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 status 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

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Selection Effects: What's at Stake? (following up on The National Marriage Project Report "Before I Do")

See the prior post (below) for more information on the National Marriage Project Report that Galena Rhoades and I authored that was released yesterday.

I want to make you aware of a couple of pieces we've written on the important issue of "selection effects." You'll often hear social scientists talk about this subject when they discuss or critique the type of findings we present in the Before I Do report. The subject is important because it revolves around the degree to which scientists believe that some experiences in life are causally related to outcomes in life.

So, you have a couple of options, if you want to read more on this subject.

For a briefer (about 2.5 pages) take, linked directly to the NMP release, check out what we just posted at the Institute for Family Studies website:  Selection Effects and Personal Choice

For a longer (about 4 pages), more general take, with similar observations but also a deeper set of questions about the problems of free will in science, see this one:  Selection Effects: Social Science and Personal Choices

If you like going deeper on such issues, there you go.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Rhoades and Stanley "Before I Do" Report for the National Marriage Project

The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia released a report today with analyses by Galena Rhoades and me using our national data set from the Relationship Development Study.

The report can be found at the National Marriage Project website.

There are also two brief videos--one from Galena Rhoades and one from me--that can be viewed via links on the NMP website for this report.  (Or, if you rather, just click here for Galena or here for Scott.)

In the report, we look at all sorts of premarital relationship behavior (with prior partners and with the partner people marry) as predictors of overall marital quality.

We examine the following predictors and more:

- Having a child from a prior partner
- Having cohabited with people other than who you marry
- Having sex with others, prior to marriage, in addition to whom you marry
- The number of sexual partners one has had
- If the relationship with the spouse began as a hook-up
- If a couple lived together before a specific commitment to marry
- If, when cohabiting, they slid into it or made a decision about it
- Weddings (if had one) and how many attended

If you prefer a version optimized for reading in a browser, you can click here.

Have at it!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Losses that Motivate Avoiding “The Talk”

[This is the second of two posts on DTRs, wherein I have re-written one of my favorite posts from 2009.]

In my last post, I looked at the question of why people might avoid talking about the relationship; you know, avoid the DTR or having “The Talk.” I discussed several reasons people generally avoid having The Talk, including it being too soon or a couple lacking the ability to have such a talk skillfully. The third reason I raised for avoidance pertains to differences in commitment between partners. I am going to focus on that last point, examining what may go through the person’s mind who does not want his or her partner to start in on The Talk.

Let’s assume a couple who have the names “A” and “B.” I know those are not very imaginative names, but both sets of parents were apparently exhausted and lacked creativity when A and B were born. What are you gonna do? Despite the odd names, A and B found each other (they were in the same line at the Department of Motor Vehicles) and have been involved (a nice ambiguous term) for over a year.

Partner A is more committed to the future than partner B, and A has been thinking a lot about where things are going. In this example, I’m really focusing on a later stage of DTR than merely discovering if each considers what’s happening a relationship. Partner A is the one who wants a future and, naturally, A wants to know what B is thinking about that.

Clarifying the relationship has become increasingly important to partner A because A realizes that time is going by. A has plans for committed, life-long love. Partner A wants to settle down in marriage and needs to know if this is in the cards with B. Like most people who are “in the market” for life-long love, partner A will be less inclined to spend a lot of time with someone if A learns there is no future. So, it’s really time to start finding out. This is not pushing for clarity too soon. But the time is now.

Even though partner A really wants to get things clear, partner A could still be pretty wary of starting the DTR process. Partner A might avoid this talk because A has a hunch that partner B either sees no future or is not ready to be tied to anything that sounds like a plan. But let’s focus in more on partner B.

Before I do that, note that this scenario is common and depicts a painful reality about commitment: The person who is most committed has the least power. This is an extension of a principle framed decades ago, when Sociologist Willard Waller (1938) wrote about the Principle of Least Interest. Waller noted that, in any relationship (romantic, family, business deal, car buying, etc.) the person with the least interest has the most power. While I can think of some nuanced situations where this is not exactly true, this notion is completely true in the relationship between partners A and B. Since B is less committed, B can more easily walk away and move on from the present relationship. In an important way, A’s desire to push the matter, now, is an attempt to either bring balance to the force or, at least, figure out, unflinchingly, if that balance won’t be happening between A and B.

Since partner A loves partner B, and knows he or she wants a future with partner B, pushing the matter is scary. People tend to avoid scary things until they can’t put them off any longer. At some point, in this type of situation, the cost of not knowing exceeds the cost of finding out the answer you don’t want to hear. For many people, I fear way too much time goes by between when this line is crossed and when the big picture DTR actually happens.

The reasons why partner B might avoid The Talk seem more complex, in my view, but they all boil down to calculations over types of loss. Partner B likes the status quo. Whatever the relationship is right now, partner B is happy not to rock the boat, and having The Talk will rock the boat, so B does not want to mess with anything. 

What types of loss can The Talk represent to B? At least three I can think of and describe.

One: If partner B is quite a bit less committed, and senses or knows this, partner B will understand that having a clarifying talk will likely mean breaking off the relationship. B avoids The Talk because of a desire to hang onto the present arrangement even when B sees little likelihood of a long-term future.  

Two: If partner B is somewhat less committed than A, but a future is at least possible, The Talk will lead to a type of ongoing negotiation. One talk will lead to other talks because one isn’t going to do for making things clear or settling what’s happening. Partner A will see some possibility of getting resolution, so A will keep pressing. Like the famous line from the climax of the first Star Wars movie: “Stay on target. Stay on target.” One should fear getting that close to the Death Star but partner A will keep driving in the hopes of wiping out the fear. Partner B doesn’t want this process to start because, like I said, B likes the status quo, even if an equal commitment might be possible in the future. That’s the future and this is today, and all this talking about serious stuff just ain’t fun.

Three:  Partner B might avoid The Talk because the end result will be that B has to up his or her commitment. This is sort of like playing poker. Both partners have their cards (their commitment cards and their cards related to how good their alternatives are). Partner A is throwing all in, and partner B is being called to pony up or fold. Partner B has to match the bet of partner A if A pressed hard enough. 

To put it briefly, partner B avoids The Talk because it can lead to one of several types of loss:  

Loss of the relationship due to break up.
Loss of peace in the relationship due to ongoing negotiation.
Loss of freedom due to having to match the bet of A or leave the game. 

If partner A really decides it’s time to push, and you are counting, that’s three “dues” and it’s time to pay them.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Why People Avoid the Talk (DTR)

[Dear readers, Years ago I had written a couple of pieces on DTRs that I had re-posted earlier this year. This is a substantial update on the first of those two pieces.]  

As you probably know, DTR means Define The Relationship. The Urban Dictionary defines the DTR this way:  “When two people discuss their mutual understanding of a romantic relationship (casual dating, serious boyfriend, etc).”

Doing the DTR is often referred to as having "the talk." I believe "DTR" has joined our vocabulary precisely because of the increased ambiguity in modern day romantic relationships. I write about ambiguity often because I think it's important. For example, I recently wrote about the confusion people often feel about dating

DTRs exist as a process in order to bring some clarity to what’s going on between two people.

The way most people use the term seems to be a bit more specific than the global definition in the Urban Dictionary. People commonly think about the DTR talk as something that occurs on the cusp between being regularly involved and being “official” about being in a relationship together. For some, the aim of the DTR is to move the relationship from hanging out to “dating” in terms of what two partners are willing to tell others. The process, when it advances the relationship, seems somewhat like crossing the border between one country and another, where you have to produce documents about who you are and where you are headed. Indeed, for many couples, the talk will determine customs moving forward.  (Does that make the one pursuing the talk a customs official?)

People were not so aware of this idea 30 or 40 years ago. Sure, people talked and clarified things, but there was less of a recognized need for a specific type of talk back then. There was, however, the idea of going steady, among various other markers of an upgrade in mutual understanding of what was happening. Oftentimes, today, having the talk leads to the same result as starting to go steady did in the past. But as you can see by the Urban Dictionary definition, a DTR talk can lead to any sort of improved understanding between two people, whereas going steady meant a specific increase in commitment and exclusiveness. Technically, while not what the person pushing for the talk usually wants, a DTR talk could lead to increased understanding that there is not much in the way of a serious, mutual commitment between two partners. I’ll come back to that below and in the next post I write.

Here are some reasons for avoiding the talk.

Reason number 1: It’s just too soon to have the talk.

If one brings up the talk too soon, they are likely to come across as needy or even desperate in the eyes of the other. A lot of people chase others off. Some people never do this, some do it a time or two and learn not to keep doing it, and others feel impelled by a need for security to push too often too soon and tend to live more painful lives as a result. People in the latter group tend to give way too much too soon, and too often, to people they are attracted to in life. That’s a form of the terrible “toos” I suppose.    

Some people avoid making things clear because they fear clarity might force the end of a relationship they otherwise want to keep, at least for the time being. After all, especially in earlier stages of relationships, some ambiguity can help two people keep seeing each other while they are figuring out how compatible they are for a possible future. Beyond earlier stages, ambiguity can keep fragile relationships alive that would otherwise not survive clarity. That’s exactly what some people want, of course. The risk, though, is spending ever more time in a fragile relationship that might keep one from finding a better match. It also must be true that, for some people, the fragile relationship they have now is as good as they could have at this time. Their real choice may be between the present relationship and no relationship. Particularly before defining a strong, mutual commitment, everyone’s relationship dynamics take place in a broader context of what their alternatives are to the present relationship.

Overall, some people push for the talk too soon and some don’t push soon enough. Both carry risks. It’s complicated.

Reason number 2: Having at DTR talk takes some guts and skill. Many people do not have the combination and may therefore avoid the talk until circumstances really force the need.

It’s hard enough for couples in relatively healthy and committed relationships to talk effectively about emotional or sensitive issues. These days, many people are not well equipped to have an effective DTR. This is where I can see some advantages to the older convention of going steady. It didn’t take any big discussion to get to the point; one merely had to ask the other if she (or he) wanted to go steady.

Bill:     “Alice, I’ve been thinking. Would you go steady with me?”
Alice:  “Bill, I’m not prepared for that. I don’t want to do that right now.”

Ouch. That hurts but Bill now knows where he stands, and it was not a very complicated conversation. The talk could go on to define what not going steady really meant, of course, but if there was agreement to go steady, all the needed information about expectations were built into the term by common cultural understanding. There was no need for a high level of skill to ask or answer the question. Ask and answered. Move on. Now, people need to have enough skill to build an understanding from the information coming from talks designed to DTR. I’m sure Bill does not feel any better than someone today does when they do not get what they were hoping from in a DTR moment. But the process was efficient.

Reason number 3. I think the most interesting reason people avoid DTRing is that there are issues about commitment in one or both partners. By commitment, I mean having a willingness to commit to the future and have some identity as a couple.   

When it comes to commitment, either partner A and B are nearly equally committed or they are not. At earlier stages of relationships, an imbalance is common since one partner often becomes more committed sooner than the other. However, when this imbalance goes on and on, it can become a serious problem. When it never ends, the more committed partner is a candidate for a mention in a new edition of the book, He’s Just Not That Into You.  (Or She’s Just Not) That book is humorous and brutal and a bit coarse, but it deals directly with ongoing commitment imbalances and how people put up with a lot to hang onto a little.  

The commitment complication provides one of the greatest reasons someone might avoid raising the issue even if it seems long past time to clarify things. When there could be a possible imbalance in commitment, the one raising the question is risking outright rejection, so may avoid asking for the clarity that he or she deeply desires.

One of the biggest problems with ambiguity is that serious differences in commitment levels can be missed. The more committed person may be perfectly aware that he or she is more committed, but, in many other cases, the intense attraction felt for the partner can make it hard to register what really is a substantial vulnerability in the relationship.That's the biggest risk in avoiding clarity, indefinitely. 


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 cohabiting unions now, compared to 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 15 month follow-up. 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. (; 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. (
[ii] Devaney, B., & Dion, R. (2010). 15-Month impacts of Oklahoma's Family Expectations Program. Washington DC: Mathematica Policy Research. (
[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. (
[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. (; 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. (
[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. (
[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. (; 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. (
[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. (
[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. (
[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. (
[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. (