Wednesday, December 17, 2014

You Fall In Love with the Front End of the Puppy

There are a lot of ways to explain why commitment is so important in lasting love—especially in marriage. This is my favorite.

Think about puppy love. Many people understand what it is like to have a strong, immediate reaction of attraction to a puppy—even cat lovers can understand this. If it’s a puppy you end up with, it’s not an exaggeration to say you fell in love with that dog.

How’s this illustrate the importance of commitment? Simple.

You fall in love with the front end of the puppy, but every puppy has a back end.

Think about what a successful relationship with a dog requires. You don’t have to work out how to be attracted to the cute end of the dog. You have to work out, and work through, how to handle—together—the back end. What does that require? Without going into any more detail that this illustration requires, the back end of the puppy is what takes the most work, especially in the early stage of the relationship, and it's always the least fun part of the relationship.The back end is a lot about regulating time and place. As in where and when. It all takes effort.

Even when that’s all working well and the expectations are clear, the back end of the dog is still the part that requires you to sometimes go outside when it’s cold, or to carry around little bags as you walk around the neighborhood (or really large bags in some cases), or to hold your nose. The back end requires you to accommodate your life to the urgent needs of the dog. That requires commitment because it involves investment and ongoing sensitivity to the needs of another.

Of course you have to feed the cute end, not just deal with the back end. That also requires commitment but let’s keep the metaphor pure, here. As pure as the “business” end of the dog can be.

So, if you are committed to loving someone, realize that part of the whole deal is the work that the back end of the relationship takes. Lasting love is not only about the cute and easy part. Sometimes love stinks. Sometimes you have to pick up something you’d rather let lie. And sometimes you really ought to leave something behind.

Love takes commitment, just like the back end of the puppy.

Oh, in case you wondered, that’s our dog Odie in the picture. This is either the first or second photo I ever took of him. It was taken the first night we brought him home. He’s 13 years old now. That’s 13 years of lasting love. We fell in love with the front end of this puppy, but, yes, he’s got a back end, too. They all do.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The New York Times Piece on Divorce: Overly Optimistic

There is a lot of buzz this week about this piece in the New York Times by Claire Cain Miller, The Divorce Surge Is Over, but the Myth Lives On. The upshot is that the divorce rate surged a good number of years ago and the current likely, lifetime divorce risk for a newly married couple is substantially lower than it was a couple of decades ago.

I believe the article is quite correct to note that statements suggesting that the divorce rate is “50 percent and climbing” are truly off base. The divorce rate has been steadily coming down. That really is good news, and it is a myth that the divorce rate climbs ever higher. It has not. There is something important that is still climbing, but I’ll come to that.

The New York Times article describes a lot of the complex changes in society that may go into all of what has changed about the odds of divorce.

As my colleagues know, while being a cheery sort, I am well able to articulate the pessimistic side in family trends. Working to make things different? Sure. Recognizing what’s really happening? More surely.

So, let’s take this happy moment and put a couple of dents into it. 

First, even in the most optimistic estimate offered by economist Justin Wolfers, over a third of couples newly marrying are likely eventually to divorce. That’s way better than 50% or more but it’s still a strong chance of divorce among those who do get married.   

Second, and much more importantly in my view, there are a number of other trends that are consequential that go hand-in-hand with the declining divorce risk among those who marry. In part, what has been happening is that an increasingly select group makes up the overall group of who marries. This group is select for having lower overall risk in their life circumstances and also for being more likely to enter marriage with the type of timing and sequence that makes success in marriage far more likely. I am talking about college graduates. In contrast, marriage rates have been falling off for others, especially for those with great economic disadvantage and those in the working class. For more on that latter point, see this report, When Marriage Disappears

The New York Times piece does describe these divergent trends based on wealth, class, education, and disadvantage. 

While there is an overall net good thing happening with the trends toward less divorce, another phenomenon still grows: As far as I understand, the number of children being born in low commitment contexts continues to go up. That’s not so rosy a picture. My term—low commitment contexts—is purely descriptive. I simply mean that a child arrives before two parents have decided on a future together or on raising a family and this child together. I believe this is an issue that rarely receives the attention it deserves, and it lies at the intersection of various types of bad news about current trends. I have written about this issue in a piece at the Institute for Family Studies blog, wherein I also addresses some of the recent and important discussions around this subject. If you are interested in more thought on the issue of timing and the formation of commitment, here you go:  Marriage and Positive Child Outcomes: Commitment, Signaling, and Sequence.  

Want More On The "Divorce Rate"? 

If you are interested in more about divorce numbers, I have something you may find useful. Many years ago, I wrote a little document on “What Really Is the Divorce Rate?” In it, I tried to address a lot of confusion I would hear in others over the years about what the “divorce rate” really is—confusion that stems from the considerable complexity that lies behind what the average person expects to be a simple number that someone should be able to nail down in a way that’s understandable. There are, in fact, a lot of different types of numbers that people latch onto when it comes to divorce. So, it’s not simple. I update that document ever year or two, and did so last year. I am not a demographer and I do not play one on TV (nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn recently). Nevertheless, I was looking over what I have in the current version of that document and I thought it holds up pretty well for explaining some of the confusion people have about divorce numbers. It also talks about some of the complex counter currents such as I briefly alluded to above. So, if you are interested, have at it.

If you are a demographer and you read that document and you think I got something wrong, let me know. I have had input from a number of demographers over the years and am always happy to update this type of document to make it more useful.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Ron Haskins' new book: Show Me The Evidence

"Our nation's social programs, especially ones for children and families, do not work," so said Ron Haskins in a talk today at the Brookings Institution. In his talk, Haskins noted a fact that few people seem to know regarding government programs: that "80-90% of programs are not working." He added, "Experience shows that most social programs produce modest or no impacts that last."

Ron Haskins is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, which just published his new book called Show Me the Evidence: Obama's Fight for Rigor and Results in Social Policy. In his book (written with colleague Greg Margolis), Haskins writes about strategies that could turn the dismal reality of ineffective government policies and programs around. Their book focuses on the Obama Administration's emphasis on increasing the reliance on research and evidence in the development, testing, and refinement of social policy.

I have known Ron Haskins for a long time. He is as fine of a thinker in family policy circles as I have ever known. He was one of the architects of the 1996 welfare reform law--a Republican who demonstrates that it is possible to work across parties and ideology to improve how things are done.

If you are interested in such things, I can recommend this book and also the presentation today from Brookings. Following Haskins talk, there is a panel discussion featuring notables Peter Orszag, Jason DeParle, Melody Barnes and numerous others. The presentation is available at the Brookings site.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Soft Break-Up: Psychology Today piece on ambiguous break-ups

I wrote awhile ago on what I called "The Soft Break-Up." I gave that term to the fact that even break-ups are ambiguous now--along with so much else in unmarried romantic and sexual relationships. Matt Huston at Psychology Today interviewed both me and Galena Rhoades, and wrote a terrific piece on this theme.

It's right here for the reading

Dating: The Soft Break Up

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Sawhill and Venator on The Hopes of Marriage Traditionalists vs. Village Builders

Isabel Sawhill is an economist at Brookings who has just published an important book on the changes in families in the U. S. over the past decades (Generation Unbound, 2014). She describes how we’ve arrived at a nation that, increasingly, is made up of drifters versus planners when it comes to sex, childbearing, and parenting. Her book details the large consequences of these changes, including covering the staggering increases in the number of children born outside of marriage and being raised by single parents.

Sawhill wrote a recent piece that appeared in the New York Times, entitled Beyond Marriage, in which she talks about both the problem and her belief in solutions involving long-acting birth control methods that could change the default from people having children without planning to people needing to plan to have children. As you can imagine, elements of those ideas are controversial. But her description of the issues and problems is not controversial. She unflinchingly describes the massive ways our society has changed (for many but not all people, of course) when it comes to family formation and the wellbeing of children. Drifting, indeed, has become common, and drifting, like sliding, does not bode well for relationship transitions that are fundamentally life-altering (and, in this case, life creating).

In a piece on the Brookings site, What Liberals and Conservatives Are Missing in the Marriage Debate, Sawhill and Joanna Venator contrast the hopes of liberals and conservatives for what we could possibly do about the declines in marriage as a foundation for childbearing and childrearing. As they note, “Traditionalists” hope to bring marriage back and “Village Builders” hope to increase the supports and resources around single parent families in order to make up for some of what is lost in terms of resources available to parents and children.

Sawhill and Venator make this compelling point along the way. They write:

“…for every child removed from poverty by a social program, another one is entering poverty because of the breakdown of the family. The growth in single parent families since the 1970s has caused child poverty to rise by roughly 5 percentage points as much as the poverty-reducing effect of some of our biggest safety net programs, such as Food Stamps.”

Here’s the nifty graphic from the Brookings piece that illustrates that quote.

Sawhill and Venator write cogently about the reasons for pessimism when it comes to what either Traditionalists or Village Builders hope for at this point. The one thing I appreciate above all else in Sawhill’s recent arguments is that she’s dealing with reality. I want to be an optimist about marriage, but I’m not. Don’t get me wrong on this point. I think marriage is the best path for the greatest number of people. Among many reasons, marriage is powerful for child outcomes because, historically, marriage set a strong(er) context of commitment around a couple before there was a family. (See my prior post here or at the Institute for Family Studies on this crucial point.)

So, while I am pessimistic in a number of ways about marriage, I work toward the vision of the optimists when it comes to the institution. But the cultural trends are huge. Along with my concerns about the future of marriage, I am as or more pessimistic about our society having enough resources to, in any realistic way, support strategies sufficient to cope with the massive changes we now confront. Even if we did a lot more than we now do—as Sawhill wishes we were doing—I don’t see how such efforts can make up for what is increasingly left out of the equation for a growing number of children and families, which is a settled commitment between two partners before they become parents together (that sounds like marriage, I know).

I’m left with three beliefs about the problems Sawhill identifies in the recent pieces and in her book. One, I think we should continue to try to strengthen and support marriage, which includes figuring out how to counter the cultural trends that push people away from believing what is obvious: that a prior settled commitment between two parents makes a real difference for children. Two, I believe we should accept that government programs won’t be able to make up for the ways children will have differential resources and opportunities in life as a result of how families form. Should we invest in programs try to make up for what is lacking? I think so, but hopefully in thoughtful ways; which is another point that Sawhill addresses in identifying the need for increasing efforts that are geared toward self-sufficiency. Third, you may or may not feel ready for it, but it’s clear we are going to be having the cultural and societal discussion Sawhill directly addresses in her argument for one way to change the default from drifting to planning when it comes to how children enter this American life. Be thinking, because thinking and talking is on the agenda.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Understanding Why Marriage is Associated with Positive Child Outcomes: Commitment, Signaling, and Sequence

by Scott Stanley

Why is marriage associated with positive child outcomes when compared to non-marriage? In The Marriage Effect: Money or Parenting?, Kimberly Howard and Richard Reeves argued that the primary mechanisms through which marriage benefits children are based on income and parenting quality. Emily Badger wrote a piece on their work with a title that captured what the take-away was for many: Children with married parents are better off— but marriage isn’t the reason why. While I agree with a number of their points, I believe something substantial is missing in Howard and Reeves’ overall argument. Brad Wilcox outlined one set of concerns. My focus here is in a different direction—on the development and timing of commitment.

Howard and Reeves unflinchingly declare that there are substantial advantages for children raised by married parents compared to others. While I think the notion of “settled science” is conceptually dangerous, this fact seems broadly recognized.[i] Howard and Reeves are particularly interested in two questions: (1) “is it the marriage itself that matters? and (2) if not, what do we do to help? Their findings show that the association between marriage and positive child outcomes may be substantially accounted for by greater income and more engaged parenting among marrieds. Based on this, they argue that intervention efforts should focus on parenting and not on marriage, per se.

I respect this logic. My colleagues and I have long argued that relationship oriented interventions should focus on variables that are dynamic (i.e., putatively changeable) rather than those that are relatively static.[ii] That may seem obvious, but people sometimes misunderstand why prevention-focused experts will put more emphasis on variables of lessor predictive power that are arguably dynamic (e.g., the number of sexual partners) than on variables that account for more variance but are immutable (e.g., race). Knowledge of static risk factors is nonetheless also important because it points to where to concentrate efforts to help people. For example, while there has been a lot of press on the meager outcomes from recent federal studies on relationship education provided to couples at lower incomes, there is some good news about who may benefit the most related to relatively static risk factors.[iii]

Marriage: a Mere Commitment Device?

Emily Badger quotes Reeves on the income and parenting engagement points: 

"Those two factors taken together explain most of the better outcomes for the children of married couples," Reeves says. "Not all. But most. And I think the takeaway here is not to mistake a commitment device – which marriage is – for an explanatory device."

The argument is further clarified in this quote from Howard and Reeves in their original piece: “Is it marriage itself that matters, or is marriage the visible expression of other factors, that are the true cause of different outcomes? And if so, which ones?”

I think this argument shows a serious under-appreciation for the importance of “visible expressions” of commitment. Signals of commitment are important across a wide swath of societal life because people will often make better decisions with clearer information about the level of motivation in others,[iv] and signals about commitment are, arguably, of great importance in the development and maintenance of romantic and family relationships.[v] Reeves seems to be arguing that the signal value of marriage is not as consequential as behaviors such as parenting, but what that view fails to account for is how marriage has most typically been a potent signal of commitment with a distinct placement regarding the sequence and timing of childbearing. At the root of it, what is signaled by marriage is a commitment comprised of “us with a future.”[vi] Sure, reality has very often been messier than the tidy ordering of love, marriage, and a baby carriage; and many marriages do not go the distance. But marriage is likely, in some large respect, explanatory regarding child outcomes because marriage most often is a strong and credible signal of commitment prior to childbirth.

Put another way, Howard and Reeves seem to focus on childrearing (parenting) with little emphasis for the role marriage often plays in sequencing of commitment and childbearing. I believe that the quality of the parenting a child will receive is situated in the context of the level of commitment his or her two parents have to parenting together. Danielle Kurtzleben at highlighted one key part of this puzzle related to that idea of “together”:

There is a common-sense reason to why this bump is so great. A pair of mediocre married parents will have way more time to spend with their kids than even an exceptionally devoted single dad . . .

Even here, there may be an under-appreciation for how (and if) the partnership to parent formed in the first place. The fact is that marriage is associated with a far greater likelihood that a child’s parents will continue to parent together than other contexts.[vii] At one end of a spectrum are parents who married before the child arrived, where those children have a relatively high likelihood of receiving extensive co-parenting. At the other end of this spectrum would be children born to parents who had not developed much, if any, commitment to each other beforehand, much less a commitment to parent a child together before having one. Those children, on average, have more of an uphill climb in life, and, as Howard and Reeves note, economic and social mobility are impacted. Such children are not disadvantaged because they don’t have a parent who cares, but because they are going to land, on average, the furthest from having the economic and social capital of two people pulling together to start them off in life. One can argue that the benefits of having two committed parents can exist apart from marriage. I agree. So why would I argue that marriage has special explanatory value regarding child outcomes?

Back to signals and sequence.

While not always, and perhaps less so now than before, marriage serves as a strong signal that two people are tacitly committed to raising a family together. Further, and for more complex reasons than I want to develop here, signals are the most informative when they are fully under the control of those sending them—by which I mean, when the behavior has fewer prior constraints so that it reflects something true about the individual. That means that signals about commitment are more informative before a child arrives than after because having a child increases life constraints. When marriage precedes two people having a child, the question of intention about a shared long-term time horizon was settled before things got messy with baby drool and poop. For couples with this foundation already in place, even unplanned and mistimed children are still landing in a relatively rich context regarding bi-parental commitment. One can (and should) believe that various socio-economic disadvantages govern a lot in this big lottery of life, but we should not lose sight of how sequence plays a consequential and causal role in child outcomes.

I am far from alone believing this. I think the greatest change in families impacting children in this era is that so many are born into low commitment contexts. This seems to be exactly the point that Isabel Sawhill argues in her forthcoming book, Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage. In her New York Times piece on 9-14-2014, she wrote:

We’ve been worrying about these trends for years, and wondering: Can marriage be restored as the standard way to raise children? As much as we might welcome a revival, I doubt that it will happen. The genie is out of the bottle.

I would love for Sawhill to be wrong about marriage, but I share her pessimism. Further, by arguing for what is needed, Sawhill draws attention to what is increasingly missing.

What we need instead is a new ethic of responsible parenthood. If we combine an updated social norm with greater reliance on the most effective forms of birth control, we can transform drifters into planners and improve children’s life prospects.

In her book and article, Sawhill focuses a lot of attention on complex issues related to birth control. I will sidestep that issue for now to focus on drifting versus planning. This is familiar territory for me and my colleagues. Whether you think about drifting versus planning or sliding versus deciding,[viii] the underlying point is that it matters how and when (and if) intention forms when it comes to the consequences of life altering transitions such as having a child. Commitments are decisions, and decisions support the strongest follow-through.

What about Howard and Reeves’ finding about engaged parenting? They note that “It is plausible that parents who commit to each other through marriage may also have a stronger joint commitment to raising their children.” That’s exactly what I believe is being given short shrift in the current discussion. In fact, I suspect that their parenting variable is partly a proxy for the mutual commitment to parent that is implicit in marriage.

While I can see plenty of value in efforts to provide more education about parenting to both couples and single parents, I also believe we need to work to increase the odds that children are born into high commitment contexts. Such efforts might include helping people better understand how sliding into having a child together, in a relationship with an unclear future, leads to worse outcomes for adults and children. Emphasizing this reality may be unpalatable to some who worry that such messages can be retroactively stigmatizing for those who are already downstream from consequential drifting. If so, the importance of emphasizing this may be as controversial to some as Isabel Sawhill’s suggestions about birth control are to others. Either way, it does not reflect how life really works to ignore sequence as we all grapple with solutions.

Marriage is, indeed, fading in front of our eyes, and with it goes a lot of signal clarity about commitment in the context of sequence. Maybe those elements can be constructed behaviorally on a broad scale, but we should recognize the difficulty we face in trying to make up for the loss of something with real explanatory power.

[i] Sawhill, I. V. (2014). Generation unbound: Drifting into sex and parenthood without marriage. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. 
[ii] e.g., Stanley, S. M. (2001). Making a case for premarital education. Family Relations, 50(3), 272-280.;  Markman, H. J., Stanley, S. M., & Blumberg, S. L. (2010). Fighting for your marriage. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. NOTE: It is a separate and challenging matter in social interventions to demonstrate that the variables targeted are the mechanisms of change. 
[iii] Who Benefits Most from Family-Strengthening Efforts?
[iv] The seminal paper by Nobel Prize winner Michael Spence is: Spence, A. Michael. (1973). Job Market Signaling. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 87(3), 355-374. In his Nobel award speech, Spence noted that that “the information carried by the signal can be productive itself. This will occur if there is a decision that is made better or with greater efficiency, with better information.” I believe this is relevant to the points I make here (though I make no claim to understanding all of the nuances of Spence’s work).
[v] Rowthorn, R. (2002).  Marriage as a signal.  In A. W. Dnes and R. Rowthorn (Eds.), The Law and Economics of Marriage and Divorce (pp. 132 - 156).  New York: Cambridge University Press.; Nock, S.L.  (2009). The Growing Importance of Marriage in America.  In H. E. Peters and C. M. Kamp Dush (Eds.), Marriage and Family: Perspectives and Complexities (pp. 302-324). New York: Columbia University Press.; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). Commitment: Functions,formation, and the securing of romantic attachment. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2, 243-257.
[vi] Jones, W. H., & Adams, J. M. (1999).  Handbook of interpersonal commitment and relationship stability.  New York: Plenum.;  Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2, 243-257.
[vii] Sawhill, I. V. (2014). Generation unbound: Drifting into sex and parenthood without marriage. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. 
[viii] Stanley,S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding:Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Which Door? Thoughts on The Consequential Choices of Researchers and Other Humans

In the frenzy of all the attention regarding the National Marriage Project report, co-authored by Galena Rhoades and me, and recently released, we wrote a conceptual piece posted at The Institute for Family Studies on issues that arise in how researchers think about causality and personal choice, and how statistical approaches intersect with what researchers do and what they conclude.

It's somewhat more technical than most things I post, but the piece is more conceptual than statistical if you are interested in the subject.

Which Door? Thoughts on The Consequential Choices of Researchers and Other Humans

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Selection Effects: What's at Stake? (following up on The National Marriage Project Report "Before I Do")

See the prior post (below) for more information on the National Marriage Project Report that Galena Rhoades and I authored that was released yesterday.

I want to make you aware of a couple of pieces we've written on the important issue of "selection effects." You'll often hear social scientists talk about this subject when they discuss or critique the type of findings we present in the Before I Do report. The subject is important because it revolves around the degree to which scientists believe that some experiences in life are causally related to outcomes in life.

So, you have a couple of options, if you want to read more on this subject.

For a briefer (about 2.5 pages) take, linked directly to the NMP release, check out what we just posted at the Institute for Family Studies website:  Selection Effects and Personal Choice

For a longer (about 4 pages), more general take, with similar observations but also a deeper set of questions about the problems of free will in science, see this one:  Selection Effects: Social Science and Personal Choices

If you like going deeper on such issues, there you go.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Rhoades and Stanley "Before I Do" Report for the National Marriage Project

The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia released a report today with analyses by Galena Rhoades and me using our national data set from the Relationship Development Study.

The report can be found at the National Marriage Project website.

There are also two brief videos--one from Galena Rhoades and one from me--that can be viewed via links on the NMP website for this report.  (Or, if you rather, just click here for Galena or here for Scott.)

In the report, we look at all sorts of premarital relationship behavior (with prior partners and with the partner people marry) as predictors of overall marital quality.

We examine the following predictors and more:

- Having a child from a prior partner
- Having cohabited with people other than who you marry
- Having sex with others, prior to marriage, in addition to whom you marry
- The number of sexual partners one has had
- If the relationship with the spouse began as a hook-up
- If a couple lived together before a specific commitment to marry
- If, when cohabiting, they slid into it or made a decision about it
- Weddings (if had one) and how many attended

If you prefer a version optimized for reading in a browser, you can click here.

Have at it!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Losses that Motivate Avoiding “The Talk”

[This is the second of two posts on DTRs, wherein I have re-written one of my favorite posts from 2009.]

In my last post, I looked at the question of why people might avoid talking about the relationship; you know, avoid the DTR or having “The Talk.” I discussed several reasons people generally avoid having The Talk, including it being too soon or a couple lacking the ability to have such a talk skillfully. The third reason I raised for avoidance pertains to differences in commitment between partners. I am going to focus on that last point, examining what may go through the person’s mind who does not want his or her partner to start in on The Talk.

Let’s assume a couple who have the names “A” and “B.” I know those are not very imaginative names, but both sets of parents were apparently exhausted and lacked creativity when A and B were born. What are you gonna do? Despite the odd names, A and B found each other (they were in the same line at the Department of Motor Vehicles) and have been involved (a nice ambiguous term) for over a year.

Partner A is more committed to the future than partner B, and A has been thinking a lot about where things are going. In this example, I’m really focusing on a later stage of DTR than merely discovering if each considers what’s happening a relationship. Partner A is the one who wants a future and, naturally, A wants to know what B is thinking about that.

Clarifying the relationship has become increasingly important to partner A because A realizes that time is going by. A has plans for committed, life-long love. Partner A wants to settle down in marriage and needs to know if this is in the cards with B. Like most people who are “in the market” for life-long love, partner A will be less inclined to spend a lot of time with someone if A learns there is no future. So, it’s really time to start finding out. This is not pushing for clarity too soon. But the time is now.

Even though partner A really wants to get things clear, partner A could still be pretty wary of starting the DTR process. Partner A might avoid this talk because A has a hunch that partner B either sees no future or is not ready to be tied to anything that sounds like a plan. But let’s focus in more on partner B.

Before I do that, note that this scenario is common and depicts a painful reality about commitment: The person who is most committed has the least power. This is an extension of a principle framed decades ago, when Sociologist Willard Waller (1938) wrote about the Principle of Least Interest. Waller noted that, in any relationship (romantic, family, business deal, car buying, etc.) the person with the least interest has the most power. While I can think of some nuanced situations where this is not exactly true, this notion is completely true in the relationship between partners A and B. Since B is less committed, B can more easily walk away and move on from the present relationship. In an important way, A’s desire to push the matter, now, is an attempt to either bring balance to the force or, at least, figure out, unflinchingly, if that balance won’t be happening between A and B.

Since partner A loves partner B, and knows he or she wants a future with partner B, pushing the matter is scary. People tend to avoid scary things until they can’t put them off any longer. At some point, in this type of situation, the cost of not knowing exceeds the cost of finding out the answer you don’t want to hear. For many people, I fear way too much time goes by between when this line is crossed and when the big picture DTR actually happens.

The reasons why partner B might avoid The Talk seem more complex, in my view, but they all boil down to calculations over types of loss. Partner B likes the status quo. Whatever the relationship is right now, partner B is happy not to rock the boat, and having The Talk will rock the boat, so B does not want to mess with anything. 

What types of loss can The Talk represent to B? At least three I can think of and describe.

One: If partner B is quite a bit less committed, and senses or knows this, partner B will understand that having a clarifying talk will likely mean breaking off the relationship. B avoids The Talk because of a desire to hang onto the present arrangement even when B sees little likelihood of a long-term future.  

Two: If partner B is somewhat less committed than A, but a future is at least possible, The Talk will lead to a type of ongoing negotiation. One talk will lead to other talks because one isn’t going to do for making things clear or settling what’s happening. Partner A will see some possibility of getting resolution, so A will keep pressing. Like the famous line from the climax of the first Star Wars movie: “Stay on target. Stay on target.” One should fear getting that close to the Death Star but partner A will keep driving in the hopes of wiping out the fear. Partner B doesn’t want this process to start because, like I said, B likes the status quo, even if an equal commitment might be possible in the future. That’s the future and this is today, and all this talking about serious stuff just ain’t fun.

Three:  Partner B might avoid The Talk because the end result will be that B has to up his or her commitment. This is sort of like playing poker. Both partners have their cards (their commitment cards and their cards related to how good their alternatives are). Partner A is throwing all in, and partner B is being called to pony up or fold. Partner B has to match the bet of partner A if A pressed hard enough. 

To put it briefly, partner B avoids The Talk because it can lead to one of several types of loss:  

Loss of the relationship due to break up.
Loss of peace in the relationship due to ongoing negotiation.
Loss of freedom due to having to match the bet of A or leave the game. 

If partner A really decides it’s time to push, and you are counting, that’s three “dues” and it’s time to pay them.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Why People Avoid the Talk (DTR)

[Dear readers, Years ago I had written a couple of pieces on DTRs that I had re-posted earlier this year. This is a substantial update on the first of those two pieces.]  

As you probably know, DTR means Define The Relationship. The Urban Dictionary defines the DTR this way:  “When two people discuss their mutual understanding of a romantic relationship (casual dating, serious boyfriend, etc).”

Doing the DTR is often referred to as having "the talk." I believe "DTR" has joined our vocabulary precisely because of the increased ambiguity in modern day romantic relationships. I write about ambiguity often because I think it's important. For example, I recently wrote about the confusion people often feel about dating

DTRs exist as a process in order to bring some clarity to what’s going on between two people.

The way most people use the term seems to be a bit more specific than the global definition in the Urban Dictionary. People commonly think about the DTR talk as something that occurs on the cusp between being regularly involved and being “official” about being in a relationship together. For some, the aim of the DTR is to move the relationship from hanging out to “dating” in terms of what two partners are willing to tell others. The process, when it advances the relationship, seems somewhat like crossing the border between one country and another, where you have to produce documents about who you are and where you are headed. Indeed, for many couples, the talk will determine customs moving forward.  (Does that make the one pursuing the talk a customs official?)

People were not so aware of this idea 30 or 40 years ago. Sure, people talked and clarified things, but there was less of a recognized need for a specific type of talk back then. There was, however, the idea of going steady, among various other markers of an upgrade in mutual understanding of what was happening. Oftentimes, today, having the talk leads to the same result as starting to go steady did in the past. But as you can see by the Urban Dictionary definition, a DTR talk can lead to any sort of improved understanding between two people, whereas going steady meant a specific increase in commitment and exclusiveness. Technically, while not what the person pushing for the talk usually wants, a DTR talk could lead to increased understanding that there is not much in the way of a serious, mutual commitment between two partners. I’ll come back to that below and in the next post I write.

Here are some reasons for avoiding the talk.

Reason number 1: It’s just too soon to have the talk.

If one brings up the talk too soon, they are likely to come across as needy or even desperate in the eyes of the other. A lot of people chase others off. Some people never do this, some do it a time or two and learn not to keep doing it, and others feel impelled by a need for security to push too often too soon and tend to live more painful lives as a result. People in the latter group tend to give way too much too soon, and too often, to people they are attracted to in life. That’s a form of the terrible “toos” I suppose.    

Some people avoid making things clear because they fear clarity might force the end of a relationship they otherwise want to keep, at least for the time being. After all, especially in earlier stages of relationships, some ambiguity can help two people keep seeing each other while they are figuring out how compatible they are for a possible future. Beyond earlier stages, ambiguity can keep fragile relationships alive that would otherwise not survive clarity. That’s exactly what some people want, of course. The risk, though, is spending ever more time in a fragile relationship that might keep one from finding a better match. It also must be true that, for some people, the fragile relationship they have now is as good as they could have at this time. Their real choice may be between the present relationship and no relationship. Particularly before defining a strong, mutual commitment, everyone’s relationship dynamics take place in a broader context of what their alternatives are to the present relationship.

Overall, some people push for the talk too soon and some don’t push soon enough. Both carry risks. It’s complicated.

Reason number 2: Having at DTR talk takes some guts and skill. Many people do not have the combination and may therefore avoid the talk until circumstances really force the need.

It’s hard enough for couples in relatively healthy and committed relationships to talk effectively about emotional or sensitive issues. These days, many people are not well equipped to have an effective DTR. This is where I can see some advantages to the older convention of going steady. It didn’t take any big discussion to get to the point; one merely had to ask the other if she (or he) wanted to go steady.

Bill:     “Alice, I’ve been thinking. Would you go steady with me?”
Alice:  “Bill, I’m not prepared for that. I don’t want to do that right now.”

Ouch. That hurts but Bill now knows where he stands, and it was not a very complicated conversation. The talk could go on to define what not going steady really meant, of course, but if there was agreement to go steady, all the needed information about expectations were built into the term by common cultural understanding. There was no need for a high level of skill to ask or answer the question. Ask and answered. Move on. Now, people need to have enough skill to build an understanding from the information coming from talks designed to DTR. I’m sure Bill does not feel any better than someone today does when they do not get what they were hoping from in a DTR moment. But the process was efficient.

Reason number 3. I think the most interesting reason people avoid DTRing is that there are issues about commitment in one or both partners. By commitment, I mean having a willingness to commit to the future and have some identity as a couple.   

When it comes to commitment, either partner A and B are nearly equally committed or they are not. At earlier stages of relationships, an imbalance is common since one partner often becomes more committed sooner than the other. However, when this imbalance goes on and on, it can become a serious problem. When it never ends, the more committed partner is a candidate for a mention in a new edition of the book, He’s Just Not That Into You.  (Or She’s Just Not) That book is humorous and brutal and a bit coarse, but it deals directly with ongoing commitment imbalances and how people put up with a lot to hang onto a little.  

The commitment complication provides one of the greatest reasons someone might avoid raising the issue even if it seems long past time to clarify things. When there could be a possible imbalance in commitment, the one raising the question is risking outright rejection, so may avoid asking for the clarity that he or she deeply desires.

One of the biggest problems with ambiguity is that serious differences in commitment levels can be missed. The more committed person may be perfectly aware that he or she is more committed, but, in many other cases, the intense attraction felt for the partner can make it hard to register what really is a substantial vulnerability in the relationship.That's the biggest risk in avoiding clarity, indefinitely. 


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Mystery: Why Isn't Living Together Beforehand Associated with Improved Odds in Marriage?

by Scott Stanley

For decades, people have believed that living together should increase their odds of doing well in marriage. The core of this idea is that cohabiting would provide a test of a relationship. This seems logical but, mysteriously, decades of research do not show this benefit. In fact, until recently, the overwhelming majority of studies showed that cohabitation before marriage was associated with poorer odds of stability and happiness in marriage.[i] This has changed; recent studies suggest that the association with higher risk has dissipated or disappeared for some groups.[ii] And while the headlines tend to say there is no longer any risk, that’s misleading and I’ll explain why. Understanding what I describe here can help a person make better, more informed decisions in their relationships.

Let’s start with what the current research shows. For those readers who are either ideologically pro or against the idea of living together before marriage, I am not making any ideological point here. I’m talking about findings.  

Among those who cohabited before marriage, people who fit the following categories are likely to have marital outcomes similar to those who did not live together before marriage. That is, those having these characteristics do not show the type of added risks that have been associated over the past few decades with living together before marriage.
  •        Only ever cohabited with the person they marry.[iii]
  •        Only began to cohabit after having clear, mutually understood plans to marry their spouse.[iv]
  •        Did not cohabit until the age of 23 or later.[v]
That leaves the mystery. Note that the comparison group to which some premarital cohabiters do as well as, not better than (on average) is those who do not cohabit before marriage. How could the widely held belief that cohabiting before marriage actually improves one’s odds have virtually no evidence to support it? (I hedge slightly here because there are a few, rare findings showing this or that group cohabiting and having improved odds.)

There are several explanations for how cohabiting could seem so logical but still not be generally associated with improved odds. I’ll cover the two I think matter most. First, those who cohabited before marriage tend to already be at greater risk in marriage because of other factors, for example: having parents who divorce or never married, having poorer economic resources, less education, and so forth. These are called “selection” factors among researchers. Selection suggests that, for a lot of people, some part of their odds for how their relationships or marriages turn out was already baked in their cake, and an experience like cohabitation may not have altered those odds. There is a lot of evidence that selection is an important part in understanding this mystery I am addressing. The same types of selection factors are associated with greater odds of cohabiting with numerous partners (serially) and cohabiting prior to having clarified plans for a future.

The second explanation is in contrast to what’s baked in the cake. It’s about what you do with your cake after it’s baked. If you like a different metaphor, everyone is dealt a hand of cards, and some people get dealt better hands than others. But no matter what hand you were dealt, it will also matter how you play that hand.


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. That is, cohabitation has more inertia than dating (while not cohabiting). Sure, loads of cohabiters break up—see my last post. But it’s harder to break up if cohabiting than if dating and not sharing an address.

This concept of inertia is based on the fact that many people increase their constraints for staying in a relationship before they have clarified a mutual dedication to being in the relationship.

The idea here is a little scary. We believe that some people marry someone they would not have married if they’d never moved in together. They got inertialized too soon. That’s gets to why we (my colleague Galena Rhoades and I) have predicted and found (over and over again) that couples who wait to cohabit until marriage or until they have clear, mutual plans to marry report, on average, more marital happiness, less conflict, more compatibility, and so forth.iv  Those couples are less likely to be prematurely caught in inertia.

For some individuals who made it harder to break up before deciding on a future with their partner, cohabitation probably decreased their odds of happiness in marriage. To be clear, I am sure that there are many people who move in together before having clarified anything but who do fine in marriage and/or life together. It’s just that the risk is greater in this group than in the other group, and it makes sense why that would be the case.

You may be thinking, “I don’t really believe in marriage anyway, so what’s this got to do with me?” Inertia is important to understand in any relationship. If you are not already in a committed relationship and you’d like to be, the relevant personal questions are these: What things could I avoid that could make it harder for me to break it off with someone before I’m sure I want to be with that person? How would I do that?

Ring, Ring

I’m a geek. I found this article a few years ago by Marguerite Reardon who nailed the way inertia works—in an article describing her commitment dilemma with her iPhone: Should I break up with my iPhone for Nokia's Lumia 900?

Her piece is a couple years old, so insert the name for some hot Samsung model (really, a super model) into her title.  Here’s a quote from her article.

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 call iNertia. If you check out her story, she actually goes on to liken the mobile phone dilemma to living together. It’s a fun and insightful piece. Take careful note of this. Most people think readily about inertia related to their mobile plan and being locked in for a year or two. Reardon is addressing a more powerful type of constraint that produces inertia based in the difficulty of moving on because of the depth of what you are already into. 

Inertia is really not all that mysterious once people see it clearly. We all experience it in many ways in modern life. But a lot of people think it’s only an issue when it comes to marriage, not cohabitation. It’s actually everywhere.  When it’s time to really commit to someone, it’s worth accepting that commitment requires making a choice to give up other choices. But before that time, too many people give up options before making a real choice. 

[i] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509.
[ii] For example: Manning, W. D., & Cohen, J. A. (2012). Premarital cohabitation and marital dissolution: An examination of recent marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 377 - 387.
[iii] For example: Teachman, J. D. (2003). Premarital sex, premarital cohabitation, and the risk of subsequent marital dissolution among women. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(2), 444-455.
[iv] For example (all findings controlling robustly for selection): Kline, G. H., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., Olmos-Gallo, P. A., St. Peters, M., Whitton, S. W., & Prado, L. (2004). Timing is everything: Pre-engagement cohabitation and increased risk for poor marital outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 18, 311-318.; Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). The pre-engagement cohabitation effect: A replication and extension of previous findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 107-111.; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Amato, P. R., Markman, H. J., & Johnson, C. A. (2010). The timing of cohabitation and engagement: Impact on first and second marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 906-918.
[v] Kuperberg, A. (2014). Age at coresidence, premarital cohabitation, and marriage dissolution: 1985-2009. Journal of Marriage & Family, 76(2), 352-369.