Choice architecture in marriage and divorce

I’ve been reading the excellent “Nudge,” by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, about the power of choice architecture. Their thesis is simple: Since human beings are prone to fairly predictable errors in decision-making, the process by which individuals are guided through decisions impacts the quality of the choices they ultimately make. By expecting the kinds of errors we all tend to make, it is possible to steer people toward better choices without in any way restricting their freedom and ability to choose.

Perhaps the best example of this is financial: We predictably do not plan very well for our long-term financial health. When employees have to actively choose (an “opt-in” plan) to become part of their company’s 401(k) plan, many fail to do so. This is true even when enrolling can generate an automatic pay raise — that is, free money — via the employer’s matching contributions. When the “default” option is changed to be automatic enrollment (“opt-out”), participation increases dramatically, and more employees save what they need to for retirement.

The implications for therapy, especially couple therapy, are significant. Decisions about marriage and divorce tend to be complex, one-time (we hope) decisions that can offer greatly delayed rewards and have limited immediate feedback — exactly the kinds of decisions that can benefit from Nudging. How can we nudge people to better choices, with the hope of ultimately lowering the divorce rate?

There’s marriage education, which produces significant short-term gains on a variety of relationship measures but has scant evidence of reducing actual divorce risk over the long term. Such programs as How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk (or Jerkette) seek to help people identify red flags early in relationships, and fix them so they do not lead to great dissatisfaction down the road. But these too have limited evidence of long-term effectiveness. (Which is not to say they do not work for their intended purpose, but rather that we do not know, yet, whether they work.)

There’s also “covenant marriage,” a well-intended but rarely-used option for couples in three states (Louisiana, Arkansas, and Arizona). Covenant marriages are harder to get into, and harder to get out of, though they do include some protections for victims of abuse. However, because covenant marriage is not the default option, couples largely do not bother with it. Furthermore, as with marriage education, there is limited evidence that covenant marriage, in and of itself, reduces divorce rates. Those couples who do engage in the covenant process tend to be more religious than others, and more religious couples are less likely to divorce no matter what kind of marriage they enter into.

And then there’s couples therapy. Many couples come to therapy after years of a dissatisfying marriage, wondering about whether to stay or go. Can they benefit from a nudge? The AAMFT Code of Ethics is clear that therapists should respect the autonomy of clients in making such decisions, but a number of prominent scholars in the field have suggested that therapists be up-front about their own values around marriage and divorce. There is even a referral service specifically limited to “marriage-friendly” therapists.

Of course, if we don’t know what choice is best, the question is moot. There’s no point in nudging someone if you are not sure what to nudge them toward. In questions of marriage and divorce, though, there are some choices that are pretty clearly helpful in creating wealth and happiness:

* Marry after age 20, and before having a child. Quoting William Galston, an adviser to the Clinton White House: “You need only do three things in this country to avoid poverty – finish high school, marry before having a child, and marry after the age of 20. Only 8 percent of the families who do this are poor; 79 percent of those who fail to do this are poor.”

* Once you get married, stay married. Many couples report their marriages go through rough times. If the couple stays together through those rough times, they are extremely likely to describe themselves as “satisfied” or “very satisfied” in their marriage seven years later. More than 90 percent of couples who describe their marriage as having been in serious trouble at some point in the marriage are glad they stayed together.

* If your relationship is weakening, marriage therapy can help. Emotionally Focused Therapy and Behavioral Marital Therapy are considered the two approaches most strongly supported by research; approximately 90 percent of couples who complete EFT will experience significant improvement.

Focusing specifically on these three points, therapists can serve as choice architects, guiding clients down the ideal path without forcing clients’ hands or overstepping the therapist’s ethical bounds.

When it comes to both couple and individual therapy, processes like Motivational Interviewing, which encourage a thoughtful consideration of all of the options available prior to taking action, can be greatly improved if therapists anticipate the kinds of errors clients are likely to make in projecting themselves forward in time. One of the biggest challenges with Motivational Interviewing is precisely that we can’t know in advance how our choices will turn out. Unless you’ve been divorced before, it is very difficult to imagine the myriad ways in which divorce might affect you and your family. I’ll expand on this in a future post, about applying choice architecture to individual therapy.