Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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


I have a new blog post over at Institute for Family Studies on cohabitation--a perennial favorite topic here.  I summarize the key findings from a new paper on cohabitation by sociologist Karen Guzzo of Bowling Green State University (my alma mater, btw).   Right HERE.

A few highlights:

Quoting from Guzzo:  “Relative to…1990 and 1994, cohabitations...from 1995–1999, 2000–2004, and 2005 and later were 13%, 49%, and 87%…more likely to dissolve…."

Quoting from my piece: "If a couple tells you they are cohabiting and you know nothing else, you know very little about their level of commitment."

Quoting from my piece: "Even those who are engaged when moving in together have become more likely than in past to break up."

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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

weCloud: Thoughts on Leaf Blowers vs. Brooms


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooms. They’re gonna be big. 

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Some Good News in Who Benefits from Family-Strengthening Programs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Response of the Most Disadvantaged Couples

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

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

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

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

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

Quoting from Paul Amato’s paper: 

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

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

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

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

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

The Response of Ethnic Minority Couples

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

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

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

A Related Finding on Ethnicity from Another Major Data Set

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

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

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

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

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




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

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Some Good News in Who Benefits from Family-Strengthening Programs


I have a substantial piece out today at the Institute for Family Studies blog on some good news--among the sobering news of the past year or two--about who benefits most from family-strengthening programs. There has been much public discussion on this subject with regard to government-funded efforts over the past decade or more, especially around the results of two large federal studies focused on disadvantaged couples. In the piece, I attempt to paint a circumspect picture while calling attention to several types of good news in recent studies, including a new set of analyses by Paul Amato that have just been published online.

To read the piece, just click here.  


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Gender Fluidity and the End of Gender


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Friday, June 13, 2014

(Blast from the Past) The DTR Dance: Avoiding the Talk

[I've been a little preoccupied lately with some stuff and have not gotten a new, substantial post out for a bit. So, I decided to re-post a couple of my favorites that many of you will not have read. These two posts appeared first in March 2009.]

I wrote in prior posts about ambiguity and how that is one of the defining features of romantic relationships in this day and age. The motive for keeping things not quite clear about what a relationship is and where it is heading is simple: ambiguity gives couples a way to avoid breaking up in a relationship that is desirable for now, but where one or both senses the future is unclear.

Ambiguity can protect fragile relationships. There’s some good and a lot of not good in that.

The acronym, DTR, stands for Define The Relationship. It means having The Talk. DTR is a modern day antidote to ambiguity.

I have some thoughts about why people avoid DTR. There are a number of possibilities.

1. It’s just too soon to have the talk, and bringing it up too soon makes one look desperate.

2. It’s hard for one or both partners to talk about things that are emotional or sensitive because the most important conversations often don’t go well. In this case, the issue is communication not commitment. In the work I have done with colleagues such as Howard Markman, Natalie Jenkins, and Susan Blumberg, we focus a lot on helping couples to learn how to talk openly, clearly, and with emotional safety. Stuff for another day, but if you need help there, now, try one of our books listed on the left of this site (except the commitment one).

3. The big reasons why people avoid DTRing is that there are issues with commitment.

When it comes to commitment, I merely mean important dynamics such as the willingness to commit to the future, interest in marriage, etc.

When it comes to commitment, let’s assume two possibilities about hypothetical couple AB, which is made up of person A and person B.

One possibility: A and B are nearly equally committed.

or

Second possibility: A and B are not equally committed.

In this second case, either A is more committed to B or B is more committed to A. Let’s just focus on A being more committed to B. It happens all the time. It’s pretty much a normal part of couple development, except that if it goes on and on and on, it’s a serious problem. In fact, the problem version of this now happens so commonly that bestselling books have been written about this painful dynamic: He’s Just Not That Into You, comes to mind. (The title is a link if you want to read more about it.) It’s an excellent book—humorous, brutal, a bit coarse (that’s a warning if such things bother you)—describing these dynamics of differences in commitment.

I think situations where there are serious differences in commitment levels between two people are the situations where DTR talks are most likely to be avoided, and for some pretty logical reasons.

I’ll give you my sense of those reasons in my next post. For the time being, think about the possibilities in the reasons people avoid doing the DTR talk. I suppose the DTR talk is then a DTR dance.

DTR Part II

In my last post, I left off with the question of why people might avoid the DTR Talk. If you have not read that post yet, I encourage you to read it before going on with this one.

To reset the scene, I’m assuming some things about a relationship with person A and person B. I’m assuming that partner A is either more committed to the future than B or is, at least, thinking a lot more about the issue. Hence, person A is the one who wants to know now or soon where person B is at on the whole matter of a future. This is not something that usually (or should) happen early in the relationship. It’s something that becomes more and more of an issue over time. That’s because most people want to marry eventually. Most adults who are “in the market” for life-long love (the aspiration) are going to be less inclined to spend a lot of time with someone if they know that this someone does not see a future together.

So person A wants to know what person B is thinking and intending. While it’s easy to think of person A as a female and person B as a male, there are doubtless many situations that go any which way. The key is that one person, A, is more ready than the other, B.

Questions and Ideas of Answers

Why might person A avoid having The Talk? Person A might avoid having The Talk because person A has a hunch that person B either sees no future or that person B would run from the relationship if person A pushes it.

By the way, this relates to a painful reality about commitment: The person who is most committed has the least power. This is true, at least at this stage of a relationship, where the future is not nailed down.

Since person A loves person B, and knows he/she wants a future with person B, pushing the matter is scary. People tend to avoid scary things until they can’t put them off any longer.

The reasons why person B might avoid the talk seem more complex, in my view, but they all boil down to a sense of potential loss. Essentially, what I’m defining is a situation where person B likes the status quo. Whatever the relationship is right now, person B is happy not to rock the boat. It’s working, at least for now, so why mess with anything?

The Talk can bring person B the loss of something in one of at least three ways.

1. If person B is quite a bit less committed than person A, The TALK can lead to a break up. Person B’s answers can lead to person A to realize that what she or he wants is never going to happen. B avoids The Talk because of a desire to hang onto the present arrangement.

2. If person B is somewhat less committed than A but a future is at least possible, the talk leads to ongoing negotiation. One Talk will lead to other Talks because A sees the possibility of getting somewhere and will keep pressing it. B might not want to be in what starts to seem like a series of Talks because B does not like negotiating about change B really does not want, yet. The status quo is groovy for B and it’s not fun for either A or B to keep talking about something so difficult, tricky, and important.

3. Person B might avoid The Talk because the end result will be that B has to up the commitment. It’s sort of like playing poker. Both have their cards (their commitment cards and their attractiveness cards). Person A is throwing all in, and person B is being called to pony up or fold. Person B has to match the bet of person A and lay em down.

To put it briefly (something you may have figured out I don’t do easily!), person B avoids The Talk because it can lead to one of several types of loss:

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

If you are counting, that’s three “dues” and it’s time to pay them.

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Friday, May 30, 2014

Many Moral Attitudes Have Changed, But Infidelity Remains Very Unacceptible


Gallup has a nice graphic out today and story about rates of acceptance of various things having to do with moral positions people hold, entitled New Record Highs in Moral Acceptability. As the Gallup piece notes, many things that used to be unacceptable have become more acceptable. But tolerance for a person having sex with someone other than their spouse is not one of them. Here is their graphic.



One of the oddities of how things have changed and not changed is that while romantic and sexual relationships are more ambiguous than ever, with increasingly diffuse boundaries sexually and otherwise, people, married or not, still remain strongly negative about the idea of a person having sex with someone other than their partner if they are in a relationship. For example, people in dating and cohabiting relationships also tend to expect fidelity outside of marriage. But having similar expectations about unmarried relationships does not mean the behavior is the same. People's behavior tilts strongly toward increased faithfulness in marriage while cohabitation is not actually associated with higher levels of fidelity. Many people believe that it is or should be but, in fact, cohabiters have levels of faithfulness similar to daters.

To read more about unmarrieds and extradyadic sex, I have a couple of posts from last year that might interest you (based on research in our lab).  Just click here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Immigration Success: Among the Best Things I've Read This Year


This weekend, there appeared in the New York Times an opinion called The Immigrant Advantage by Anand Giridharadas. This captivating piece has a personal story to anchor it and marvelous insights about what it takes to succeed in the U.S. It raises the provocative question "Are you better off being born in some of the poorest parts of the world and moving here than being raised in the poorer parts of the United States?"

As Giridharadas notes:

Statistics show that if you are born elsewhere and later acquire American citizenship, you will, on average, earn more than us native-borns, study further, marry at higher rates and divorce at lower rates, fall out of the work force less frequently and more easily dodge poverty.

What Giridharadas argues for most clearly is that success--when you are pulling yourself up from little--takes a combination of personal motivation and help from and connection to others. He goes on to say:

In those places where mobility’s engine is groaning and the social fabric is fraying, many immigrants may have an added edge because of their ability to straddle the seemingly contradictory values of their birthplaces and their adopted land, to balance individualism with community-mindedness and self-reliance with usage of the system.

A person on twitter sent me the perfect summary of the piece: "I think the key statement was the blend of personal initiative and institutional support. Best of both worlds in a sense." I do not personally know Shane Spencer (@OvercomerNation) but he nailed it with that line.

 Giridharadas' article is excellent. If you are at all interested in these themes, it will make you think.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sophisticated New Analyses on the Impact of Divorce on Children


Paul Amato and Christopher Anthony recently published a paper on the impact of divorce on children. They find consistent, average, negative impacts for divorce on children. Specifically, more children changed in negative directions than positive directions but a sizeable number changed in positive directions, and most did not show significant changes. These results are consistent with other reports. For example, across a number of studies, Paul Amato, his colleagues, and other social scientists have demonstrated that there are negative impacts of divorce on children across a host of dimensions. However, it is also true that most children do not show negative effects, at least on dimensions commonly measured. While their study does not assess mechanisms that cause the effects, it makes sense that some children would be less negatively impacted from divorce, or even benefit on some dimensions, because of the ways children can be caught or kept in the middle between the parents.

Amato and Anthony also showed that the negative effects on children were strongest for couples who already had higher risk for divorce, particularly those with higher risk of divorce due to socio-economic and demographic factors. That is, disadvantaged families were more prone to divorce and children from such families suffered, on average, the most from divorce. This is not surprising given that children in families with more means and advantages are more likely to be buffered from some of the ways divorce negatively impacts children.

To read or access the journal article by Amato and Anthony, click here. To read a great summary of the study by Harry Benson at Institute for Family Studies, click here.

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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why (some) Men Resist Marriage


I posted a new piece based on my long-time working paper on men and commitment over at the Institute for Family Studies Blog. You can check it out here: Why Men Resist Marriage Even Though They Benefit the Most from It.

The piece contains some of the major points from my working paper on men and commitment, which I update every now and then, which is available here. It's one of the more theoretical and fun things I've ever written. However, my wife thinks I have a narrow definition of fun. (She's correct, I have to admit. Don't let her know I said so.)

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

In Honor of Mother's Day--A link to my favorite post from the past related to parenting


Parenting can be hard and challenging. Being new parents can lead to declines in marital connection. Many couples do not experience this decline as they have children but a significant percentage does. In this piece from years ago, I argue that parenting can lead a couple to a deeper, wider sense of satisfaction that comes from building something great together. Parenting also can provide a kind of weird joy as you get through stuff together. I like to think this story is an example of that (click here).

Parenting: Enduring is admirable. Enjoying is wonderful.

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Monday, May 5, 2014

Know Your Bottom Line (especially your X axis)


One of the most important ways you can increase your success in marriage is to choose your partner wisely. While many people slide in and through important, potentially life altering relationship transitions, it’s smarter to make decisions when they really count. If the transition in question could affect the rest of your life, you want to be making a decision, and, hopefully, a good decision.

One of the most important decisions you can make is to know your bottom line and then act on it. When it comes to commitment in love, know what is most important for you, what you seek, what you need, what you cannot accept—and let that guide your actions in who you are with and who you are willing to end up with in life.  

I discovered the following comic strip from the recommendation of one of my sons (who are very into science and technology and math). I love this one. It represents the important truth I just mentioned.





Linkage (to xkcd comics)

Know your bottom line and all the other lines that matter to you.

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