Friday, September 9, 2011

Marriage and Cohabitation: Another Take, Building on the Discussion of Selection

[This was written years ago. Since this one is pretty popular, I have updated links now with various studies as of 2-2015. Also, if you are interested in the subject of cohabitation and want a narrative summary of our line of research, complete with abstracts and citations and how we were thinking in the progression of studies, you can get a document on that, here.]

This post is about cohabitation and marriage and commitment. It is also the last of five posts on key scientific issues that affect all of science, social science, and have been huge issues in discussions and debates about cohabitation. I plan for this one to be the last major, heavy science piece on those themes for awhile. For full context, see preceding posts.

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Backdrop for the Blog Entry Below

The Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project just released the third edition of a report entitled Why Marriage Matters. It is a document authored by sociologist Brad Wilcox, who heads up the National Marriage Project, and co-signed by a group of family scholars, including myself. You can find out more about the report, order a copy, or download the press release, executive summary, endnotes (all the references cited) by clicking on the title above.

The report created quite a stir, and reignited the continual debate among scholars about the importance of marriage and the implications of cohabitation. One particularly strong example of the debate on such matters comes from the blog of sociologist Philip Cohen. You can see Cohen’s comments on the issues as well as comments from various people in reply, including Brad Wilcox and other family scholars, on his site by clicking here. There are follow-ups in the next blog entry of Cohen, as well.

In thinking about the various issues raised in the Why Marriage Matters report as well as on Cohen’s blog and elsewhere, I wrote the following thoughts. So, here you go. Plenty to chew on and think about.

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My Thoughts

Every responsible scientist in the family field understands that there are potent selection factors involved in romantic trajectories and family outcomes. Further, the income/education/poverty aspects of selection are particularly compelling and raise concerns about how individuals’ aspirations can get hammered by environments. In comparison to sociology, though, psychologists like me have an orientation toward intervention at the individual level while accepting selection. To many of us, evidence for selection is knowledge that can be used to identify people at greatest risk who may need help more than others. For example, there must be a large amount of selection involved in having low birth weight babies. Such knowledge can be used to guide policy at the macro level while also informing what to try to change at the micro, individual level. One of the concerns that I (and colleagues like Galena Rhoades) have is that selection is too often taken to imply that only the macro, societal level of risk matters. I think there is a bias in sociology in this direction because the scientists are primed to think about macro effects.

In terms of cohabitation and selection, my colleagues (Galena Rhoades & Howard Markman) and I find that you can robustly control for selection and still demonstrate risks associated with cohabiting prior to engagement (the risk of cohabiting prior to marriage appears to be clearly moderated by this). That’s not to say that we’re done studying this. We would particularly like to get longer-term marital and cohabiting outcomes in a large, national longitudinal sample we have wherein we measure a massive number of potential selection variables along with relationship status changes, relationship quality, and information about how transitions occur. Regarding the latter, we originally began to test for the presence or absence of mutual plans for marriage at the time cohabiting begins based on a theory we have that cohabitation has more inertia for continuance than dating without cohabiting. In other words, what people often miss in thinking about cohabitation is that it makes it harder to break up (once you share a single address). Yes, people are quite likely to break-up in cohabitation, but that’s in comparison to marriage. The comparison to dating is more apt for understanding some of the issues involved. [Update 2-2015: Website for official journal article is here. PDF of manuscript in form I can post it is here.]

For many, moving in together allows constraints to build prior to the development of mutual, or at least clear, dedication between the partners. We have shown in a number of studies that constraints build up steadily in cohabitation and that constraints predict relationship stability net of dedication. In the latest analyses, we examine changes resulting from the transition to cohabitation using within-subjects analyses (providing a strong control for selection). Among a myriad of findings, the analyses show that constraints take a marked jump up in level at cohabitation and then start to grow at a faster pace during cohabitation. (Update 2-2015: This paper is published.)

This brings me to one key point I’d raise related to the flurry of postings on Philip Cohen's site. Cohabitation often occurs well before marital intentions are mutually clear and public. This means that, for many couples, various forces to remain together (constraints) increase earlier in the mate selection or pair-bonding process than before, at least in modern history. Further, the type of cohabitation we believe is most associated with risk from inertia is now the most common [Link added, 2-2015] (cohabitation prior to mutual plans to marry). (For those who would want to take marriage and/or engagement out of the picture in thinking about risk, simply insert the idea that the commitment to the future—its mutuality and symmetry—is important prior to going through a transition that is potentially constraining. Like transitions into cohabitation or having a child.)

There is a lot of selection involved in who cohabits prior to having clear, mutual plans for marriage. However, on top of those selection characteristics, cohabitation adds to the picture by making some of these already riskier relationships harder to leave. This does not prevent a child from being born to two cohabiting parents. With more children being born and raised in cohabitation, children increasingly are in homes with parents who are in higher risk relationships that have, on average, lower levels of dedication and other characteristics of higher risk. There are, of course, marriages with the same characteristics and there are many cohabiting unions without these characteristics. However, on balance, we believe cohabitation plays a causal role in risk on top of selection because of the increased constraints inherent in it. (And for some people, cohabitation likely lowers their risks, though this is more challenging to demonstrate.)

This model of cohabitation risk based on inertia fully embraces selection. In this way of thinking, cohabitation may not causes poorer parenting but it may well increase the number of couples who have or bear children who are not well matched and who will have difficulty parenting together. Hence, one can predict that a net societal increase in cohabitation that begins before partners have a clear and mutual commitment will lead to a greater number of children living in difficult contexts.

Serial cohabitation is illustrative of some points about selection at one level and individual choice at another level. Serial cohabitation is associated with later difficulties in marriage and/or family stability. Selection is involved (on average, it’s more likely for those growing up in a single parent home, those with economic disadvantage, etc.). A person who has those and other background factors is definitely at higher risk no matter if they cohabit with a number of people or not. Yet, does it seem far-fetched to suggest also that a person with such background risks can improve their odds if they raise the bar on conditions under which they would begin to cohabit with someone (e.g., strong mutual commitment, engagement, or marriage)? In line with inertia, a person doing so would make it less likely she or he will get stuck, at least for a while, in a difficult spot. More importantly, if a single parent avoids extra cohabiting relationships, they also reduce the degree to which their children are exposed to significant attachments that end. Further, there is reason to believe that such a person could reduce the possibility of child maltreatment since the odds of that occurring are greater with live-in partners. Even with selection, a person making such adjustments in their personal life is changing here-and-now behavior that matters. Fortunately, this is one area where experiments may show if the chain of logic holds up. Such an experiment was designed by my colleague Galena Rhoades, but it is, as yet, unfunded.

That brings me to the matter of cultural and dyadic aspects of commitment. There are reasons why marriage, including the ceremony, actually should matter regarding outcomes. This can be debated endlessly, of course. A conceptual rationale may be the best we can do here, since this is not an area where any of us are going to get to do an experiment and randomly assign people to marriage and not marriage.

First, marriage signals a lot about commitment. While marriages are much weaker than they used to be, at least in terms of stability, part of what I believe is protective about marriage is that it conveys a less ambiguous signal about commitment than that conveyed by cohabitation. This matter of signals was becoming a big focus in Steve Nock’s work before he passed on, and, what I am pretty sure was his last published writing was focused on exactly this (see references link below). At the same time that Steve Nock was focusing more on signals, spurred on by the ideas of economist Robert Rowthorn, I had been focusing on what I saw as a decline, in general, of emblems of commitment in changing patterns of how people mate. Nock and I, along with numerous others, all thought these changes were consequential. Andrew Cherlin has suggested that marriage has become a status symbol, economically, denoting wealth. That seems true. But, more importantly, I think, marriage remains the strongest culturally imbued signal of commitment status even in weakened forms. [2-2015 update: For a piece dealing with the issue of the timing and sequencing of signals, I lay this out clearly, here.]

In our work, we have found that when cohabiting is not preceded by mutual clarity about a commitment to the future (e.g., by engagement or marriage), there is not only evidence of lower relationship quality, there is a greater likelihood of asymmetry in dedication levels between partners. I see this as part of a scientific explanation for why books like “He’s Just Not That Into You” are bestsellers. One of protective things about publicly understood (and institutionalized) signals like engagement and marriage is that they require both partners to declare their commitment levels—and I particularly mean commitment as dedication, here. [Update 2-2015: For more on this theme, see our article here.] Without cultural forms that push this information out in the open, it is easier to have relationships where one partner does not fully realize that the other is substantially less committed. The emergence of new cultural forms like FaceBook’s relationship status indicator may start to fill a gap by providing a commitment clarifying tool for some couples.

I do, by the way, believe that cohabitation can signal higher levels of commitment (compared to not cohabiting) among some who are very poor. I think it likely that the potency of a signal is partially related to what other signals are available. For many complex reasons, marriage is so far off the radar screen in terms of experience for many in poverty that another signal like cohabitation can take on signal value. But, more generally, it seems that cohabitation conveys very little information about the level of commitment in romantic relationships. That’s why, for example, we find that infidelity is no less likely in cohabiting relationships than in dating relationships. This is not to say that cohabiting partners cannot have high levels of dedication to one another. Many do. Further, while marriage requires public clarity about commitment and cohabitation does not, a cohabiting couple can talk about their relationship and clarify commitment between them and to others. But most do not do these things, and, in fact, most cohabiting couples slide into cohabiting without discussing what it means (for more on this, see the note in the references link below). This is part and parcel with Steve Nock’s observation that cohabitation is not an institution with specific, common meanings.

Second, let’s think about the matter of ceremony as raised by Brad Wilcox. I am not a social psychologist, but it is easy to call upon that field’s robust literature of experimental studies that test the likelihood of people following through on commitments made under varying conditions. The cognitive dissonance literature is replete with evidence that the strongest action tendencies are set up by the awareness that one is making a clear choice among two or more alternatives. Further, based on the power of a desire for cognitive consistency, the more publicly one has declared their decision, the stronger the set up for following through. These are powerful human tendencies demonstrated in scores of studies. What aspects of cohabitation (when not accompanied by commitment to marriage) perform these functions? Marriage is a cultural phenomenon that, whatever else may be true, has historically required the very kinds of behaviors that a lot of science suggests will affect persistence to follow through.

To sum up, I believe that scholars can accept and respect the evidence for selection while also maintaining that there are strong, protective aspects to marriage.

References Centrally Related to this Post (click here)

For something more lighthearted, but meaningful, about personal decisions in one's romantic life, see my older post on black jack and roulette (click here).