Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Part II: Unmarried Cheating (Infidelity in Unmarried, Serious Romantic Relationships)

I last left you on the edge of your seat about what I’d write next about the study on extradyadic sex I introduced you to in my last post. If you have not already read the prior post, please do so as this one builds on it. That post was all about findings in a study from our lab at the University of Denver (Shaw, Rhoades, Allen, Stanley, & Markman, 2013).

Here’s a very brief recap:  Shaw et al. examined predictors of having sex outside of one’s serious, unmarried, romantic relationship over a 20 month period of time. As you can read in the prior post, many variables were associated with new occurrences of infidelity in these relationships and many other variables were not associated with infidelity. For example, those who were happier and more committed and who had less negativity with their partners were less likely to report having had sex with someone else. Not shocking but good to know. In contrast, those who had a greater number of prior sexual partners or who reported more use of alcohol were more likely to report having had sex with someone else.  And so forth and so on.

Did any of the findings seem surprising to you? The finding that I think many people would consider surprising is that living together was not significantly associated with whether or not a person reported having had sex with someone other than their partner.  That is, living together was not associated with greater odds of cheating nor was it associated with lower odds of cheating. Living together just didn’t provide information about sexual exclusivity.  

I believe that many people believe that cohabitation = commitment or that it means there has been a step-up in commitment. Closely related, I believe that many people believe the fact that two people live together means that the two partners are “off the market,” so to speak. There actually is no evidence that I know of for believing this. 

From all of the studies I know, I have not seen convincing evidence that living together sends any clear signal about commitment between two people. That’s a problem for some people because they believe that it does. In contrast, other variables studied by Shaw et al. were associated with greater odds of exclusivity, for example commitment to one’s partner or engagement to marry.

As I’ve said before, if couple tells me they are living together, and this is all I know, I don’t know much about commitment. In contrast, if a couple tells me they are married, engaged, have mutual plans for marriage, or have a made a really strong, mutual commitment to a future together, I know a lot about their level of commitment. Those things are all strong and clear signals of commitment. And that’s really my point here. While I am reporting findings about sex and living together, the key underlying issue is about clear and unclear signals about commitment.

There is some practical advice in this. If you want to know if your partner is really committed to you, look for something that reflects actual commitment. Don’t rely on an unreliable signal—living together. Living together does not signal commitment. Commitment signals commitment.

As an aside, I’ve noted in other posts that I believe there are some places and conditions where living together does signal a higher level of commitment compared to not living together. But I want to point out that there is just not much evidence for this being true for most people in most communities.

The practical point is something like this: If you are trying to figure out if a relationship is exclusive and has a future, the starting point isn’t going to moving in together—nor would it be the willingness of someone to have sex with you. Moving in together does not mean much about commitment. It’s much more informative to talk openly (when it is the right time to start doing so) and see if there really is a mutual commitment and a similar understanding about relationship. Too many people find out the hard way that moving in together didn’t mean what they thought or hoped it meant.


[Technical note for those so inclined:  Our sample is relatively large for the level of measurement that we have on these relationships over time. That means the lack of a significant association between living together and infidelity is not likely a result of having too little statistical power. Also, the analyses reported in Shaw et al. are not what you often see in sociological studies where many variables are controlled for while looking at the impact of one or two key predictors of something interesting. We’re psychologists, and I must confess we sometimes think sociologists over do their controls. The analyses in Shaw et al. are intentionally showing which variables among a substantial list are associated with new instances of infidelity, not what is associated with infidelity when many other variables are controlled for at the same time. I have, however, also looked at some related analyses with and without controlling for some other variables such as how long the person had already been in the present relationships. Same general finding: living together is not reliably associated with more or less odds of infidelity. There may be a more complicated or otherwise interesting story to tell in the future when we get to other analyses. We’ll see. The present finding is consistent and it fits other findings that shed light on what does and does not signal higher levels of commitment.]

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Unmarried Cheating: Stepping Out in Unmarried, Serious Romantic Relationships

A recent study examines who is most likely to have sex with someone else while they are in a serious but unmarried romantic relationship. I am going to summarize the key findings for you here and give you a reference and link below where you can read more if you wish.

This study on what researchers call “extradyadic sex” was headed up by Amanda Maddox Shaw who used to work in our lab at the University of Denver and who is now a graduate student the University of Rochester. (She’s brilliant, by the way.) The authors of this particular study included Amanda Shaw, Galena Rhoades, Elizabeth Allen, yours truly, and Howard Markman.

Okay, on to the study. 

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve noticed that in most industrialized nations, people are marrying later and later and having increasingly significant, romantic relationships prior to marriage. People who are seriously involved with another tend to expect sexual faithfulness even though they are not married. But how many people have sex with someone else when already in a serious romantic relationship? And what are the characteristics of the people who do versus those who do not have sex with someone else?

In our lab, we have collected data over time on a large, national sample of younger adults who were romantically involved. We recruited this sample such that, at the first time point, the participants were aged 18 to 34 and in serious romantic relationships that had lasted at least two months. Recruiting was conducted by the use of phone survey methods (230,000 phone calls were made to recruit the sample of around 1300 people who met the criteria. You should have seen my cell phone bill that month.). Asking that people be in a serious relationship of two months or more yielded a sample of people who had been in their present relationship for an average of two years. So, what we are talking about here are people who are already involved in important, ongoing, serious relationships. We have followed this sample for five years, including through all the potential changes in their relationships.The sample matches census characteristics for this age amazingly well. It tilts toward a lower average income, however, given that we recruited unmarried people in this age range.

What our team did, headed up by Shaw, was examine who was most likely to have sex with someone outside of their relationship over a period of 1.5 years from the first time point in the study. I refer to this as “cheating” in the title of this post because that is what most of it would entail. However, we are not able to tease out the small number of people who would have agreed with their partners to be in open relationships where it would not be cheating but it would merely be extradyadic sex. But most of what we’re talking about here would be cheating in the sense that it’s having sex with someone else where that would not have been considered “okay” by the partner. And even in unmarried relationships and dating relationships that have turned more serious, people have high expectations for their partner not to step out on them.

Based on some earlier work by Elizabeth Allen, Galena Rhoades, and others on our team, Shaw looked at whether characteristics of the individual or of their relationships tended to tell us more about who was most likely to sex with someone other than their partner over time. In this sample, 14% reported having sex outside of their relationship during the 1.5 years from when they began participating in the long-term study. [Added clarification on 7-31-2013: People who had already had sex with someone other than their partner at the first time point were excluded from these analyses in order to make sure that the study was looking at what predicted future extradyadic sex over the course of the 1.5 years.]

What I will now list are the variables (in no particular order) that we found to be associated with having extradyadic sex over the period of time studied (1.5 yrs).

            Individual variables associated with extradyadic sex

- Having more sexual partners prior to the present relationship
- Greater use of alcohol
- Having parents who never married

            Individual variables NOT associated with extradyadic sex

- Gender (males were not more likely than females to cheat)
- Age
- Education
- Religiousness
- Having children (with partner or from prior relationships)
- Parental divorce

Relationship variables associated with extradyadic sex

- Lower relationship satisfaction
- Lower levels of dedication (commitment) to the partner
- Higher levels of negative communication
- A history of physical aggression in the relationship
- Not having mutual plans for marriage
- Suspicion of partner having sex with other(s)
- Partner has had sex with another

Relationship variables NOT associated with extradyadic sex

- Frequency of sex in present relationship
- Satisfaction with sex in present relationship
- Living together

I want to discuss a few highlights here and in my next post. I will leave other interesting details to those who would like to read the journal article written by Amanda Shaw and our team.

There are not a lot of studies looking at unmarried but serious romantic relationships with regard to cheating. That makes this sample we have quite valuable for addressing questions like this. Loads of studies look at infidelity in marriage but few have looked at unmarried serious relationships like we do here. With the changing times, what happens in unmarried relationships is increasingly important to understand because these relationships have massive impacts on peoples’ lives. I am not saying this is a good trend, just that it’s reality. (For more on that point, see my post on “WhatHappens in Vegas Stays in Vegas, Right? Thoughts on Life Before Marriage,” which I plan to update soon. So, stay tuned for that.)

Here’s a highlight from this new study described above. While there are some individual characteristics that were associated with having extradyadic sex, there were many more individual characteristics that were not associated with sex with another. The big story is that the characteristics of the relationship—especially the quality of the relationship—says the most about who is likely to cheat over time. Those who were less satisfied in their relationships, less committed to their partner, and who had reported more negative patterns of communicating were the ones most likely to have sex with another. Contrary to what you might have guessed, sexual frequency and sexual satisfaction with the partner were not associated with cheating. Rather, the overall quality of the relationship, apart from sex, is what mattered most--for both men and women.

In addition to the quality of the relationship, I want to point out that suspecting one’s partner of cheating or knowing one’s partner has cheated in the past was strongly associated with the likelihood a person would have sex with someone other than their partner in the future. In other words, people who think or know that their partner has had sex with someone else are more likely, over time, to do the same. Some of that is just part of the relationships having lower commitment and some is doubtless revenge, but I'd bet more on low commitment being the big story there. 

The headline is that overall relationship quality mattered most in explaining who, in unmarried romantic relationships, was most likely to step out on their partner. I will pick up on some of the (surprising) things that were not associated with sex with others in my next post.

Citation and Funding:

The project described was supported by Award Number R01HD047564 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development or the National Institutes of Health.


Monday, July 8, 2013

Same Place But Not On Same Page: Men and Women and Moving In Together

There is a great piece on this subject, just out in the Atlantic, written by sociologist Brad Wilcox: Men and Women Often Expect Different Things When They Move In Together.

As regular followers of our work at the University of Denver know, there can be a lot of misunderstandings about cohabitation stemming from the fact that most couples (really, most!) slide into it without the two partners being all that clear about what it means and where it is going. That is partly why moving in together is such a totally different thing from getting married. While many marriages do not work out like people planned or hoped, at least the meaning of the transition is usually clear with regard to having a future together. This is often not at all true of moving in together.

Wilcox's piece highlights some new findings from a study by sociologists at the Rand Corporation as well as some of the research we and others have done in this area that gets into ways commitment dynamics can be different for men versus women when it comes to cohabiting.

A key line from Wilcox's piece will give you the flavor for what he writes about:  "Finally, when she turned 33, Shannon told him she wanted a wedding date, to which he responded that he was not ready for marriage....."

There are a lot of women (and men) who reach a "finally" point, where they realize their partner is not on the same page about a future together when that is what they thought was the whole point. Not only not on the same page, but not even in the same book.

I highly recommend his piece to those of you interested in current trends in relationship development as well as cohabitation.  You can read his piece at the link above.  Highly recommended!