families in the U.S. But can the government do anything to directly help such families through family-strengthening efforts? Despite all you might have heard to date, there is some good news emerging from recent studies and my goal here is to describe that news.     

The U.S. Administration for Children and Families, specifically the Office of Family Assistance (OFA), is currently invested in three specific components of family strengthening, including efforts to a) improve the quality and stability of the relationships of couples with children, b) increase father involvement for those with fragile relationships with their children, and c) increase the quality of co-parenting between adults who have children in common but who are no longer in an ongoing relationship. My focus here is on research on the first of these types of efforts, as there has been considerable attention to the results of two major federal evaluations of programs aimed to help couples with low incomes and other disadvantages.

The large, multi-site studies were called Building Strong Families (BSF) and Supporting Healthy Marriage (SHM). I believe these studies received so much attention, in part, because they were connected with the somewhat controversial, government-funded efforts over the last twelve years to provide relationship education in support of the goals in the welfare reform law of 1996 to promote two-parent families. These two studies produced disappointing results, which have been lamented among those who support such efforts and trumpeted by those who are critical of such efforts. I think the trumpets have mostly carried the day.

But there is some good news for supporters of relationship education in recent findings, including within those two federal studies. Specifically, it is becoming clear that ethnic minority couples benefit at least as much or more than other couples from such programs. Some have suggested that this would not be the case because such programs were originally designed and tested with mostly middle-class, white couples.[i] Further, there is newly published evidence that, within the BSF study data set, the participants who were the most socially and economically disadvantaged benefitted the most in terms of impacts on relationship quality.

Before describing in more detail what I see as relatively encouraging, I will first describe a bit of background on these important federal studies and their findings to provide context for those who know little about them.

Building Strong Families (BSF) was a study of unmarried couples in the transition to parenthood, whereas Supporting Healthy Marriage (SHM) was a study of married couples. Both projects focused on couples at lower incomes, generally under 200 percent of the poverty line. In both cases, couples in multiple cities were randomly assigned to either receive or not receive a substantial program of relationship education and other couple support services, all designed to strengthen these families with regard to couples’ relationship quality, child outcomes (including father involvement), and stability. While there are some disagreements about the results, it is fair to say that the overall evidence suggested largely non-significant (BSF) or small (SHM) program impacts.

As a way to provide a bit more detail, allow me to give two brief summaries of the findings, as if from the perspectives of people who were either more or less encouraged by the results.  

             Less encouraged. The overall findings for BSF showed no evidence of positive impacts on couples’ relationships and father involvement. There were even some modest negative impacts in some sites. While there was a modest positive impact on child behavior, there were no other overall positive effects on child wellbeing. For SHM, while there was a range of statistically significant positive impacts, the impacts were modest. Further, these particular programs were expensive—much more so than most all historical efforts involving relationship education. In both cases, there was precious little evidence of positive impacts related to child outcomes. There were some very tiny positive impacts for children in the SHM study, but tiny is tiny.

             More encouraged. In the BSF study, one site (Oklahoma) did a particularly impressive job of getting couples in and through services—far outperforming other sites in this respect. The other sites did not, for the most part, get a lot of couples through much of the planned services. Across the whole study, only 55 percent of couples attended any of the relationship education services. Only Oklahoma demonstrated a range of significant and positive impacts on couple relationship outcomes at the 15-month assessment.[ii] While these impacts faded at the 36-month assessment, the children born to couples in the program group were 20% more likely than children born to couples in the control group to have lived continuously with both parents until that 3-year point—also, only in the Oklahoma site.[iii] In SHM, couples showed statistically significant gains at the 12-month assessment and these gains, while small, were largely maintained out to the 30-month assessment. In a field where most policy evaluations of social programs show no significant, lasting impacts, some see this as promising even as the need for improvement is obvious.[iv]

That’s the skinny version of what happened. There are detailed reports and endless commentary on the internet, if you want more information.[v] The dominant story across the media about these studies is that nothing worked. However, there was some good news in how SHM sites learned from experiences in the BSF study, and thus achieved far greater participation and follow-through among couples than BSF sites did. That is, by including strategies to reduce barriers to participation and reinforce attendance, SHM enabled more disadvantaged couples to attend a substantial amount of program services. That is encouraging.

Before moving on, I should mention that there is a whole world of research on relationship education that I am not attempting to cover here, with studies showing generally stronger, positive effects. Further, some experts in that field have been dismayed that so much attention has been focused on BSF and SHM in recent years. I will, however, retain a similarly narrow focus in order to cover findings related to social and economic disadvantage.

The Response of the Most Disadvantaged Couples

To my knowledge, with one exception, the only analyses done to date on the BSF data set have been conducted by the professional evaluation team hired by the Administration for Children and Families to conduct the study. The exception lies in analyses conducted by Paul Amato at Penn State. Amato has approved access to the BSF data set out to the 15-month assessment point, and he has just published apaper with important analyses from that data set.[vi]

Amato sought to assess whether couples at greater disadvantage received more, similar, or less benefits in BSF than other, less disadvantaged couples did. He analyzed outcomes related to both relationship stability (whether couples broke up) and relationship quality.  His method, which was different from any other analysis I have seen to date in this field, was to create a “disadvantage index” based on eleven factors in order to assess whether having a high or low score on this index affected how much couples benefited from the programs. I will quote from Amato’s paper regarding the list of factors going into this index (p. 347):

(a) the mother was less than 20 years old,
(b) the father was less than 20 years old,
(c) the mother did not have a high school degree,
(d) the father did not have a high school degree,
(e) the father was unemployed at baseline,
(f) the father earned less than $10,000 in the last year,
(g) the mother received public assistance in the last year (TANF, food stamps, Medicaid, SCHIP, SSI, SSDI, or WIC),
(h) the mother had one or more children from a previous relationship,
(i) the father had one or more children from a previous relationship,
(j) the mother or father reported no one to care for the baby in an emergency (excluding the partner),
(k) the mother or father reported no one to borrow money from in an emergency (excluding the partner). I [Amato] omitted mothers’ income from the index because the majority of mothers were not in the labor force.

While I need to skip over some technical detail here, I want to note that Amato approached the analyses in a particularly robust way. He tested his findings for what we call sensitivity to various specifications. Essentially, he tried the analyses with various sites left in or out and with various indicators of disadvantage in or out. The findings were robust across such tests.

Before testing for the program impacts, Amato found what one would expect: “The relationship risk variable revealed that higher disadvantage scores were associated with less support and affection, more destructive conflict, less constructive conflict, less trust in partner, more intimate violence, and lower overall relationship quality” (p. 350). Thus, the risk index captures risk as it was designed to do. The important question is, did their level of disadvantage matter for how much benefit couples received in the BSF intervention model? While disadvantage level did not matter for how the program affected couples’ stability (their odds of breaking up), when it came to relationship quality, those with more disadvantage received the most positive impact from the programs.

Quoting from Paul Amato’s paper: 

One of the major criticisms of BSF programs for unmarried couples (and federally funded marriage education programs for low-income couples) is that educational interventions are not effective for disadvantaged populations (Johnson, 2012; Karney & Bradbury, 2005). It is reasonable to imagine that poor couples are so overwhelmed by financial problems and everyday stress that they are unresponsive to relationship education programs and see them as largely irrelevant to their lives. If this were the case, then the most disadvantaged couples – those most at risk of relationship problems – would receive the least benefit from programs like BSF. This study, however, suggests the opposite: Contrary to the notion that disadvantaged couples do not benefit from relationship education, these couples may be the main beneficiaries of these services, provided that they are able to keep their unions intact. (p. 353)

Keep in mind these results are for the follow-up 15 months after the program ended. It is possible that if the same analyses are one day repeated for the 30 month follow-up, this same result would not be found. It is not unusual in this field to find impacts in an earlier period that fade by the time a later follow-up is conducted.

In contrast to these encouraging findings from Amato’s paper, results from a meta-analysis working its way toward publication suggest that the very poorest couples receive the least benefit from such programs. (I have the author’s permission to mention what I know about the analyses.)  I believe, however, that the type of analysis in this other study is far less sensitive to addressing the question Amato tested. Nevertheless, the findings from this other study align more closely with the arguments made by the researchers noted in Amato’s quote above, who have suggested that severe economic hardship may interfere with couples’ ability to benefit from such efforts. It is not hard to imagine that chaos and stress would interfere with learning new strategies in one’s relationship. On the other hand, when studies in this field do analyze whether impacts vary based on levels of prior risk, those at greater risk often get the most benefit. There is a lot of complexity here for researchers in the field to sort out.

Amato’s analyses are serious and thoughtful, and he obtained a potentially important finding that is not at all evident from the primary analyses conducted with the BSF data set. That takes nothing away from the main results in BSF (pooled across sites) that are legitimately disappointing for reasons about which serious people may not agree. But Amato’s analyses are encouraging, and perhaps even provocative, for suggesting that such services may actually provide the most benefit, on average, to couples with some of the greatest disadvantages in life. In fact, Amato goes so far as to imply that if the BSF study had recruited substantially more disadvantaged couples, the overall findings across the study would have been positive (p. 353).  

Amato’s findings are not unprecedented. They are the most sophisticated version of a type of finding that has been obtained before, wherein those who are more disadvantaged receive at least as much, and sometimes more, benefit from relationship education services than others.[vii] Amato notes that this is generally the case for various social programs (p. 353). What he found is also consistent with other studies focused on family strengthening that find positive impacts for programs given to highly disadvantaged couples and families. For example, Phil and Carolyn Cowan and their colleagues have demonstrated positive impacts from a program focused on father involvement in a study with low-income families, with a particularly large representation of Mexican American families (67 percent of participants). They found significant, positive impacts on couple relationship quality, father engagement, and children’s problem behaviors.[viii]

The Response of Ethnic Minority Couples

On to other encouraging news I want to share. In both the BSF and SHM studies, the evaluators were able to examine if the minority group with the largest representation got more or less impact than other couples. The largest minority group in BSF was African-American couples, and the largest minority group in SHM was Hispanic/Latino couples. (Because of the nature of the studies and the program sites, there was a relatively small percentage of Hispanic/Latino couples in BSF and a relatively small percentage of African-American couples in SHM; hence, the analyses for differential impact focused on the larger groups within each study.)

For the earlier assessment points in both BSF and SHM (15 and 12 months, respectively), there was evidence that the minority couples in the intervention groups received more benefit than other couples. That is, in BSF, African-American couples benefitted more than other couples.[ix]  In SHM, Hispanic couples benefitted more than other couples.[x]  I do not wish to exaggerate these findings in any way, but the pattern was found in both studies. However, the pattern did not hold up at the longer-term assessments in either study (36 months for BSF and 30 months for SHM).

Overall, these findings suggest that minority couples may have responded relatively more positively to the programs, on average, than other couples. That some positive effects fade is not a particularly unusual finding in studies of social interventions. I believe these findings may suggest an important, positive response to the interventions but also portray the need for something more and something continuing. An important question for the field lies in figuring out what those “somethings” look like in the lives of those interested in, and responsive to, such efforts.

A Related Finding on Ethnicity from Another Major Data Set

In one of our studies, we find an even more striking finding than what was found in BSF and SHM regarding impacts for ethnic minority couples. This particular study, funded by NIH,[xi] would be the single largest randomized trial in the history of the relationship education field if it were not for BSF and SHM. We have been evaluating the impact of a version of the intervention we have developed, refined, and tested over many years, called PREP[xii]  (the Prevention and Relationship Education Program). Adaptations of PREP were also used in some of the sites in the BSF and SHM studies.

My colleagues and I have worked with all branches of the military over the years. We have worked most closely with military Chaplains, who have a strong tradition of providing various relationship education services to military families. In our most recent paper from this project, we present analyses of impacts at two years following program delivery by U.S. Army chaplains. This paper is forthcoming in the same journal as Paul Amato’s paper mentioned above.[xiii] While we had found modest evidence of positive impacts on relationship quality post-intervention, two years later we found no evidence of sustained impacts on relationship quality. On the other hand, at the same two-year follow-up, we found that couples assigned to the intervention were significantly less likely to have divorced than couples in the control group.[xiv] This result has some parallels to the BSF results for Oklahoma, with some relationship quality impacts earlier on and a stability impact later on.[xv]

More to the purpose here, we found that minority couples received a far larger divorce reduction impact from the intervention than non-minority couples. Minority couples in the intervention group were about one-fourth as likely to divorce by the two-year point as minority couples in the control group. We also found a trend suggesting that couples who felt the most economic strain had larger divorce reduction impacts, and this economic strain effect was independent from the minority effect. Such positive impacts may well fade with longer-term follow-ups (or other positive impacts may emerge), but the existing findings at two years were striking in the degree to which minority couples received the greatest benefit in terms of divorce reduction. This, too, is good news, and it adds to the accumulating evidence that ethnic minority couples benefit at least as much, and sometimes more, from relationship education services as do other couples.

Research in this field marches on. Amidst the ongoing concerns and arguments, I believe there is some good news to consider as the field continues studying how to foster relationship stability and quality, both in general and specifically with those individuals and families who face great disadvantages. I believe it is good news that the Administration of Children and Families is moving systematically on a program of research to support increasing effectiveness in family-strengthening efforts.   


Disclosure:  I (along with many colleagues such as Howard Markman) have played a substantial role in the development of a variety of relationship education approaches that were used in some of the sites in the BSF and SHM studies, and that are also used in a number of the projects funded by the government around the U.S. I receive income from our company called PREP. Further, I have been a long-time adviser for the efforts in Oklahoma. Of greater weight for me is the fact that I do believe in trying to build on promising studies, practices, and program models in the areas I focus on here. You are entitled, of course, to disregard any of my viewpoints based on these facts, but I hope those with serious interest would grapple with the ideas and consider where they may have inherent merit.

[i] Johnson, M. D. (2012). Healthy Marriage Initiatives: On the need for empiricism in policy implementation. American Psychologist, 67(4), 296-308. (http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2012-08242-001); See also: Hawkins, A. J., Stanley, S. M., Cowan, P. A., Fincham, F. D., Beach, S. R. H., Cowan, C., Rhoades, G. K., Markman, H. J., & Daire, A. P. (2013). A more optimistic perspective on government-supported marriage and relationship education programs for lower income couples: Response to Johnson (2012). American Psychologist, 68(2), 110-111. (http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/amp/68/2/110?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+apa-journals-amp+%28American+Psychologist%29)
[ii] Devaney, B., & Dion, R. (2010). 15-Month impacts of Oklahoma's Family Expectations Program. Washington DC: Mathematica Policy Research. (http://www.mathematica-mpr.com/publications/redirect_PubsDB.asp?strSite=PDFs/Family_support/BSF_15month_impacts.pdf)
[iii] This finding is in the final report for the BSF analyses at 36 months. P. 29 “At the three-year follow-up, 49 percent of BSF children in Oklahoma had lived with both parents continuously, compared with 41 percent of children in the control group (Table A.7b).” An 8% difference over 41% for control group is a 20% increase. Citation: Wood, R. G., Moore, Q., Clarkwest, A., Killewald, A., & Monahan, S. (2012). The long-term effects of Building Strong Families: A relationship skills education program for unmarried parents. Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation.  Washington D. C. (http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/opre/bsf_36_mo_impact_report.pdf)
[iv] http://family-studies.org/can-we-strengthen-marriages-results-of-the-supporting-healthy-marriage-evaluation/
[v] For example: Wood, R. G., Moore, Q., Clarkwest, A., Killewald, A., & Monahan, S. (2012). The long-term effects of Building Strong Families: A relationship skills education program for unmarried parents. Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation.  Washington D. C. (http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/opre/bsf_36_mo_impact_report.pdf); Lundquist, E. Hsueh, J., Lowenstein, A. E., Faucetta, K., Gubits, D., Michalopoulos, C., & Knox, V. (2014). A family-strengthening program for low-income families: Final impacts from the Supporting Healthy Marriage evaluation. OPRE Report 2014-09A. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/resource/the-supporting-healthy-marriage-evaluation-a-family-strengthening-program-for-low-income-families-final-impacts-from-the)
[vi] Amato, Paul R. (2014). Does social and economic disadvantage moderate the effects of relationship education on couples? An analysis of data from the 15-month Building Strong Families evaluation. Family Relations, 63, 343-355. doi: 10.1111/fare.12069. (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/fare.12069/abstract)
[vii] Rauer, A. J., Adler-Baeder, F., Lucier-Greer, M., Skuban, E., Ketring, S. A., & Smith, T. (2014). Exploring Processes of Change in Couple Relationship Education: Predictors of Change in Relationship Quality. Journal of Family Psychology, 28(1), 65-76. (http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2014-04342-001); Stanley, S. M., Amato, P. R., Johnson, C. A., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Premarital education, marital quality, and marital stability: Findings from a large, random household survey. Journal of Family Psychology, 20(1), 117-126. (http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2006-03561-013)
[viii] Cowan, P., Cowan, C., Pruett, M., Pruett, K., & Wong, J. (2009). Promoting fathers' engagement with children: Preventive interventions for low-income families. Journal of Marriage & Family, 71(3), 663-679. (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2009.00625.x/abstract)
[ix] See page xv: Wood, R. G., McConnell, S., Moore, Q., Clarkwest, A., & Hsueh, J. (2010). The Building Strong Families Project. Strengthening unmarried parents' relationships: The early impacts of Building Strong Families. Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation. Washington D. C. (http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/strengthen/build_fam/reports/unmarried_parents/15_impact_exec_summ.pdf)
[x] See page ES-7: Hsueh, J., Alderson, D. P., Lundquist, E., Michalopoulos, C., Gubits, D., Fein, D., & Knox, V. (2012). The Supporting Healthy Marriage Evaluation: Early Impacts on Low-Income Families.  Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation.  Washington D. C. (http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/opre/early_impacts_low.pdf)
[xi] This project is supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01HD048780. My comments here are solely my own responsibility and do not represent any official views of the National Institutes of Health.
[xii] The actual intervention manuals and materials are not available on the web but the general principles in PREP are most easily accessible in various books we have published, e.g.: Markman, H. J., Stanley, S. M., & Blumberg, S. L. (2010). Fighting for Your Marriage. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
[xiii] You can write to me to request a copy of the forthcoming paper if you wish. The citation is: Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Loew, B. A., Allen, E. S., Carter, S., Osborne, L. J., Prentice, D., & Markman, H. J. (in press).  A randomized controlled trial of relationship education in the U.S. Army: 2-year outcomes. Family Relations.
[xiv] The divorce reduction impact held for the pooled analysis, but it was clearly driven by the larger of two sites—a site that was comprised of units much more involved in combat operations and high operational tempo, which also had younger married couples. The divorce reduction impact was non-existent for a smaller site where couples were older, more established, and not similarly as involved in major combat operations. Again, this is consistent with studies in the field where, when a difference emerges, couples at higher risk tend to get greater benefits from such services.
[xv] It is well recognized in this and other fields that one type of positive result can influence the odds of obtaining a different type of positive  result when one result (divorce) causes people to be missing for analysis of the other outcome (relationship quality). Researchers at Mathematica (the company that conducted the BSF evaluation) have written a paper on the depth of the challenges involved in resolving this dilemma in outcome studies. There is nothing approaching an ideal or perfect solution because data that are missing for meaningful reasons related to the goals of an intervention are simply not replaceable. See: McConnell, S., Stuart, E. A., & Devaney, B. (2008).  The Truncation-by-Death Problem: What to do in an experimental evaluation when the outcome is not always defined. Evaluation Review, 37(1), 157-186. (http://erx.sagepub.com/content/32/2/157.full.pdf

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Gender Fluidity and the End of Gender

There are two pieces out this weekend that I found fascinating, both having to do with the concept of gender.

The USA Today headline for an article by Sharon Jayson says, Gender Loses its Impact with the Young. I have long appreciated articles by Jayson for capturing and describing current trends. She describes how beliefs of the up-and-coming generations regarding gender have changed when contrasted with past generations—in fact, even the perceived usefulness of the construct of gender is being rejected.

Jayson sites work done by a consumer analysts, The Intelligence Group, and quotes Jamie Gutfreund, the chief strategy officer for that group: “gender is less of a definer of identity today than it was for prior generations. Rather than adhering to traditional gender roles, young people are interpreting what gender means to them personally." This captures the beliefs many emerging adults have for how they wish things might be, and change in this direction are undeniable. To some large degree, people growing up now do and will have levels of flexibility and fluidity around gender and roles that were unimaginable in earlier generations. You can think that good or bad or just complicated, but it’s happening.

While not related in essential themes, there is also a piece out today by Harvey Mansfield that I think has an interesting overlap with Jayson’s piece. Mansfield’s piece is in The Weekly Standard, and entitled Feminism and Its Discontents. Whereas Jayson’s piece describes growing trends in preferences among young people, Mansfield’s piece is more deeply analytical and focuses on complex questions raised from the recent—nearly as tedious as tendentious—discussions about “rape culture.” His piece caught my eye because of one line in particular.

“The hook-up culture denounced by conservatives is the very same rape culture denounced by feminists.”

Mansfield has a history of being provocative on a range of subjects. In fact, maybe you already have a viewpoint on his work. If you do, set that aside for a moment and think about this simple statement. Is this accurate? I think it captures something that is both true and under-appreciated in the current cultural arguments.

I doubt Mansfield is arguing that all instances of hook-ups involve the ambiguous consent dynamics that, along with liberal use of alcohol, seem to define the most typical behaviors at the center of discussions about a “rape culture.” In the main, I think his statement has elegance in identifying more overlap than commonly appreciated between concerns of two ideological camps that are seemingly in constant conflict regarding causes and solutions.

Mansfield, in my view, does a particularly good job of raising thorny questions about the concept of socially constructed roles and identities, with his particular focus in the present article on the difference between what he calls the “feminine woman” and the “feminist woman” in the history and context of our sexual culture. Whatever your beliefs and stake in all this, it’s a worthwhile piece to read.

Why do I mention both Jayson’s and Mansfield’s articles in the same blog post? Because they both deal with the complex issue of roles and identities and how people are trying to navigate social upheaval. They both deal with arguments and preferences about the possibility of an “end of gender.”

Despite the wishes of some if not many, an end to gender will not compel an end to biology. As long as it remains true that some people can become pregnant and others cannot, biology will drive important differences in the social behavior of men and women when it comes to sex. Role expectations and opportunities will, doubtless, continue to change in the direction of flexibility, but aspects of gendered behavior that are pinned to more stubborn facts about biology will resist becoming irrelevant.


Postscript:  For two examples of earlier posts where I dig in on some differences between men and women with regard to commitment customs and biology, see: