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.