Thursday, November 15, 2012

Divorce. Is the answer shorter time commitments in marriage?

My colleague Howard Markman came across this piece in the New York Times from September: Till Death, or 20 Years, Do Us Part. The piece begins noting the urban legend that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes had a five-year contract on their marriage. Beyond that, the article is interesting for quoting from a number of scholars who study families as the author grapples with the feasibility of life-long marriages. The hook is the idea that people might be better off committing to a shorter time commitments in marriage than life.

I wrote about the idea of two-year marriage licenses last year (you can find that entry here). In this more recent New York Times piece, the discussion is serious even if the possibility of the idea becoming popular is low. At least, I think the possibility is low because, no matter what else is true, people really do want lifelong love—it’s just the getting there that is the difficult part.

A truly large number of people who marry will divorce (currently projected at around 40 to 45% or so).  The NYTs piece also notes the work of sociologist Susan Brown at Bowling Green State University who finds that the divorce rate is taking off among those 50 and up. We are living longer and longer, with the question being asked by many as to if it’s really possible to be compatible with someone for that long.

Reforming the nature of the commitment, some argue, might destigmatize divorce and reduce its negative impacts.

Robert Emery is a psychologist and family researcher who studies the impact of divorce on children.  He makes a great observation about commitment in the piece in the Times. To quote: “Dr. Emery favors a candid, apolitical reckoning: an acknowledgment that marriage is not a sexfest with a flawless best friend but something that takes enormous investment. And that can pay off. Lifelong coupling, he says, bestows great benefits, including longer lives for men (“They’re being nagged by a partner with selfish interest in their long-term health”).”

Emery is right on point about the potential benefit of committing to the whole nine yards. But he and many others quoted in the article are also grappling with the reality that many people become disillusioned in their marriages, and dissolution is a prime cause of, well, dissolution. Ironically, this is perhaps the greatest reason that time-limited marital commitments are not all that likely to catch on in a big way. People want the illusion.  But not all who desire the illusion understand the role of the enormous investment Emery talks about. The illusion without the investment is delusion.

As a society, the much bigger issue going on while we talk about the fragility of marriage is the growing trend toward non-marriage.  Increasingly, couples are not only not committing for life, they are not committing for even a few years. This has very important social consequences, particularly as more and more couples who have not vetted commitment together have children. It's not hard to have children. It's a lot harder to raise children together, and what's hard with commitment is crazy impossible without it. I’ve suggested these trends toward childbearing in low commitment contexts are setting our society up for a "perfect storm."  I could be wrong. But I'd bet I’m not.

Ironically, while I’d not advocate for adjustable term marriages, I can see one advantage of the practice. I will quote from my earlier piece about the proposal in Mexico for 2 year renewable marriages that came up last year.

Imagine a couple we’ll call Lucy and Ricky. They are planning their wedding. Their wedding is a week or two away and it’s time to go down to the town hall and get their wedding license. They get to the desk and talk to the clerk and ask for a license. The clerk says, “no problem. Just fill out this form and give me a check for the fee.” The clerk points to a section in the middle of the form and says, “Also, you have to check one of these boxes, here, to indicate if you want the renewable-term marriage or not, and if you do, what term you are choosing.”

Lucy starts to fill out the card, and she gets to the term election section. She starts to mark the “non-renewing” box (which, ironically, means perpetually renewing), and Ricky says, “hold on a second. Let’s talk about if we should go for a 5 year or 2 year term. That’s an interesting idea and there must be some advantages.”

Ricky and Lucy are now going to have a special moment. Let’s call it a somewhat late stage DTR. (Define the relationship.) As you might imagine, in their case, it becomes their last serious conversation about a future together.

There are many situations that turn out terribly in marriages for one or both partners. For some, there was not a realistic way to see that coming. For others, the pathway that ends so painfully started with poor decisions at the start of the relationship in terms of things like how quickly one or both partners got on the path that was not wise in terms of making a good match as partners. In fact, as I’ve often noted, it’s not so often poor decisions as it is transitions without decisions--transitions that make it harder to go back up the path and make a different choice. Having serious talks between two individuals who have become attracted, at key moments, can increase the odds that each individual will end up with a mate where the type of life-long investment Emery noted is not crazy. The DTR concept can be applied at many transition points; it does not have to pertain to merely talking early on about if a relationship is really forming.

If you are not married and want to be, your best bet isn’t going to be a short-term marriage contract. (And I've never--yet--met someone at that stage of a relationship who seriously wants to think short-term.) Your best bet will be based on being careful about who you select in a mate. Compared to the paths people are increasingly likely to take, this means going slower, sliding less, and having a few DTRs about the big things, such as life goals about children and careers or where to live and world views and beliefs. You can talk to this other person about such things, and if talking about such things threatens to wreck the relationship, the odds probably were not so great that it was going to go the distance in the first place.  I'm not talking about killing love and attraction, I'm talking about defining the type of future you want to have, and seeing if you are on the same page about it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Does Television Romance Buzz Kill Commitment in Marriage?

I came across a really fascinating study last week. Usually, I see all sorts of interesting studies and they roll across my desk and off it onto the floor. This creates quite a mess of research—and research can be quite messy as is. Anyway, I most often just take in the headline or the summary, but I don’t have or take the time to read further. Not this one. I wanted to read more.

Jeremy Osborn is a researcher in Communication Studies at Albion College in Michigan. He just published this study that’s gotten a lot of buzz across the internet, and it’s entitled: When TV and Marriage Meet: A Social Exchange Analysis of the Impact of Television Viewing on Marital Satisfaction and Commitment.  You can get a very nice summary of it here, and you can sample some of the media around it here.

The headline is this: People who consume more television, and especially if they believe in the romantic portrayals on TV, tend to have weaker commitment dynamics in their marriages. People believing more strongly in the portrayals of romantic themes also reported being less dedicated to their partners and rated their sense of the quality of alternatives to their present relationship as higher. The amount of TV one viewed was not nearly as related to marital commitment as the degree of belief about the romantic themes. One aspect of commitment measured here is what I call dedication, which reflects one’s sense that he or she wants to be with the partner, is more willing to invest in having a future together, sees the relationship more as an “us” than me/you, and would tend to protect that relationship when attracted to others.

Osborn also measured the quality of alternatives, which speaks to a very basic issue in commitment theory—that one is constrained to be more committed with their present partner if their perceptions of the alternatives suggest that the alternatives are less good. In other words, if you think you have pretty high quality alternatives, and you get pretty unhappy with your mate, you may just be more likely to bolt because you believe that you could get a better deal elsewhere. That may or may not be true, as many people find out to their surprise, but as a constraint, the perception of how good your alternatives are initially will trump the reality around if you were to act on being unhappy.

So, people who watch more TV and tend to believe in what they see about romantic relationships are likely to have weaker dedication commitment to their partners and are more likely to think they can do better, or at least, not so bad, if they were to leave.

What about unhappiness itself? Well, Osborn found that these television patterns were not related to marital satisfaction. That’s really kind of interesting, and this is one of the things that is very nice about Osborn’s study. He looked at both commitment variables and things like marital satisfaction, and the TV viewing impacts appear to be more linked to commitment than satisfaction.  Had he not looked at commitment, his reported finding would be, for the most part, that the TV viewing and beliefs had little impact on marriage when they might be having a serious impact on commitment within marriages. 

Caveat time: As Osborn notes, his study is cross-sectional, and some of the most interesting questions here are chicken and egg. No yoke. He can’t really tease out if people who are more likely to believe unrealistic romantic themes are simply more drawn already to such things on TV, and also more likely to have trouble making commitments because they are just people who tilt romantic and have more trouble committing to one partner without keeping an eye on how much better it might be with someone else. Very likely, the stuff cuts both ways. And, of course, TV is always serving up the notion (whichever way you want to think, causally here), that there’s something better out there than what you have now. Just think cell phones for a minute. Wait, I’m behind the times.  Smart Phones. (By the way, one can have a super smart phone and still be pretty dense in love and relationships.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Inertia Created by Your Past Self Can Impact Options for Your Future Self

One of the ways in which our present self makes poor decisions that our future self has to live with is in the area of cohabitation.  And it’s often not really even “decisions” that we’re talking about. Our present self often slides into things that our future self will have to make hard, careful decisions about in order to make life work.

So, cohabitation is one of those areas where people sometimes get themselves stuck in a place that is not so great and that their future self will have to cope with; by that I mean either to work hard to unravel things or to make a difficult situation work out.  Does it turn out this way, difficult, all the time? Surely not. But some of the time, the nature and timing and “who” of cohabitation is one of the big ways that one’s current self does things that the future self may not be so happy about. Read on a bit more for a great link based on a key idea coming from our work on this subject.

Starting in the late 1990s, I started speaking in various public talks about a potential, large downside to cohabiting prior to marriage for at least some significant number of folks.  The key idea was that cohabitation has more inertia than dating without cohabiting and cohabitation essentially—maybe for way too many couples—makes it harder to break up before you’ve really decided you are sure of a future together. 

Galena Rhoades and I have been published a stream of studies on inertia and other aspects of the ways that commitment develops (or fails to) in relationships that can last a long time, regardless.  
There is a great column today capturing this idea of inertia, and since I’ve been too busy recently to write another entry here, I thought I’d direct your attention to it.  It’s very smart and well stated stuff. (Thanks for the heads up, Bill C.!)

Washington Post Column by Carolyn Hax

If you want to recap my favorite blog entry ever on the subject of inertia, it’s this one about the inertia of tech platforms and how similar that is to relationships.  I enjoyed this one a lot.

My blog on inertia and technology--applied to romantic relationships

And lastly, for those of you who want to read a summary of our studies in this area and on the general theme of commitment dynamics in developing romantic relationships short of marriage, see the paper at this link if you like.

Be kind to your future self, now!


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Will Your Future Self Be Happy with Your Present Self?

In his wonderful book, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert describes many fascinating experiments that show the fickleness of humans.  If you are one, read on!  Daniel Gilbert is a social psychologist at Harvard and he specializes in studying emotion and pleasure (and, he’s stumbled onto happiness as well.  Link to his site at Harvard.). 

One of the experiments that he loves to talk about was conducted by Ratner, Kahn, and Kahneman, and was published in 1999, with the title “Choosing Less-Preferred Experiences for the Sake of Variety.”  That’s one example Gilbert uses of a series of studies that basically show this fact (using Gilbert’s brilliant way of putting it):  Your present self very often makes decisions that your present self thinks your future self will appreciate that, when the time comes, will not be appreciated by your future self. 

Some of you are already thinking, “tell me about it. I’ve got quite a story for you on this one, buddy!”  Well, my name is Scott, not Stacey or Buddy (Ting Tings time), but yes, I do bet some of you are thinking right now that you have lived this story too well.

Thanks to

Here’s the simple type research finding.  Gilbert has a flair for presenting this type of stuff, so I’ll use his type of example.  You win 12 meals, once a month, at your favorite restaurant in town. The catch is that the restaurant owner asks you to pre-order your 12 meals, so she can feature in you winning this prize in ads and flyers, and show off the wisdom of your selections.  Gilbert focused his example on the entree but allow me to focus on dessert.  It’s a gift. After you have chosen the other aspects of your menu for the coming year, you focus in on the dessert.  This restaurant is eclectic, and they offer a variety.  Among the items offered is some chocolate-lava-cake-thing with the word “decadence” in the name.  Just sayin. They also offer tiramisu, apple crumb cake, blueberry cobbler, cherries jubilee (flame on!), chocolate mousse, and something called “dessert cheeses with fruit.”  Oh, they also have some world famous bread pudding.  You know you love chocolate but you have heard that all the desserts are amazing. Quality will not be the issue.  

What’s the average current self to choose? In a word, he or she tends to choose variety in this context. You can contrive this scenario various ways if you are a social psychologist, but the basic point is that people tend to think their future selves should eat healthier than they actually will want to, and that their future selves will appreciate variety.  In my case, on any given night, among those choices, I’d want the chocolate lava cake. Hands down (on fork and spoon). I’d take that if it were served to me virtually any night of the week, and I’d gain a lot of weight. This is especially true for me if the chef has serious chocolate skills and knows how not to mess up chocolate.  While it mystifies me and my wife, we do know some dessert chefs have an amazing ability to produce brown desserts that have the word “chocolate” in their title that blow the whole chocolate concept.  Really, that’s quite sad.  Every bit of chocolate ever made should have a fulfilled future for it’s own future self—from a little bean to a dessert going into your mouth.

from ReadySetEat

Back to my winning this prize; somehow, in writing down my 12 meals for the ensuing 12 months, I only pick the lava cake 4 times, and, even more remarkably, that cheese and fruit thing shows up in my order 3 times.  Three times! Seriously, Scott? My present self tends to think my future self will be happy to be eating more healthy food from time to time, and at least the fruit part sounds healthy (it’s still all sugar and fat, but let’s move on).  Turns out, every time I come in for my meals in the coming year, and it’s dessert time—EVERY TIME—my future self who shows up wants the chocolate lava cake.  Every meal ends with this depressing sense that “I could have had the lava cake.” I learn that I always have with me, my inner self, who is the same one who most often comes out of Seven Eleven with Hostess Chocolate CupCakes.  (Side point: These are nearly as good as any pastry chef is going to ever come up with. Again, just sayin.) 

The lesson as Gilbert puts it so well is that our present self is always making decisions for our future self—decisions that our future self will have to live with. Worse, our present self is often just so sure what our future self is going to be happy about. This is why Gilbert’s very seriously excellent research in this area is called “affective forecasting.” He studies how good we are at predicting what will make our future self happy. It’s a big deal.   

Let’s imagine some things our present self could get wrong, in writing checks our future self might not be happy to be cashing:

- a major in college

- a career path

- a choice in a partner (for example, being convinced that one always likes being with a thrill-seeker cause it’s been so fun on occasion)

- a tattoo 

I’m not just talking about garden variety regrets and consequences, but I think it’s especially interesting to think about how your future self will like what your present self has chosen for you—and also, how your future self is going to feel about ways in life that your present self is, right now, letting something slide that is going to turn out to life altering experience that carries with it substantial negative feelings. 

Chew on that for a bit and next time, I’ll have more specific thoughts about partner choices.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Who Benefits from Relationship Education? Notes from my Plenary Address at NARME

This is one of those entries that will be of more interest to a specific subgroup of those who follow this blog.  It’s about findings and some controversies in the field of couple relationship education (CRE; also often called marriage and relationship education).  For the rest of you, I promise something fun later next week.

In July, I gave a plenary address at the National Association of Relationship and Marriage Education annual conference in Baltimore.  I had two goals in this talk. 

Goal #1:  My first goal was to present an update of findings from our study of CRE delivered to US Army couples by chaplains.  Some of those findings have already been published but I also presented the findings from the most recent analyses that will go into journal reports we are writing at this time.  My co-investigators in this work are Elizabeth Allen, Howard Markman, & Galena Rhoades, and the study is funded by The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). 

Goal #2: My second goal was to address some issues raised in recent discussions about the impact of CRE. I do this by covering some specific findings from three large samples (including the Army study) as well as meta-analyses of an array of studies.  If you are interested in the debates about the government efforts in the past decade that funded some community efforts that used CRE, I cover some of the important issues in my talk.  

I’ll try for something edgy on dating and mating in a week and a half or so!


Friday, August 3, 2012

Buying a Wedding or Buying Into Marriage: The Hokey-Pokey Grail

A colleague of mine noticed this upcoming convention for those in the wedding industry, called WeddingMBA, held in, you might have guessed, Las Vegas.  (Thank you Jennifer A.)  The line up of seminars is pretty interesting to look over.  Many topics are not surprising given that this is the business these folks are in, after all. The seminar line up includes some of these titles that stood out to me as pretty good [the comments in brackets are my editorials]:

- White Hot! - Bridal Trends You Need To Know [Pretty good title, really.]
- The Wedding Revolution - Join One...Start One [Perhaps these folks are onto the decline in marriage.  We could use some type of revolution and it sure would be good for planners’ businesses!]
- Mystique of the High-End Bride - Illusion vs Reality [I wonder if the mystique is that she’ like other brides, only richer.]
- Train Wreck Weddings - What To Do When Everything Goes Wrong [If you think about all the pressure on big weddings these days, I would certainly think that this business could get pretty stressful.]
- Make Her Love You - Creating an Exceptional Experience for Your Bride [Not really a bad concept for those in this business.  It’s what you need to get word of mouth, right?]

My colleague (Jennifer A.) would like to see something different, perhaps entitled more like this: “Help them love each other—through Thick and Thin.” Of course, these are wedding planners and others in the wedding industry, so they can be excused for their focus. But this focus does match our culture: more attention to weddings and divorces but not so much about marriages succeeding. It is rather difficult to make the latter into news, but the former? In just the past year, think of news related to Brad and Angelina planning to get married, or to Kim K. and TomKat. Stability doesn’t really get headlines.

Does buying a huge wedding (with the planner and the whole 9 yards) really make for a stronger marriage? The difficulty comes in with the other 70 or 80 yards.  Ironically, lavish weddings may well help some couples at the margins. This is kind of sad because buying into a huge wedding is not the same as buying into your relationship. I mean deciding that you are all in and that you will invest yourself in this thing of building a life together.

Why might huge, expensive weddings help some couples? Back to my last post from my dissertation. (I know those of you who have not read my dissertation for 25 years or more are enjoying this walk down Nostalgia Lane. What? You have not read it? Oh my.) How does that section relate? Simple. In this day and age, marriage is increasingly something the well-off do and those in poverty or at lower incomes dream about achieving one day. To be sure, most people in most income groups do get married but the trends are rapidly changing to where this is becoming an ever growing part of the economic divide.  (See two posts ago for that!) There is a steady erosion of marriage happening among those without college educations and who have poorer economic opportunities. However, in case you do not realize this, less marriage does not mean less interest in marriage among those who live in poverty.  It’s been well known for a long time that those in poverty have the highest ideals about marriage even if they are less able to realize them.  I gave a keynote address on this very point in 2006, and scholars such as Kathryn Edin, Maria Kefalas, and David Fein wrote powerfully on this in the early 2000s. The data are striking. Difficulty accessing or succeeding at something does not equate to disinterest. Those who I know well, who have been working with lower income groups to help them with their own relationship aspirations, have understood this for a long time.  There are a lot of barriers to marriage and marriages working for those with a lack of resources. But that's for another time.  Back to the main trail for today on expensive, lavish weddings and the whole industry that exists to this end.

In other words, back to the wedding industry and those with the means to party. A decade or two ago, I noticed what seemed a trend toward very expensive, lavish weddings. I cannot prove that this trend actually exists, but it feels right. I do not mean that it’s something right that feels good.  I mean it’s something that makes sense; it can be predicted from good theory and research. It fits the story in our culture of people still wanting marriage but feeling increasingly unsure about it and their own likelihood of succeeding at it. This produces all sort of other behaviors, in addition—behaviors that many people presume gives them a better chance that do not seem to actually help accomplish that goal (like cohabiting before marriage or engagement).

Based on consistency theory and cognitive dissonance, people feel an internal press or force to be consistent with their public pronouncements and prior behavior. While some politicians seem exempt from this internal pressure, research clearly shows this dynamic works within most people. Way too many, but certainly not all, politicians seem to be outliars. (For those of you who love grammar, let’s just say my spelling of that last word was sic.)

Consistency theory is one explanation for what we now see—the apparent trend toward lavish wedding spectacles.  Money, prestige, imagery.  Everything done perfectly and in front of many witnesses. What does a lavish wedding and large party buy a couple? The prediction from decades ago is right in front of us. If you spend that much and make this statement in front of many people, you must really mean it.  Right? You should feel a lot of internal pressure to follow-through.  In a culture where marriage is increasingly something the affluent do relative to other groups, yet something people feel anxious about, this trend toward bigger, larger, and more audacious weddings will continue.  It’s as if people are attempting to buy one more type of insurance for their marriage.  This standard has an unfortunate downside additional to the obvious one of placing more emphasis on the wedding than the relationship. It places bar ever higher for those who feel especially vulnerable about marriage working out—those who have very little resources.

Buying a wedding and buying into one’s marriage are two different things. The former might help some couples a tad but the latter is essential for all couples who are going to make it. For most people (and children), that’s the Hokey-Pokey holy grail.  One needs to put both the right and the left foot in.  Maybe we have to turn ourselves around, because that’s what it’s all about.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Living Life in the Direction of What You Signal

Hi folks.  I’ve been over-busy and not had an entry for a bit and wanted to get something new up here and wanted to get something posted.  So, here’s something I was reflecting on today.  I was talking with a colleague earlier and thinking about some ideas from what has been called consistency theory as it relates to commitment in romantic relationships.  I looked up something I wrote long ago in my dissertation based on the work of Kiesler and Rosenblatt.  It seems to fit in with the whole stream of recent thoughts about signals and commitment.  For example, see the Lolo and Tebow entry further below. Anyway, I was enjoying reminiscing about this line of thought that a younger version of me wrote long ago. Thought I’d just share it for those of you who are grooving on the signal thoughts.   

From:  Stanley, S. M. (1986).  Commitment and the maintenance and enhancement of relationships.  Doctoral dissertation.  University of Denver. 

Based upon numerous studies of commitment to attitudes about social issues (e.g., air pollution, the legal voting age, birth control for teenagers), Kiesler presents a view of commitment based on the need of individuals to maintain consistency between thought and action. He describes commitment as a "pledging or binding of the individual to behavioral acts" (p. 17). Having performed previous behaviors, individuals seek to reduce inconsistencies in their lives by bringing present attitudes and behavior in line with past behavior. Attitudes, being more pliable than past behavior, are likely to be changed so that they are consistent with that behavior. Past behavior can constrain one to a specific line of attitude or action that is consistent with that behavior. According to Kiesler, commitment will be strengthened by increasing one or more of the following: the explicitness of the previous acts, the importance of these acts for the individual, and the perceived degree of volition involved in performing the acts.

Rosenblatt (1977) discusses consistency theory, and applies this approach to a discussion of commitment in relationships. Rosenblatt makes a number of predictions. For example, he suggests that early in marriages, marital stability and commitment will be positively associated with ceremonial effort and publicity. Under such circumstances, the couple is accountable to many observers, leading them to infer that they really must have been sincere to have taken their vows in front of so many people. By similar reasoning, the couple who invests much in their wedding and relationship (in terms of time, effort, or money) has a great deal of behavior favoring maintenance of the commitment. There is a press (i.e., constraint) to bring attitudes in line with these committing behaviors, especially if the previous behaviors are perceived to have been voluntarily undertaken. Rosenblatt (1977) does not report any research, but suggests numerous projects for studying commitment within the context of consistency theory.

There are a lot of times in life where it’s a pretty cool idea to be aiming at what you signaled that you expected of yourself.  

Kiesler, C. (1971). The psychology of commitment. New-York: Academic Press.

Rosenblatt, P.C. (1977).  Needed research on commitment in marriage.  In G. Levinger and Raush (Eds.), Close relationships: Perspectives on the meaning of intimacy.  Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Profoundly Balanced Piece on Income and Family Disparities

There is a lot of talk these days about the great income divide in American life. And it is great and it’s growing larger all the time.  I don’t really want to write that much about I there because I want to encourage you to a new article by Jason DeParle in the New York Times this weekend. 

DeParle has a rich history of writing poignantly and deeply about poverty.  I cited another piece by him in a recent post focused on children born out of wedlock. In this new piece, Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do’, DeParle hits the nail full on.  Most discussions about income inequality focus on, well, income. Most people agree that there are growing disparities, and that these are related to a range of issues about jobs, education, opportunities, and taxes. 

But what is rarely, directly addressed in one place by one person writing deftly is the bi-directional association between income disparity and family structure disparity. They are profoundly linked—not in every aspect but, for millions of people in America, in very obvious and powerful ways. DeParle paints this picture deftly. 

Disparities in opportunities regarding jobs and education affect the formation and stability of families. But patterns of family formation and stability also dramatically affect income, education, and jobs.  It would be so refreshing if, in the policy world, we might all be able to talk about both directions being simultaneously worthy of solutions. There are not simple answers in any of this but it’s good to see someone embrace the fullness of a really complex problem.    


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Fatherlessness and Vulnerability: Observations on Sandusky's Crimes

Many things go together. Ice cream and apple pie. Peanut butter and jelly.  Bacon and eggs.

Here’s another. The growing trends in unmarried childbirth and family disintegration go hand-in-hand with fatherlessness. As my recent posts on Isabel Sawhill’s op-ed highlight, the trends are alarming no matter where you are coming from in how you see it.

If you want the stats, you can go to the National Fatherhood Initiative’s webpage.  There is a lot of great information there.

I was thinking about this related to the story of Jerry Sandusky at Penn State.  He’s the long-time assistant in the football program there who started a foundation to work with young males—and who just got convicted for sexually assaulting, abusing, and taking advantage of scores of teenage boys.  That’s all horrible.

One really sad part of this all jumped out at me from several of the news accounts. It’s about the young men that he preyed upon.  He went after vulnerable young men who already were disadvantaged; who did not have a caring, responsible, involved father or father-figure in their lives.

In a story in the Daily Beast, one reads:

Theirs was a three-year-long relationship, the young man told the court, encouraged by his mother as a way for him to have a male figure in his life. Staring at the floor with his one good eye, the witness said that physical, sexually-charged contact with Sandusky started almost immediately. 

The Daily Beast story noted of another victim:

Like most of the other accusers, the 25-year-old sergeant in the Army National Guard who took the stand with a close-cropped military haircut had no father in his life. When Sandusky showed interest by taking him to football games and family functions, he told the jury, “It was awesome. I loved it. He was like a father to me.” . . . With his head hanging and in a whispered tone he said, “I was enjoying the other things I was getting too much. I loved him.”

A story in the New York Times noted this fact:

A jury in Centre County Court convicted Sandusky, 68, of sexually assaulting 10 boys, all of them children from disadvantaged homes whom Sandusky, using his access to the university’s vaunted football program, had befriended and then repeatedly violated.

These stories made me profoundly sad for these young men and their obvious desires to connect with an older, trustworthy male. Older and male they got; trustworthy, not at all, and this doubtless added to the pain in their lives.  And these young men were the ones who could find the strength to come forward and testify in court. There are so many others touched by these dynamics even if never touched by Sandusky.

As I noted in my post some time back about the perfect storm, I do not see how these kinds of vulnerabilities cannot be accelerating throughout American society.  We’re going to need multiple strategies on many levels to even begin to cope with this new reality.  The dynamics are not new, but the percentage of those affected by them has to be skyrocketing.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Isabel Sawhill on Single Parents, on NPR 6-12

In my last post, I wrote about the remarkable editorial by Isabel Sawhill a couple of weeks ago in the Washington Post.  She was a guest on NPR's show today, Talk of the Nation, with Neal Conan.  Also on the show was Phil Cohen, a sociologist who I've mentioned in prior blogs and who has included comments from me on a couple of his blogs.

I don't agree with every point made on the show (particularly about the nature of the Healthy Marriage Initiatives in the past 10 years) but the points discussed about families and the difficulties of single parents are outstanding. One of the points that comes through so strongly is how difficult it is for children, even with great single parents, when it comes to getting the time and attention they need. They discuss complex issues related to child care and dating and a number of other things.

Isabel Sawhill makes the most important point, in my view, by bringing the discussion back--several times--to how important it is to help the next generation delay having children until other things are settled, especially a clear, committed relationship between two people who want to raise children together.  We usually call that marriage, as she points out, but she gets to the same point I made in my last post. The reason children have an edge when their parents are married before they have children is that commitment questions between these two parents-to-be got settled before the children were in the mix.  No guarantees but it greatly ups the odds. Sawhill gets it that the battle here is for the next generation in terms of prevention.That means things happening to help people before they are in this spot (and also, hopefully, more thoughtful discussions about how to help people best who are already in this spot). 

Before, Before, Before. Before. 

Have a listen (or read) at NPR Talk of the Nation.

(Bill Coffin, thank you for the heads up!)


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Distinguished Family Researcher Notes: “20 years later, it turns out Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown and unmarried moms”

This post continues on the theme I’ve been recently focused on regarding signals of commitment.

Isabel Sawhill, an economist and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, is one of the most distinguished family scientists of our era.  Because of her stature, people will take serious note of her editorial in the Washington Post that appeared on May 25th, 2012. As she noted, it is the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest outbreaks ever of the cultural debate about single parenthood. In her piece, she stated that Dan Quayle was, in fact, right in the assertion that there are enormous societal consequences to the dramatic increase in the number of children who are not born to married parents.

To quote from her write-up:  Twenty years later, Quayle’s words seem less controversial than prophetic. The number of single parents in America has increased dramatically: The proportion of children born outside marriage has risen from roughly 30 percent in 1992 to 41 percent in 2009. For women under age 30, more than half of babies are born out of wedlock. A lifestyle once associated with poverty has become mainstream. The only group of parents for whom marriage continues to be the norm is the college-educated.

Sawhill listed three main causes for concern, all of which I’d remind my readers can be qualified by stating, “on average”: (1) marriage is a commitment that cohabitation is not; (2) marriage is good for children; and (3) marriage brings economic benefits.

I encourage you to read her entire piece. I suspect her main motivation in putting forth her thoughts on this, right at this time, is reflected in the final line of her op-ed, where she commented that we may be approaching the point where the current trend becomes irreversible.

Before going further, I’ll say what so many people often do in this context--and this is important. No one that I know well who is seriously involved, concerned, and paying attention to these issues is saying that single parents—and/or less committed parents—are bad or inherently poor parents. In fact, many single parents are amazing if not heroic. It’s not some cheap cliché to make this point. Furthermore, many who parent alone did not plan on doing so. And some I know who did, in fact, plan exactly on that path are great parents. But Sawhill is getting at the nub of the larger, societal question, which is about the fact that we are heading toward a future where massive numbers of children are not going to have the benefit of being raised by their own two, committed parents.

I understand the motivations and data from which people will take issue with Sawhill’s arguments as well as those of many others who dare to suggest that marriage is the best context, on average, for raising children. But the real heart of this whole issue is about commitment and signals. Why does marriage matter for child-welfare? Married couples that have children together have the commitment-sequencing thing working in their favor. More the point, so do their children. These couples have a decided, clarified, and publicly given evidence  of commitment to the future prior to becoming parents together. That does not make them perfect parents but it does make them pre-qualified on commitment in some substantial degree. It’s sort of like people who are shopping for a house who have already secured their mortgage--they are pre-qualified to buy a house within a certain economic range.  Their commitment to the process is already vetted; once they find the right house, they are ready to follow-through. This type of process matters even more for homes than it does for houses--and it matters more for families than for dwellings.

What really increases the chances of children being raised by two parents who are committed to them is that, for some children, those two parents were strongly committed to each other beforehand. And that is another example of how signals about commitment can make a difference with important life outcomes.

(If you want to go down memory lane, here’s a link to my blog about our finding that having a baby together does not predict remaining together [at least up to a year later, in our national sample of unmarrieds]. Yet, things like having a shared gym membership, or shared cell plan, or vacation plans together, do predict remaining together.  Find it here.)


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Give Me a Sign! What Should LoLo and Tebow Look For?

You may have noticed, I think correctly “reading” the signs of commitment in a potential long-term partner/mate is crucial. This is most important earlier on, of course, prior to “settling down” with someone.  Hence, while reading commitment accurately can be useful in marriage or engagement, what I'm really focused on here are those who are dating (or hanging out—I realize fewer people “date” anymore, but you know what I mean).  To clarify further, this whole issue is most important in situations where at least one partner wants to know if the relationship they are in right now has a future. (There are a lot of other posts here about this. I’m going to be more abstract here and then get back to practical in future posts.)

What’s a good signal of commitment? 

Some of the characteristics of good signals of commitment (or commitment potential) are these:

1.  Does the behavior actually relate to something about commitment? For example, if you read my last few posts, you know that there is good reason to believe that someone’s desire to have sex with you may mean nothing about commitment.  I hope that is not a shocking idea to anyone reading this, but people do too often “see” desire and infer commitment. Let’s call that “relationship reading dyslexia.”  What’s on the page does not match what got into the brain. 

Ditto if someone says, “I want to make a baby with you” with no other evidence of commitment like, say, marriage. An even worse indicator of commitment is if someone says to you, “I’d like you to have my baby.” Hm. Context matters a lot here.  It may sound silly to you that I even raise this example, but this is, in fact, a relatively common behavior in some teenager groups, where some males say some version of this to females they are interested in, and some females may be flattered and impressed, and . . . . . Don’t be that male or that female, and help your kids understand this. By the way, while I’d like to see people hold out for a lot more than this, it would be somewhat more impressive if someone said, “I want to raise a child with you.” That statement contains a much greater amount of information, especially if it’s accurate.    

2.  Is the behavior under the control of the one doing it—whatever it is? For behavior to have meaning about commitment, it must be behavior that the person has control over performing. There are tons of extensions of this point. A shotgun wedding has less information in it about the commitment level of the participants than other weddings. As I mentioned in the last post, saying “I love you” contains less information about commitment if it’s in the context of a hormonal rush of chemicals—when the chemistry is driving the bus. Chemistry is fun but it’s not a great bus driver, and some relationships are windy mountain roads without guardrails.   

Just ask LoLo how hard it is to keep the bus on the road!  She has her will and her values and her goal, and she has her chemistry.  Just how great would the gravitational pull be between Tebow and LoLo at this point? How much does a super strong impulse impact volitional choice? And, how well can volitional choice resist the pull of behavior that’s not consistent with one’s values?

3.  Signals contain more information when there are more options. When you have more options to choose among, what you pick tells me more about who you are.

I was inspired to think about this by economists. You don’t usually see the words “inspiring” and “economist” in the same sentence, so if you are an economist, enjoy this moment. I try to avoid being totally infected by their dismal realities but they do get some things right (and they have mad math skills, which must count for something).  [Yes, I added the italics to the word “count” for those who have deficient pun receptors.]

Put another way, when a person has diminished options, what he or she chooses contains less information about true preferences.

Think about buying toilet paper in 7-11.  I’m not even sure they have it, but let’s suppose they do. It will be one brand, and in one roll quantities, and it will likely cost you 4 bucks a roll.  7-11 is a great chain of stores but they excel at convenience not low price or variety (except for pop and candy bars and such. They are my “go to” supplier of Junior Mints.). What does this mean? If you badly need a roll of toilet paper (not so badly that you are just heading for a restroom, if they have a public one), you’ll take what they have and forego your desire to get the Charmin Ultra Soft you might normally prefer. You’ll take the individually wrapped roll of Scott’s (my favorite brand, actually, and how far wrong can you go with that brand? Slight over-share there.).

Anyway, with limited options, your choice represents less about your preferences. And that goes for commitment, too. With fewer options, what you choose reflects less about volition and preference, so what you choose may not mean you have much commitment to that choice. 

How’s this apply to dating and mating? Anything that constrains your options limits the information contained in the choices you make.  In their romantic lives, some people are shopping in 7-11 rather than Safeway.  Some do so by their own actions or past behavior, and some because they truly have poorer quality options in life. More importantly, some people are routinely misinterpreting the behavior of their partners, and thinking things signal commitment that just don’t. 

Okay, enough for now. More on implications of signals in the near future.  (That’s signaling my intention, btw.)


Friday, May 11, 2012

Love Me, Love Me Knot: "I thought you loved me!"

I came across this study described in a little write up on the Science of Relationships blog, by Samantha Joel.  An excellent summary on an excellent blog. 

Samantha Joel describes a study published last year (2011) by Joshua Ackerman, Vladas Griskevicius, and Norman Li.  This follows up perfectly from my last post, where I suggested that, on average, it was more critical for women to get clear signals about commitment from men than vice versa as relationships are progressing—or potentially progressing.  This is because women have a lot more at risk simply because they can become pregnant and have babies and men do not.

A lot of commitment dynamics and commitment decoding issues are tied up in that simple biological fact above.  I’ve discussed the importance of this in numerous places.  The findings of Ackerman, Griskevicius, and Li fit perfectly within this thinking.  They use some pretty complex evolutionary and economic theory to make their key points, but I can distill it down pretty clearly for the current themes on my blog:   

On average (it’s always on average, remember that!):

1.  Men tend to express love in a new romantic relationship before women do.

2.  Most people believe it’s the other way around.

3.  Men and women have different emotional reactions to the expression of love before versus after having sex. 

A couple of quotes from the research paper make the important points rather well:

            A presex confession may signal interest in advancing a relationship to include sexual activity,whereas a postsex confession may instead more accurately signal a desire for long-term commitment. (p. 1090)

          On the face of it, this reaction appears to suggest that men are quite interested in early commitment. However, after the onset of sex in a relationship, men exhibited somewhat less positivity to confessions of love. (p. 1090)


Feelings of feeling in love—and, more importantly, expressions—can be affected by the desire to have sex. That’s why when an immediate desire to have sex with the possibility of having sex make for a confusing picture regarding signals of true long-term interest and commitment.  So, for someone interested in deeper commitment and/or tying the knot, “love me, love me not” decision situations are pretty critical.  Does it mean someone wants to become more intertwined—knotted, if you will—just because he or she says they love you?

As I’ve talked in numerous posts and writings, signals about commitment are a really big deal in understanding what’s going on in relationships. If you are looking at a signal that has little signal value related to what you are trying to discern, you can misread the situation by a wide margin.  And I do think there are fewer clearer signals related to commitment in developing relationships than their used to be.  I’ll talk about Facebook pretty soon, as something pretty interesting has emerged there in this regard—and if you are in the zone of life dealing with all these things personally, you know where I’ll head on that. 

I will end by asking a similar question to the one in the last post. What truly signals commitment? What do you think?  What are you sure of? Does it work the same way for you as for others you might be romantically interested in?  That’s something it may be worth being less sure about.

If you want to read more, two of my (our) papers get pretty far into this whole issue of both signaling issues related to commitment and differences that may often matter related to either gender and/or personality attachment styles.  So, if you want to go deeper, have at it.  Here are links to two papers. 

Our journal article on commitment, signals, attachment, and the formation of commitment:

"Commitment: Functions, Formation, and the Securing of Romantic Attachment"

My article on men and commitment and why men resist marriage but say they value it more (on average) than women.

"What is it with Men and Commitment, Anyway?"


Monday, May 7, 2012

Rings, Signals, Sex, and Babies

[There is an updated version of this post at my Psychology Today blog, here.]

Plain gold ring on his finger he wore
It was where everyone could see
He belonged to someone, but not me
On his hand was a plain gold ring
            Lyrics to “Plain Gold Ring”
by George Stone (performed by Nina Simone, recently, by Kimbra)

I’ll come back to these lyrics by the end of this post. 

Last time, I left you with a question:  Should Tyra keep the engagement ring she got from Sam?

My answer is, “yes.”  Tyra clearly feels like she lost something of value to her with Sam breaking off the long engagement—time wasted on her biological clock. In this particular case, the value of the engagement ring is in line with how they came to be commonly used in the US over the past decades:  A promise by a male to a female of following through on the intention to marry. The reason that I feel like the economics writer I noted last time (O’Brian) was wrong about it no longer makes much sense for a female to keep a ring if an engagement ends is that there is one thing that has not changed—biology. Women are the ones who get pregnant.  Yes, there was that one exception and maybe a few others, but . . . ..  Women are also the ones who bear children (goes with the whole pregnant thing).  Lastly, with a growing number of exceptions, women are still far more likely to be the ones who spend the most time on child care. 

Biology affects societal and cultural trends and customs.  This aspect of biology makes women, on average, more vulnerable than men to things going wrong in dating, mating, marriage, and family development. This is why it has been widely recognized that, ON AVERAGE (meaning, there are many exceptions), it’s more critical for females to properly decode the commitment levels of men, early on, than vice versa.  Some aspects of advances for women in careers and earnings counter this, but there is still not way to wipe out the fundamental differences that begin with who can and who cannot have a baby.

While the use of customs to clarify commitment seems to me to be waning, there is a perfectly good rationale for the existence of societal customs that require romantic partners, male or female, to produce clear signals of commitment as a relationship progresses. Further, it’s most crucial that those who stand to lose more if things go South protect themselves by getting the clearest evidence of commitment that’s possible and appropriate for a relationship stage from their partners. Sacrifices made by one for another are one of the clearer kinds of signals one can get about commitment. However, these run more risk of being misinterpreted. Another would be societally sanctioned emblems of public commitment: for example, the engagement ring, Facebook status designations and so forth.

Back to the sexism of biology for a moment: I think there could be a further biological bias in the mix here that makes it harder for the one who is most committed to see accurately how committed a partner is.  Women (and, no doubt some men) have more active oxytocin systems than their partners, and this propels sacrificing behaviors that may be, unfortunately, not shared.  To make a good thing worse, oxytocin can boost trust, but that does not mean it’s boosting trust according to facts.

Looking for lasting love? Here is some advice related to these themes. 

1.  If you can become pregnant, it’s especially important for you to look for, and wait for, clear evidence of a mutual commitment to the future before allowing yourself to get too deeply drawn in.  That’s why there has, historically, been some protection in marriage compared to things like cohabiting (especially without engagement); there is no doubt about what is meant to be signaled with public declarations such as engagement and marriage.  To be the most protective, that evidence of your partner’s commitment should be seen clearly by you and others. (Which also means that a person might have to be more careful when public signals are hard to come by.)

Some of you may be thinking, “hey Scott, what do you mean by ‘if you can become pregnant?’” 

Simply this: Is it biologically possible for you to become pregnant?  You may or not be intending to have sex and/or you may be using birth control.  Birth control methods have failure rates.  So do intentions not to have sex.   

2.  Whether or not you can become pregnant, do you attach strongly to people, quickly? If that’s you, you also are at greater risk from not looking for cues about commitment. Your own desire for connection, along with the power of oxytocin, can make you misread the signals about how committed a partner is to you.  Lots of people find out, painfully, that they were “over-giving” to a partner who was never going to become more seriously committed.  Kinda of gives “over-share” a whole new definition.

3.  Think about the markers that you think should give you valid evidence about the commitment level of a partner in a relationship that is progressing. What do you think you need to see? Give some serious weight to what you might look for that is public.  Public displays of commitment beat the snot out of private, ambiguous messages and hints about commitment.  DTRs are nice, but it takes a lot of skill and guts to do them right.  So, it’s good to have clear ideas about what else to look at to decode commitment. 

The haunting lyrics from Plain Gold Ring, posted at the outset here, get what I’m going after as the most protective.  It is an example of an emblem of commitment that is so unambiguous that partners and outsiders know exactly where things stand.   

4.  If you have a friend or two that seems really wise and knows you well, share what you are thinking and see if they can knock some holes in your ideas about correctly decoding commitment.  Love is blind but does not have to be. 

Here are some links to older posts of mine that are directly related to these themes: 

Decoding commitment

Is Roulette what You are Playing?

Having the Talk:  DTR I

Having the Talk:  DTR II

Oxytocin and Commitment

Kimbra (amazing new singer coming out of New Zealand) has a wonderful YouTube of Plain Gold Ring, if you are interested.  Here

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Rings True

[There is an update version of this post at my Psychology Today blog, here.]  

              If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it
Beyonce, Single Ladies

Is Beyonce’s famous line sexist or what? What does it mean to put a ring on it? What if you put a ring on it and then wanted the ring off it? That's my focus here, but I'll  come back to other aspects soon.

Do you ever wonder about how certain cultural rituals developed? While marriage is a worldwide phenomenon, the customs around it vary tremendously by culture and era.  If I had another professional life to live, I could enjoy being an anthropologist studying marriage and family. Let’s talk today about engagement rings and a recent story in the news about their history.

While engagement ring customs are not universal, there are universal aspects of marriage customs that govern various factors related to marriage such as courtship, rules about betrothal, and rules about how and if a marriage can end. The customs vary but they often have a lot to do with assuring true intention to follow-through and provisions for the security of a union that is the basis, often, for a family as well as the joining of two families (the latter still being considered very important in many parts of the world).  

Especially in an era where marriages are founded around the principles of intimacy and deeper connection, a central role that commitment plays is to secure romantic attachment. When there is intense attachment to another but unclear commitment, it makes most people anxious about the potential loss of the partner. When commitment is clear and working well between two partners, it promotes safety in the connection and the future of the relationship. People relax and invest when there is safety and clarity in commitment.

Therefore, some customs around romantic relationships represent emblems of commitment and they serve the function of signaling security in commitment.  Enter the ritual of engagement rings.

Matthew O’Brien at the Atlantic writes about business and economics, and recently wrote a piece about engagement rings that a friend noted I’d be interested in. So right. The piece is entitled, “The Strange (and Formerly Sexist) Economics of Engagement Rings.”  It’s an excellent little piece. O’Brien notes the degree to which this custom took hold was propelled in our culture by a marketing campaign by N. W. Ayers on behalf of DeBeer’.  This is fascinating, though it makes me feel about as warm and fuzzy as knowing that greeting card companies started some commemorative days I am emotionally attached to and celebrate. By the way, did I tell you when World Commitment-Related-Blog Day is? It’s coming up, but I have not set the exact date. I have to design a line of digital cards, first, that you can send to friends through my site here, for a fee, of course.  If you’d rather just keep your schedule free from another day where something is celebrated, just send me 5 bucks and forget the card. US funds are preferred.  Old diamond rings, no longer being used, are acceptable as well.

O’Brien points out that there used to be laws about the breach of a promise to marry (similar to how their used to be laws about the breach of promises made in marriage).  These laws allowed women to sue men for failing to follow through on marriage plans. Apparently, since even many decades ago, it was not uncommon for a couple to have sex before marriage, and virginity was highly prized when one became married, males could be forced to compensate females for reducing their value by having sex with them but failing to follow through on the promised marriage (which often became the pretext for the sex happening in the first place).  Note the logic here. Women were more likely to give something of value to men in the context of the male promising commitment to the future.

You may have noticed that times have changed in a few respects here. O’Brien cites work by a legal scholar Margaret Brinig that supports the idea that the engagement ring (expensive engagement rings—with Diamonds, thanks to DeBeers’) became an actual custom performing the same function as the breach of promise laws once those laws started to disappear. So, the legal obligation was replaced in some parts of society with an economic promise of forfeiture should a male promised to a woman not fulfill the promise to marry. Hence began the custom that a woman keeps the ring if the man bails. These days, you’ll see plenty of debates in advice columns about if and when a ring should be returned based on how a marriage has been called off.  O’Brien seems to think this debate is over, but I’m not so sure it is. He considers it somewhat obvious that the woman would give the ring back to a man who did not follow-through on a promise to marry.

All of this raises some interesting questions.  Let’s deal with a few here and then I’ll continue in the next post.

Q:  Why don’t women, historically, give something expensive to the man in case she changes her mind? Is this sexist in the pejorative sense of sexist-bad? Is this sexist in some rationale sense, whether one wants to think it good or bad, related to differences in men and women?  (I’ll come back to this in another post, but have fun thinking about it.)

Q: In the following vignette, should Tyra give the ring back to Sam?

Sam and Tyra started dating when they met at age 26. They got engaged at age 27, and he gave her a really nice ring.  Now they are 32. So, the engagement has gone on for 5 years.  I think this is a new trend, by the way, long engagements. For some, endless engagements reflect a desire to tell others they, as a couple, are more committed than average but it’s not as much a plan to marry as a way to signal this higher level of commitment to others—“we’re off the market but we may never really walk the aisle.”

Anyway, Sam and Tyra are now 32, have been cohabiting for 4 years, and they are still engaged.  Sam starts to fall for a woman at work, and the gravitational pull toward this new woman just grows and grows.  After some anguish and a lot of effort to work through untangling their lives, he achieves enough escape velocity to move on.  (See recent, prior notes on inertia!)

Tyra is feeling VERY burned. Of course, the burning could have happened just as easily either direction, but in this case, Tyra felt that the engagement and the cohabiting were sure signs they were going to get married. She plans to keep the ring and she wishes it were bigger still.  In his article, O’Brien suggest that women would/should generally give rings back in this day an age because are increasingly likely to be the ones with the good jobs, and therefore, do not really need the collateral of the ring. While not stated, I would imagine he and many others these days would also not consider Tyra to have given anything more away than Sam has by them having sex and no longer being virgins. It is an interesting question to consider, though, if she was risking more, even in this, and how that is the case.  Again, maybe something I'll get into in the next post.

At any rate, Tyra doesn’t feel like Sam owes her for her no longer being a virgin. She feels that was pretty mutual and not something to blame him about. And while she's deeply hurt about him leaving her for another woman, that's not the biggest reason she feels he owes here, either. She feels Sam owes her for wasting time on her biological clock. You might say she is "ticked" off. Tyra wants children and Tyra wants a nuclear family to raise those children in. Tyra has read a great deal about the biological clock and knows well what her odds are and how they have already changed, and what time might be left on the ticking biological clock. Tyra does believe she has lost something of value because she’s lost some of her window on one of her most deeply held life goals.

Does Tyra keep the ring? Should they have talked about the meaning of the ring in the first place, and what happens if what if happens?

Next up, a post on sexism and commitment and babies.  Should be fun.  I promise you, and if I have your number, I’ll give you a ring when I post it.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Here We Go Again: More Passionate Debating about Cohabiting before Marriage!


You might take some time looking at the latest dustup about cohabiting before marriage. These fracases used to come up about once a year, then maybe twice a year. I think they are getting more frequent.

The current, new energy around this topic was generated by an editorial in The Sunday New York Times, written by a clinical psychologist (Meg Jay), entitled: “The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage.” Go ahead and read it or skim it. Then come back. You might need to Google it as the NYTs seems to have a way of making the link not work.

Those of you who know our work will recognize how much Meg Jay’s piece hovers around the points we make and our findings at the University of Denver. She is primarily drawing attention to the underappreciated downside to cohabitation. In our work, we call this inertia, noting that the inertia of living together makes is harder to break up than dating without living together. If you want a quick summary of the concept of inertia as we describe and study it, see my post from last week, just below. If you want a sense of the research we (Galena Rhoades and I along with our colleague Howard Markman) have been doing, see the document here. That’s for those of you who want to more deeply absorb our research and the place of it in the empirical literature surrounding these debates.

Back to The New York Times and this cultural moment. I’ll share some links with you where people are reacting to Meg Jay’s piece, and then I’ll make a few comments about each.

Natasha Burton’s: Cohabitation-Divorce Link? I Don't Think So.

1. First off, note her utter certainty about the research, that there is no link between cohabitation before marriage and how marriages do. She suggests this is a debunked idea, so move on. In fact, she links to another blog for more depth on that point (Hanna Rosin’s, here). Note that the research in question focuses only on divorce as an outcome. We show variations of the cohabitation effect (really, the “before mutual plans for marriage” cohabitation effect) in numerous published studies, including in recent samples, particularly on dimension of relationship quality. I also think the divorce effect still exists, but a little less clearly than in the past. There are complex issues about research in play there, which I’ll skip for now. The main point here is that we find that cohabiting before engagement is associated with, on average, lower relationship quality in marriage. The whole reason this is interesting is because of the main point Meg Jay makes—that cohabitation has a downside. In our work, we call it inertia.

2. Burton is dismissive of Jay’s points based on her own belief that the issues being raised are settled matters in social science (which is not true). Jay's points are more consistent with a lot of empirical evidence than Burton realizes.

3. Ironically, Burton falls back on what she criticizes in Jay without apparently noticing it: using anecdotal evidence, but from her own life. She describes her own process of cohabiting in ways I would consider unusually careful and deliberate. In our national sample of cohabiters, we find that 2/3rds describe something more like sliding than deciding in terms of how they began to cohabit. Burton's personal anecdote amounts to showing that she is a decider, yet, this is not remotely what most people actually do. In implying the importance of it, Burton shows substantial agreement with points Jay makes toward the end of her editorial but she gives Jay no credit on this score or any other.

4. Burton references Hannah Rosin’s blog. Rosin notes, rightly I think, that the biggest “train wreck” coming next may be the rise in serial cohabitation. She points out that this pattern is linked to poverty and other background risk factors. Nevertheless, I think this emerging trend has huge implications for children and that it will become common regardless of social strata.

What often seems lost in these discussions are simple things. Serial cohabitation becomes serial because a first cohabitation ended and a second one began, with perhaps others to follow. While there is selection in play (meaning prior risks are involved in the total risk), what a person who's had one cohabiting relationship end does next has to have some influence on their cumulative risk. At times, people talk about selection in this area of research as if they truly do not believe that there is a single thing such a person can do to lower their risks--the risks are just baked in and that's just too bad. Sure, the point is never, ever said harshly like that; but the implication of the thinking is harsh, deterministic, and hopeless.

What if such a person, despite the odds stacked against them, chooses to go slowly and decide if, when, and how they were to cohabit again rather than just sliding into the next round of cohabiting? Maybe especially "what if" if they have children. Is that a crazy idea? For those of you will jump right into the poverty issue on all of this, noting how much more challenging for people in poverty, I want to say, "of course it's more challenging if you are in poverty." But maybe it's especially important to think about the decisions one does have control over when one has the fewest options of all.

This next piece by Anna Weaver, entitled Should Couples Be Wary of Cohabitation? recognizes one of the main points that Meg Jay was driving toward.

1. Anna Weaver focuses on a key point Meg Jay made: “Whether you agree with premarital cohabitation or not, Jay's point is well-taken. Before you combine utilities or your coffee mug collections, how about a little discussion of where this all is leading?”

2. It seems to me that people have to be pretty stridently offended by any sense that there could be a downside to cohabiting before marriage (or before engagement) to react the way some seem to react to a piece like Meg Jay’s. Anna Weaver is not offended; she gets the obvious point.

One more blog to check on here today. And thank you, Bill Coffin, for pointing me to so many of these today.

Check out this piece on a blog called “Cheap Talk,” entitled Living Together Before Marriage Leads To Divorce?

The author of this entry, Jeff, writes: “Does this make any sense? Isn’t a couple who goes straight to the sliding in before getting married ultimately just as locked in as a couple who completely abstains from sliding in until they are locked in by the bonds of wedlock?”

I can’t tell who Jeff is, but he understands something about the research in this area and something about selection. He does not seem to me to be aware of a lot of research, but some.

I think Jeff’s argument gets close to the whole point but misses the critical part. There are many types of relationship situations that are more constrained than others: cohabiting is more constrained than dating, most of the time, and marriage is more constrained than cohabiting, most of the time. I think this is the crucial piece too many people don't see clearly about cohabiting compared to dating. Now, add the fact that most couples slide into cohabiting. That means people are often giving up options before making a choice. That’s part of why being married or at least engaged before cohabiting can matter to how things turn out. (Again, we find this over and over again in our studies.) Back to Jeff. When a couple gets married, everyone realizes that their marriage may not last and could even be disastrous. But in marrying, everyone also knows that the two people are choosing to be more constrained together rather than sliding into more constraint. The decision precedes the big increase in constraints. Sliding into cohabitation is something different, entirely. That's too often the whole point, of course; one or both partners may not be ready to make a deeper commitment and sliding avoids confronting this issue. Of course, that turns out particularly badly if one partner is pretty committed and only finds out later that the other never was. There is a reason--a serious reason--why the book "He's Just Not That Into You" has been a bestseller.

To be fair about the research, many couples slide and do fine. In fact, in this current dustup, there are countless comments from folks pinned to the various articles around the web about how it all turned out fine for them and they have been married for X number of years. That's good for them. It’s just that the odds of it not turning out so fine go up when we take lightly transitions of any sort that increases constraints when we are not even noticing how that is happening. The less clarity there is about what cohabiting is and what it means for a couple (either because they are not already married or engaged, or they have not talked about it openly and clearly), the more risk there is of getting stuck. Some couples get stuck a long time, and you can see it in their lower marital quality. And I'm not even raising, right now, the issues of how children are involved. See a few posts back if you want to bring that issue into the mix, here.

It doesn't seem to me to be all that radical to raise questions about why cohabiting does not always work out the way people think it will. Or maybe it is? People sure get energized about this topic. Compounding all this, media arguments about cohabitation often pretend to be centered on science. But the science here is very complex, and patterns and risks vary such that different people have different risks related to the same behaviors. None of the references to the science on cohabitation in all the stories I have seen this week show any kind of sophistication in understanding the research or the phenomena. It's like we, as a culture, are the couple that can't talk clearly about what's really happening when we begin to cohabit, so we slide.

For those of you who are skeptical of there being any issues of risk involved in how Americans cohabit before marriage, just how far do you want to go to argue that there is nothing worth pondering in all this? How believable is it, really, that it just does not matter how or when or why a person enters a relationship pattern that can make it harder to break-up?


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

From Playlist to Paylist: iPods, iPhones, and the iNertia of Cohabitation

I’ve always been into music. You didn’t ask but my tastes are very eclectic if you’d like to know. My father, who passed on last year, was a geek before the word was popular. He was an electrical engineer with a pocket protector, but on top of that, he was into music—playing it (piano, organ) and listening to it with top-of-the-line audio equipment. That means I grew up around great speakers, tape players, and high quality turntables. (You could call the latter “record players” but seriously, we called them turntables. They sort of looked like things you’ll see some Hip Hop bands using now-a-days, in case you’ve never seen one.)

What would have been unimaginable when I was growing up was the mp3 player. When I was little, the closest things we had to something small you could carry around and listen to were transistor radios. A 9 transistor radio was a sign of impressive technology, back then. “Wow, bummer Tim, but it looks like you only have 6 transistors.”

The revolution in music listening, for me, came when mp3 players were out for a while and I realized you could pack a lot of music onto the little things and stick it in your pocket and have it with you wherever you went.

It was obvious to me, from even early on, that there was inertia built into whatever pathway one chose into digital music. Early decisions could take on a lot of weight in terms of how you’d be listening to music (and how much you’d pay) years and years later, or how often you’d have to re-rip your CDs or rebuy your mp3 songs. I resisted iPods for a long time for three reasons. First, I just didn’t want to be assimilated into the Borg. You had to commit to the Apple eco-system to get the most out of iPods. I was a PC guy then and really still am (though, geek that I am, I also have a MacBook, and I like it. For a little PC Mac humor, see my past entry here.)

Second, being into PCs more than Macs, I went with Microsoft’s commitment to the WMA format. Apple and iPods used the AAC format, and you could not play the files from one system in the other (for the most part). Third, I had always thought, and still do, that there are some non-iPod players that just sound better than any iPod device o iPhone ever made—like just about any model Sony mp3 player, for example. I will spare you the technical reasons why this is true.

I finally succumbed to iPod and now iPhone; not because of sound quality but because of ease of use.


I and my colleagues have been working with a theory of what’s risky about cohabitation prior to marriage. It goes like this: all other things being equal, compared to dating without cohabiting, if two people are sharing one address, they will have a harder time breaking up, even if the relationship has serious weaknesses or problems. The reason is that cohabitation has more inertia than dating but not cohabiting. Whether or not one believes it is right to live together outside of, or before, marriage is determined by values and religious beliefs. That’s not my topic in this post. I’m focusing here on inertia, here.

Inertia is a great concept from physics speaking to the amount of energy it would take to move something a different direction than it’s already going (or to get an object at rest moving at all). I and my colleagues (especially Galena Rhoades) have been testing just about every prediction we can related to the theory of inertia and cohabitation. We have consistent, extensive evidence for it. What about cohabitation creates inertia? I’m not going to take space to give you a list, but just pause for a moment and think about it. Really. Just take a minute. You’ll think of a lot of things that can make it harder to break up after a couple moves in together and lives together for a while.

An easy way to think of why inertia matters comes from thinking about two different types of commitment: Dedication and Constraint. The inertia problem with cohabitation comes from the fact that too many couples increase their constraints for staying together before they fully have clarified their mutual dedication to be together. That gets to why, for example, we have predicted and found, over and over again, that couples who wait until marriage or at least engagement (or some other serious, mutual, public plans to marry) report, on average, more marital happiness, less conflict, more compatibility, and on and on. [For those who believe that one should not cohabit before marriage, engaged or not, realize that I’m focusing here on one of the major explanations for why cohabitation can be a risky, not making a recommendation for how to cohabit before marriage.]


Okay, to repeat. I’m a geek. I read the computer magazines regularly and I read a lot about the stuff on the web. I was delighted this week to come across a wonderful article where a real tech writer likened her experiences with her iPhone to all the points I made above about relationships. The author’s name is Marguerite Reardon, and you can read her whole article here. Please check it out after you finish reading tis post. I’m going to give you a few quotes from her write-up.

She writes:

But sadly now I’m feeling a bit stuck with Apple. I’d like to check out other smartphone platforms, but doing so is going to require some work on my part. Like many who have been sucked into Apple’s clutches, it was innocent in the beginning. . . . Initially, I didn’t realize the commitment I was making. I didn’t think about the fact that I was locking myself into a platform for the rest of my life. But with each new product I bought from Apple, the deeper I fell into the borg. And now I feel like it would be painful to break up with Apple. Not because I love the products or company so much, but because it would be a huge pain in the butt to transfer all my stuff to a new platform. (used by permission)

This is a great definition of what I now officially dub iNertia.

iNertia = That effort it would take to move all your stuff to a new platform.

You moved in with iPhone? How much effort would it take to move out and move in with Android? (I do suspect an Android might be better at doing the things around the home you hate to do.) Or to move to, or back to, Windows Mobile?

And now for my favorite lines in Marguerite Reardon’s piece:

It reminds me of my mother’s relationship advice: Never move in with a boyfriend before you’re married. Not only will you not have any place of your own to go when you have a fight, but when you start combining your lives before you’ve really made that life-long commitment to marriage, it’s much harder to break up if things don’t work out. It starts feeling more like a divorce than a run-of-the-mill break-up.

This is a smart woman with a smart mom. I bet her mom has a pocket protector. She has to, since she has such an excellent grasp on prevention. I can’t really sum up what inertia says any better than that. She gets how iNertia has built up around her use of iPhones, iPods, and the whole Mac ecosystem, and she gets how this is exactly how some people get on the wrong path with this or that partner in life.

Think about romantic relationships before marriage. Metaphorically, what in romantic life has the same type of implications as the path one is on in terms of music format choices, device options, and an ever expanding list of apps? Don’t just think about cohabitation. Cohabitation is just the easiest way to explain inertia as it affects developing romantic relationships. There are many other aspects of how relationships develop that have the same effects. Can you see them? Are you living them?

If you are looking for the love of your life, you don’t have to be assimilated by the Borg. You can at least keep it from happening by accident.

NOTE: If you’d like a more formal review of our research on cohabitation and inertia, see the link at the left of this page (under “Linkage”) for a document you can download that reviews our published studies. It’s the “summary of our research on cohabitation” link. We have a lot more coming in the pipeline.