Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Selection Effects: What's at Stake? (following up on The National Marriage Project Report "Before I Do")

See the prior post (below) for more information on the National Marriage Project Report that Galena Rhoades and I authored that was released yesterday.

I want to make you aware of a couple of pieces we've written on the important issue of "selection effects." You'll often hear social scientists talk about this subject when they discuss or critique the type of findings we present in the Before I Do report. The subject is important because it revolves around the degree to which scientists believe that some experiences in life are causally related to outcomes in life.

So, you have a couple of options, if you want to read more on this subject.

For a briefer (about 2.5 pages) take, linked directly to the NMP release, check out what we just posted at the Institute for Family Studies website:  Selection Effects and Personal Choice

For a longer (about 4 pages), more general take, with similar observations but also a deeper set of questions about the problems of free will in science, see this one:  Selection Effects: Social Science and Personal Choices

If you like going deeper on such issues, there you go.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Rhoades and Stanley "Before I Do" Report for the National Marriage Project

The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia released a report today with analyses by Galena Rhoades and me using our national data set from the Relationship Development Study.

The report can be found at the National Marriage Project website.

There are also two brief videos--one from Galena Rhoades and one from me--that can be viewed via links on the NMP website for this report.  (Or, if you rather, just click here for Galena or here for Scott.)

In the report, we look at all sorts of premarital relationship behavior (with prior partners and with the partner people marry) as predictors of overall marital quality.

We examine the following predictors and more:

- Having a child from a prior partner
- Having cohabited with people other than who you marry
- Having sex with others, prior to marriage, in addition to whom you marry
- The number of sexual partners one has had
- If the relationship with the spouse began as a hook-up
- If a couple lived together before a specific commitment to marry
- If, when cohabiting, they slid into it or made a decision about it
- Weddings (if had one) and how many attended

If you prefer a version optimized for reading in a browser, you can click here.

Have at it!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Losses that Motivate Avoiding “The Talk”

[This is the second of two posts on DTRs, wherein I have re-written one of my favorite posts from 2009.]

In my last post, I looked at the question of why people might avoid talking about the relationship; you know, avoid the DTR or having “The Talk.” I discussed several reasons people generally avoid having The Talk, including it being too soon or a couple lacking the ability to have such a talk skillfully. The third reason I raised for avoidance pertains to differences in commitment between partners. I am going to focus on that last point, examining what may go through the person’s mind who does not want his or her partner to start in on The Talk.

Let’s assume a couple who have the names “A” and “B.” I know those are not very imaginative names, but both sets of parents were apparently exhausted and lacked creativity when A and B were born. What are you gonna do? Despite the odd names, A and B found each other (they were in the same line at the Department of Motor Vehicles) and have been involved (a nice ambiguous term) for over a year.

Partner A is more committed to the future than partner B, and A has been thinking a lot about where things are going. In this example, I’m really focusing on a later stage of DTR than merely discovering if each considers what’s happening a relationship. Partner A is the one who wants a future and, naturally, A wants to know what B is thinking about that.

Clarifying the relationship has become increasingly important to partner A because A realizes that time is going by. A has plans for committed, life-long love. Partner A wants to settle down in marriage and needs to know if this is in the cards with B. Like most people who are “in the market” for life-long love, partner A will be less inclined to spend a lot of time with someone if A learns there is no future. So, it’s really time to start finding out. This is not pushing for clarity too soon. But the time is now.

Even though partner A really wants to get things clear, partner A could still be pretty wary of starting the DTR process. Partner A might avoid this talk because A has a hunch that partner B either sees no future or is not ready to be tied to anything that sounds like a plan. But let’s focus in more on partner B.

Before I do that, note that this scenario is common and depicts a painful reality about commitment: The person who is most committed has the least power. This is an extension of a principle framed decades ago, when Sociologist Willard Waller (1938) wrote about the Principle of Least Interest. Waller noted that, in any relationship (romantic, family, business deal, car buying, etc.) the person with the least interest has the most power. While I can think of some nuanced situations where this is not exactly true, this notion is completely true in the relationship between partners A and B. Since B is less committed, B can more easily walk away and move on from the present relationship. In an important way, A’s desire to push the matter, now, is an attempt to either bring balance to the force or, at least, figure out, unflinchingly, if that balance won’t be happening between A and B.

Since partner A loves partner B, and knows he or she wants a future with partner B, pushing the matter is scary. People tend to avoid scary things until they can’t put them off any longer. At some point, in this type of situation, the cost of not knowing exceeds the cost of finding out the answer you don’t want to hear. For many people, I fear way too much time goes by between when this line is crossed and when the big picture DTR actually happens.

The reasons why partner B might avoid The Talk seem more complex, in my view, but they all boil down to calculations over types of loss. Partner B likes the status quo. Whatever the relationship is right now, partner B is happy not to rock the boat, and having The Talk will rock the boat, so B does not want to mess with anything. 

What types of loss can The Talk represent to B? At least three I can think of and describe.

One: If partner B is quite a bit less committed, and senses or knows this, partner B will understand that having a clarifying talk will likely mean breaking off the relationship. B avoids The Talk because of a desire to hang onto the present arrangement even when B sees little likelihood of a long-term future.  

Two: If partner B is somewhat less committed than A, but a future is at least possible, The Talk will lead to a type of ongoing negotiation. One talk will lead to other talks because one isn’t going to do for making things clear or settling what’s happening. Partner A will see some possibility of getting resolution, so A will keep pressing. Like the famous line from the climax of the first Star Wars movie: “Stay on target. Stay on target.” One should fear getting that close to the Death Star but partner A will keep driving in the hopes of wiping out the fear. Partner B doesn’t want this process to start because, like I said, B likes the status quo, even if an equal commitment might be possible in the future. That’s the future and this is today, and all this talking about serious stuff just ain’t fun.

Three:  Partner B might avoid The Talk because the end result will be that B has to up his or her commitment. This is sort of like playing poker. Both partners have their cards (their commitment cards and their cards related to how good their alternatives are). Partner A is throwing all in, and partner B is being called to pony up or fold. Partner B has to match the bet of partner A if A pressed hard enough. 

To put it briefly, partner 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 partner A really decides it’s time to push, and you are counting, that’s three “dues” and it’s time to pay them.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Why People Avoid the Talk (DTR)

[Dear readers, Years ago I had written a couple of pieces on DTRs that I had re-posted earlier this year. This is a substantial update on the first of those two pieces.]  

As you probably know, DTR means Define The Relationship. The Urban Dictionary defines the DTR this way:  “When two people discuss their mutual understanding of a romantic relationship (casual dating, serious boyfriend, etc).”

Doing the DTR is often referred to as having "the talk." I believe "DTR" has joined our vocabulary precisely because of the increased ambiguity in modern day romantic relationships. I write about ambiguity often because I think it's important. For example, I recently wrote about the confusion people often feel about dating

DTRs exist as a process in order to bring some clarity to what’s going on between two people.

The way most people use the term seems to be a bit more specific than the global definition in the Urban Dictionary. People commonly think about the DTR talk as something that occurs on the cusp between being regularly involved and being “official” about being in a relationship together. For some, the aim of the DTR is to move the relationship from hanging out to “dating” in terms of what two partners are willing to tell others. The process, when it advances the relationship, seems somewhat like crossing the border between one country and another, where you have to produce documents about who you are and where you are headed. Indeed, for many couples, the talk will determine customs moving forward.  (Does that make the one pursuing the talk a customs official?)

People were not so aware of this idea 30 or 40 years ago. Sure, people talked and clarified things, but there was less of a recognized need for a specific type of talk back then. There was, however, the idea of going steady, among various other markers of an upgrade in mutual understanding of what was happening. Oftentimes, today, having the talk leads to the same result as starting to go steady did in the past. But as you can see by the Urban Dictionary definition, a DTR talk can lead to any sort of improved understanding between two people, whereas going steady meant a specific increase in commitment and exclusiveness. Technically, while not what the person pushing for the talk usually wants, a DTR talk could lead to increased understanding that there is not much in the way of a serious, mutual commitment between two partners. I’ll come back to that below and in the next post I write.

Here are some reasons for avoiding the talk.

Reason number 1: It’s just too soon to have the talk.

If one brings up the talk too soon, they are likely to come across as needy or even desperate in the eyes of the other. A lot of people chase others off. Some people never do this, some do it a time or two and learn not to keep doing it, and others feel impelled by a need for security to push too often too soon and tend to live more painful lives as a result. People in the latter group tend to give way too much too soon, and too often, to people they are attracted to in life. That’s a form of the terrible “toos” I suppose.    

Some people avoid making things clear because they fear clarity might force the end of a relationship they otherwise want to keep, at least for the time being. After all, especially in earlier stages of relationships, some ambiguity can help two people keep seeing each other while they are figuring out how compatible they are for a possible future. Beyond earlier stages, ambiguity can keep fragile relationships alive that would otherwise not survive clarity. That’s exactly what some people want, of course. The risk, though, is spending ever more time in a fragile relationship that might keep one from finding a better match. It also must be true that, for some people, the fragile relationship they have now is as good as they could have at this time. Their real choice may be between the present relationship and no relationship. Particularly before defining a strong, mutual commitment, everyone’s relationship dynamics take place in a broader context of what their alternatives are to the present relationship.

Overall, some people push for the talk too soon and some don’t push soon enough. Both carry risks. It’s complicated.

Reason number 2: Having at DTR talk takes some guts and skill. Many people do not have the combination and may therefore avoid the talk until circumstances really force the need.

It’s hard enough for couples in relatively healthy and committed relationships to talk effectively about emotional or sensitive issues. These days, many people are not well equipped to have an effective DTR. This is where I can see some advantages to the older convention of going steady. It didn’t take any big discussion to get to the point; one merely had to ask the other if she (or he) wanted to go steady.

Bill:     “Alice, I’ve been thinking. Would you go steady with me?”
Alice:  “Bill, I’m not prepared for that. I don’t want to do that right now.”

Ouch. That hurts but Bill now knows where he stands, and it was not a very complicated conversation. The talk could go on to define what not going steady really meant, of course, but if there was agreement to go steady, all the needed information about expectations were built into the term by common cultural understanding. There was no need for a high level of skill to ask or answer the question. Ask and answered. Move on. Now, people need to have enough skill to build an understanding from the information coming from talks designed to DTR. I’m sure Bill does not feel any better than someone today does when they do not get what they were hoping from in a DTR moment. But the process was efficient.

Reason number 3. I think the most interesting reason people avoid DTRing is that there are issues about commitment in one or both partners. By commitment, I mean having a willingness to commit to the future and have some identity as a couple.   

When it comes to commitment, either partner A and B are nearly equally committed or they are not. At earlier stages of relationships, an imbalance is common since one partner often becomes more committed sooner than the other. However, when this imbalance goes on and on, it can become a serious problem. When it never ends, the more committed partner is a candidate for a mention in a new edition of the book, He’s Just Not That Into You.  (Or She’s Just Not) That book is humorous and brutal and a bit coarse, but it deals directly with ongoing commitment imbalances and how people put up with a lot to hang onto a little.  

The commitment complication provides one of the greatest reasons someone might avoid raising the issue even if it seems long past time to clarify things. When there could be a possible imbalance in commitment, the one raising the question is risking outright rejection, so may avoid asking for the clarity that he or she deeply desires.

One of the biggest problems with ambiguity is that serious differences in commitment levels can be missed. The more committed person may be perfectly aware that he or she is more committed, but, in many other cases, the intense attraction felt for the partner can make it hard to register what really is a substantial vulnerability in the relationship.That's the biggest risk in avoiding clarity, indefinitely.