Cohabitation not so harmful to marriage, new studies show

A trio of studies in the May Journal of Marriage and Family may be leading indicators of a fundamental shift in how cohabitation impacts eventual marriage. It may not be as harmful as previously thought.

It has been well-established for years that cohabitation before marriage increases eventual chances of divorce. (A good-albeit-old summary of this research, including possible explanations, is here.) This has been such a clear and consistent finding, in fact, that its opposite is featured in my 2008 article as a “myth about marriage” that research has convincingly debunked.

Now, all that may be changing. A study of marriages in Australia finds that the gap between cohabiting couples and non-cohabitors in later risk of divorce has been shrinking as cohabitation has become more common. The correlation may even have flipped. In one of the study’s predictive models, for couples married since about 1987, non-cohabitors have been more likely to eventually separate than those who cohabited prior to marriage. (In the study’s other predictive model, the lines have not yet crossed, but since the late 1990s there has been essentially no difference between cohabitors and non-cohabitors in risk of separation.)

There’s more. A separate national (US) study examining marital quality rather than simply separation looked at nearly 4,000 women born between 1957 and 1965. The authors found that

The negative correlation between premarital cohabitation and marital quality is largely driven by the nonmarital parents in the cohabiting population. […] Furthermore, marital quality is “locked in” at the start of marriage, with lower quality marriages neither catching up nor deteriorating more rapidly than others. (p. 313, emphasis mine)

In order to put meaning to these numbers, it is important to understand how couples today are looking at marriage and cohabitation. That’s exactly the purpose of a third study in the journal, titled “The Social Construction of Marital Commitment.” The researcher interviewed 75 women and men between ages 28 and 35, most in New York state. Based on their own descriptions, participants’ commitment to marriage was made of two parts: How they saw marriage as a “life style option” that had value compared with other options like cohabitation, and how (or whether) they saw themselves actually achieving married status. Speaking to the first element (value), most of those who were not in a relationship “were reluctant to assign a value to marital commitment that distinguished it from other forms of attachment” (p. 324, emphasis mine). Even among those who did place value on marriage, there appeared to be varying degrees of belief that the kind of marriage they envisioned was actually achievable.

Together, these three articles show in stark relief just how out-of-date our knowledge about marriage could be. Mind you, it’s not that we haven’t been doing the work. Rather, it appears that generational shifts in both attitudes and behavior toward marriage have been occurring much more rapidly than we’ve been able to effectively monitor. I wonder how many more of those supposed myths about marriage may be shifting to truth, and how long it would take for those shifts to be detected.

50 states of MFT licensure: Reflections

The news that Montana enacted MFT licensure law put me in a reflecting mood last week. The profession of marriage and family therapy now is distinctly licensed in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This is a major milestone in the development of MFT as a profession. At the same time, it is just that — a milestone. Not a beginning, and not an end.

As I try to make meaning of having nationwide licensure, I’ve compiled a few reactions below. I’m sure this list is by no means complete, and I would welcome your reactions in the comments.

The progress in MFT science and regulation is only accelerating. It is these very areas of progress which this blog aims to review, and yet, they are advancing so quickly that my highlighting of some specific areas is necessarily incomplete. Consider this: Today, MFT licensure laws have been enacted in 50 states. In 1986, only 11 states had MFT licensure laws. And in 1963, just one did (California was the first). So, in one 23-year span, we went from having licensure in one state up to 11. In the 23 years since, we’ve made it to 50.

The research base in the field seems to be growing at a similarly exponential rate: There are now five family therapy-specific journals listed in the ISI index (formally, the Thomson ISI Web of Science, which evaluates the scientific impact of various publications), and another 23 in family science. There are also a number of MFT-specific journals not listed in ISI but still publishing relevant and useful articles, including the Journal of Systemic Therapies, the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, and many more. When the next edition of Effectiveness Research in Marriage and Family Therapy comes out, it is likely to show that in a short time frame (probably about a decade, by the time it is published), MFT research has advanced in leaps and bounds.

A national name does not mean a national license. Of course, there is still much work to be done. (I’ll return focus to the regulatory side.) While the profession is now licensed everywhere in the nation, those licensing requirements continue to hold significant differences from state to state. As a result, it is often difficult for MFTs licensed in one state to move and obtain licensure in their new home. (That is, unless they are adequately prepared.) This is a particular issue in California, where about half the country’s MFTs live — and where licensure requirements are most out of sync with other states. There is now a license title recognized in all 50 states: “Marriage and Family Therapist.” There is much work to be done in having that mean the same thing from one state to the next.

This issue is not unique to marriage and family therapy — there is simply no such thing as a “national license” in any mental health profession, as licensing is accomplished through state regulatory bodies. However, improvements in license portability are often a goal of the national associations for mental health professions.

We can now work on a national scale like never before. While licensure is a state-by-state activity, there are some benefits to having licensure in every state. It certainly helps in making the case for MFT inclusion in federal programs, like Medicare and No Child Left Behind. It also makes partnerships with other national organizations much more feasible. One example of AAMFT’s work with a federal government organization is the Minority Fellowship Program, cooperatively developed with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Such opportunities will only grow with licensure now available nationwide.

Associations matter. Neither MFT licensure nor the rapidly-growing research base for the field would be progressing at the rate they have in the absence of a strong national association working closely with state divisions. I initially got involved with AAMFT because I was proud of the work of the association and wanted to be a part of it. I’m glad I did. There is great power in professionals organizing themselves in the dual interest of advancing the profession and improving care for the clients we serve. With MFT licensure one that is now recognized across the US, that power appears more visible than ever.

Those are my initial reactions. It is inspiring and humbling to be part of, and hopefully in some small way a contributor to, an advancing profession that improves people’s lives and communities.

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on 50 states of licensure. What does it mean to you?

On same-sex marriage, CAMFT stands quietly alone

Around the country, state governments have wrestled with questions of how to best recognize relationship commitments among same-sex couples. To provide guidance and respond to questions from legislators and the public, most mental health organizations have developed clear and specific policy statements that show where the organizations stand:

Of course organizations of marriage and family therapists (MFTs) are uniquely qualified and well-positioned to address this issue. The positions we stake can be particularly important to policymakers.

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) went through a thoughtful, open process of debating the issue a few years ago. The result of that process is the following policy statement (emphasis mine):

AAMFT believes that all couples who willingly commit themselves to each other, and their children, have a right to expect equal support and benefits in civil society. Thus, we affirm the right of all committed couples and their families to legally equal benefits, protection, and responsibility.

That policy statement was developed through careful deliberation, member comments (about 800 pages’ worth), and importantly, a very extensive report (on their web site, but restricted to members) on the state of the research around same-sex couples and their children.

The California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT) has taken a very different approach to the question: Avoidance. Even after a great deal of member protest, at its most recent board meeting CAMFT only went so far as to put out a generic anti-discrimination statement that sidestepped any and all meaningful questions: Is refusal to allow same-sex marriage discrimination? Should same-sex parents be allowed to adopt and raise children? How does the term “marriage” relate to the work of MFTs, particularly our work with same-sex couples? They don’t say.

Officially, CAMFT’s refusal to step in has been on the grounds that it is not the best use of their resources. Get caught up in this social cause, the argument goes, and you wind up caught in many more, and they distract from the mission of the organization.

This is hogwash, of course. Professional associations in mental health usually have specific policies for addressing social issues, and processes for determining which social issues to get involved with. They understand that these issues need to be addressed, because social issues inherently impact the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities. The dilemma for CAMFT — and I’m guessing here, trying to give the benefit of the doubt — must revolve around whether to risk alienating a significant portion of their membership. MFTs come in many stripes, from those who adamantly support same-sex marriage and see it as a human rights issue, to those who just as adamantly believe marriage is a religious institution and therefore needs to be restricted. Take a stand on either side of the debate, and in an instant, you’ve shown a major portion of your membership that you do not share their value.

As a worker in an evidence-based field, I would hope that my colleagues would be willing to be guided by the best available research at the time. The policy statements of other organizations make it clear that they are trying to do just that, even over the objections of a portion of their membership. To be sure, each organization likely lost a few members when they took the stands they did. Silence, however, does not seem like the ideal answer.

CAMFT members are now pushing back, organizing petitions and trying to encourage change from within the organization — or, failing that, suggesting that therapists quit CAMFT entirely (here are just a few resignation letters to CAMFT). Since CAMFT board members were this year selected by a committee (the most recent member “election” was a perfunctory exercise, with only one candidate put on the ballot for each open position), such actions may be the only way members feel they can have a voice in the organization, short of actually serving on the board.

It is interesting that California, which was the first state to license MFTs, now houses the group of psychotherapists last to recognize the harm done by staying silent about what “marriage” means.

A quick aside: I haven’t mentioned the American Counseling Association (ACA) here because I can’t quite tell where they stand. I found an obtuse reference to a 1997 resolution the organization debated, but I can’t find the resolution or indications of whether they adopted it or not. They do have an active division on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in counseling, which by itself is a step above CAMFT on the issue.

Montana becomes 50th state to license MFTs

Montana governor Brian Schweitzer made his state the 50th to enact marriage and family therapist licensure last week, when he signed SB271 creating the MFT license there.

Congratulations, Montana MFTs! With a nation of MFT licensure laws complete, this should add great momentum to the push for MFTs to be included in federal programs, including Medicare and No Child Left Behind.

It is also worth pausing to reflect on just what an accomplishment this is — I’ll post more on this later in the week.

Montana could complete nation of MFT licensure

The state legislatures in Montana and West Virginia have each now passed bills (Montana bill | West Virginia bill) that would create Marriage and Family Therapist licensure in those states. If Montana’s bill is signed by the governor, the country could be complete: MFT licensure would exist in each of the 50 states, and the District of Columbia.

The governor of West Virginia has formally approved the MFT bill there. It is unclear when the state will actually begin issuing MFT licenses, because the board has some rulemaking to do, but it may happen as early as next year.

The Montana bill was sent to the governor April 22; he has 10 days to sign or veto it, or it becomes law automatically. It’s not fully clear, at least from what I can find, whether the governor will sign it; the Montana chapter of NASW has opposed MFT licensure there, and the governor has been busy with his veto pen. Still, improving public safety in mental health services, as well as access to care, through MFT licensure would be a good way to demonstrate to Montana residents that mental health issues are important, even when budget limitations prevent expanding services.

Stay tuned…

Calculating the divorce rate

My Twitter (@benjamincaldwel) went all atwitter a couple of days ago with news that Russia’s divorce rate peaked in 2002 at more than 800 divorces for every 1000 marriages. Does this mean the country has a whopping 80% divorce rate?

In a word, no. While there are lots of ways to calculate the divorce rate, each of them flawed in some way, simply comparing one year’s number of divorces with the same year’s number of marriages is among the worst ways to do it. From a 2005 New York Times article on the topic, which also debunks the longstanding myth that half of US marriages end in divorce:

[Researchers note that] the people who are divorcing in any given year are not the same as those who are marrying, and that the statistic is virtually useless in understanding divorce rates. In fact, they say, studies find that the divorce rate in the United States has never reached one in every two marriages, and new research suggests that, with rates now declining, it probably never will.

Russia’s actual divorce rate is surely high, and does appear to be higher than the US. But I would ballpark Russia’s divorce rate in the 50-60% range for couples getting married this year. I’ll explain how I got there momentarily.

The difficulty in calculating the divorce rate is that it necessarily involves speculation. The only way to avoid some kind of speculating would be if you took a sample of people married in the same year (1930, let’s say) and then waited for everyone married that year to have their marriages end, either through death or divorce. You’d get a pretty accurate rate that way, you would just have to wait a long time to get it.

Most of us are interested in more current numbers. For example, how many of the couples getting married this year (or at least, some year in the not-too-distant past) can we expect to see end their marriages in divorce? Since not all of those couples have divorced yet, we’re into speculative territory.

What some researchers do is what they call a “life table” approach. They may take an estimate of the time frame in which half of divorces occur — usually between 0 and about 7 years of marriage, though the exact timeframe varies — and work from there. For example, let’s say we have a sample of 100 US couples married in 2002, and of those 21 have divorced as of today. If we have reason to believe that half of the couples married in 2002 who will divorce have now done so, we could estimate the divorce rate for couples married in 2002 to be around 42%. But that is an educated guess. We don’t really know where that midway point of divorces takes place, we just guess based on past history and currently identifiable trends. And if we want really current numbers, like an estimate for couples who are only now getting married, we need to be even more speculative: We now must also guess about where that midpoint in the distribution of divorces is going to be. Such an approach, even when done as well as possible at the time, runs an inherent risk of making you look foolish in retrospect.

Further complicating matters, divorce rates are influenced by a variety of factors, some more easily predictible than others. Demographic, economic, and other social changes are just three examples, and all of these have had major impacts on Russia in the past two decades.

Ultimately, no one knows precisely what the divorce rate for couples marrying this year will be, because it’s all based on speculation about possible future divorces that haven’t happened yet.

Now, back to Russia. As I said at the beginning of this post, even though they can document 800 or more divorces per 1000 marriages in 2002, that is absolutely, unequivocably not an 80% divorce rate. It is an inappropriate comparison of two very different cohorts. The population is different. That same article on Russia notes that from 1980 to 2005, the number of marriages decreased by one-fourth. So, relative to the population of couples available to be married, the population of couples available to be divorced has been growing significantly.

For the purposes of demonstration, I’m going to make up some numbers to show how flawed it is to compare a given year’s number of marriages with that same year’s number of divorces to try to calculate a divorce rate.

First, let’s assume an actual divorce rate of 60%, and that the rate breaks down to 10% per year in the 1st through 6th years of marriage. (This is wrong, of course, but used for demonstration purposes.) Second, let’s assume that the marriage rate declined 25% from 1988 to 2002, and declined evenly in that time. This is a small exaggeration, since the actual 1/4 decline took from 1980 to 2005. Finally, let’s assume the actual divorce rate had held constant at 60% since the dawn of time. If we use 1333.3 marriages in 1988 as our starting number (you can use any number there, since it’s the percentages that matter), what we would see would look something like this:

1995
Marriages: 1167
Divorces: 750
Apparent divorce rate: 64.29%
Actual divorce rate: 60%
Difference: 4.29%

2002
Marriages: 1000
Divorces: 650
Apparent divorce rate: 65%
Actual divorce rate: 60%
Difference: 5.00%

Three key points here: 1, notice how this exaggerates the “apparent” divorce rate for those simply comparing the number of marriages to the number of divorces in a specific year. 2, notice how the systematic exaggeration of the “apparent” divorce rate as compared with the actual divorce rate gets worse over time. This is always going to be true when the marriage rate is in decline. 3, our process here assumed that all divorces were done by the seventh year of marriage because it makes the math easier. Making this more real by assuming that half of divorces are done by the seventh year of marriage, and the other half take place at gradually dwindling frequency rates after that, would make the systematic exaggeration of the “apparent” divorce rate much worse.

We can demonstrate this with a different set of assumptions. Let’s again assume a 60% divorce rate since the dawn of time, but now let’s assume a more realistic distribution of those divorces. Let’s say that half of divorces take place in years one through six, and the other half are evenly distributed between years 7 and 16 of marriage. Let’s assume the same marriage rate decline as what’s actually scientifically justified — 25% from 1980 to 2005. Starting from a good-for-easy-math number of 2000 marriages in 1980, we then see numbers that look like this:

1996
Marriages: 1680
Divorces: 1096
Apparent divorce rate: 65.36%
Actual divorce rate: 60%
Difference: 5.36%

2002
Marriages: 1560
Divorces: 1026
Apparent divorce rate: 65.77%
Actual divorce rate: 60%
Difference: 5.77%

These show that the “apparent” and actual divorce rates are not the same thing, and they show how comparing one year’s number of marriages with the same year’s number of divorces creates worse comparisons over time. Admittedly, they do not account for the full scope of that 800-versus-1000 number. I say the actual current rate is in the 50-60% range because (1) by presuming an end point to divorces after a specific number of years, my examples here do more to deflate the difference in actual-vs-apparent divorce rates than to inflate them; the distinction becomes greater when you model the numbers in ways that more closely approximate reality. And (2) these statistical models do not account for other social and economic changes in Russia that may be throwing off the divorce curve, that is, how divorces are distributed over time among those couples who do divorce. With those in mind, I would ballpark the expected divorce rate for couples getting married in Russia this year in the 50-to-60 percent neighborhood, though again, social and economic conditions can influence the numbers greatly in either direction.

Thankfully, there are lots of people out there who do this kind of work for a living, and can do both the detail work and the explantion better than I can. Andrew Cherlin and David Popenoe are two worth reading. More information on the flaws inherent in estimating divorce rates is here.

Texas lawsuit challenges MFT diagnosis of mental illness

Updated 9/7/2011 – Updated link to legal document.

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The Texas Board of MFT Examiners has been sued (summary | legal document) by the Texas Medical Association, alleging that MFTs should not have the authority to make diagnoses of mental illnesses. The case has the potential to set a dangerous precent for mental health care nationwide.

At issue is a proposed Texas rule that would simply make MFTs’ ability to diagnose explicit. In every state where MFT licensure exists, MFTs routinely assess, diagnose, and treat mental illness. The terminology in statute may differ from state to state, but these tasks are part of MFT practice in every state. When the TMA initially raised concerns about making this ability explicit in the Texas MFT scope, the licensing board dismissed their concern, noting

The inclusion of the term “diagnosis” in §801.44(r) does not expand the scope of practice of marriage and family therapy into the practice of medicine, but accurately reflects the scope of practice of marriage and family therapy.

So what gives?

Physicians are trying to expand their exclusive control of medicine. Under the guise of “protecting the public,” the Texas Medical Association and its sister organizations in other states are not just seeking to keep non-physician healthcare providers from expanding their scope of practice, but are actually seeking to actively roll back existing practices. In Texas, the medical association was successful in keeping podiatrists from expanding their scope to include the ankle.

What’s different in the MFT case is that family therapists were making no effort at all to expand their scope of practice.

What’s clear about the Texas case is that if the TMA wins, it would absolutely not be serving the best interest of patients. Texas already has a severe shortage of psychiatrists, as well as a shortage of mental health care workers generally. Marriage and family therapists receive specific training and supervised experience in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness. Restricting who can diagnose mental illness by removing MFTs from that task would only make it harder for patients to access clinically appropriate care.

An update on the lawsuit from the Fall 2008 Houston Association of MFTs’ newsletter can be found here. The Texas Association for Marriage and Family Therapy is working diligently to help the licensing board defend against the lawsuit. If you would like to help, the best way is to donate to the TAMFT Political Action Committee.

New year, new Medicare efforts for MFTs

Will this be the year MFTs finally are included in Medicare? There are promising signs.

First, there is already momentum for adding MFTs to the list of accepted providers. MFTs have been on three bills, one in each of the past three Congresses, that successfully passed out of one legislative house. (Twice we’ve made it out of the House of Representatives, once out of the Senate.) So far, no bill to include MFTs in Medicare has survived both houses and made it to the President’s desk. But with a new President, a new Congress, and a new public focus on health care reform, there looks to be a good window of opportunity.

There are two bills (HR1693 in the House, and its companion Senate bill, S671) already introduced in the current Congress that would bring MFTs into Medicare. Both are bipartisan efforts that have very low initial costs and are likely to lead to long-term savings as Medicare patients would be able to more easily receive early treatment for mental health disorders. Both have strong and growing support from key committee members in both houses.

In the larger conversation about health care reform, there is also good reason to be optimistic for the MFT profession. The body of knowledge supporting the clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of our work continues to grow at a rapid pace, and with licensure now in 48 states and DC, the case for inclusion is stronger than ever.

I’ll keep you posted as the bills move forward. Stay tuned to aamft.org for updates and calls-to-action, when contacts with specific legislators can help turn their votes.

Marriage and the economy

Slate engaged in a bit of a bogus trend story earlier this week, usually something the online magazine makes a habit of mocking. Under the title “Unwashed coffee mugs,” the story aims to educate us on the toll that the faltering economy has taken on marriages.

Let’s start with what the article gets right: 82 percent of the recession’s job losses have been suffered by men. As of last year, 25 percent of wives out-earned their husbands, a number that almost certainly has climbed with recent layoffs. And time-use data does indeed show that after men lose their jobs, they don’t suddenly find themselves inspired to do more housework; instead, “they spend more time sleeping, watching TV, and looking for a job.”

Getting to what that means for marriage, of course, is trickier.

To be sure, money is a common source of conflict in marriages. But the actual effects of recession on divorce rates are not that large:

Census Bureau figures show that over the past 2 1/2 decades, recessions have had only minor effects on divorce rates, which have been slowly waning since the early ’80s after 20 years of steadily rising. Those trajectories have been influenced more by the rise of the women’s movement and women’s earning power, lower fertility and changes in divorce laws than by dour Dows. The only recorded spike in divorces in the past 75 years came right after World War II.

Expect to see a lot more speculation about money and marriage over the next few months — it’s a common (and easy) theme to strike in writing about family life. But bear in mind that there are contradictory forces on families in a recession; they may suffer greater stress as a result of financial woes, sure. They also may be more likely to come together as a family to make it through a difficult time. Beware of stories that draw conclusions beyond what their data can support.

MFTs (finally) earn job classification with Veterans Affairs (VA)

My friends at AAMFT Government Affairs have great news: The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has finally approved a new job category for marriage and family therapists (MFTs)! This has been a long time in the making, as the VA had dragged its heels since the law mandating such a job category was enacted in December 2006.

Partial text from the AAMFT letter to members follows.

Despite the uncertain timeframe for necessary next steps within the VA, the AAMFT will continue to advocate on behalf of the MFT profession to see that there is swift and fair resolution to final VA implementation. The AAMFT will be working alongside the VA Human Resources’ office to formalize the establishment of new qualification standards for these emerging VA positions. They have indicated that they will seek counsel with our professional organization moving forward as an MFT subject matter expert for the actual development of these classification standards.

Ever since Public Law 109-461 (the Veterans Benefits, Health Care, and Information Technology Act) was signed back in December of 2006, the AAMFT has been vigilant in pushing for its resolution and enactment, allowing veterans’ around the country access to the services of MFTs. Over the last few months, AAMFT joined forces with the American Counseling Association (ACA) and the American Mental Health Counselor’s Association (AMHCA). In recent weeks, the California Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (CAMFT) also signed onto the united front of AAMFT, ACA and AMHCA. These latest initiatives have been aimed at getting Congress to vocally express its desire for “the will of law” to be adhered through swift VA implementation of MFT and Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs).