Wednesday, September 15, 2010

First Comes Love, Then Comes . . . What?

There has been a growing awareness among social scientists that marriage and childbearing have become increasingly disconnected in U. S. society. In fact, from all the things I read, the old nursery rhyme that implies a sequence from love to marriage to a baby carriage is increasingly true mostly for those with college degrees and less and less true for great numbers of women and couples in the U. S. This is a huge change. It could easily be the largest change in family demography over the past 40 years. Social scientists and policy analysts endlessly debate if this trend portends something ominous or if it is just some kind of normal societal evolution. Whatever you think on that matter, it’s certainly true that fewer children than ever before will be raised throughout their childhood by their own two parents. Further, many studies suggest that a child has some advantages (on average) in life when raised by his or her own two parents. There are many complex (and likely less complex) reasons why that would be so. (And, it’s always worth pointing out—seriously—that there are many couples raising their own children together where it’s not exactly a wonderful thing for those children to have their parents together and there are vast numbers of single parents doing an amazing job of raising their children.)

The delinking of marriage and child bearing/rearing is not as simple as it sounds. Marriage has become unlinked to childbearing but that does not exactly translate directly into unmarried parents not raising their own children. Increasingly, cohabiting couples are giving birth and remaining together as they raise their children, at least for some period of time. But, while we all know married couples have a hefty risk of divorce, this does not mean that the math looks identical for cohabiting couples. Most social scientists understand cohabitation as something that represents a much wider range of variability than marriage. By this I mean something quite simple. If a couple tells you they are cohabiting, you don’t know a lot about that couple from only that little bit of information. They could be more like a dating couple than anything else or they could be quite a bit like a married couple—and anything in between. Cohabitation as a form of relationship is far less informative about a relationship than marriage. If a couple tells you they are married, you’d have higher confidence in thinking you knew certain things about them as a couple. Broadly speaking, marriage often but not always reflects greater levels and clarity about commitment. That is why the average married couple who gives birth is far more likely to still be together when that child is two (or pick any other age) than the average cohabiting couple who gives birth. On average, cohabitation is a more tenuous context for children because there is greater vulnerability about commitment. So, the great increase in the number of children born out of wedlock, even when born to cohabiting couples, does translate into ever fewer children being raised by their own two parents.

My colleagues Galena Rhoades, Howard Markman have been studying what types of factors make it more likely a non-married couple will be together one year later. (We’re actually very interested in who is together many years later, but what we’ve analyzed so far is the one year point.) Obviously, the level of dedication one has to their partner is a factor in who will still be together in a year; those who want a future with their partner are more likely to stick to the path of having that future.

But there are other things that make it likely that a couple will remain together. In two separate studies in our lab that Galena Rhoades headed up, we find other interesting factors that predict who will remain together. For example, having a lease together, a joint gym membership, a pet, making payments on each other’s credit cards, making home improvements together—and many other such behaviors—are all associated with it being more likely a couple will be together in the future. That makes tons of sense, right? Those things reflect an increasingly intertwined life together. These types of things are part of a broader view that I and other has suggested: that there are a lot of reasons couples remain together, and some of those things are about how intertwined two partner’s lives become, and how that can make it harder to leave no matter what your level of interest is in staying. I call all such things that make it harder to leave—should you want to leave—constraints. Couples stay together because of both dedication to remain together and constraints that make it harder to part. Constraints are things that make it costly or more challenging to leave. In those two studies we have coming out, we show that all sorts of simple things—various other constraints we measure and simple behaviors like those listed above—make it more likely that non-married couples will remain together regardless of their level of dedication to remain together. (This is all true for married couples, too.)

Back to babies and couples. In one of these studies we have in the pipeline (accepted for publication) we found that all sorts of things make it more likely that a non-married couple will remain together. Things as serious as signing a lease together or sharing finance as well as less serious things like having vacation plans or a gym membership. But do you know what didn’t predict which couples would remain together? (Um, I just gave you a pretty huge clue, right?) Yes, having a baby together didn’t affect the odds of the relationships continuing. By the way, were talking about a very large national data set here of non-married people in serious romantic relationships who are generally in their 20s and early 30s. Yes, having a baby together is not one of the things that is associated with being together a year later (and we’ll be checking in the future out to two and three and four years later).

What’s that mean? It seems to me that it means things are tilting toward the place where not only is childbearing and rearing increasingly disconnected from marriage, they are becoming increasingly disconnected from remaining together as a couple who has any kind of future together, except maybe as co-parents. That makes it seems like (a whole lot like) some of these things we are measuring (like sharing finances or a pet) are decisions that reflect more about the future of the relationship than conceiving and bearing a child together. Think about that one a bit and I’ll pick up more about these issues next time.