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]

Couple Characteristics Linked with Higher Rates of Divorce:


·        Having a child together before marrying[viii]

·        Living together before either being  married or at least engaged[ix]

·        Poorer communication and conflict management[x]

·        Being different in religion or race[xi]

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.[xii]  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,[xiii]  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.[xiv]
 
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.[xv]  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 before all the impending wedding pressures become too great. 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] Tach, L., & Halpern-Meekin, S. (2009). How Does Premarital Cohabitation Affect Trajectories of Marital Quality? Journal of Marriage & Family, 71(2), 298-317.
[ix] 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.
[x] 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.
[xi] Heaton, T. B.  (2002). Factors contributing to increasing marital stability in the United States. Journal of Family Issues, 23, 392-409.   
[xii] 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.
[xiii] 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.
[xiv] 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.
[xv] 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. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

More on "Divorce Rates": UP or DOWN?



In my prior piece, I noted a lot more reasons for pessimism about divorce rates than expressed in the recent pieces in the New York Times.

I came across this compilation of criticisms of the work put forth by Justin Wolfers, especially noting the criticisms by demographer Steven Ruggles. This is worth a read if you are in the camp of skepticism about if the divorce rate has actually come down at all. I do not otherwise know of this blog (Dalrok) but the quotes by Ruggles are worth the price of admission.

I tend to believe the rate has come down but not as much as some suggest and that, regardless, the overall news is not optimistic about marriage--and it's worse for family stability for children. And, Ruggles has argued that the divorce rate may have, in fact, been going up not coming down at all, based on his recent publication with Sheela Kennedy.

He notes (from the blog link above):

The number of demographers who believe that overall divorce risk has declined is small. Other than Stevenson and Wolfers, we identified only Heaton (2002) and Ivers and Stevenson (2010). The consensus of most demographers, as Schoen and Canudas-Romo (2006) put it, “it is premature to believe that the probability of divorce has begun to decline.” You are entitled to argue that ACS is wrong and SIPP is right. Nevertheless, I think you should acknowledge that the decline of divorce narrative is a minority viewpoint among professional demographers.

Have at it if you are following all this.


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.

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