Thursday, December 19, 2013

Does Parental Divorce Not Matter for the Children of Middle Class and Wealthy Couples?

In a piece at the Institute for Family Studies, Brad Wilcox takes on the notion that divorce is no big deal--when it comes to life consequences--for relatively richer children.  It is an excellent piece, which you can read here:  Even for Rich Kids, Marriage Matters

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Marriage and Murder: An Excellent Piece by Katy Steinmetz

Katy Steinmetz writes for Time Magazine. She wrote an insightful blog this weekend about the newlywed couple who made the news recently when the new bride pushed her new groom off a cliff at Glacier National Park.

No one gets married to experience tragedy, though things often do not turn out nearly as well as people hope. Steinmetz does a great job of assembling ideas from relationship researchers (including yours truly) to explain how some marriages can start off, so thoroughly, on the wrong foot. 

You can read her piece here:  From Wedding to Funeral: When Being Newlywed Leads to Murder, Not Bliss


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Who Cheats?

I have a new posting at the Institute of Family Studies, out today.

You can go to it here.  It is a very nice reworking of a number of posts earlier this year here where I look at a study from our team on infidelity in unmarried relationships.

Friday, November 1, 2013

New and Updated Version of My Perfect Storm Essay

One of my blog posts that I think of as more important than most was posted on March 17th, 2012. It was called "Attachment and the Perfect Storm."

I recently wrote an expanded and updated essay based on those themes for the blog of The Institute for Family Studies.  The essay deals with implications of increasing family instability for the attachment history of children, and how that may impact the future.

You can find the new version of this essay here.

Monday, October 28, 2013

PART II: Will You Be My Friend? An Interview with Craig Knippenberg

Introduction: In this post, I am continuing with the conversation I had with child therapist Craig Knippenberg regarding his video series and upcoming book, Will You Be My Friend? Understanding Your Child’s Social Brain Into Adulthood. The video series is available for viewing on YouTube and

I enjoy how Craig thinks about the social brain. So, this interview has more on that but also you will see how Craig is an innovator when it comes to using outdoor adventure to help teens. He makes a great point about helping our children (and ourselves) disconnect from the electronic world in order to boost the lasting emotional connection. 

Question: #6 You talk about the social brain having three regions or types of functions: The President, the Furnace, and the Mirror System.  How do these three regions change in the teen brain throughout adolescence?

As any parent with a teenager knows, this is where the real fun and challenge begins. Everything changes as all three of the main social brain systems undergo massive growth. Aristotle had it pegged long ago when he said, “Teens today are as fickle in their desires as they are vehement in expressing them.” While the President is getting ready to become the master controller of a more complex adult brain, it doesn’t work very well. So, you see lots of rapidly changing impulses fueled by a doubling of emotion from the Furnace. On top of that, the social Mirror System is speeding up and growing to help form tomorrow’s leaders and politicians. While teens are learning how to influence others around them in a more complex way, lots of social hurts are going to happen. It’s sort of like taking a group juggling lesson and being asked to toss steak knives back and forth on your first try. Eventually, the group will get there, but it will take time and a lot of bandages! Many current environmental biologists argue, however, that the teen brain is doing what it is designed to do: take risks while conquering the environment, bond with the peer group, and find a mate for the procreation of our species. Sadly, while designed for species survival in ancient times, many adolescents don’t survive well into adulthood within today’s social culture.

#7 Are there differences between boys and girls when it comes to our social brains?

Neurologists can tell you that the differences between the male and female brain is very small. In terms of the social brain however, there are some significant differences which compliment each other for the long term survival of our species. Go to any kindergarten classroom and you can see how the Presidential functioning is much stronger in the majority of the girls. In the teen years, you also see males making some very risky decisions and not fully thinking through the consequences to their actions. For the social brain, girls process a whole lot more non-verbal data and do so at a much faster rate. While I don’t know if he ever took a neurology class, the comedian Jeff Foxworthy was close when he joked, “When it comes to social processing, women have an eight lane super highway while men have a two lane country road.” While boys are capable of being more emotionally and socially sensitive, our ancient brains helped females carry out traditional roles like taking care of infants and working together in often hazardous environments. When taken together, these differences are designed to compliment each other and promote living and working together.

#8 How does understanding these three social brain systems help parents?

First of all, as I mentioned earlier, understanding why your child is acting the way they are can really help you be more patient and effective. Secondly, understanding your child’s unique make-up in these areas helps you provide them with the structure and guidance that they need. For example, a child who has a great social mirror system but with a weak President and Tigger emotions is going to make a lot of friends, but is then is going to need a lot of monitoring and structure to keep them and their friends safe and out of trouble. A child with a hard working President, average social mirroring skills and the anxiety of a Piglet, is going to need reinforcement for taking risks and moving past his/her anxiety. The child with low mirror abilities, a weak President and an overactive Furnace on the other hand is going to need lots of social teaching and reinforcement for handling the social world in a more positive manner. These approaches with your child’s unique make up will help them more successfully relate to others and ultimately help them structure their lives into adulthood.

#9 I know you love parent/child adventures, so tell us how they help social development.

As you know from being a parent, Scott, kids are very hands-on and learn best when they are actively engaged. This is especially true when it comes to developing executive functions, learning to manage one’s emotions, and learning how to work with others. Going on outdoor adventures (be they in town or in nature) with your children and teens gives them ample opportunities to learn about natural consequences as well as opportunities to work through the many frustrations which arise while you are out in the environment. As kids get older, it’s great to bring friends and other parents along as you learn to share the work load and navigate those challenging emotions which are impacting the entire group. Most importantly, time away from modern life (especially electronics) allows you to bond with your kids, create emotional memories and participate in some life changing experiences. You can’t microwave your child’s development, just as you can’t speed through their academic growth. It takes time together. That’s the main reason I created All parents need a few ideas and tips in order to create their own adventures that will bring them closer to their kids.

#10 How does the social brain help us live in community?

On a larger scale, we know that the survival of the human species has favored those who can live and work in a community. It’s hard to entrust one’s future into the hands of others who can’t remember to complete their work, act on impulses, overreact emotionally or who can’t empathize with others around them. It’s our positive social skills which allow us to survive together. When children feel good about their pro-social skills, it allows them to serve the community and those around them. That’s the purpose of our social brains and for children having healthy self-esteem.

When it comes down to the family level, these social/emotional skills help couples form lasting, trusting relationships. Their marital relationships form the foundation for children to grow their relationship skills into the future. As I’m sure you feel the same way about helping couples, it’s very exciting and gratifying for me to help children and teens transform their negative skills and take responsibility for their social and emotional relationships.  Having at least one friend to share life with is the difference one candle makes when placed in a dark room.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Will You Be My Friend? An Interview with Craig Knippenberg

I’ve got something new and different for you in this post (and the next). I want to introduce you to Craig Knippenberg.  I have long known and admired him and his team because of the innovative, social-development training they do with children. He is widely known around Colorado for this work that he and his team do to help children thrive and learn social awareness and skills.  What I will present here is a little background on Craig Knippenberg and an interview I recently did with him. In addition to that interview, Craig and his team have recently produced some videos on YouTube that you can access for free and watch. If you know a parent or someone who works with children and families, check all this out.  I think you will appreciate these ideas. (I especially love how he uses the characters from Winnie the Pooh to teach concepts to children and parents!)    

Craig is a child and family therapist and pastoral counselor here in Denver. He and his staff have been facilitating social, emotional and self-esteem development groups for children and teens for over thirty-three years; this model of social skills groups has been perfected and has helped bring him success. This is one of the things that I have most admired about Craig and his group. I am delighted to introduce you to their work and some of the thinking.  (I have no financial involvement here. I just really believe in what these folks do, which is why I’m posting about it here.)

Craig and his team recently produced a series of videos on the “social brain” and Craig is currently writing a book entitled: Will You Be My Friend? Understanding Your Child’s Social Brain Into Young Adulthood. The videos are available now on YouTube &, and the book is expected before too long. Check out the videos (maybe after you read the interview below!). 

Craig and I recently sat down and talked about his work, and what follows here are some outtakes from our talks.

Part I

Question #1:  Why did you want to make a brain based video and book?

There are several reasons Scott. First, my job as a child/adolescent therapist is to understand what is driving a child’s social/emotional difficulties. When I look at these difficulties from a brain-based perspective, it gives me great insight into why things are happening and then guides my decision making for more precise interventions. Second, my ultimate therapy goal is to help the children themselves understand why they act and feel the way they do, and then use this insight for longer term behavioral change and responsibility taking. Finally, as a parent myself, understanding why my kids act the way they do, at each stage of development, helps my patience and my creative problem solving around discipline issues. In 1st grade, it might mean being more patient when addressing why focused attention is so difficult; in 6th grade it might mean understanding the dramatic increase in pre-teen social and emotional behavior, while in 12th grade it might mean appreciating the fundamental drives for peer connection and family separation.

This same process of understanding is also very applicable in work with couples, Scott. Rather than reacting toward one’s spouse, you are trying to help couples slow down, think about and empathize with what is truly happening within themselves and their partner, and then handle things in a calm, insightful manner.

Ultimately, I want this book and video project to help parents and educators understand children/teens’ “social brains” in a way that is simple and easy to comprehend. While there are many brain-based books on the market for parents, most are too difficult to understand; even for me! Will You Be My Friend? however, puts the brain in easy-to-understand terms, stories and pictures. So easy in fact, that each chapter includes activities for parents to do with their kids so that their children themselves can share the same vocabulary and insights.

Question #2: Tell us more what you mean by “social brain”

As you know Scott, our brains are incredibly complex and sophisticated. So, no, there isn’t one area of the brain that governs our social actions and relationships. There are however, three main areas of our brain that, when combined together, give you a good snapshot at how our social and emotional personalities are wired.

Question #3:  Ok, tell us about this part of the brain you call the “President”.

If you have a class of children tap their foreheads, you can then start telling them how the very front part is in charge of the rest of the brain. Quite literally, it is this frontal lobe that is in charge of what psychologists call “Executive Functioning”. Or, as I like to tell students, it is their “President”. Those very presidential skills include skills like paying attention, organization, working memory, time management and the very important social skill of controlling one’s impulses. Starting in preschool, that President really starts to grow and carry out those functions in a very basic manner. As children mature, you see massive changes in Presidential Functioning during the teen years and then a settling in of a more mature President in young adulthood; almost like a 2nd term President.

Question #4: I love how you use the characters from Winnie the Pooh to illustrate your points. What does Winnie the Pooh have to do with kids and their emotions?

In my mind, everything! While I don’t know if Mr. Milne had this in mind when writing his stories, using his characters is a very easy way for children to understand their emotions and how each of us is born with an emotional temperament. Some children handle life’s stresses like Pooh does. They have an “oh bother” response, followed by a quest for the silver lining in whatever the problem is (i.e.: “There must be honey somewhere near here.”). Other children may be prone to anxiety like Piglet, anger like Rabbit, or sadness like Eyore. In a class full of children, you will see these different temperaments come out. And, of course, they come out within any one child over time and situations. Then of course, there are the Tiggers of the world who see excitement and fun in just about everything. As one student yelled out while jumping up in his chair: “I’m a Tigger!” When parents understand their son or daughters temperament, they can create an environment that will help him or her flourish. More importantly, is the ability of children to understand themselves emotionally and then take responsibility for managing their own non-Pooh responses. 

Another easy way to conceptualize our emotions is to think of a coal burning furnace in a factory. Located in the base of the brain, this factory produces the many neurochemicals which circulate throughout our brains and bodies to produce the rainbow of emotions which humans experience. The furnace drives their production. When we are feeling relaxed and content, it glows and warms us like an electric blanket on a cold winter morning. In times of stress, the furnace cranks up and floods us with emotions like fear and frustration (like when you see your child heading out on their bike with no helmet on). Obviously, we need all our emotions and a furnace that can be regulated. Going back to Winnie the Pooh, some children have Pooh at the control’s that keeps the furnace glowing at an even temperature. Other children have Rabbit or Piglet at the controls. They crank up the furnace at the slightest perception of stress and often have a hard time turning it back down.

#5 How do kids learn to understand each other’s emotions and non-verbal social cues?

Try a game of emotional charades with your kids. Tell them a feeling, and have them make the face for the game. Then explain to your child how facial expressions cause a region of the social brain I call the Mirror to respond. Your brain sees their facial expressions and then recreates them in the right side of your brain. These “mirror neurons” pretend that they are making the exact same face as your child is making and then your brain figures out what feeling you would be having if you were making that face. Once that system starts developing, it goes through several phases of growth which help children/teens more understand in a more sophisticated manner what others are thinking and feeling just by scanning the people around them. These amazing mirroring skills are what allow us to notice friendship opportunities and then form trusting, intimate relationships. For your marital couples, it’s what allows them to recognize each other’s emotions, feel deep empathy, and then respond in an appropriately supportive manner. Adults who have more limited social processing skills (such as found with the Autism Spectrum Disorders) have a much more difficult time developing these deeper relationships. They have trouble decoding what’s obvious to others, which is why some people have said they are sometimes “clueless.” 

*  *  *
I will continue with this brief interview with Craig Knippenberg in my next posting.  Stay tuned. And check out the videos at those links above. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

“I'll take anyone.”

You might have seen this story. If you have not, take a look here or here.

Davion Navar Henry Only is a 16 year-old young man, without mother or father or family. What he does have is guts and a deep desire to be loved. Last Sunday, with the encouragement of his case-worker, Connie Going, Davion went to church and made a request. It’s not so unusual to go to church and make a request. In my experience, however, those requests most often are sent God’s way, not expressed with such pathos directly to the congregants. Davion made a direct request to those he stood before. He asked for a family. Imagine what it might be like to do such a thing. The terror in asking, as a child, to be loved.

As the stories note, Davion said, “I'll take anyone. Old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple. I don't care. And I would be really appreciative. The best I could be.”

You don’t hear every day of a 16 year-year old asking for a family. Yet the power of this story lies in the fact that it is very much an every-day story. There are scores of children who would love nothing more than to have a family to belong to and to love them.

I almost didn’t read this article because I knew it would be painful to absorb. Like so many others, Davion has a lot going against him in life. His mother gave birth to him in prison; nothing is said in the news stories of his father. In fact, as reported, he never knew his mother or father, and has been raised in various temporary homes for his whole life. He just discovered this year that his mother had passed on, which one of the stories suggests motivated him to wait no longer for what could not come from those quarters.

Not surprisingly, Davion has had some difficulties with anger and managing his behavior. But as the stories make clear, he’s attempting to turn that all around. If the stories are accurate, his motive is not only to be a better person but to earn what many children can take for granted. The poignant part is the obvious part. A young man pleads for what he’s never had, which is something too many children never will have: stability and love.

I usually write about statistics and trends and policies and personal behaviors that impact one’s odds of lasting love. I usually write without putting a face on the pain that is behind the ever-increasing numbers of children who have the hard luck to be born in what I clinically call “low-commitment contexts.” That’s a tidy and descriptive term for the increased odds of pain that come when children do not have adults committed to raising them. When I use this term, I do not mean to judge the parents of such children harshly. What would be the point? Many people who have children in low commitment contexts are hardly adults themselves (and I merely mean, age-wise), and many of any age grew up in contexts filled with family instability. While one can easily understand—hopefully with actual compassion—the difficulties that lead so many children to be exposed to unstable or even dangerous homes, that understanding does not lesson the consequences to individuals, society, and the hearts of children.

I wanted to draw attention to the story of Davion because he says so clearly what is rarely put into words. He wants a family, and he knows he’s running out of time to experience one as a child.

For those of you who work to help others better understand relationships, love, and commitment, Davion is the face of why your work matters. You are doing something important. And for those of you who have adopted and taken in children like Davion, you are heroes.  I cannot think of a more apt word for the love you dare to send into the world.


Thursday, September 26, 2013

New: The Institute for Family Studies

I want to let you know of a new entity called The Institute for Family Studies. The Institute for Family Studies (IFS) is dedicated to strengthening marriage and family life, and advancing the well-being of children, through research and public education.

The Institute has a blog that will include regular pieces by a range of thinkers on marriage and family, including Bill Coffin, Laurie F. DeRose, Robert I. Lerman, Emily Esfahani Smith, Scott Stanley, Charles E. Stokes, W. Bradford Wilcox, Amber Lapp, David Lapp, Kay Hymowitz, and Ashley E. McGuire.

I know many of the regular readers of some of my pieces here would be interested in a lot of the content. To check out the newest entries on the blog there, try this link. 

I know the site is new but there are already archived pieces to read.

My first entry is a new, updated version of one of my most popular themes which I have blogged about here in the past. It’s entitled, “Life Before Marriage: Does What Happens in Vegas Stay in Vegas?

I encourage you to check it out and the other excellent content on the site. 


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

That's Cool: Sacrifices and Partner Influence on Dressing for Comfort

I was in an airport a month ago waiting for a flight and I chanced to overhear a couple talking. Now, to be clear, I don’t try to overhear couples talking. I’m an introvert, and I’m not seeking social interaction (participatory or otherwise) in an airport. I also do no try to analyze any couples, either, when I’m out and about. I’d rather be reading, thinking, or writing.

This sort of reminds me of my common party response when a couple learns what I do and asks, “Are you analyzing us now?” To which, I most often have replied, “Are you paying me to?”  I’ve worked with couples, directly, a lot in my life, but not anymore. I am too busy with other responsibilities. But that work had meaning for me and hopefully the couples that I saw.  Just not what I do anymore.

Back to the airport. I could not help but overhear a tiny bit of the interchange between the man and woman. They were young. You don’t really need details but I’ll give you a few. She was very pretty, with red hair. She was a woman many people would notice. He was handsome, but less unique than her. They looked and sounded happy as a couple.  Both were young, attractive, and, perhaps, have a whole life together a head of them. I have no idea if they were married, but they were young for typical age at marriage, so I would guess not.    

What’s the plot here? Well, she was dressed in only shorts and a short sleeve, tight shirt.  I don’t know about you, but I more often get cold on flights than warm. I know it’s the opposite for others. And, of course, on some flights, it gets too warm for everyone (you can see in your mind’s eye that point when many arms reach up to open up the blower nozzels, in vein, can’t you?) and, on some flights, it gets ridiculously freezing. I really dread those cold flights, as I’m going to really feel it. Maybe this woman does, also. Certainly, there are two things that would be true if I were dressed like her for a flight:  (1) I’d be very concerned about shivering, and (2) it’s possible some people would be asking to move to a seat further from me. 

I always take an over-shirt or sweater with me on flights. I hate to feel cold. Don’t love warm but I hate feeling cold.  I must be the bear who wants the temperature to be "just right." 

This young lady wanted to go change to put more clothes on in case the flight was cold. That would entail covering up more. In fact, the airport was cold so she may already have felt cold. Her beau didn’t want her to do this.  Now, honestly, I didn’t try to hear his explanation, and I’m not sure he gave one but I’d guess that he probably did as they lowered their voices a bit. The main thing is that he clearly didn’t want her to go change, and they were not waiting on a flight that was leaving anytime soon, so that didn’t explain his resistance to taking the time to change. They were in no danger of missing their flight. 

Maybe the guy had a really great reason why he didn't want her to change. (Heck, most people want their partner to change, right?!) I could not, however, imagine any other reason than him really liking the way she looked in the way she was already dressed; perhaps, more, he might like the way she looked because he was with her. He really could have a great reason for not wanting her to change. I have no idea. And, it's worth realizing that even if it was one of those type reasons I just speculated about, she may actually feel flattered by it--but uncomfortable if it's a cold flight. What was clear is that she didn't want to be cold on the flight, and something in him overrode him being able to encourage her to do what she wanted to do.  

In some way or another, him encouraging her to change would have required him to put his personal preference aside (based on whatever). In other words, it might have required a little sacrifice within him.

Long-term love and commitment—and definitely marriage—require long-term, consistent sacrifices one for another. Sure, there are times when we don’t sacrifice (too many of them in most marriages). But I wondered if this incident was part of a pattern. I hope not. If it is a pattern, and they stay together, she’s in for more cold times ahead. 

This couple was quite young, so a lot could change. Behaviors, dressing habits—they’ll change at some point, right? Whether or not this particular example relates to sacrifice at all for this couple, I can’t think of anything much more important for people to consider strongly in prospective mates than evidence about whether or not the other will sacrifice for you. Sacrifices can take many forms, but I think the small ones are the most important to see in action before committing to life-long love. It’s fine to be looking for love but it’s smart to be looking for sacrifice. It's important to be looking for someone who watches out for your best interest. I know people get tired of hearing it, but past behavior really is the best predictor of future behavior.  

If you want more on the theme of sacrifice, one of my favorite pieces I ever wrote is an essay on sacrifice called Afterglow (click on the title if you are interested).  Also, if you want more to read on the subject, I've written a fair amount about sacrifice here on this blog, so if you want to read more, just use the little search box on the top left for searching within the blog, and put in the word “sacrifice”.  A lot will pop up.

Here’s to doing the small sacrifices of loving commitment that make relationships thrive.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Soft Break-Up

When you really love someone and they break up with you, it’s going to hurt. That can be pretty hard. That’s one kind of hard break-up; hard in the emotional sense. In another way, however, it’s getting more difficult for break-ups to be hard. By this I mean less about emotional pain and more about the clarity with which a relationship stops. There have always been messy, lingering break-ups, but break-ups used to be more likely to come with clear and definitive ends. Hard stops. Full stops.

I cannot give you a number but I believe that more and more break-ups are soft. Why? Technology is a big part of the answer.

If you are young . . ..  Hold up a moment. For our purposes today, I want to define young as being under the age of 35. (I apologize to those of you who are 35 and older for choosing that particular cut off.) Anyway, if you are young, you have grown up in a time of rapidly escalating use of online connection, text messages, and social media. When it comes to electronic ways of being connected, 15 years ago was the Dark Ages.

If you are young per my definition above, this next point may seem unimaginable to you.  Seriously involved couples used to break up and severe all, or almost all, contact. Imagine that, if you can. That’s a hard break-up—a full stop to the relationship. Sure, sometimes when a couple shared a major social group like church or school or small towns, the two ex-partners would continue to “see” each other around. After all, you couldn’t make the other person quit the group just because you were no longer together. But other than such cases, break-ups were hard not soft. Relationships truly ended, relatively clearly. Sure, some people got back together, but fewer than do now. And lots of people have occasionally checked on an ex, especially if they still shared some social network that made it possible to do so (non-electronic, I mean). But mostly, relationships ended and, when they did, that was that. Hard stop.

Electronic connections have staying power. You might “unfriend” someone on Facebook that you had been seeing or were seriously involved with in the past, but you may also just not bother to get this done. It takes some effort. It also used to be vastly more unacceptable to keep any contact with someone you used to date once you were in a new relationship. It’s hard to say which change lead the other, but I suspect the mass of ways to stay connected electronically preceded the social change for it becoming marginally more acceptable to keep tabs and contacts with someone you used to be involved with romantically. People have always been curious about what others they used to date were doing “now.” But it was vastly harder to keep tabs. That’s partly why some people are so interested in High School reunions. That was a chance to see what’s become of Susie or Sam or Billy Joe. (The other social change I’ll not address much here, but one that adds to all the complexity of this topic, is the growth in the sheer number of partners that many people have been involved with by the time they settle down.)

To recap, the default for breaking up used to be fairly rapid disconnection from an ex, along with a relative absence of ongoing access to information about the life of this past love. There were many exceptions, of course. Still, the default was hard break-ups. The default is shifting now toward soft break-ups.

Hard break-ups are useful. They are especially useful to committed couples. New, serious relationships are going to be harder to sustain while people are busily connected to, and still monitoring, their exes. After all, it’s a pretty rare couple that can cope well with one or both partners staying connected with exes through electronic media. Exes may no longer be so ex but that does not completely alter the dynamics of jealousy.

Because the default for breaking up is now soft rather than hard, people have to put more effort in cutting off connections when a relationship ends. There is otherwise a lot of inertia in favor of the connections continuing because we live in a world of links. Letting things slide is letting all the connections continue. It requires decisions and action steps to make a break-up more total.

Does all this matter? Obviously, I think it does. A fundamental aspect of commitment relates to how a person manages attraction to, and connection with, alternative partners. I don’t know what vows are most in vogue right now, but “forsaking all others” is a classic marital vow (at least in wedding services from a Western tradition). That line represents the fact that committing to one partner means choosing to give up other partners one could have had.

Real commitments always involve making a choice to give up other choices. That’s the essence of commitment. If you are in a relationship with potential for a real, lasting future, consider the advantages of making some hard break-ups with your past. You have to decide to do this because of the aforementioned inertia of the otherwise ongoing, electronic connections. You might also have to talk with your partner and work out a plan together for how you will cut some old ties.

As is so often the case, technology brings a vast number of options but this also makes choices more important (and more difficult). Friends are great to have, but a gallery of past loves is a pretty complicated audience for a new stage of life.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Part II: Unmarried Cheating (Infidelity in Unmarried, Serious Romantic Relationships)

I last left you on the edge of your seat about what I’d write next about the study on extradyadic sex I introduced you to in my last post. If you have not already read the prior post, please do so as this one builds on it. That post was all about findings in a study from our lab at the University of Denver (Shaw, Rhoades, Allen, Stanley, & Markman, 2013).

Here’s a very brief recap:  Shaw et al. examined predictors of having sex outside of one’s serious, unmarried, romantic relationship over a 20 month period of time. As you can read in the prior post, many variables were associated with new occurrences of infidelity in these relationships and many other variables were not associated with infidelity. For example, those who were happier and more committed and who had less negativity with their partners were less likely to report having had sex with someone else. Not shocking but good to know. In contrast, those who had a greater number of prior sexual partners or who reported more use of alcohol were more likely to report having had sex with someone else.  And so forth and so on.

Did any of the findings seem surprising to you? The finding that I think many people would consider surprising is that living together was not significantly associated with whether or not a person reported having had sex with someone other than their partner.  That is, living together was not associated with greater odds of cheating nor was it associated with lower odds of cheating. Living together just didn’t provide information about sexual exclusivity.  

I believe that many people believe that cohabitation = commitment or that it means there has been a step-up in commitment. Closely related, I believe that many people believe the fact that two people live together means that the two partners are “off the market,” so to speak. There actually is no evidence that I know of for believing this. 

From all of the studies I know, I have not seen convincing evidence that living together sends any clear signal about commitment between two people. That’s a problem for some people because they believe that it does. In contrast, other variables studied by Shaw et al. were associated with greater odds of exclusivity, for example commitment to one’s partner or engagement to marry.

As I’ve said before, if couple tells me they are living together, and this is all I know, I don’t know much about commitment. In contrast, if a couple tells me they are married, engaged, have mutual plans for marriage, or have a made a really strong, mutual commitment to a future together, I know a lot about their level of commitment. Those things are all strong and clear signals of commitment. And that’s really my point here. While I am reporting findings about sex and living together, the key underlying issue is about clear and unclear signals about commitment.

There is some practical advice in this. If you want to know if your partner is really committed to you, look for something that reflects actual commitment. Don’t rely on an unreliable signal—living together. Living together does not signal commitment. Commitment signals commitment.

As an aside, I’ve noted in other posts that I believe there are some places and conditions where living together does signal a higher level of commitment compared to not living together. But I want to point out that there is just not much evidence for this being true for most people in most communities.

The practical point is something like this: If you are trying to figure out if a relationship is exclusive and has a future, the starting point isn’t going to moving in together—nor would it be the willingness of someone to have sex with you. Moving in together does not mean much about commitment. It’s much more informative to talk openly (when it is the right time to start doing so) and see if there really is a mutual commitment and a similar understanding about relationship. Too many people find out the hard way that moving in together didn’t mean what they thought or hoped it meant.


[Technical note for those so inclined:  Our sample is relatively large for the level of measurement that we have on these relationships over time. That means the lack of a significant association between living together and infidelity is not likely a result of having too little statistical power. Also, the analyses reported in Shaw et al. are not what you often see in sociological studies where many variables are controlled for while looking at the impact of one or two key predictors of something interesting. We’re psychologists, and I must confess we sometimes think sociologists over do their controls. The analyses in Shaw et al. are intentionally showing which variables among a substantial list are associated with new instances of infidelity, not what is associated with infidelity when many other variables are controlled for at the same time. I have, however, also looked at some related analyses with and without controlling for some other variables such as how long the person had already been in the present relationships. Same general finding: living together is not reliably associated with more or less odds of infidelity. There may be a more complicated or otherwise interesting story to tell in the future when we get to other analyses. We’ll see. The present finding is consistent and it fits other findings that shed light on what does and does not signal higher levels of commitment.]