Monday, April 25, 2016

How Could Wedding Size Make a Difference?

By Scott M. Stanley & Galena K. Rhoades

[This piece was first posted on other sites in December, 2014.]

In our recent report for the National Marriage Project (Before “I Do”: What do Premarital Experiences have to do with Marital Quality Among Today’s Young Adults?), we focused on how relationship history before marriage relates to marital quality. We examined the history of relationships that came before the relationship with the eventual spouse and premarital experiences with the eventual spouse. For example, having more sexual partners, having cohabited with partners other than the spouse, or having children from prior relationships were all associated, on average, with lower marital quality later on. Further, those who had child with their eventual spouse before marriage, reported that their relationship began by hooking up, or who said they slid into living with their eventual spouse (if they cohabited premaritally at all), also reported lower marital quality.

While there is no end to controversy about the implications of such findings, these findings were really not controversial themselves. There is a history of similar findings as well as strong reasons why such variables will be related to marital outcomes—including selection but also the consequential impacts of the actual behaviors.[i]

Wedding Guests: Does the Number Matter?

In the Before I Do report, we presented an analysis that was, to our knowledge, totally new in this field. In our national, longitudinal sample, we had asked those who got married how many people attended their wedding. We didn’t ask this on a lark. We asked because of a strong theory for why those having more attendees at their weddings might have an edge in marriage.

Those who reported having more guests at their wedding reported, on average, higher levels of marital quality—even when we controlled for factors such as education, religiosity, race, and income. While we controlled for individual income, we didn’t have measures of other possibly important variables to control for such as the cost of the weddings, parental wealth and contributions to the wedding, or a straightforward indicator of the size of the couples’ social network. So, caveat emptor. (If you want to read more on the technical issue of included and unmeasured variables, see one of the follow-up pieces we wrote that was posted here at the Institute for Family Studies.)

Here’s some of what we said about this finding in our report. This section describes the strong theory that may explain, at least in part, the association between wedding attendance and marital quality.

There is some reason to believe that having more witnesses at a wedding may actually strengthen marital quality. According to the work of psychologist Charles Kiesler (1971), commitment is strengthened when it is publicly declared because individuals strive to maintain consistency between what they say and what they do.
We try to keep our present attitudes and behaviors in line with our past conduct. The desire for consistency is likely enhanced by public expressions of intention. Social scientist Paul Rosenblatt applied this idea specifically to marriage (Rosenblatt, 1977). He theorized that, early in a marriage, marital stability and commitment would be positively associated with the ceremonial effort and public nature of a couple’s wedding. Rosenblatt specifically suggested that holding a big wedding with many witnesses would lead to a stronger desire—or even need—to follow through on the commitment.
Our findings suggest that he may have been right. Nevertheless, it is also important to keep in mind that because these questions about weddings have received so little attention in prior studies and because only a small percentage of respondents reported not having a wedding, these findings should be tested in other samples.

This is why we asked the question in the first place. Despite the strength of this idea (and its overlap with clear findings in the study of cognitive dissonance), one of the best alternative explanations was that the cost of a wedding might better explain marital outcomes than the number of guests. After all, couples with more economic resources tend to have many advantages in life and marriage. But we did not have the cost of the wedding in our national data set, so we could not analyze it.

Wedding Guests and Wedding Costs

Thanks to a social psychologist Samantha Joel, who is, like us, is interested in relationship decision making, we came across a study that looks at the number of guests people had at their wedding but also other variables such as the cost of weddings. Economists Andrew Francis and Hugo Mialon of Emory University examined how expenses related to getting married (the cost of weddings and engagement rings) and a host of other variables—including the number of guests—were associated with the likelihood of divorce.  They examined a different outcome than we did, divorce not marital quality, but you can see the overlap.

Some of what Francis and Mialon found is complex. Overall, while controlling for a host of variables, they found that spending more money on rings and weddings was not associated with more stable marriages. In fact, those who spent the most on their weddings ($20,000 or more) were, on average, at greater risk for divorce. The economists speculate about why this could be, and they further examine factors such as the stress a large debt from an expensive wedding might place on a marriage.

Here’s the part we zeroed in on. In a variety of analyses (some without controls and some with a large number of control variables—including wedding costs), Francis and Mialon found that higher wedding attendance was associated with lower odds of divorce. Although the findings related to costs of weddings and rings had shown complicated patterns, the pattern related to number of guests was always in the same direction and always clear.

We think this one line from Francis and Mialon’s paper best exemplifies their overall findings: “Thus, the evidence suggests that the types of weddings associated with lower likelihood of divorce are those that are relatively inexpensive but are high in attendance.”

Within a few months’ time, the field has gone from no findings (that we know of) related to the wedding attendance to two reports showing consistent results. There are surely many possible explanations, including some we will to try to investigate further in the future, but this second study seems to rule out one explanation we were most concerned about when interpreting our own finding—the cost of the wedding.

Can I get a Witness?  

Some couples planning a life together do not want a wedding or may want one that is very modest with just close friends and family attending. Personal preferences matter a lot in all of this. Surely, what we are talking about here is just one small part of the overall puzzle of how a couple might build a life together. Many other things matter and matter more, but let’s say you are open to some tips on the size and scope of your wedding. Here are some thoughts.

First, don’t break the bank when getting married. Many young adults have debts already, and may do more harm by taking on further debt with an expensive wedding. It is unfortunate that the image so many now have is of lavish, costly weddings. This wild expectation puts weddings out of reach for those with fewer means and adds greater burdens to parents, brides, and grooms for those with more.

Second, it may be worth finding ways to prioritize the network of friends of family you have, and inviting them to be guests at your wedding. The benefits of having more witnesses at your wedding may come from both the psychological consequences of making a very public declaration of commitment (which should increase follow through) and from having more friends and family who see your relationship as something to rally around, root for, and support.

Third, for couples who do not have a strong network of friends or family, think about how you might build one. We don’t mean trying to do this just in time for your wedding. We mean doing this over time for your marriage. When it’s possible (and we know it is not always realistic), building a friendship with another couple or getting involved in some community group together might be just the thing to start building a network of support and connection around your marriage.

If you like the idea of a big, expensive wedding, can well afford it, and it won’t cause a lot of additional stress, sure. Knock yourself out. But the power of the thing is far more likely to lie in the connections and the commitment than in the lavishness of the spectacle. Building social capital trumps burning economic capital. Prioritize your social network, not the duck canap├ęs.

[i] We wrote a couple follow-up pieces on those subjects for those interested more in what social scientists argue about, here and here. The latter piece discussed particularly challenging issues about how social scientists approach and interpret their analyses.  

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Special Misery of Looking for Your Perfect Soul Mate

I have been reading Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg. It is a fascinating read about how much things have changed from not even that many years ago to now, for people searching for a partner, a date, or a mate in this hyper connected era of a vast number of options. The book is insightful, often funny, and at times irreverent (quite).

I wanted to call attention to one passage in particulate that I just read tonight. It follows a stream of thought on the work of Barry Schwarz (The Paradox of Choice) who has written lucidly about the dilemmas having so many choices presents for people in this modern era. I have long loved Schwartz's work, and this particular point below is one shared by Ansari and Klinenberg in their book. It is of surpassing brilliance. Let the thought wash over you for a bit.

By Schwartz’s logic, we are probably looking for “the best” and, in fact, we are looking for our soul mates too. Is this possible to find? “How many people do you need to see before you know you’ve found the best?” Schwartz asked. “The answer is every damn person there is. How else do you know it’s the best? If you’re looking for the best, this is a recipe for complete misery.”  

You see the brilliance here, don't you? If you are searching and you believe your goal is to find the perfect partner for you, you literally can never stop searching. You have to meet every possible choice there is—or how else are you ever going to know you stopped on the best option? And, in this day and age where you can search for anything and often find it just about any way you want it (such as through the internet and mega-stores), we are used to thinking we can find the perfect anything: a widget, a job, a restaurant, a plumber, or a partner who is just perfect, for you. The allure of it all suggests that perfect matching is possible.

Schwartz' research shows that people who think this way are less likely to be happy with their eventual choices than those who think more in terms of finding a good match. Ansari and Klinenberg mention one study by Schwartz about people searching for jobs, where he finds that those with this belief, who likely do search more, end up being paid somewhat more but also end up being less happy with the job they land in.

Sure, in marriage especially, one should seek a very good match. But you can also search for so long and so thoroughly that you pass up a great match or never settle down, or only settle down when very good options have passed you by and are already taken.

Schwartz's point is that the very belief that you can find the perfect match at the end of a search sets you up to think there must always be something better--an option that you'd not seen or found yet--and that can make you less happy with what you eventually chose.

Commitment is making a choice to give up other choices. That's the deal. But having a sense that you could have searched for and found perfection—if you'd only searched a little more—will make it harder to commit to, invest in, and be happy with who you married.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Practice Makes Perfect--or Not: Relationship Experience and Marital Success

By Scott M. Stanley & Galena K. Rhoades

In most areas of life, having more experience is good. Want to be great in your chosen field? Sustained experience is essential. Want to be great at a sport? There’s no substitute for practice. And anyone who runs a business can tell you that their best employees are those who have been in the job long enough to have learned how to handle the normal well and the unexpected with wisdom.

While more experience is often beneficial in life, the story looks different when it comes to some types of experience before marriage. For example, in our Before “I Do” report, we surveyed a national longitudinal sample of young adults about their love lives prior to marriage to examine factors associated with future marital quality. We found that having more sexual and cohabiting partners before marriage is associated with lower relationship quality once married. In particular, having only ever lived with or had sex with one’s spouse was associated with higher marital quality. Our findings are consistent with other studies showing that cohabiting with more partners before marriage is associated with greater likelihood of divorce[i] and that a higher number of sexual partners before marriage is associated with lower marital quality and greater likelihood of divorce.[ii] As we noted, what happens in Vegas may not always stay in Vegas.  But why?

There are many reasons why having more romantic partners before marriage may put one at higher risk of difficulties in marriage. One of the most important explanations comes under the heading of what some call selection effects. For many people, an elevated risk of difficulties in marriage was present before they had their first relationship experience. Background characteristics such as parental divorce, low education, and economic disadvantage are associated both with having more sexual and cohabiting partners and also with lower marital quality and/or divorce.[iii] So it may not be that having more sexual or cohabiting partners causes further risk because a lot of risk was already in motion. Selection is a big part of how relationships unfold, but is it the whole story? We believe that, in addition to selection, behavior matters and has plausible connections to marital outcomes. We are going to explain four reasons why having more relationship experience before tying the knot might make it harder to succeed in marriage.

More Awareness of Alternatives

What could be wrong with having a lot of alternative romantic partners and knowing it? Maybe just this: Part of the essence of commitment is “making a choice to give up other choices.”[iv] Of course, committing to a choice does not make the alternatives disappear. That would be too easy. Part of the work of commitment in marriage is letting other options go and investing your energy in the one person you have chosen.[v] Alternatives compete with commitment.[vi]  

When a person has had many serious relationships prior to marriage, it may increase awareness of how many alternatives actually exist. Furthermore, in a world where people can conveniently monitor their ex-partners online, it is easy for an old flame to resurface.

Still, it seems reasonable to believe that, up to a point, learning about various partners and choosing the best one should make marriages better. Sociologists have long noted that there should be some ideal amount of searching that will result in optimal outcomes in marriage. Norval Glenn and his colleagues nicely described this theory in a 2010 article:

According to another view, which we call the length of search thesis, the longer a person searches for a mate and “circulates” on the marriage market (at least to a certain point), the greater is the probability of a good marital match when he/she marries.[vii]

We are not arguing against an adequate search process. We are suggesting that having a lot of partners—and sharing serious relationship experiences with them like sex and cohabiting—can have the downside of raising awareness of alternatives in a way that makes it harder to foreclose them to make a marriage work. Also, realize that you can learn a lot about another person without going so deep that you lose options for your future.

Changed Expectations: The Perfect Sexual Lover (in Your Mind)

Think about two different people: person Q and person M (not a Bond movie). For our thought experiment, imagine that these two people are nearly identical as to all sorts of factors related to success in marriage. That is to say, selection is not involved in what we are describing. But Q and M have one difference. Through the cosmic fate of where each lives and the people around them, Q ended up having 10 sexual partners before marriage, while M has only ever had sex with the person he/she married (whether M and his/her spouse waited until marriage does not affect our argument).

Q and M have been married to their respective mates for five years, now, and life has gotten harder, with children, work, and debt. For both couples, the sexual relationship has lost some edge. That’s no shock and not unusual. But in the midst of this phase of life, Q and M have that one difference that leads to Q being quite a bit less happy than M.

Q has vivid memories of 10 sexual partners. M does not. Once the comparisons begin—and this happens more when we’re a bit unhappy—we’re not all that fair in how we make them. Q remembers how great sex was with three of the 10 partners: exciting, pleasing, and thrilling. In fact, Q remembers specific, different, and pleasing memories with each of those three. In assessing sexual satisfaction five years into marriage, Q merges those three prior partners into one object who is, of course, not a real person. It’s a hybrid, perfect sexual lover. Satisfaction in all areas of life is partly a function of what we get compared to what we expected. Q expects a lot based on all that experience, easily forgetting that none of those three relationships had what it takes to go the distance. That doesn’t matter. That’s the comparison that feeds unhappiness in marriage, now.

If life presented you with such a simple choice, would you rather be trying to make your marriage work with Q’s history or M’s? We cannot assume what choice you would make, but we think our point is pretty clear.

More Experience Breaking It Off

Cohabitation has characteristics that seem paradoxical. Living with a partner makes it harder to break up than dating, all other things being equal, and often now comes at a time in relationship development where people have not really chosen each other for the future.[viii] And yet, cohabiting couples frequently break up, and they are more likely than any other time in history not to end up marrying.[ix] 

These days, cohabitation has become more a part of the dating scene than a lead-up to marriage. Let’s call the phenomenon cohabidating. In this context, some people are getting a lot of experience at leaving serious relationships (or surviving being left). Just as with our prior point, that does not sound bad in one way—at least insofar as people are breaking off relationships that had no future. But it’s also true that people tend to get good at things they have a lot of experience doing. People can get good at moving out and moving on.

How does that impact marriage? Some people probably so deeply learn that they can survive leaving a relationship when they are unhappy with it that they leave reasonably good marriages that would have given them and their children the best outcomes in life. They bail too quickly.

Obviously, many others leave very poor or even dangerous marriages only after a lot of agonizing and effort. We’re not suggesting divorce is ever easy or that it is not sometimes the best course. But in a day and age when people get so much experience moving out and moving on, we think many may learn to do so too rapidly, and to their detriment.


Sex has something to do with babies. Increasingly, cohabitation does also,[x] and a lot of couples have children even if they’re not very committed to one another.[xi] Having children from prior partners before settling down in marriage is associated with more challenges in finding a mate and making the relationship work, just as having children from one marriage has always made it harder to remarry successfully following divorce or a spouse’s death.[xii] Even having a child with your eventual spouse before you’ve fully decided to share your future is associated with more difficulties.

Societal shifts toward having more sexual and/or cohabiting partners before marriage means a lot more relationship experience, but when children are involved, it also means more people have constraints on whom they can attract, their economic options, and what traits a potential spouse must have. This is especially true for women, since they are more likely to invest a great deal of time in the care of their children. It may be crass to say, but there is a market for mate selection, and those who have a family already in tow have fewer options when trying to find the best partner for the future. Hence, this is one more way that having more relationship experience before marriage can impact the odds of having a happy and lasting marriage.


Nothing we raised here dooms anyone to a life of being unloved. We are talking about relationship experiences that may impact one’s odds of achieving the common goal of a lifelong marriage. If you are single and aspire to find long-lasting love in marriage, don’t give up, even if you spent some serious time in Vegas. Just stop gambling, now. If you want to change the trajectory of your life, do two things: First, slow down your relationships.[xiii] There is a lot of evidence that this can help improve one’s odds of lasting love. Second, start making decisions; don’t let things slide when the choice before you could impact your future options for happiness in marriage.

[i] Lichter, D. T., Turner, R. N., Sassler, S. (2010). National estimates of the rise in serial cohabitation. Social Science Research, 39, 754-765; 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.
[ii] Busby, D. M., Willoughby, B. J., & Carroll, J. S. (2013). Sowing wild oats: Valuable experience or a field full of weeds? Personal Relationships, 20(4), 706-718; Olenick, I. (2000). Odds of spousal infidelity are influenced by social and demographic factors. Family Planning Perspectives, 32(3), 148-149.
[iii] To read more about issues related to selection, I refer you to a couple of prior blog posts, here and here.
[iv] Stanley, S. M. (2005). The power of commitment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
[v] See, e.g., Rusbult, C. E., & Buunk, B. P.  (1993) Commitment processes in close relationships: An interdependence analysis. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10, 175-204.
[vi] Thibaut, J. W., & Kelley, H. H. (1959). The social psychology of groups. New York: Wiley. See also Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (1992). Assessing commitment in personal relationships. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54, 595-608.
[vii] Citing Becker (1981), Levinger (1965), and South (1995): Glenn, N. D., Uecker, J. E., & Love, R. W. B. Jr. (2010). Later first marriage and marital success. Social Science Research, 39, 787-800.
[viii] For more, see prior blog articles here and here. See also Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2012). The impact of the transition to cohabitation on relationship functioning: Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(3), 348 - 358. 
[ix] Vespa, J. (2014). Historical trends in the marital intentions of one-time and serial cohabitorsJournal of Marriage and Family, 76, 207-217; Guzzo, K. B. (2014). Trends in cohabitation outcomes: Compositional changes and engagement among never-married young adults. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 826-842.
[x] Manning, W. D. (2015). Cohabitation and child wellbeing. The Future of Children, 25(2), 51-66. 
[xi] See Marriage and positive child outcomes: commitment, signaling, and sequence. A thorough review of societal trends can be had in Sawhill, I. V. (2014). Generation unbound: Drifting into sex and parenthood without marriage. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.
[xii] One excellent review of the complexity that children from prior relationships represent for the lives of their parents is the following: Guzzo, K. B. (2014). New partners, more kids: Multiple-partner fertility in the United States. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 654, 66-86.  doi:10.1177/0002716214525571
[xiii] For an excellent article that suggests going slower has benefits, see Sassler, S., Addo, F. R., & Lichter, D. T. (2012). The tempo of sexual activity and later relationship qualityJournal of Marriage and Family, 74, 708-725.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Sliding vs. Deciding: The Cohabitation Chronicles

If you would like an actual printed book(let) with all of my articles on cohabitation from this blog in one volume, we have that available now. Sure, you can read all these pieces here for free, and please do so. But in case you want all the pieces on cohabitation in one place and printed on paper, here is where you can order the goods.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

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

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

In the talk, I discuss:

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

Friday, January 15, 2016

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

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

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

What Mernitz and Kamp Dush Found

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

Consider two facts.

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional Wellbeing or Relationship Quality: An Empirical Quandary

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

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

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

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

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

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

[i] Vespa, J. (2014). Historical trends in the marital intentions of one-time and serial cohabitors. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76(1), 207-217.  doi: 10.1111/jomf.12083
[ii] Kennedy, S., & Bumpass, L. (2008). Cohabitation and children’s living arrangements: New estimates from the United States. Demographic Research, 19(47), 1663–1992; Manning, W. D., Smock, P. J., & Majumdar, D. (2004). The relative stability of cohabiting and marital unions for children. Population Research and Policy Review, 23(2), 135-159.
[iii] Manning, W. D. (2015). Cohabitation and child wellbeing. The Future of Children, 25(2), 51–66. 
[iv] Manning, W. D. (2015). Cohabitation and child wellbeing. The Future of Children, 25(2), 51–66; McLanahan, S., & Beck, A. N. (2010). Parental relationships in fragile families. The Future of Children, 20(2), 17-37. 
[v] While the sample we used is older, I do not believe any recent trends would change the finding that married couples have higher average levels of commitment than cohabiting couples: Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., & Markman, H. J. (2004). Maybe I do: Interpersonal commitment and premarital or nonmarital cohabitation. Journal of Family Issues, 25(4), 496-519. doi: 10.1177/0192513X03257797. And sociologist Steven Nock predicted, in what I believe is the last piece written by him before his untimely passing, that the differences between marriage and cohabitation would become starker over time: Nock, S.L. (2009). The growing importance of marriage in America.  In H. E. Peters and C. M. Kamp Dush (Eds.), Marriage and family: Perspectives and complexities (pp. 302-324). New York: Columbia University Press. 
[vi] Lichter, D., & Qian, Z. (2008). Serial cohabitation and the marital life course. Journal of Marriage & Family, 70(4), 861-878.; Rhoades, G. K., & Stanley, S. M. (2014). “Before ‘I Do’: What do premarital experiences have to do with marital quality among today’s young adults? Charlottesville, VA: National Marriage Project. 
[vii] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S.M., & Markman, H.J. (2012). The impact of the transition to cohabitation on relationship functioning: Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(3), 348-358.  doi: 10.1037/a0028316
[viii] This is the subject of a paper I like a lot: Johnson, D. (2005). Two-wave panel analysis: Comparing statistical methods for studying the effects of transitions. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67(4), 1061-1075. 
[ix] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2010).  Should I stay or should I go? Predicting dating relationship stability from four aspects of commitment. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(5), 543-550.
[x] As we predicted in Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55(4), 499-509.
[xi] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Pre-engagement cohabitation and gender asymmetry in marital commitmentJournal of Family Psychology, 20(4), 553-560.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Top Three Posts on This Site for 2015

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

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

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

Here’s to a great 2016, everyone.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Jane Austen Understood Deception and Discovery in Modern Love

Jane Austen’s most beloved novels hinge on a female character misunderstanding which man is the best man until time and circumstances reveal the truth. The resolution always comes from the discovery of character and compatibility—in time.  
Painting by Georg Friedrich Kersting

Austen’s stories are exemplars of “decisions under risk and uncertainty.” That term describes the age-old practice of analyses to limit risk to a reasonable calculation. While some people do this for a living (e.g., insurance actuaries), we all make such calculations in life and love.  

Throughout all her novels, discovery of the nature of others is the theme, and not just among her lead characters. Austen understood that, while we never have perfect information, informed decisions increase the odds of improved outcomes. She also understood deception. Sometimes, one party withholds information that would be valuable to the other. But even more, she was a master in describing how self-deception limits our access to relevant information. “How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!”[i] Indeed.

In Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, Austen’s heroines discover the truth about the men in their lives as more perfect information replaces biased observations. For some, the best decisions come just in time. Lesser characters become victims of poor timing or poor judgment, or both. Still others make do by accepting that there are better men around but that there are no better men available to them. In Pride and Prejudice, these are the story lines for Elizabeth, Lydia, and Charlotte—who make excellent, poor, and good-enough matches, respectively.

Austen provides a near fairy-tale ending for some of her heroines. Nevertheless, she writes lucidly of timeless truths about love, character, and commitment. I believe her understanding is nearly modern, aside from the necessary differences in social context (e.g., entailments) and the dramatic shifts, since then, in the stages of relationships where these dynamics unfold.  

I believe Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s best story, but it’s not my favorite book. I like Sense and Sensibility best because, in it, Austen reveals most clearly the confusion of intention that captivates me as a reader—and a researcher. She understood the dangers of ambiguity in love long before it became what we now see as a dominant aspect of romantic and sexual relationships in life before marriage.[ii]

Sense and Sensibility

If you do not know the story, here’s enough background to understand the points I make here. You can watch the movie later, but the really good stuff is in the book.

Elinor Dashwood is the lead character. She falls in love with Edward Ferrars, brother of the deliciously evil Fanny. Fanny’s husband, John, inherited the Dashwood estate and turned out his father’s second wife and her three daughters by that second marriage. That would include Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. John is weak and Fanny is cruel. Elinor has sense and wisdom, but she is emotionally reserved. She loves Edward, and Edward is a good man to love. This information about Edward is apparent enough from start to finish. It is signaled at every turn. Unlike the case of Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, it only needs confirmation, not discovery.

Marianne is Elinor’s younger sister. She is emotional and a nearly hopeless romantic. Marianne is the sensibility to Elinor’s good sense. Here, sensibility means emotion and captivity to sensation. While we might imagine the title as creatively working a double entendre, that notion relies on our modern definitions. The terms were clearly understood in Austen’s day as I have described them just now.[iii]

Marianne is enraptured by passionate love. Whereas Elinor is head with heart, Marianne is all heart, and therefore at greater risk of being deceived in love. While Elinor and Marianne are separate characters, their characters are also devices for Austen to portray the dangers of different strategies in finding a mate. Elinor’s risk is based in being reserved to the point of loneliness, even in her relationship with her sister, Marianne. Marianne’s risk lies in being blinded by passion, making it hard to see the reality of a man capable of affection but not commitment: Willoughby.

John Willoughby is dashing, gallant (at first blush), and romantic. He enters Marianne’s life as Marianne has fallen and twisted her ankle while walking through the countryside. Willoughby arrives in the need of the moment, checks her ankle to see if it is broken, and carries Marianne away—down the hill to the cottage where the Dashwood women now live. He is revealed as a lover of poetry and passion, attracting Marianne’s heart in the way Marianne believes men like Edward Ferrars never could. Marianne is carried away, body and soul.

Marianne is misled by Willoughby, who though seemingly truly enamored with her, is drawn away. Over time, Willoughby is revealed as a cad incapable of commitment. At one point, Elinor directly questions Marianne’s incautious and rapid embrace of confidence in Willoughby. Marianne fires back:

            “You are mistaken, Elinor,” said she warmly, “in supposing I know very little of Willoughby. I have not known him long indeed, but I am much better acquainted with him, than I am with any other creature in the world, except yourself and mama.  It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy;--it is disposition alone.  Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.” 

Alas, seven days are not enough. Seven days are enough time to be overtaken by the rush of infatuation but not long enough to know the nature of another. Both lasting love and heartbreak will often feel exactly the same at the start. Thus, decisions around love are decisions under risk and uncertainty. Some risks are greater than others.

Signals and Signs

The nature of Marianne and Willoughby’s relationship becomes the subject of an argument between Elinor and their mother, Mrs. Dashwood. They are both concerned about Marianne after Willoughby abruptly departs and Marianne is crushed. I find this conversation to be a master class on the nature of ambiguity in romantic and sexual relationships in modern times. The essence of the argument lies in Elinor being convinced that something is awry while her mother—Marianne’s mother, too, of course—defends Willoughby, seeing him as a victim of circumstances beyond his control.

As I and others have noted, the nature of constraints changes the degree to which behavior accurately signals intention,[iv] and Mrs. Dashwood is placing her bet here as she strains to believe the best about Willoughby. She feels his commitment to Marianne is genuine but that he is constrained by his family’s desires. Elinor sees something more in the less that was before her, though she also wants to believe the better interpretation of Willoughby. A central question hinges on whether or not Marianne and Willoughby had become secretly engaged. If so, it would have fit with the strength of what they had all been seeing before Willoughby abruptly left. This is not the only instance of actual or suspected secret engagement in this and in other works by Austen. She understood that secret commitment may not be lasting and mutual.    

Mrs. Dashwood:  But you really do admit the justice of what I have said in his defence?--I am happy--and he is acquitted.

Elinor:  Not entirely.  It may be proper to conceal their engagement (if they ARE engaged) from Mrs. Smith--and if that is the case, it must be highly expedient for Willoughby to be but little in Devonshire at present. But this is no excuse for their concealing it from us.

Mrs. Dashwood: Concealing it from us! My dear child, do you accuse Willoughby and Marianne of concealment? This is strange indeed, when your eyes have been reproaching them every day for incautiousness.

Elinor: I want no proof of their affection…but of their engagement I do.

[Moments later in the dialogue.]

Mrs. Dashwood: Have we not perfectly understood each other? Has not my consent been daily asked by his looks, his manner, his attentive and affectionate respect?  My Elinor, is it possible to doubt their engagement?  How could such a thought occur to you?

Elinor: I confess, replied Elinor, that every circumstance except ONE is in favour of their engagement; but that ONE is the total silence of both on the subject, and with me it almost outweighs every other.

As it should. Commitment is declarative, and engagement is one of the most powerful signals of commitment. It was in Jane Austen’s time and it is now. Valid signals of commitment are powerful because they contain useful information that reduces uncertainty in the face of risk. Austen understood that evidence of attraction does not provide much information about commitment. Nor, for example in modern times, does cohabitation, itself, provide much information about it. By contrast, engagement or mutually declared plans for marriage says a lot about commitment.[v]

While Willoughby’s affections for Marianne are evident to all, Marianne’s broken heart leads her to understand that his love was “every day implied, but never professedly declared.” Jane Austen knew that affection may signify an attachment but romantic attachment, much less mere attraction, is not commitment.[vi] She knew that commitment declares itself. The more public the declaration, the more reliable the information.


Austen describes a beautiful transformation in Elinor and Marianne’s relationship that is fueled by their broken hearts. In life, Pain will teach if Suffering will learn. Sensibility moves toward better sense, and Sense becomes more sensible. While a happy ending is not had by everyone in this story, Sense and Sensibility come into balance and both find committed love.

Here’s some modern advice. Seven days are not enough to see what needs seeing. Take it slow. And consider with care what you believe signifies commitment in a prospective mate. Affection has a look but commitment has a voice. 

[i] Jane Austen, 1818, Persuasion.
[ii] Ambiguity is one of my favorite themes, and in our age, reigns.
[iii] For more on the meaning of Sense and Sensibility, see here.
[v] For more on this, see these examples of what I have written on this subject: “Decoding Commitment: When Sally Met Harry,” October 18, 20; First Comes Love, Then Comes…What?,” September 15, 2010; But also, I believe that cohabitation may, in fact, be informative about commitment in some contexts: “Marriage and Cohabitation: Another Take, Building on the Discussion of Selection,” September 9, 2011.
[vi] Interested in a more academic treatise on what I argue here? See Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2, 243-257.