Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Nuclear Family Was No Mistake

David Brooks, opinion columnist of the New York Times, wrote a thoughtful and somewhat provoking piece entitle The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake that appeared in The Atlantic last week. His article has received much attention.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Brooks' essential arguments were that the nuclear family is a relatively recent (in history) family form, that it has come to foster detachment and disconnect, that it may have damaged extended family connections, and that something new is emerging and encouraging wherein people forge families and close connections in the absence of nuclear families.

The Institute for Family Studies published a symposium of opinions on its blog, including rejoinders from a number of scholars from different perspectives, challenging, supporting, refuting, and discussing various aspects of the arguments Brooks raised. Several (Hymowitz, Cherlin, & Stanley) directly challenge some of the inferences about the nuclear family, noting its close ties to the most fundamental of human relationships, the pair bond. Most all deal with, and share, a major concern of Brooks--the decline of connection in our society.

Brooks has encouraged an important discussion for our times.

The rejoinders are relatively brief pieces. Here are links to them all.

Scott Stanley (University of Denver): When Wants Conflict with Needs: A Response to David Brooks

Andrew Cherlin (Johns Hopkins University): David Brooks is Urging Us to Go Forward, not Backward

Richard Reeves (The Brookings Institute): David Brooks Is Correct: Both the Quality and Quantity of Our Relationships Matter

Kay Hymowitz (Manhatten Institute): Yes, David Brooks, the Nuclear Family is the Worst Family Form—Except for All Others

Rod Dreher (The American Conservative): David Brooks Is Right—The Nuclear Family Was Destined to Die

Wendy Wang (Institute for Family Studies) & W. Bradford Wilcox (University of Virginia): What Do We Know About Extended Families in America? A Response to David Brooks

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

"Don't Worry, Be Happy" is Not a Plan: Give me a Lever

“Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will move the world.”

The famous quote by Archimedes is fundamentally about the mechanics of leverage. You might remember a teacher explaining fulcrums and levers, and how a lever could help you move a heavy weight with less force than otherwise needed. Though the mechanics are interesting, what captivates me most in this is the simple idea of there being a lever to pull that will make something else happen.

Over my career, I keep returning to the importance of differentiating between the kinds of constructs used by researchers to describe romantic relationships. I believe some constructs imply levers that might be pulled to cause an effect, and others do not. This distinction matters theoretically and in our personal relationships.


Psychologists use the term “construct” to refer to cluster of things that reflect a concept. It is easy to think of a construct in the way most people use the term variable, but the idea of a variable usually refers to a specific measure of a construct as used in a study. Common constructs in the study of romantic relationships are things like satisfaction, commitment, conflict, appreciation, forgiveness, distress, attachment, and communication. A variety of things can be included in a construct but, in each case, there is a ball of stuff around a label reflecting one inherent thing. A construct has a clumpy, thingness to it.

When it comes to romantic relationships, satisfaction has gotten the most attention. Satisfaction is part of the same ball of stuff as happiness. This clump represents an overall, broad sentiment about a relationship.[i]

As a researcher and intervention minded psychologist, I’m not wild about the construct of satisfaction, and I can explain why. Think about some other constructs relevant to romantic relationships.


What is different about these constructs from satisfaction? First, notice that all those terms refer to something more specific than satisfaction. If your friend has started dating someone, and you are curious to know how it’s going, you might text and ask, “do you like her?” The answer will tell you a lot without telling you anything specific. Liking, happiness, and satisfaction are all part of the same clump of non-specific positive sentiments.

More importantly, each of those constructs just listed—and many others—have plausible levers. They each imply someplace to stand and something to pull. In other words, those constructs are actionable. Although they each can also reflect something about the current state of a relationship, it’s that idea of something to pull that sets them apart from satisfaction.


Satisfaction, and anything like it, will predict a good deal about the future of a relationship. It is an important construct and nearly always measured in relationship science. It also can cause other things and yet still be relatively lever-less. For example, if a person is not satisfied in their relationship, they may give their partner less attention and their relationship will deteriorate further. In that case, satisfaction is causal by way of motivation—demotivating, really.

The notion of levers focuses attention on a different thing than just causality. A construct with a lever will reflect something that could be plausibly acted on by will. Thus, having a lever means the construct is potentially both causal and possible to direct.

Let’s say you wanted to increase satisfaction in your relationship this week. I do not think you will get very far with a plan that merely specifies your objective. Can you will yourself to be happier? I cannot. Can you decide to just be more satisfied with your partner? You could, but if you decide to do that you will shortly thereafter be thinking about your options to do something that could make that happen. A construct with a lever will imply an answer to a question, “What has a lever I could go pull this evening, that would probably have a good effect on my relationship, tonight, this week, or this year?" 

Here are some possible answers. You can decide to listen more to your partner. You can work at articulating more clearly what you want. You can show your commitment by some tangible act like inviting your partner to do something with you that you both enjoy. You can look for ways to provide more emotional or tangible support to your partner around an ongoing personal struggle. You can show joy about something your partner has achieved. Lever-actions, all.

You can see this principle in various things my colleagues and I have written over the years about commitment. The following is a passage from a chapter on how to use commitment theory in marital therapy (from Stanley, Lobitz, & Dickson, 1999)[ii]:

While satisfaction is certainly a crucial construct, focusing on it alone will lead to incomplete understandings of the complex motivations that underlie stay-leave decisions (Johnson, 1978, 1982, 1985; McDonald, 1981; Stanley & Markman, 1992; Rusbult, 1983). Furthermore, satisfaction alone gives therapists little instruction in how to help unhappy couples. "Don't worry, be happy" makes a great motto, but it does not offer much in terms of specific therapeutic strategies.
. . .
The good news is that the factors that underlie dedication are things about which people have choices. People can choose how they will handle the allure of alternatives. People can choose the priority they will place on their relationships. People can choose to nurture a positive, long-term vision for their relationship.

There are many models of measurement and theory about commitment, but one that resonates the most with me contrasts commitment as constraint and commitment as dedication. Constraints are things that can lead someone to remain in a relationship, whether or not they want to, and constraints tend naturally to build up over time. They often function harmlessly or even positively (as evidence of investment and a brake on ruining years of investment during a down time), but if satisfaction is low, they are what makes a person feel trapped. Constraints are hard to change or change quickly. Dedication, in contrast, is loaded with parts (sub-constructs) that are festooned with possible levers.

Consider this next list and how everything on it reflects not only something that will tell you something about a person’s commitment to their partner but will also leave a clue about aspects of behavior that might be changed to make a difference.

            A desire for a future together
            Couple identity

A person can think about ways to make their relationship a higher priority, and likely do something even slightly different the next day. For example, a person can choose to find ways to reinforce something about the future they want with their partner. That could mean planning a trip together or simply talking about the future with their significant other. Sacrifice, especially in little things, can also play a potent role in signaling commitment. There is a small but conceptually tight literature on sacrifice that suggests that, aside from situations where sacrifice is grossly uneven or resented, little sacrifices are going to make a positive difference.[iii] I have written a briefarticle about some of the ways one can focus on small acts of sacrifice in their relationship. Small positive sacrifices not only reflect this idea of levers, they might also have the very property Archimedes touted where a little effort can do a lot.

Here is a similar distinction in another paper, where we are differentiating dedication from romantic attachment (from Stanley, Rhoades, & Whitton, 2010)[iv]:

If commitment develops partly to secure romantic attachments, which aspects of the broader construct of commitment serve this purpose? . . . Constraint can foster a sense of permanence, which can contribute to overall security, but dedication will be reflected in behaviors that are more readily seen as under personal control, and, thereby, informative about commitment in ways that fosters trust and security between partners.
            . . .
One of the important differences between commitment and romantic attachment lies in the fact that intention is central in understanding commitment while romantic attachment only implies depth of emotional connection.

These examples are focused on aspects of commitment because that has been a focus of a lot of my thinking about relationships, but it is just an example of my main argument about constructs with levers. I often similarly contrast communication with satisfaction, where communication implies loads of levers and satisfaction does not.

Rock your world

I bet Archimedes believed that he could literally move the earth with a long enough lever, a fulcrum, and a place to stand just beyond it—hypothetically, of course. And you and me? Sometimes we’re looking too hard for something to rock our world when we just need to pull the lever that is nearest to where we presently stand.

Special thanks to Troy Fangmeier for help in editing this piece. A shorter version of this piece first appeared at my blog for Psychology Today on 12-3-2019. 

[i] In fact, satisfaction is potentially so broad a construct that many in my field of family psychology keep referring back to a concept of positive sentiment override, a term put forth by Robert Weiss to describe a phenomenon where one partner can hold such a positive overall sentiment about the other partner that pretty much nothing but positive can be seen. There can be negative sentiment override, also. This idea comes up often in discussions with colleagues over the years when the question is asked if some other construct is really just satisfaction by a different name. Citation: Weiss, R. L. (1980). Strategic behavioral marital therapy:  Toward a model for assessment and intervention, Volume 1. In   J. P. Vincent (Ed.) Advances in Family Intervention, Assessment, and, Theory (pp. 229-271). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

[ii] Stanley, S.M., Lobitz, W.C., & Dickson, F. (1999). Using what we know: Commitment and cognitions in marital therapy. In W. Jones & J. Adams (Eds), Handbook of interpersonal commitment and relationship stability (pp. 379-392). New York: Plenum.

[iii] Especially on this point, see: Wieselquist, J., Rusbult, C. E., Foster, C. A., & Agnew, C. R. (1999). Commitment, pro-relationship behavior, and trust in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 942-966.; and also: Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., Low, S. M., Clements, M. L., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sacrifice as a predictor of marital outcomes. Family Process, 45, 289-303.

[iv] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2, 243-257. DOI: 10.1111/j.1756-2589.2010.00060.x

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Best Practices in Relationship Education

My colleagues and I have written a new journal article on best practices in relationship education. You can get a copy of it (free access) from here.

Here are some out-takes from key sections.
Effectiveness of Relationship Education

There are numerous meta‐analyses of studies examining effectiveness of relationship education (e.g., Arnold & Beelman, 2019; Carroll & Doherty, 2003; Hawkins & Erickson, 2015; Hawkins, Blanchard, Baldwin, & Fawcett, 2008; Fawcett, Hawkins, Blanchard, &  Carroll, 2010). There has been evidence of effectiveness on measures of relationship quality, including communication and relationship satisfaction (.30 < d  <.36; Hawkins et al., 2008). Several studies have shown positive effects on relationship stability, including less breakup and divorce (e.g., Moore, Avellar, Patnaik, Covington, & Wu, 2018; Stanley et al., 2014). Other studies have shown effects on parenting behavior (.10 < d  < .16; Adler‐Baeder et al., 2013; Cowan, Cowan, Pruett, Pruett, & Wong, 2009; Moore et al., 2018). Additionally, there is evidence that relationship education is associated with reduced likelihood of intimate partner violence (IPV; e.g., Antle, Karam, Christensen, Barbee, & Sar, 2011; Braithwaite & Fincham, 2014; Markman, Renick, Floyd, Stanley, & Clements, 1993; Moore et al., 2018). This fact was noted in a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Niolon et al., 2017).
. . . 
Who Benefits Most From Relationship Education?

The evidence to date is that participants at greater risk tend to demonstrate the most benefit from relationship education (e.g., Allen, Rhoades, Stanley, Loew, & Markman, 2012; Bradford, Adler‐Baeder, et al., 2014a; Carlson et al., 2017; Gubits, Lowenstein, Harris, Hsueh, 2014; Halford & Bodenmann, 2013; McGill et al., 2016; Williamson et al., 2015). Indicators of risk that have been associated with more benefit from relationship education include higher levels of relationship distress (Carlson et al., 2017; Hawkins & Erickson, 2015; Williamson et al., 2015); cohabitation before committing to marriage (Rhoades, Stanley, Markman, & Allen, 2015); infidelity history (Allen et al., 2012); and sociodemographic risks, such as family instability, economic disadvantage, and minority status (e.g., Amato, 2014; Halford, Sanders, & Behrens, 2001; Stanley et al., 2014). Conversely, there is evidence that those with especially acute problems (i.e., aggression and alcohol abuse) may benefit less (Williamson et al., 2015). 

. . . 
Participant motivations revisited

The findings from the effectiveness trial including OurRelationship and ePREP noted earlier highlight an important issue. The effect sizes for the impacts found for these approaches (so far) have tended to be larger than what is found in traditional, workshop‐based relationship education provided to disadvantaged couples. This discrepancy could be due to any number of factors, including the benefits of online access, the specific approaches used, or differences in research designs (long‐term RCT vs. shorter term, waitlist control RCT). However, we believe the primary factor is the difference in motivation (and relationship quality) of those being served. When participants are distressed and seeking help, they have a lot of room for gains on measures of relationship quality compared with couples in more purely preventive applications.

There is a place for both purely preventive relationship education and relationship education delivered to couples who are struggling. Understanding who is served, how they were reached, and why they attend is crucial for understanding research on relationship education.

. . . 
Relationship Education as a Service—and an Opportunity

The room people find their way into is the room they were able to enter. Whether the service provided is exactly what is most needed or not, showing up creates opportunities to make people aware of other services. Because relationship education carries so little stigma, people who might need other, more stigmatized services (therapy, substance use treatment, etc.) can enter the relationship education door more easily than other doors. Thus, it is valuable to provide information about other services that may be relevant for participants. Although it is not advisable to assume that specific participants need additional help when they have not indicated they want help, we do recommend providing everyone who attends with information about additional resources available in the community. This strategy can also boost awareness of the relationship education services among providers providing these other services in the community. The goal is to leave people with more information than they had walking in the door. This strategy is strongest if educators demonstrate approachability so that those needing more help are comfortable asking for it (e.g., Daire, Carlson, Barden, & Jacobson, 2014).

*        *         * 

Citation: Stanley, S. M., Carlson, R. G., Rhoades, G. K., Markman, H. J., Ritchie, L. L., &  Hawkins, A. J. (2019). Best practices in relationship education focused on intimate relationships. Family Relations. Advance Online Publication.

Note: This paper is open access under a creative commons license that allows anyone to quote liberally from the article as long as attribution is given. Disclosure: I (Scott Stanley) co-own a business that disseminates relationship education materials and training.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Thoughts on the Typical Meaning of Predicting Divorce

The researcher who wrote the following tweet has a nice thread on some technical details about difficulties scientists have with prediction of things in humans. It explains one of the major problems in predicting. Clicking on the tweet will take you to the beginning of his thread.

In my field (psychology, studying marriage), much has been made of the ability to “predict” divorce. But, that’s not really what the takeaway of the research on that subject should be.

To start with, when researchers say you can predict divorce with over 90% accuracy, it’s not really prospective prediction. It’s classification after the fact in a given data set. Such models will not perform as well in a new, other data set. For a great article on the technical matters, in this field related to predicting divorce, see this article.
Further, even in those types of studies, there is usually massive measurement, often including objective coding of couple interaction. This is just not something available to anyone in the practice world working with non-study couples.

Many of us in psychology have published these types of studies. A better takeaway from such studies is that they show patterns that are associated with increased odds of problems in the future (and present) of a relationship.

That kind of information is valuable for highlighting risks and working to help couples think about what is possible for them to improve their odds. But, predicting a specific couple is going to make it or not? You can have an empirically-informed guesses but it’s hard to go beyond that.

All that being said, if you want the divorce risk for a couple you are working with, asking a couple questions will tell you pretty much.

                   How sure are you that you want to be with your partner in the future?

                   Have you been thinking about or talking about divorce?

Sometimes, just asking directly what you want to know can get you a lot of information. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

Article that I posted at the Institute for Family Studies on Mandy Len Catron's piece in the Atlantic

I will cross post this here some day soon, but for now, here is the link for the article that I wrote at IFS.

Between Mandy Len Catron's piece in the Atlantic and this piece here, you have a pretty deep dive in the cultural, and personal, discussions people are having about marriage and cohabitation.

3 Questions That Can Clarify Commitment: A Response to Mandy Len Catron

Have at it. 

Monday, January 28, 2019

Some Links about Asymmetrical Commitment

My colleagues and I have published a number of articles about asymmetrical commitment in relationships--especially in unmarried romantic relationships.  I have argued in many places that asymmetrical commitment is likely an increasingly common phenomena of romantic relationship development. The reason is that there are fewer steps and stages--less clarity about signals of commitment--in current patterns of dating and mate selection.

I will not state all the particulars here, but, instead, want to provide some links to the body of work we have around this important concept.

1. A short video of me explaining asymmetrical commitment and its association with ambiguity between partners about the nature of the commitment in their relationship, using the illustration of a teeter-totter (or, if you rather, a see-saw).  CLICK HERE.

2. A theoretical overview and review of key findings on the concept in a digestible blog article by me and Galena Rhoades. CLICK HERE.

3. A paper of ours showing that there are greater levels of asymmetrical commitment among couples who lived together before either marrying or having clear, mutual plans to marry--and that the asymmetry does not abate at all, years into marriage:

Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J. (2006). Pre-engagement cohabitation and gender asymmetry in marital commitment. Journal of Family Psychology, 20, 553-560.

4. A paper of ours showing that asymmetrical commitment is associated with lower relationship quality, even controlling for levels of commitment between partners:

Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2012). A longitudinal investigation of commitment dynamics in cohabiting relationships. Journal of Family Issues, 33(3), 369-390.

5. A paper of ours examining associations between asymmetrical commitment and a) various dimension of relationship quality (e.g., relationship adjustment, aggression), b) relationship characteristics (e.g., cohabitation, plans for marriage), and c) break-up among unmarried couples in serious relationships:

Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Scott, S. B., Kelmer, G., Markman, H. J., & Fincham, F. D. (2017). Asymmetrically committed relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 34, 1241–1259. Advance online version published in 2016.
[This paper has a pretty detailed literature review of the research by various scholars on asymmetrical commitment. Full word-doc, author version, available here.]

6. A paper of ours on the characteristics of individuals who are in asymmetrically committed relationships, including variables such as alternative quality and attachment dynamics:

Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Kelmer, G., Scott, S. B., Markman, H. J., & Fincham, F. D. (2018). Unequally into “Us”: Characteristics of individuals in asymmetrically committed relationships. Family Process.

A blog entry summarizing the findings of this article above. CLICK HERE.

A video abstract about this same article.  CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Unequally into "Us": Characteristics of individuals in asymmetrically committed relationships

AntonioGuillem via BigStockPhotos
Our newest journal article is out. It's about the characteristics of individuals that are associated with it being more likely to be an asymmetrically committed relationship (ACR) compared to those not in such relationships. The study focuses on a sample of unmarried adults (aged 18 to mid thirties) in seriously involved relationships. Asymmetrically committed relationships are more likely to break up (especially if the woman is the less committed partner), more likely to be unhappy, more likely to include physical aggression (by either partner), and more likely to be found in cohabiting rather than dating, but not living together, relationships.

Here are a few highlights:

Those who are the less committed partner within an asymmetrically committed relationship are more likely to:
  • perceive themselves as having good alternatives to their present relationship
  • be attachment avoidant
  • have parents who never married (but not more likely to have parents who divorced)
Those who are the more committed partner within an asymmetrically committed relationship are more likely to: 
  • have anxious attachment 
Regarding commitment and attachment, those with attachment avoidance tend to hang back and those with anxious attachment tend to hang on. These are not surprising findings but it is important to observe them not only in regarding to mere high or low commitment, but regarding being in the higher or lower position of commitment in an asymmetrical relationship. 

There are other findings covered in the paper, including about numbers of prior sexual and/or cohabiting partners, infidelity, and so forth. 

The paper covers the existing literature on ACRs pretty deeply, so it provides a great way to get a solid sense of what is known on this topic. The paper also provides suggestions for working with individuals or couples in therapy or relationship education based on the existing, and growing, literature on asymmetrical commitment. 

To read the abstract, click here.

To see me discussing the study in a "video abstract" for the The journal Family Process, click here.

For an earlier summary on this blog of our research on unequally committed relationships, and their numerous negative characteristics, click here.

If you have no way to access the entire article and want to read it, email me at my university email address, on this page.

Citation: Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Kelmer, G., Scott, S. B., Markman, H. J., & Fincham, F. D. (2018). Unequally into “Us”: Characteristics of individuals in asymmetrically committed relationships. Family Process. doi: 10.1111/famp.12397. Advance online version: