Thursday, August 11, 2016

Captured: A picture of parents watching their emerging adult child's life play out in real time


Like so many others, I have been watching Olympic events with great interest.

This piece just appeared on 8-10, and it's a solid examination by the folks at The Science of Us about the pressures on families, especially the parents, of world class athletes.

Check out this story. Mostly, I suggest you just click on this link and drink in the photo of the parents There, they also link to a piece on Buzzeed that has priceless pictures and little videos. The "bobbing and weaving image is particularly choice--and it moves. And weaves. And bobs.

Really, take a look. Sure, read the article at The Science of Us if you want, but I mostly want you to take in the pictures and little videos.

And then just imagine this caption to it all:

A picture of parents watching their emerging adult child's life play out in real time. 

We are all Olympian parents now.


Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Problem with Living Together to Test a Relationship

By Scott M. Stanley and Galena K. Rhoades

A “Majority of Americans Now Believe in Cohabitation.” That’s the headline and conclusion from a national survey conducted by the Barna Group.[i] They surveyed 1097 adults in April 2016, finding that 65 percent of Americans now approve of cohabiting prior to tying the knot, while 35 percent do not.[ii] Given that nearly 70 percent of Americans marrying today will cohabit before getting married,[iii] these findings are not too surprising.  


The Barna Group also found that 84 percent of those who support premarital cohabitation do so because it provides a test of compatibility prior to marrying. That will be our main focus in this piece, but first, here are some other findings from the report:

  • Millennials are more likely (72 percent) to endorse cohabitation prior to marriage than the older generation (36 percent). 
  • Those identifying as liberal are more likely (86 percent) to endorse cohabitation prior to marriage than those identifying as conservative (37 percent). 
  • Those identifying as more religious, particularly those who report being practicing Christians, are the least likely (41 percent) to endorse cohabiting before marriage while those reporting no faith at all are the most likely to embrace the practice (88 percent).

The survey also asked about behavior, finding that 57 percent of those surveyed had cohabited with a partner outside of marriage at some point. Further, and entirely consistent with what we might expect, older, more conservative, and more traditionally religious respondents were the least likely to report a history of cohabiting compared to the rest of the sample.  

The embrace of cohabitation before marriage is sweeping. As Roxanne Stone, editor-in-chief for the Barna Group, explained, “Even a growing number of parents—nearly half of Gen-Xers and Boomers, and more than half of Millennials—want and expect their children to live with a significant other before getting married.”

Cohabitation is here in a big way.

Reasons Why People Believe Cohabitation is Good

The Barna Group found that 84 percent of those who approve of cohabiting before marriage said that it was valuable for testing compatibility. This has been the dominant belief of young adults for 20 years or more. By way of comparison, in a detailed report on attitudes related to family in 2001, sociologists Arland Thornton and Linda Young-DeMarco[iv] (citing findings from the Monitoring the Future project at the University of Michigan) noted that, by the late 1990s, more than three-fifths of high school students in the U.S. endorsed this sentiment: “It is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along.’’ Simply put, most young people believe this.

The Barna Group found that other reasons for valuing premarital cohabitation paled in comparison to testing, with the reason that “it’s convenient/practical” coming in at 9 percent and “cheap rent” coming in at 5 percent (2 percent chose “other).

Reasons Cohabiters Give for (Actually) Moving In Together

From 2007 to 2012, we followed a national sample of 1294 unmarried young adults (ages 18 to 34) who were in serious romantic relationships, surveying them about their personal lives and relationships for 11 waves.[v] This is the Relationship Development Study (RDS), and the sample well represents Americans in that age range.

At the first time point in this longitudinal study, we asked people if they were cohabiting and, if so, their reasons for doing so. Based on prior work in this area,[vi] we gave people six options for ranking their reasons for moving in with their partners[vii] (displayed in the accompanying chart). Although the Barna Group showed that most people who endorse cohabiting before marriage believe it is a good idea because it provides a good test of compatibility, that’s not the most common reason people give for actually moving in together.


As you can see, we found that the number one reason both males and females gave for moving in together was to spend more time with their partners. Convenience was the second most strongly-endorsed reason, followed by wanting to take a step-up in commitment.[viii] Convenience would include the types of financial benefits noted in the Barna Group report. In our sample, men and women strongly diverged in two categories. Women were more likely than men to say they cohabited because they had a child to raise (13 percent vs. 6.6 percent) whereas men were more likely than women to say they cohabited to test the relationship (10 percent vs. 4.5 percent).

Is Cohabiting a Good Test of a Relationship?

We (particularly Galena) began carefully studying reasons people have for cohabiting around 2005 as part of a range of efforts to study cohabitation and why it was not typically associated with the improved outcomes in marriage that most people expect. Using an earlier sample of cohabiters (not the national and more representative sample we have in the RDS), we gathered in-depth quantitative data from 120 couples, and we looked at reasons people gave for cohabiting and what those reasons were associated with (Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman, 2009[ix]).

In that data set, the top three reasons people gave for cohabiting were to spend more time together (61 percent), financial convenience (19 percent), and to test the relationship (14 percent). These findings parallel those we obtained in the same sample of that report using a more sophisticated scale of reasons for cohabitation that we used in more complex analyses of what is associated with various reasons people hold for cohabiting.  

Women who reported cohabiting for reasons of convenience were more likely to report lower level of confidence in their relationships, less commitment, and higher levels of negative dynamics with their partners. Those findings are consistent with the fact that, for some, cohabitation is something driven by perceived and real necessities. Some people really do have poorer options, and they are more likely to end up in difficult relationships where cohabitation probably would not otherwise have been their first choice, at least with “this” partner.

What about testing? As with our national data set, men were more likely than their partners (all women) to report cohabiting in order to test the relationship. We examined the personal and relationship characteristics of both men and women who reported testing, and found that:

  • “For men, higher levels of depressive symptoms, generalized anxiety symptoms, difficulty depending on others, and anxiety about abandonment were significantly associated with higher scores on testing.” (p. 247)
  • “For women, . . . greater abandonment anxiety was significantly associated with higher testing scores.” (p. 247)
  •  “For both men and women, greater negative interaction and psychological aggression and lower relationship confidence and adjustment were significantly associated with higher scores on the testing subscale. For men only, greater physical aggression and lower levels of dedication were significantly associated with testing the relationship.”


These findings suggest that cohabiting to test a relationship is associated with many kinds of negatives. Does that mean that cohabitation causes those negatives? Probably not. There is a lot more evidence that those negatives were largely there before cohabiting.

We think of these findings this way. If you are considering whether or not you should move in with someone to test the relationships, it’s likely not the wisest thing you could do. In fact, it seems to us that many people who are thinking about testing their relationship by cohabiting already know, on some level, what the grade of that test may be; they are hoping that the answer looks better over time. 

Even cohabiting to spend more time together may not be without risk. We’ve argued elsewhere and often—with a lot of empirical evidence in many published studies—that the number one thing people miss about the risk of cohabiting is that it makes it harder to break up. Cohabiting relationships break up all the time, and increasingly so,[x] but the relative difference is the point. All other things being the same, a couple who is cohabiting will have a harder time breaking up than a couple who is only dating. We think that’s a big deal.

If you want to read more about this issue, what we call “the inertia of cohabitation,” you can read more here and here and here. Or, see our 4-minute video on the subject: Relationship DUI.

What’s the point? Simple, actually. Because many people cohabit before even having mutual clarity about commitment, such as through engagement or marriage, some people end up staying in relationships, including on into marriage, that they otherwise would have left behind.[xi] Essentially, many people slide into situations that make it harder to end a relationship before they have made a clear decision about what is best. The situation looks quite a bit different for those who have strongly clarified mutual commitment to the future before moving in together, such as by being engaged or even—gasp—being married.

Cohabitation Fails the Test

There are a lot better ways to test a relationship than to do something that makes it harder to break up before you’ve really figured it all out. Take a relationship education course (i.e., some kind of premarital preparation before you even get engaged), talk about what a future together would look like, and see if you are compatible by dating. Take the time to see your partner in a lot of different social settings.

Ever take any college classes? If so, you know that people sometimes sign up for a class and then decide, part way in, that it’s not for them and they drop the class. But some people figure it out too late and cannot drop the class or, at best, drop it late and lose their money.

It’s easy to slide into cohabitation without even a serious discussion or decision and then get stuck. When it comes to moving in together before marriage, some people may find that they are failing in a class that has become too hard to drop.  

Scott M. Stanley is a research professor at the University of Denver. Galena K. Rhoades is a research associate professor at the University of Denver.




[i] The Barna Group specializes in survey work that is often used by those in religious ministry. As for the methods used by the Barna Group, they seem reasonable to us and the findings are entirely consistent with what we know in this field. However, we have not examined the specific procedures beyond what is stated in their report, where they note: “The study on which these findings are based was conducted via online survey from April 7 to April 14, 2016. A total of 1,097 interviews were conducted. The sample error is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points at 95-percent confidence level. The completion rate was 85%.”
[ii] In creating their report, the Barna Group combined those who either strongly or somewhat agree into one group and those who either somewhat or strongly disagree into the other.
[iii] Manning, W. D. (2013). Trends in cohabitation: Twenty years of change, 1987-2010 (FP-13-12). National Center for Family & Marriage Research. Retrieved from https://www.bgsu.edu/content/dam/BGSU/college-of-arts-and-sciences/NCFMR/documents/FP/FP-13-12.pdf; See also Kennedy, S., & Bumpass, L. (2008). Cohabitation and children's living arrangements: New estimates from the United States. Demographic Research, 19(47), 1663-1692.
[iv] Thornton, A., & Young-DeMarco, L. (2001). Four decades of trends in attitudes toward family issues in the United States: The 1960s through the 1990s. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63(4), 1009-1037. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2001.01009.x
[v] You can find out more about the sample and the methods in these articles: 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.; 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.
[vi] We also gave people the option of saying they moved in together because they did not believe in marriage, which was endorsed by less than 1 percent of the respondents.
[vii] These particular findings from our national sample have not, as yet, been published.
[viii] This was actually listed as “inconvenient to live apart” in the survey
[ix] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). Couples' reasons for cohabitation: Associations with individual well-being and relationship quality. Journal of Family Issues, 30, 233 - 258. doi: 10.1177/0192513X08324388
[x] 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. DOI: 10.1111/jomf.12123
[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.; You can read a full text version of this paper here

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 at 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.