Monday, June 29, 2015

Who Will Clip Your Toenails When You Cannot?

I am not at a stage of life where I need help doing my own toenails. Barring unforeseen circumstances, I’m expecting to be my own mani/pedi provider for a good two decades or more, but you never know how life will turn out. I am, however, in that sandwich generation. Or I was. Since my father passed on a few years ago and my mother passed on a year and a half ago, the sandwich is somewhat more like open-faced tuna melt than a club. I have two emerging adult sons in the home and I have two brothers beyond it. One of those two brothers has had serious health needs of late, and that inspired this piece.

Here’s something they never tell you when you are a kid: One day you may end up clipping and filing the toenails of those you love. Earlier in life, I could not have imagined that, at some point, I would clip my father’s toenails, my mother’s toenails, and my brother’s toenails. I am cured (pedi, in fact) of my na├»ve beliefs. Sure, my wife and I trimmed our sons’ nails when they were little. We are good parents! Besides, if you’ve had a baby, you know those baby nails can be wicked sharp. Trimming them is simple self-preservation. But that was long ago—before the one son started using clippers on his own and the other son started trimming his own toenails with his teeth (he was really flexible back then).

In recent months, one of my brothers has had serious health issues and he’s been unable to trim his own toenails. That’s how I came to do it. Twice. I never, ever, thought I’d be doing that, but there I was, clipping, filing, and buffing. No polish, though. Shiny was not our goal. Besides, in our family, we don’t get fancy.

Years ago, my parents lived in a retirement home. For a while there was someone who provided this service for them but something interrupted that for a time. That’s how I came to trim the toenails of my parents a time or two.

You may be thinking, “That’s no big deal, Scott, let me tell you what I’ve had to do for a family member.” Indeed, this is a small thing. Ten small things at a time, in fact. Some of you are real family heroes, doing incredible things, year in and year out, for a loved one. I claim no contest. Still, toenails are a metaphor for the whole range of little things that many of us will need help with at some point, for a season or for the rest of our lives.  

Toenails and the Future of Families

This all got me thinking about the future of families and about toenails. A stretch, you say? I think it’s all related.

One day, when visiting a loved one in a nursing home, I asked a nurse about toenails. I wondered how people who could no longer trim their own got it done. She told me that in this particular place, and I suspect it’s far from the only one, staff were not allowed to do the toenails of patients. Liability. So some people needed to have an outpatient visit to a podiatrist to have their toenails trimmed. Think about that a moment. The cost. The hassle. I got to wondering if it’s a reimbursable medical expense to have a podiatrist do your toenails.

I think a growing number of people are going to have only one of two options for their toenails: Howard Hughes mode or services provided by a family member or friend. Sure, the government has programs for many things, but I’m not sure there’s one coming for toenails.

So, I’m asking a serious question. Who will clip your toenails when you cannot?

Digital Inequality

Families have become more fragmented than in past. Children are less likely to be raised by their own two parents and more likely to experience churning (turnover) in family relationships. For an increasing number of people, there is instability around who is in the home. Someone will wish to argue the point, but I don’t see how these changes could fail to impact lifelong bonds within families. I think we will see a net decline in the number of committed and emotionally bonded family members that the average person can draw upon in times of need. Combine this with the fact that the people who are having families are having smaller ones. That means there will also be fewer siblings as potential resources, regardless of other changes. If you have a relationship with a relatively responsible sibling or two, and you’ve not yet begun to think of them as possible resources in your future, start being a little more imaginative. Not all assets are financial.

Strong attachment bonds start with the level of commitment and emotional availability children receive from their parents. In turn, attachment bonds throughout the family promote lifelong commitments among family members, such as from child to parent and sibling to sibling. These forces have operated throughout history to make it more likely—though far from guaranteed—that family members will take care of each other when needs arise.

No matter how large government’s role becomes in the lives of those who are older, there will be gaps to fill around simple needs. This is yet another way that inequality is partly, but inexorably, connected to the nature of families. Everyone has toenails but not everyone will have a family member to step in and help. If you needed one more reason to work to help families form stronger bonds, now you have it.

Personal Advice

Surely you know the joke about treating your children well because they will pick your nursing home. Forget that. You should hope they will willingly and carefully trim your toenails.

More broadly, we’d all do well to build and keep strong bonds with family and friends. You never know when you might be the one who needs help rounding up your little piggies, all the way home.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Study Seeking Older Adults to Participate in an Internet-based Relationship Education Program

Ben Loew is a Ph.D. candidate in our program at the University of Denver. He is a student of Howard Markman and mine. If you or someone you know might be interested in participating in this study, please take a closer look. Here is his formal announcement and an email address to get further information.

* * *

Seeking Participants for New Study: Internet-based Relationship Education for Older Adults

The purpose of this project is to study how older adults (age 62 and older) may benefit from couple-relationship education, which consists of information about relationships such as skills and strategies for communicating safely, and for maintaining and enhancing relationship happiness over time. This study uses an online version of the Prevention and Relationship Education Program, based on over 30 years of research.

We are interested in the older adult population because there will be twice as many older adults by 2030 as in 2000, and because the 2010 divorce rate for adults over 50 was two times the 1990 divorce rate. This phenomenon has been called the “Gray Divorce Revolution.” Research also suggests that improving relationship health may increase physical health and longevity.

Participants in this study receive free access to the online program for one month. They will be randomly assigned (50/50 chance) to either immediate or delayed (by one month) access. Participants also need to complete a survey about their relationship and overall health when they join the study, and again one month later. A $10 gift card is given for completing the second survey.

If interested in participating, please visit this link:


send an e-mail to:

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Marriage Factoids from Scott Stanley

While likely coming down, the lifetime estimated risk of divorce remains high, at 40 to 50%.

31% of marriages are seriously distressed.

By middle adulthood, most people will have lived with someone outside of marriage.

Unmarried cohabiting couples are now more likely to break up than to marry.

Source: Journal of Marriage and Family: Guzzo, 2014 & Vespa, 2014

48% of first births in the U.S. are to unmarried women.

Children born to cohabiting parents are much more likely to have their parents break-up than children born to married parents.

Living together before marriage is not associated with improved odds of success in marriage, and many variations are associated with worse odds.

Having multiple sexual partners before marriage is typical (median = 5); having sexual partners beyond the person one marries is associated with reduced odds of success in marriage.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Eight Ideas for Protecting Your Marriage from Divorce

I recently gave advice to singles and dating couples about how to lower their future odds of marital breakdown. Now, I’m focusing on those already married. In that prior piece, I listed some risk factors for divorce, so if you want a recap on those, see that post first.

What can couples do to avoid divorce? Hundreds of books, articles, workshops, and lectures have tackled that question. If there were a surefire way to “divorce-proof” a marriage, we would have found it by now. It doesn't exist. But there are some things married couples can do to minimize their risk of divorce.

Before I get to advice, I want to make three points clear. First, if your relationship is dangerous, focus on safety. My advice below is not designed for violent or abusive relationships. If you are in a dangerous relationship, get help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-7233, and in most areas there are also local groups you can contact.

Second, don’t confuse having risk factors for divorce, like the ones I documented in my last post, with being certain to divorce. I will tell you a well-kept secret. Experts aren’t good at predicting the likelihood that a specific couple will divorce. Researchers are good at finding variables that are associated with risk in samples of people, but we are not good at predicting the future of a given couple. Higher risk is higher risk but it’s not destiny. Nor is lower risk.

Third, people who are truly at very low risk for divorce shouldn't worry about it. If you and your spouse get along well, manage issues with respect, feel connected, and you are confident of a mutually high level of dedication, relax. Your risk is probably very low. Sure, things can go wrong and strain your relationship in ways no one foresees in the present. But if you seem to have a great marriage, you probably do. Just protect it and live your life.

What You Can Do to Avoid Divorce

There are two categories of advice below: To individuals and to couples. Spouses often have different opinions of the strengths and happiness of their marriages. Even if you have concerns, your partner may not. Further, you might realize that your partner is not interested in even talking about it. Hence, you might need to focus on what you can do and not what the two of you can do—at least for now. That leads me to a word of caution: Unless you have serious concerns, don’t make your efforts to strengthen your marriage something that undermines it. If your mate is not interested in doing something different right now, don’t blow that up into a big deal unless there really is a big problem.

As you will note, I have more advice below for couples than to individuals. The reason is that I think it’s harder to navigate what you may try, together, than what you can do on your own.  

               Just To You

1. Do your part. There is a lot an individual can do to strengthen a marriage. As my colleagues and I say in all our resources, “Do your part.” I won’t list a bunch of ideas here because there’s not really enough space and that’s what good books and resources are for. But if you are concerned about your marriage, the sooner you start to turn things around within yourself, the better. There are plenty of ideas one person can pursue as an individual to keep a marriage on track. If you want to read about one of my favorite strategies for one person to act on, check this out.

               To Both of You

If you are both willing to make changes, these ideas are for you.

2. Talk. Sit down and talk together about strengthening your marriage. Rather than trying to dig into deeper issues or past hurts, I’d focus on positive steps you could take as a couple to stay on the best path. I am certainly not against deeper talks about issues and history, but the better strategy for most couples is to focus on what you want to try, now, together, to boost and protect your marriage. If talking about how to nudge your relationship forward works well for the two of you, you could sit down and talk once a month about how to stay on course. If you have difficulty with conflict or there are deeper struggles where you do need to take things deeper, see some of the upcoming ideas.

3. Read a good book (on marriage). Read a book or two on marriage and try out some ideas. Don’t try to do a lot of things. Just find an idea or two that you both like and pursue those. Do something; don’t try to do everything.

4. Boost fun and friendship. People get busy, life gets strained, and spouses get distant. My colleague Howard Markman has always emphasized how important it is to keep fun and friendship alive in a relationship. You can make that happen by following this simple advice that is in all of our books (e.g., here and here): 1) Make time for doing enjoyable things together. 2) Protect those times from conflict. For example, suppose you have carved out some time for going out on a date or taking a walk together. Have an understanding between you that issues and problems are off-limits during those times. Deal with issues in some other time and place and don’t let hassles intrude on your opportunity to relax and be together.

5. Consider a relationship education workshop. Such workshops are widely available in some parts of the country. Some may be offered by religious organizations and others may be offered by community groups (who might have government funding to provide such services for free). Also, some relationship experts regularly do workshops for couples, for a fee. Search the web and ask around to see if anything is available in your area.

6. If conflict runs high… Learn to get it under control. If you need to, get help in how to manage issues more constructively. If you have children, this advice goes double. Children are negatively affected by exposure to conflict between their parents.[i] Don’t fool yourself by saying you are “keeping it real” in front of the kids. Bunk. Sure, if you handle issues extremely well as a couple (e.g., with great listening, respect, and resolution), that may be good for children to see. But, in general, conflict between parents—especially with escalation and invalidation—is bad for children to be around. And it’s not great for you, either.

One strategy to keep a lid on things is to learn to take time-outs as a couple. We talk about how in our books, but here’s the skinny. Agree on a signal that you will both honor when things are getting heated. I mean a word or a sign that means to both of you, “let’s cool it, now.” Agree that when either of you signal for a time-out, you’ll both do your best to honor it. Taking a time-out doesn't mean avoiding dealing with something important. It just means deciding not to slide (further) into nastiness in the moment. Some couples find it useful to agree on a typical amount of time to cool it before talking again about whatever lit things up. This type of time-out is not like what you use with a young child. Neither of you are putting the other in the corner. This type of time-out is like a sports team that’s losing control of the game and needs to take a break and get its act together.

7. Don’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater. I’m not talking about flicks and popcorn. Rather, don’t threaten divorce in the heat of frustrating arguments. I think a lot of couples say things that should not be said because they are in the heat of battle: “Why did we ever marry?” “Should we just split up?” “Why don’t you just move out if you feel that way?” Sensitive questions to bring you closer together, right? If you do that and you want your marriage to work, stop it. You cannot nurture the desire to invest in your future if you keep reminding each other that there might not be one. Don’t talk about divorce unless you really mean to talk about divorce. Again, learn to take a time-out.

8. Get professional help. Obviously, some people become deeply unhappy in their marriages. Yet one report I was involved with presented findings showing that many people who report being unhappy at one point but remain married rebound to a much better place within a few years.[ii] In another study I helped author, 34 percent of married respondents reported that, at some point in the past, they thought their marriage was in serious trouble and considered divorce. Of these folks, 92 percent reported that they were glad they were still together.[iii] On the other hand, some experts argue (from data) that those who become deeply maritally distressed are unlikely to get better on their own.[iv] If you have sunk into chronic unhappiness in your marriage, think about getting help.

Most couples in serious trouble wait far too long to get professional help. If both of you know something is seriously amiss, seek help now. When both partners are motivated, a lot of good things can result from seeing a skilled counselor. If you want to pursue this, ask friends, clergy, or your doctor for recommendations. And if you do see someone, plan to talk together (just the two of you) after a couple of sessions about whether you think the person you are seeing can help the two of you. If not, try someone else. Not all counselors are right for all couples.


A few married couples almost never have any downs—only ups. But most couples with very good marriages have ups and downs. That’s normal. One of the most important things you can do to avoid divorce is to hold reasonable expectations. You didn't marry someone who is perfect (only your mate did—smile). Expect joy and strains, maddening moments and laughter. Expect a real life.

Disclosure: I am co-author of two books I referenced here, and I am a partner in the company that publishes the online intervention, ePREP, that is linked in the resource list noted above. Since helping people improve their odds in marriage is my area of specialty, it seemed unwise to avoid recommending anything that my colleagues (such as Howard Markman) and I are associated with.

[i] Cummings, E. M., & Davies, P. (1994). Children and marital conflict. New York: Guilford.; Grych, J., & Fincham, F. (1990). Marital conflict and children's adjustment. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 267-290.
[ii] Waite, L. J., Browning, D., Doherty, W. J., Gallagher, M., Lou, Y., & Stanley, S. M. (2002).  Does Divorce Make People Happy? Findings from a study of unhappy marriages.  New York: Institute for American Values.
[iii] Johnson, C. A., Stanley, S. M., Glenn, N. D., Amato, P. A., Nock, S. L., Markman, H. J., & Dion, M. R.  (2002).  Marriage in Oklahoma:  2001 baseline statewide survey on marriage and divorce (S02096 OKDHS).  Oklahoma City, OK: Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
[iv] Beach, S. R. H., & Fincham, F. D. (2003).  Spontaneousremission of marital discord:  A simmering debate with profound implications for Family Psychology. The Family Psychologist, 19, 11-13.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Doing That Thing You Do (Redux)

Here’s a very simple idea for strengthening your relationship. It comes from many things I have written over the years about healthy sacrifices in relationships and marriage.

I think we all know of little things we could do that are good for our relationships that we are not likely to do on any given day. My emphasis on “little things” is very important. On most days, there are too many obstacles in the way of doing big things. Of course, big things are great to do from time to time, but big sacrifices require big opportunities that are rare. Small sacrifices do not require big opportunities. They are thoroughly and routinely doable.

If you want to apply this idea to your own relationship this week, here’s a little exercise for you. Take a few minutes of quiet time and think about some of the things you have done in the past that fit these characteristics.

1.  It is something under your control.

2.  It is something small that you can decide to do just about any day or week you want.

3.  It is something that you know is good for your relationship and that your partner tends to like.

4.  It is something you are NOT all that likely to do today or this week, even though you very well could.

Go ahead and write a few ideas down.

Challenge time. Commit to yourself to do one or two of the things you wrote down in the coming week.  Not 10. One or two. Develop some way to remind yourself and get after it.  Don’t tell your partner what you are doing, just do it. Your partner may or may not notice everything but he or she will probably notice some of these things. But that's not the point, really. The point is doing a few small things that are good for your relationship. Your relationship will be stronger for it.

If that works for you, try this idea out for a number of weeks (there’s not really any great reason to stop).

It’s point number 4 that really puts this idea into the realm of small but meaningful sacrifice. That’s because you are recognizing in yourself that you are not likely to do this very simple thing that you know your partner appreciates. You have to decide to go out of your way, a tiny bit, to follow through.

It’s not the thought that counts. Ideas that are never put into action may be thoughtful but they are not effective. Your mission is to do something.


(Redux—Edited from version first posted on 4-27-2009. We now include this idea in many of our books and relationship education materials because we believe it's simple and effective.)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

You Can Lower Your Risk of Divorce: Advice to Singles

I discussed in a recent blog post, couples marrying today still face a substantial lifetime risk of divorce. Even if the risk drops to around 40 percent, that’s a lot of divorce. However, you are not a statistic, and you can do things that impact your likelihood of lasting love in marriage. In this piece, I focus on those who are not yet married but who want to be in the future. In a future piece, I’ll focus on those already married who are concerned about their risk for divorce.
I will first share some factors associated with higher risk for divorce and then describe specific strategies for lowering that risk in your life.

Who Is at Greater Risk for Divorcing?

               In that recent post on understanding the divorce rate, I reviewed some of the complexities in understanding the average divorce risk. No matter which estimate one uses, the fact is that there is a substantial risk for divorce in marriage. While there are academic arguments about how great the average risk is, there is a lot less argument among scholars about the relative risks. Some people face a higher risk of divorce, and others a very low risk. What follows is not an exhaustive list but it will hit the highlights.  

Individual Characteristics Linked with Higher Rates of Divorce:
  •  Marrying at a young age (e.g., marrying younger than 22)[i]
  • Having less education (versus having a college degree)[ii]
  •  Having parents who divorced or who never married[iii]
  • Having a personality that is more reactive to stress and emotion[iv]
  • Having a prior marriage that ended[v]
  • Prior to marrying, having sex with or cohabiting with someone other than your mate[vi]
  • Having a very low income or being in poverty[vii]
  • Having lower commitment to your mate and to a future together[viii]
Couple Characteristics Linked with Higher Rates of Divorce:

  • Having a child together before marrying[ix]
  •  Living together before either being  married or at least engaged[x]
  • Poorer communication and conflict management[xi]
  • Being different in religion or race[xii]
While some people truly face a higher risk of divorce than others, many people who have a very low risk nevertheless worry about divorce happening to them. Some people avoid marriage because of their fear of divorce, but avoiding marriage won’t really reduce one’s chances of experiencing heartache and family instability. To really avoid the possibility of such pain, one would need to avoid love, sex, and children altogether. For some, avoiding marriage may actually increase their likelihood of experiencing the very thing they fear—heartache and break-up—because marriage can be a potent force for clarifying and reinforcing commitment between two people.
It’s useful to think about the above list of risk factors in terms of which are dynamic, meaning potentially changeable, and which are static, meaning not changeable.[xiii]  No one can go back and change the history of their parents’ marriage. Nor, when you are already married, can you go back and change the history of things like if you cohabited prior to engagement or had a child before marriage. But even with static risk factors, there is good news. Those seemingly unchangeable risk factors are believed to have their impact on your present life through other dimensions that are dynamic. For example, although having parents who divorced seems to weaken adults’ views of commitment in marriage,[xiv]  you can control your own beliefs about marriage and your own level of commitment to your partner. 

Advice for Those Not Yet Married

               If you have not yet married or even chosen a partner, you have, by far, the most power to affect your eventual likelihood of divorce. Those who are already married can only change how they think and act in their existing marriage. Singles who have not yet chosen a partner have a lot more that is still on the table for change. In other words, your stage of life shapes what is dynamic and static in terms of factors associated with your risk for divorce. The earlier you are in the process of finding a mate, the more your choices going forward can affect your future. Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you proceed.
1.  Take it slow. Get to know a person very well before deciding to marry. We all know people who fell in love at first sight and married within months, and who have done well over many years in marriage. But there are many other couples who married fast and blew apart. By taking more time, you can see how a potential partner treats others, responds to stress, and handles disagreements with you on things that matter. Also, if your relationship is moving toward marriage, take some time to clarify expectations about marriage, family, and life. If you are not sure what to talk through, my colleagues and I have chapters on expectations in most of our books, including a detailed list of topics to talk through (e.g., here and here).

2. Pay attention to major red flags. If you see evidence of controlling or abusive behavior, or serious substance use problems, don’t move blindly ahead hoping things will work out. Love does not conquer all. If you have trusted friends or family, listen to them about concerns they see in the person you are dating. Don’t marry a makeover project—or, at the least, don’t do so until there is great evidence of real, lasting change when there are concerns. And don’t move in together to test such a relationship. That’s the worst reason you can have to move in together.[xv]

3. Look for someone who shares your beliefs and values. What are your central values in life? Are they shared? Avoid situations where you might fall for someone prior to determining these things. Once you sense some chemistry, it’s hard to hold onto what had been non-negotiable for what you wanted in a mate. This is where people can use online dating sites effectively: You can be clear about the big things you are looking for in life before you meet someone and it gets all complicated with chemistry. Chemistry is great. You want to have that. But chemistry is best developed in a sequence, not as a blinding, binding glue in a relationship you’d otherwise never have chosen.

4. Look for mutual dedication. There should be sustained evidence that you and a prospective mate are equally devoted to the relationship; for example, that you are both willing to make sacrifices for each other. If you consistently think you are more dedicated to the relationship than your partner, consider moving on. That’s a bad sign for future marital quality. It’s fine to be looking for love, but it’s smarter to be looking for sacrifice. See here for a specific example.

5. Don’t let constraints for staying together increase before you establish mutual commitment to be together. Many people slide into situations that make it harder to end a relationship before they have made a clear decision about what is best. My colleague Galena Rhoades and I believe that this is what many people do not see about the risk of living together prior to marriage (or at least before engagement). For too many couples, living together makes it harder to break up before it’s clear that they really have a future together. Here’s a four minute video describing this problem.

6. Do premarital training: While marital experts debate everything, there is solid evidence that completing premarital training (education, counseling, whatever it’s called) together can improve your odds in marriage.[xvi] Although this does not guarantee marital bliss, there is much more potential upside than downside. The one downside I sometimes think about is actually an upside: you could learn something concerning about your partner or relationship that you didn't fully appreciate before--something that could lead you to get more help or go slower. Because of this, I recommend that you seek premarital training as far before a wedding date as possible.  Why? Because the further in advance you complete it, the more you have a chance to find out something that could lead you to change your mind about marrying each other. I know I just lost a few of you. But consider carefully why you just checked out. Instead of doing something like living together, which has virtually no evidence of making marriages more likely to succeed, do something that can inform your decision without simultaneously making it harder to break up.

If you are likely to marry in a religious setting, contact that group and see if they provide premarital training. If not, check around to see if another group provides this service in a way that fits for the both of you. If you cannot find that, try a relationship education workshop if they exist in your community. Or, as another option, ask around about a local marital therapist who is skilled in helping couples prepare for marriage. If you don’t have any local options, there are online resources for assessing relationships before marriage (e.g., here) or for strengthening relationships (e.g., here, and here).

7. Be realistic about potential mates. There are things I like about the concept of a soul-mate. For some people, that means someone to share life with; someone at a deep level of connection and perhaps of shared beliefs who can be a fellow traveler in life. I have no problem with that. For others, however, the concept is dangerous: what they really mean by “soul-mate” is a perfect lover who is ideal for them. Here’s the risk in that: You may well marry someone you believe is your soul-mate, in this extreme view of perfect love.  But someday, you will realize that this person is not perfect. You will get hurt. You will be misunderstood or maybe even challenged about some of your imperfections.
               Some very sound marriages fail because one or both partners expected a level of acceptance, passion, or perfection that is just not possible or exceedingly rare. That’s a real shame. What makes a great marriage is not two perfect people aligning their lives, but two imperfect people transformed by a life of commitment and love. Look for someone who can commit and grow and sacrifice, and be that person to your eventual mate.

But I Am at High Risk!

Perhaps you realize that you bring a high risk for divorce to a marriage. Some people get dealt a worse hand in life, and you may have been dealt a tough one. Further, individuals with a greater risk for divorce are more likely to marry other individuals with greater risk for divorce. What can you do? Consider the hand you were dealt and play that hand as well as you can. Even just committing to my first suggestion above, to go slower, could make a huge difference in your life and odds of divorcing. Marriage involves a choice to risk loving another for life, but that is different from gambling with your love life. Just make sure you are deciding rather than sliding your way into your future.

Disclosure: I am co-author of two books I referenced here, and I am a partner in the company that publishes the online intervention, ePREP, that is linked as an online resource. Since helping people improve their odds in marriage is my area of specialty, it seemed unwise to avoid recommending anything that my colleagues (such as Howard Markman) and I are associated with.  

[i] Glenn, N.D., Uecker, J.E., & Love, R.W.B. Jr. (2010). Later first marriage and marital success. Social Science Research, 39, 787-800.; Teachman, J. D. (2002). Stability across cohorts in divorce risk factors. Demography, 39, 331–351.
[ii] Raley, R. K., & Bumpass, L. (2003).  The topography of the divorce plateau: Levels and trends in union stability in the United States after 1980.  Demographic Research, 8, 245-260.; Wilcox, W. B., & Marquardt, E. (2011).  The State of Our Unions 2011: Marriage in America.  Charlottesville, VA: The National Marriage Project. [See the box labeled: Your Chances of Divorce May Be Much Lower than You Think]
[iii] Amato, P. R. (2010). Research on Divorce: Continuing Trends and New Developments. Journal of Marriage & Family, 72(3), 650-666.
[iv] Kelly, E. L., & Conley, J. J. (1987). Personality and compatibility: A prospective analysis of marital stability and marital satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 27 - 40.
[v] Amato, P. R. (2010). Research on Divorce: Continuing Trends and New Developments. Journal of Marriage & Family, 72(3), 650-666. ; Whitton, S. W., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., & Johnson, C. A. (2013).  Attitudes toward divorce, commitment, and divorce proneness in first marriages and remarriages.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 75, 276-287.
[vi] 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.
[vii] Bramlett, M. D., & Mosher, W. D. (2002). Cohabitation, marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the United States. Vital and Health Statistics, Series 23. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
[viii] Impett, E. A., Beals, K. P., & Peplau, L. A. (2001). Testing the investment model of relationship commitment and stability in a longitudinal study of married couples. Current Psychology, 20(4), 312-326.
[ix] Tach, L., & Halpern-Meekin, S. (2009). How Does Premarital Cohabitation Affect Trajectories of Marital Quality? Journal of Marriage & Family, 71(2), 298-317.
[x] 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.
[xi] Gottman, J. (1994).  What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital process and marital outcomes. Lawrence Erlbaum, New Jersey.; Clements, M. L., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2004). Before they said "I do": Discriminating among marital outcomes over 13 years based on premarital data. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 613-626.
[xii] Heaton, T. B.  (2002). Factors contributing to increasing marital stability in the United States. Journal of Family Issues, 23, 392-409.   
[xiii] 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.
[xiv] Amato, P. R. & DeBoer, D. (2001). The transmission of divorce across generations:
Relationship skills or commitment to marriage? Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 1038-1051.; see also Whitton, S. W., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2008). Effects of parental divorce on marital commitment and confidence. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 789-793.
[xv] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). Couples' reasons for cohabitation: Associations with individual well-being and relationship quality. Journal of Family Issues, 30, 233 - 258.
[xvi] Carroll, J. S., & Doherty, W. J.  (2003).  Evaluating the effectiveness of premarital prevention programs: A meta-analytic review of outcome research.  Family Relations, 52, 105-118. ;  Stanley, S. M., Amato, P. R., Johnson, C. A., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Premarital education, marital quality, and marital stability: Findings from a large, random household survey. Journal of Family Psychology, 20(1), 117-126.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sunk Costs and Sunken Hopes

Megan McArdle, the popular writer on economics, wrote eloquently and with brutal honesty this Valentine’s Day about the problem of sunk costs in dating and cohabiting relationships: Happy Valentine's Day! Now Cut Your Losses. She describes everything I often write about here and elsewhere, and that my colleague Galena Rhoades and I emphasize in our research on cohabitation and dating. Quoting McArdle:

I'm talking to you, 30-something woman who has been dating the same guy for a couple of years (or more), maybe already moved in together and started picking out that furniture. The one who is ready for those babies, or at least a joint tax return, and would like to get the matter settled as soon as possible. The one who is anxious that her partner doesn't seem as eager as she is but is afraid to deliver an ultimatum for fear the answer will be "OK, bye."

Here's the thing, though: The guy who leaves you because you deliver an ultimatum is probably also the guy who is going to leave you a couple of years later, having wasted more of your prime dating years on his dithering.

That is right on. McArdle, being an economist, recognizes this situation as the problem as a form of the sunk cost fallacy. Humans are prone to hanging onto something because of what is already invested. We seem optimized to avoid losses. Thus, people tend to hang onto some investments where the loss is already irrecoverable. In business parlance, one is throwing good money after bad. This happens a lot because people tend to believe, even want to believe, that their past behavior was rationale: “If I've already put this much into this relationship, it's got to have been smart and it's got to pay off!” Sunk costs are too often not sunken treasure when it comes to waiting for commitment--that's the fallacy as applied here.

In many relationships where one partner is more committed than the other, and waiting for the other to step up, those investments may be already lost. As McArdle so eloquently describes, waiting too often means taking even bigger losses when the day of reckoning finally comes.

Galena Rhoades and I believe that cohabitation plays a large role in this because of the way it increases inertia to stay together, often well ahead of the development of mutually high and clear dedication to be together. (Anything that makes it substantially harder to break up before it's really clear that two people have a future together can play this role: babies, deep one-sided attachment, and so forth.) For example, we have shown in many studies* that those who cohabit before clear, mutual plans to marry (as in marriage or engagement) do not tend to fair as well in marriage. Nothing here means people are doomed or anything. We're talking about relative odds of achieving the best possible outcome in life.

As you can see above, McArdle identifies the problem of waiting to marry someone who never will get there--and she notes how it's often associated with cohabitation. While she's focused on those for whom marriage is not coming with a given partner, we have also noted the problem of the constraints being great enough that some people marry someone they otherwise would have left--before marriage.  None of these paths are ideal.

What I like so much about McArdle's piece is that it's personal. She's describing her own life and what it took to accept the fact that her past partner was not ever going to marry her. She got up, moved out, and moved on. Life is much better now. See her story. It’s really all about what we call asymmetrical commitment in dating and cohabiting relationships. It is noteworthy that, in one of our studies, we found that asymmetrical commitment before marriage is far more likely among those couples who cohabited before rather than after being either married or at least engaged, and that these substantial asymmetries continued right on into marriage. It matters how clear things are before you do something that makes it harder to break up.

In the report we did last year for the National Marriage Project, Galena Rhoades and I presented analyses from our national data set on premarital factors that are associated with marital quality. We found that when one partner perceived his or her commitment as being stronger than the other partner’s before marriage, he or she later reported lower marital quality than those who did not perceive such a difference in commitment. It was one of the strongest premarital predictors of eventual marital quality that we studied. (see the Before "I  Do" report, pages 12 & 22.)

You may wonder how people get stuck so easily in the wrong place. It's not rocket science. The video our team released last week explains this in about as clear of terms as possible (Relationship DUI). It will take 4 minutes of your time to watch it, and it will make sense. It's really quite simple but it describes what people too often do not see until they see it all too clearly.  

If you are looking for lasting love for life in marriage, be careful about things that make it harder to break up before you’ve actually made your choice--and that choice needs to be mutual.

* If you want a narrative summary of our studies and papers related to these themes, with citations and abstracts, see this document.

Disclosure: I am a partner in the company that publishes the online intervention, ePREP, that is linked as a resource. at the end of the Relationship DUI video. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Problem with Inertia in Dating and Cohabitation

Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote a piece in the New York Post on our work highlighting the risks for those searching for a partner of making it harder to break up before really knowing if you are in a relationship that can go the distance. If you follow our work, you know we believe that many people make it harder to break up, by increasing the constraints for staying together, way too soon in a developing relationship.

Her piece is here: How Shacking up Leads to Divorce. The piece is particularly good. Now, you can tell I'm not in the Newspaper business because, as a researcher, I ended up in the Nuanced-paper business. I probably would have titled that piece "How Shacking up May Lead to Divorce" since it clearly does not, for many people. However, the article really captures the essence of the added risk in cohabiting that many people just do not see coming until they are in it. The piece includes the best short video our team at PREP ever developed to help explain to young adults why it’s risky to get locked in too soon. That video is also at YouTube: Relationship DUI.

If you want more background on why cohabiting before marriage has risks for some couples that they do not see beforehand, check out my earlier piece here, on The Mystery: Why Isn't Living Together Beforehand Associated with Improved Odds in Marriage?

Disclosure: I am a partner in the company that publishes the online intervention, ePREP, that is linked as a resource. at the end of the Relationship DUI video. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

What Is the Divorce Rate, Anyway?

This is a lengthy follow-up to all the recent buzz about the divorce rate. 

“Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce.” You’ve probably heard that claim several times—just as you may also have heard from other sources that it’s inaccurate. As I’ll explain below, the real number is likely lower, but perhaps not by a lot. One thing is for sure.  Arguments over what the divorce rate is and whether it’s dropping are ongoing and unlikely to end anytime soon.

Just last month, Claire Cain Miller argued in the New York Times that the divorce rate has been coming down for a long time even while the odds of divorce remain greatly exaggerated in the minds of many. She highlighted the conclusions of economist Justin Wolfers, who told her that “If current trends continue, nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce.” In a follow-up piece, Wolfers explained more about the complexity of the issue and defended his claims.  

Some go even further than Cain Miller, arguing that the likelihood of divorcing has never been anything like 50 percent. For example, Shaunti Feldhahn, the author (with Tally Whitehead) of a recent book on the subject, argues that it was never true that half of newly married couples would end up divorced, and that 30 percent is closer to the mark. While not a social scientist, Feldhahn has studied the history of the divorce rate and believes people are too pessimistic about the odds of success in marriage. Although I’m not persuaded that the risk of divorce is that low, I agree with her that many people avoid marriage for fear of divorce even when their own risks are quite low. 

In contrast to those who argue that the divorce rate has been coming down, or that it was never that high, demographers Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles argued in an article last year that divorce did not level off or decline in recent decades but actually continued to rise from 1980 to 2010. In fact, Ruggles commented on Cain Miller’s and Wolfers’ New York Times pieces, here and here, arguing that conclusions in both are likely incorrect and that most professional demographers have not accepted the notion that the overall risk of divorce declined during the period in question. 

While these researchers may not agree about what has happened in past decades, they all seem to suggest that the risk of divorce has become lower, or is likely to be dropping, among those who are younger and marrying now. Kennedy and Ruggles examined an “age-standardized refined divorce rate” and found no support for an overall decline in divorce, but noted that this is largely due to the fact that divorce rates have continued to climb over the years among baby boomers in comparison to other cohorts (see also Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin).

Arguments over the risk of divorce are not new, which raises the question as to why there is so much room for disagreement.

At Any Rate, It’s Confusing

Kennedy and Ruggles titled their paper “Breaking Up Is Hard to Count: The Rise of Divorce in the United States, 1980–2010,” and with good reason. They lay out the history of challenges in tracking divorce, detailing issues about public records, differing data sets, and various cohort issues. Wolfers’ New York Times article and the comments by Ruggles further illuminate the vast complexity facing researchers who try to come up with definitive statements about the risk of divorcing.

I will not attempt to capture all that complexity here, but I can focus on a couple of the reasons why this subject is so confusing to most people. Let’s start with the fact that there is no single metric on divorce. There are many. One of the simplest is the number of people who divorce, per year, per 1000 people in the U.S. (the so-called “crude” divorce rate). By this measure, the divorce rate peaked at 5.3 divorces per 1000 people in 1981 (CDC) and has come down steadily since to 3.6 in 2011 (CDC). A variation on this type of metric is the number of people who divorce per year, per 1000 married women—such as used in this National Marriage Project report.

Another simple metric is the percent of people, at any given time, who have already been divorced. For example, based on their 2007-08 national survey, the Barna Group found that 33 percent of ever-married adults, and 25 percent of adults overall, have experienced divorce. Even these seemingly straightforward numbers can be difficult to interpret because of societal changes in the number and nature of people who marry today compared to the past.

Predicting the Lifetime Divorce Risk

All three of these metrics are different from the likelihood of divorce for a couple marrying for the first time, which is what the oft-repeated “50 percent chance of divorce” is about. Coming up with a number for lifetime divorce risk is crazy complicated because it’s a projection about what will happen in the future based on what has happened in the past. As I understand it, those demographers who have constructed such projections do so based on careful analyses of the likelihood of divorcing in various years of marriage based on the history of divorce within existing samples.

It’s hard to know the original source of the 50-percent statistic, but it seems to originate from projections of this sort made by scholars in the early 1980s, around the time when the crude divorce rate was peaking. For example, in 1984, Paul Glick published a study saying, among other things, “About one-half of the first marriages of young adults today are likely to end in divorce.” Subsequent projections, like this 1992 projection by the Census Bureau, came up with similar estimates—but each projection only applies to couples marrying at the time the projection is made.

Such era-bound estimates are as good as researchers can do, because no one can know the precise number for the lifetime risk of divorce for those marrying right now. Here’s one illustration showing why that’s the case. Suppose we undertook a study following a representative sample of 20,000 people from birth to death, while gathering complete marital histories along the way. We will not know exactly how likely our subjects are to divorce until all of them are dead (or, technically, until all are dead, divorced, or widowed—that would work, too).  When we get there, the number for the lifetime divorce risk will be rock solid.

What’s wrong with this mythical study? A lot. First, it would be extraordinarily expensive and difficult to follow such a sample without losing track of people. Two, the original researchers will be dead by the time the answer comes in. (This dampens enthusiasm to start the study.) Three, once you get this robust answer about the likelihood of divorcing, it’s old news. The answer will apply to a generation that has almost entirely died out, not to those who are young when the study ends. People want to know the future, not the past.

Moreover, all projections of this type are affected by societal trends that can change—and a lot has changed in recent decades when it comes to marriage and divorce. For example, those at lower levels of income and education are less likely to marry than in the past while those with college degrees are the most likely to succeed at marriage. Glick noted this in 1984, and, in my favorite paper about the risk of divorce, R. Kelly Raley and Larry Bumpass showed in 2003 that this differential increased from the early-mid 1980s to the mid-1990s. It may be increasing still. 

The Lifetime Divorce Risk for Newlyweds Today

Even if projections about divorce are always tentative and subject to change, many will want to know: If the 50-percent statistic dates to the 1980s and there is some evidence that divorce rates have declined for those starting out now, what’s the right number for today?

I periodically ask sociologist Paul Amato what he believes a solid prediction would be for couples getting married now for the first time, and I did so again last week. He noted that it is, indeed, “difficult to know what’s going on with the divorce rate.” But taking everything he knows into account—including the most recent elements of the debate noted here—he believes that the lifetime risk of divorce today is 42 to 45 percent. “And if you throw in permanent separations that don’t end in divorce,” he added, “then the overall likelihood of marital disruption is pushing 50 percent.”

Amato relies a good deal on the calculations of Schoen and and Canudas-Romo (2006), and their conclusion that "it is premature to believe that the probability of divorce has begun to decline" (p. 756). But he hastened to add that it is very difficult to predict the future divorce rate. Nevertheless, he noted that young married adults are not divorcing at the same rate as their parents did at similar ages, so it is likely that the divorce rate will decline in the future, once the baby boomers (who were and continue to be highly divorce prone) leave the population. Thus, as others have suggested, the future may well be brighter than the 42 to 45% risk estimate suggests, but we do not yet know this will be the case. And there are factors that work in both directions; for example, as Wolfers noted, health gains mean people are living longer which also means added years for the possibility of divorce.

Whatever the future holds for the risk of divorce, divorce isn’t the only family stability metric that matters today (a fact that Raley and Bumpass, and others, have emphasized). While the divorce rate for young couples starting out in marriage may be coming down, I believe that the percentage of children impacted by family instability keeps going up due to the combination of divorce and never-married parents breaking up (as the majority of them do by the time their child turns five). This is why I have written that we may be approaching a perfect storm with regard to children and attachment insecurity, and that the timing of marriage relative to childbearing remains a big deal. As sociologist Andrew Cherlin has argued, American families have become marked by turbulence and churning, and this is not without consequence.

Naturally, young people worry less about societal trends than about their own likelihood of divorcing, a worry that leads some to avoid marriage altogether. Of course, that clearly does not mean avoiding the pain of breaking up. Many others who are already married wonder if they will make it. There is, however, some good news in all this. For example, there are things people can do to lower their own risks of divorce and to increase their chances of having a lasting, loving marriage. And there are many people who are at a substantially lower risk of divorce than they think—a key point argued by people such as Feldhahn. Projections do not have to be destiny. I’ll take up that subject soon. 

This post first appeared on the blog for the Institute for Family Studies on 1-22-2015 with a small addition on 1-23. I would like to thank Anna Sutherland at IFS for her help in editing this piece.