Saturday, April 11, 2009

We’re Just Not That Into Us

I suggest reading my last post before this one, if you have not already done so.

In my last post, I wrote about the trend toward ambiguity in romantic relationships. I left off with a question about why ambiguity might be preferred, even when it seems to have so many disadvantages. Here’s one of the ideas we bat around in our research lab.

We have come through a time of immense upheaval for marriage. As the divorce rate rose (for complex reasons), people began to lose confidence in the security of marriage. Don’t get me wrong, it’s the most secure romantic relationship existing, but it’s not as secure as it was many years ago. We also know that the childhood experience of divorce in one’s parent’s marriage can have effects that are lasting (another complex issue). First, children of divorce are somewhat more likely to experience difficulties and divorce in their own marriages as adults. Second, children of divorce tend to have less confidence in the institution of marriage. Third, children of divorce, in their own marriages as adults, tend to feel less confident and less committed. In the case of confidence and commitment, it’s a fairly small difference, but it does tend that direction. [I’ll cite a couple of articles at the end of the post for those who are more inclined to dig deeper. Also, keep in mind that differences in research are always “on average,” and reflect the way things tend to run not the way things must turn out.]

Back to ambiguity. I believe that more people than ever before feel insecurity about their prospects for life-long love. I believe there is a culture wide trend toward insecurity about attachments lasting. So why would ambiguity be valued? One answer is that some people may feel less anxious about relationships ending if ambiguity keeps it less clear that a strong attachment exists in the first place. A mental trick, that. If put into one’s own thoughts, it might sound like this: “If we don’t make it all that clear to ourselves and others that we’re a couple, it won’t hurt so much if ever we’re not.” Unfortunately, most tricks are based in illusion, not reality; if you’re in love, you’re in love, and it will hurt a lot to break up. Ambiguity can’t really stop that.

I’ll save some more thoughts about ambiguity for another time. (That’s an ambiguous commitment to you.)

If you want to chase research on those points about divorce I mentioned above, here are a couple of places to start.

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Amato, P. R. & DeBoer, D. (2001). The transmission of divorce across generations:
Relationship skills or commitment to marriage?” Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 1038-1051.

Abstract: Assessed national, longitudinal data from 2 generations to identify explanations for the intergenerational transmission of marital instability, one based on relationship skills and the other based on marital commitment. Ss were 2,033 married persons contacted in 1980, 1983, 1992, and 1997 and a sample of 335 offspring (aged 19 yrs and older). Parental divorce approximately doubled the odds that offspring would see their own marriages end in divorce. Offspring with maritally distressed parents who remained continuously married did not have an elevated risk of divorce. Divorce was most likely to be transmitted across generations if parents reported a low, rather than a high, level of discord prior to marital dissolution. These results, combined with other findings from the study, suggest that offspring with divorced parents have an elevated risk of seeing their own marriages end in divorce because they hold a comparatively weak commitment to the norm of lifelong marriage. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2008 APA, all rights reserved)

Whitton, S. W., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2008). Effects of parental divorce on marital commitment and confidence. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 789-793.

Abstract: Research on the intergenerational transmission of divorce has demonstrated that, compared to offspring of non-divorced parents, those of divorced parents generally have more negative attitudes towards marriage as an institution and are less optimistic about the feasibility of a long-lasting, healthy marriage. It is also possible that, when entering marriage themselves, adults whose parents divorced have less personal relationship commitment to their own marriages and less confidence in their own ability to maintain a happy marriage with their spouse. However, this prediction has not been tested. In the current study, we assessed relationship commitment and relationship confidence, as well as parental divorce and retrospectively-reported interparental conflict, in a sample of 265 engaged couples prior to their first marriage. Results demonstrated that women’s but not men’s parental divorce was associated with lower relationship commitment and lower relationship confidence. These effects persisted when controlling for the influence of recalled interparental conflict and premarital relationship adjustment. The current findings suggest that women whose parents divorced are more likely to enter marriage with relatively lower commitment to, and confidence in, the future of those marriages, potentially raising their risk for divorce.