Friday, May 13, 2016

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Searching for “The One”: Mate Selection in this Modern World

In their book Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg focus on how people search for a partner, a date, or a mate in this hyper-connected era of having a seemingly endless number of options. Modern Romance is not for everyone (neither the book nor the reality it reflects). The book is written from the perspective of people who are smack in the middle of this new, unhooked, unscripted maelstrom of love, sex, and disillusionment. It captures how things are for a great number of people, not what many would say is ideal. It is insightful and irreverent. Ansari is, after all, a comedian with the bluntness of those who work the clubs.

Questions around how people search for, and find, partners are part of an entire field of study about matching problems. There is a need to match people to jobs, schools, and mates. From a societal level, there is benefit in maximizing the number of people who match with their best option. Individuals, of course, desire to make the best matches they can in order to increase their odds of personal happiness, fulfillment, and meaning.

You are likely familiar with a myriad of services that solve matching problems of less importance than the search for a mate. Uber, for example, matches drivers and riders. The algorithm to do this is, of course, simpler than whatever it would take to increase people’s odds of lifetime love and commitment in marriage. A 15-minute lift is different from 60 years of driving together through life.

Ansari and Klinenberg describe massive changes since decades past in how people search for mates (or dates, or just sex). In mate selection, people have gone from choosing among two or three options in their neighborhood or apartment building to trying to search through and cope with the awareness of a myriad of options, thanks to advances in the digital realm.

Searches are likely to fall short of leading to good matches when people search too little or too much. What strategy is just right?  It’s very hard to know but the dilemmas involved lead to insights on how to have a reasonable perspective about it all.  

The Train Station Problem

Samantha (Sam, for short) is searching. She wants to find her soul-mate. I don’t merely mean that she wants a mate who shares the deeper beliefs of her soul;[i] she believes there is this one perfect partner out there for her—someone who would complete her in ways far beyond being merely good, reliable, and committed. This is not an unusual goal in modern-day mate searching,[ii] and it complicates things quite a bit.

Eli Finkel and colleagues have described the changing standards that guide our search for mates: “Throughout American history, the fundamental purpose of marriage has shifted from (a) helping spouses meet their basic economic and political needs to (b) helping them meet their intimacy and passion needs to (c) helping them meet their autonomy and personal-growth needs.”[iii] Finkel and his coauthors argue that this expectation leads to average marriages being less happy while a small number of marriages that can satisfy the expectations for personal fulfillment may be happier than the “best marriages in earlier eras.” Sam wants that.  

Samantha is acutely aware of her dilemma. She has no foolproof way of knowing where to find “the one” or how to know for sure who is “the one” when she meets him. Metaphorically, Sam is in a train station trying to figure out which train to get on and stay on for the ride of her life.

Sam has checked out five trains. Those “checks” ranged from having a brief coffee meet-up with one guy she met online to being deeply involved with the last guy, whom she dated for 16 months before eventually deciding he was not the one. That’s a long train ride, and it left Sam further down the tracks at another station. Now she’s worried that she might have missed the best option during those 16 months. Serious involvement often has opportunity costs, you know. Still, she is a believing person, and she takes comfort in a faith that God will not allow her to miss the right train. Still, her belief in destiny is balanced by her belief that the odds are decreasing as time marches on.

Sam wonders if the perfect train has yet to appear at her station or if she’s missed it already. Her fear of missing the best train is palpable and even paralyzing. “What if I make the wrong choice?” “Am I even on the right rail line?” “How long do I stay on one train before I get off if I am not sure it’s the one?” “What if I leave one train and then, later, realize it was the best train for me?” A lot of the time Sam feels like curling up on a bench and just letting all the trains roll through the station without her even looking up.  

Heuristics for Matching

Psychologists Peter Todd and Geoffrey Miller wrote about mate searching in a respected volume on simple heuristics for making the best decisions under various conditions of uncertainty. [iv] A heuristic is a mental short-cut that simplifies decision-making in order to achieve what is often a good-enough solution where the costs of further effort and time are unlikely to be worth the gain.

Todd and Miller describe some of the history of attempts to come up with the best heuristic to solve searching and matching problems in mate selection. They get to the heart of Samantha’s anxiety, described above, which is the “uncertainty that the next prospect that one encounters might be far superior to the best seen so far.”[v] That is, she fears that once she makes a choice, the next train into the station would be the one.

Todd and Miller note that if you could know in advance the number of options you’d get to consider in choosing a mate, you could use a guideline that a number of studies suggest yields the highest likelihood of the best outcome. The rule is to select the best option that appears after you have considered 37 percent of the options. You can see why knowing the total number is important here, because otherwise, you’d have no way to even guess when you’ll hit that 37 percent point. Todd and Miller explain some of the arcane history of this decision rule, and they do a particularly nice job of describing the necessary assumptions for such heuristics to work.

Suppose Sam is going to have 10 trains to consider in her life. By this rule, she should check out the first four but not choose any of them. Those poor guys don’t even know that they have no chance. Sam is tough and she’s working the rule. But starting with number five, Sam is ready to pick the first one that is better than any of the four she’s seen so far. If the best option of all was in that first four, that’s pretty sad. This may be, by the way, why people intuitively favor monitoring past partners through social media; it’s become easy to do, and some people clearly believe that it increases their odds of recalling a train (if it’s available) back to the station.  

Let’s suppose for a moment that the 37 percent rule is pretty good for selecting a mate. (I personally prefer a strategy that’s a bit broader.) As Ansari and Klinenberg argue, part of the problem for today’s young adults is that they are trying to cope with an awareness of a truly countless number of potential partners. While not actually true, a young adult today might think that the 37 percent rule means checking out hundreds or thousands of potential mates. That’s going to take some time, even in Grand Central Station.  

Let’s bring sex into the equation. If a person believes that he or she needs to check out a lot of partners, including testing for sexual compatibility, that’s going to add up to a lot of sexual partners before settling down in marriage. That strategy has numerous risks which I will not enumerate here. Galena Rhoades and I find that the median number of sexual partners emerging adults have before settling on a mate is around five or six, and that having sex with others in addition to the person one marries is associated (although, modestly) with lower marital quality.[vi] In a prior post, we attempted to explain why there could be something causal in that, net of all the risks a person already may have in their demographic background and life history.

Todd and Miller don’t leave us at the 37 percent rule. They note that, even where all the assumptions are met, it only leads to the best solution 37 percent of the time. Their main focus is to make a mathematical case for “satisficing,” or accepting an option that meets a reasonable level of expectation.[vii] For example, they argue that a 14 percent search rule (instead of 37 percent) gets 83 percent of people in the top 10 percent of their options. Contrast that with the people seeking absolute perfection, who may end up searching so long that they leave behind better options before finally settling on the last train to Clarksville.

The Misery of Searching for Your Perfect Soul Mate

As Todd and Miller describe, Frey and Eichenberger (1996) argued that people do not search adequately for a mate.[viii] The distinguished sociologist Norval Glenn also made this point in a chapter published in 2002.[ix] There are many causes of poor searches. One of Glenn’s growing concerns was about how “premature entanglement” was common and could foreclose adequate search for good matches. Norval and I had a wonderful talk about these ideas over dinner in 2000. This was just after I had started thinking a lot about the inertia problem with cohabitation. We both thought that a lot of people were increasing their odds of taking the wrong train when they did not have to do so. Thus, while there is increased freedom of choice and a growing availability of tools for searching, these factors may be offset by the growing trend toward sliding through relationship transitions in ways that lead to giving up options before making a choice.[x] 

You don’t have to stay on a train for miles and miles to get a good sense for it. Many do, however, owing to the ease of entry into cohabitation. People slide into cohabiting,[xi] which rapidly escalates inertia in the form of constraints; constraints make it more likely one will stay in a relationship regardless of dedication to it.[xii] Of course, many others are foregoing serious romantic involvement altogether, being somewhat paralyzed by the fear of making the wrong choice. Why would that be? While there are more tools than ever before that could be employed to search for and sort into good matches, the expectations for marriage are also higher than ever. The increasing availability of tools for searching might merely increase fears of failing to find perfection; the quest may now appear both more possible and impossible as the same time.

Despite concerns in the late 1990s about inadequate search, I believe the changes Ansari and Klinenberg document are real, and that in just the past 15 years, people may have started to err in the direction of searching endlessly rather than searching too little. Of course, an endless search for the perfect mate is also, in a very real way, inadequate. Ansari and Klinenberg call attention to the work of psychologist Barry Schwarz (The Paradox of Choice), who has written lucidly about the dilemmas of having too many options. This argument by Schwartz that they recount is brilliant.

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.”  

That’s a whole lot of train tickets. Schwartz points out 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 this makes people less happy with what they eventually choose.

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

[i] Wilcox, W. B., and Wolfinger, N. H. (2015). Soul Mates: Religion, sex, love, and marriage among African Americans and Latinos. New York: Oxford University Press. 
[ii] Even 15 years ago, most emerging adults believed that when it came to selecting a mate, it was most important that their spouse be their “soul mate.” Popenoe, D., and Whitehead, B. D.  (2001). Who wants to marry a soul mate?  In D. Popenoe & B. D. Whitehead, The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America (pp. 6 - 16). Piscataway, NJ: National Marriage Project.
[iii] Finkel, E. J., Cheung, E. O., Emery, L. F., Carswell, K. L., and Larson, G. M. (2015). The suffocation model: Why marriage in American is becoming an all-or-nothing institution. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(3), 283-244. doi: 10.1177/0963721415569274
[iv] Todd, P. M., and Miller, G. F. (1999). From Pride and Prejudice to Persuasion: Satisficing in Mate Search. In G. Gigerenzer, P. M. Todd, and The ABC Research Group (Eds.), Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart (pp. 287-308). New York: Oxford University Press.
[v] Ibid.

[vi] Rhoades, G. K., and 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] Simon, H. A. (1990). Invariants of human behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 41, 1-19.

[viii] Frey, B. S., and Eichenberger, R. (1996). Marriage paradoxes. Rationality and Society, 8(2), 187-206.
[ix] Glenn, N. D. (2002). A plea for greater concern about the quality of marital matching. In A. J. Hawkins, L. D. Wardle, and D. O. Coolidge (Eds.), Revitalizing the institution of marriage for the twenty-first century: An agenda for strengthening marriage (pp. 45-58). Westport, CT: Praeger.

[x] For more on this theme of giving up options before making a choice, you can read this piece or listen to this 24 minute talk I gave earlier this year.
[xi] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., and Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509.
[xii] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., and 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.;  Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., and 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.

Monday, April 25, 2016

How Could Wedding Size Make a Difference?

By Scott M. Stanley & Galena K. Rhoades

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 canapés.

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

[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 Schwartz (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.