I’ve got beef with the Talking Therapy podcast guys

Talking Therapy podcastA couple of years ago, I appeared on an episode of the Talking Therapy podcast. I love the show. RJ Thomas and John Webber are good guys and good hosts, and I’ve thought that since before they invited me on. Their show is rightly popular. They’ve even featured one of the world’s most prominent therapists: Dr. Susan Johnson.

Johnson developed Emotionally Focused Therapy, which I use in my own practice with distressed couples. As you can imagine, a lot of her interview focused on couples and couple therapy. Almost as an aside, early in the interview, Webber noted that half of US marriages end in divorce. That’s flat wrong.

So I went back on the show to yell at him about it.

Read more

Non-groundbreaking study: People who work on an unhappy relationship sometimes succeed

Couple TimeJust as you would with any “One simple trick” ad, you should be skeptical of a headline like this:

New Study Reveals Secret To Saving Your Marriage After Infidelity

Uh, yeah, no. HuffPo summarizes a recent UCLA/University of Washington study on couples who experienced infidelity. The study found:

Over the course of the study, 19 of the couples experienced infidelity by one or both partners. Of those couples who cheated, 74 percent revealed their infidelity before or during the study, while 26 percent kept it secret (it was later discovered by researchers).

That distinction became very important in determining which relationships survived. At the end of five years, 43 percent of couples who had revealed the infidelity were divorced compared to 80 percent of the couples whose infidelity was kept secret.

Leaving aside the time-shifting abilities couples apparently displayed here (if I’m reading that right, apparently some couples revealed before the study an instance of infidelity that happened during the study), those numbers are almost surely wrong. More than 19 couples probably experienced infidelity over that time, and however far the actual number is over 19, those couples didn’t tell the researchers about it ever.

Let’s presume that some couples experienced infidelity and the researchers never knew, either during or after the study. That’s not a stretch; many couples don’t report their infidelity, for a variety of reasons. Of these couples, of course some broke up and others stayed together. What would that do to results? Potentially quite a lot.

The report says that 80% of couples who kept their infidelity secret for a little while broke up. That sounds like a more formal way of saying four out of five, because it is literally four out of literally five. Such a small sample should immediately raise your skepticism. If even just three other couples in the study experienced infidelity, didn’t tell the researchers about it, and stayed together, the divorce rate for secret-keeping couples would drop to 50% — a rate that (statistically speaking) isn’t meaningfully different from the 43% divorce rate among couples in the study who revealed their affairs.

Even leaving aside the issues here about how much research participants can be trusted to self-report cheating, this is also an example (common in couples research) of mistaken assumptions about causation. The researchers here are suggesting that, quite often, acknowledged secret-keeping about infidelity led a marriage to break up. But it is just as plausible that the opposite is true: The breakup caused the secret to come out to the researchers. Neither partner would have as much reason to keep infidelity a secret once their relationship had ended.

Now, I can certainly tell you from my own clinical experience that for many couples who come to therapy, the full disclosure of infidelity is vital to keeping their marriage together. But I can also tell you that there are couples who experience infidelity, don’t reveal it to their partners, don’t go to therapy, and still stay together. Is one route better than the other (or at least likelier to lead to a lasting and happier marriage after cheating)? Perhaps. But this study, with its small sample sizes and its unjustified conclusions, doesn’t get us anywhere closer to knowing. All it actually tells us is what we already knew: That sometimes, couples who choose to work on their relationship after revealing an affair are indeed successful in keeping their marriage together.

New documentary tackles the divorce industry

DivorceCorp opens in January. It looks great — with one little caveat.

Image from the DivorceCorp web site, www.divorcecorp.com

Divorce is big business. Many people can have a hand in the divorce process: lawyers, mediators, custody evaluators, therapists, court systems, and others all say they want to help divorcing couples. And all want to be paid for their services. The entire system can suffer from what might rightly be called perverse incentives — strong pulls for people to act in ways that are more out of self-interest than the true long-term best interest of the couple they claim to be trying to help.

This is the thrust of the documentary DivorceCorp, opening in major cities January 10. The movie looks good and important. Dr. Drew narrates, and it features interviews with some well-known law experts, including Gloria Allred. Here’s the trailer:

More information on the film, including local theaters showing the film when it opens, can be found on the official DivorceCorp website.

One cautionary note, though: The opening statement in the trailer, “50% of all US marriages end in divorce,” is wrong. As you can read about in more detail over at the excellent DivorceSource web site, the US divorce rate probably never topped 41% and has been declining for several years. As Tara Parker-Pope documented quite well in her book For Better, divorce rates are especially low among those with at least a college education. Over Twitter, the film’s reps have said that there were bigger fish to fry, so to speak. I get that. They’re looking at an entire divorce industry, and my caution is with one statistic. I believe the social conversation about the divorce rate is one specific part of the larger social conversation about divorce that especially needs to change, for reasons I’ll save for a separate post, but don’t let that take you away from the big picture. I’m happy to support the film and eager to see it.

# # #

Your comments are welcome. You can post them in the comments below, by email to ben[at]bencaldwell[dot]com, or on my Twitter feed.

Is “relationship orientation” a thing?

A session on plural families at last week’s AAMFT Annual Conference in Portland used the term as a parallel to sexual orientation.

Teens from polygamous families
One of the workshops I attended at last week’s AAMFT Annual Conference focused on “plural families” — family structures that involve more than two partners and their children. The presenters argued that members of these families (seen most often in the US in Colorado, Nevada, and Utah, in offshoots of the Mormon church, which officially banned polygamy more than 120 years ago) may well wind up in a family therapist’s office, and that the therapist needs to be prepared to work with the realities of their complex family structures.

The presentation was fascinating, and appropriately non-controversial: These presenters were not arguing that a plural family structure was right or wrong, just that it exists, and that therapists may be confronted with it. Fair enough.

What piqued my interest was their use of the term “relationship orientation” to describe one’s leanings toward monogamous or polygamous relationships. Are we moving toward considering a preference for monogamy or polygamy as simply one more demographic variable, not subject to change and worthy of equal respect in all its forms?

In a pair of essays for Slate, Michael Carey (a pseudonym) has argued that exact thing. He first suggests that, like gays and lesbians, polyamorists often feel compelled to hide their relationships even from close family members for fear of judgment or even expulsion — and that the lack of societal acceptance reflects prejudice. In the second, he notes that half to two-thirds of polyamorists do not experience their relationship orientation as a choice. (These numbers are from Carey’s experience, and he doesn’t pretend they are research-based.) For this majority, their “innate personality traits make it very difficult to live happily in a monogamous relationship but relatively easy to be happy in an open one.”

Don’t focus too much on that word “innate,” though. How much of a desire for polyamory is nature and how much of it is nurture isn’t especially important when arguing for moral acceptance of poly relationships, Carey argues:

Nobody ever claimed that Mildred and Richard Loving were born with some kind of overwhelming predisposition to prefer partners of another race and that they thus couldn’t marry somebody of their own race. Choosing an interracial partner was, and is, a choice. So what? The correct response to the nature vs. nurture question is: There’s no way to know for sure, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that people love each other, treat each other with respect, and live happy, productive lives.

Now, I should be up front about my own moral place here. I have no problem with poly relationships as long as there is no dishonesty involved and no one is getting hurt (at least, no more so than happens in the normal course of monogamous relationships). What concerns me here is where the parallel leads us. If “relationship orientation” is as inflexible as we now understand sexual orientation to be, and if participants in poly relationships are not being any more or less moral than anyone else, do we have a societal moral obligation to honor poly relationships with equal status as monogamous ones (whether straight or gay)?

In other words, do we owe them plural marriage?

The overwhelming science on gay and lesbian couples show that they and their children are harmed by societal discrimination and suffer from being unable to marry in a wide variety of ways. This is in spite of the fact that children of same-sex couples are just as healthy as those from straight couples.

The situation is different for poly marriage. While there may be many exceptions, poly relationships are generally understood to be oppressive to women, and polygamous families and cultures may have negative outcomes for children on a variety of measures. So there is ample reason to take a very cautious approach to polyamorists pushing for societal acceptance.

Status of polygamy worldwide
Legal status of polygamy worldwide (click the image for full details)

I’ll admit I have never been a big believer in the “slippery slope” line of reasoning, which essentially argues that if you raise the speed limit from 55 to 65, then you’re going to have to raise it to 200. You don’t, of course; raising it again even to 70 would be a different debate. Slippery slope arguments are often nonsensical fear tactics used to argue for the status quo, by suggesting that the alternative is an extreme alternate reality that no one has actually suggested. Applied to gay marriage, some argued that it would somehow logically follow that if we allowed same-sex couples to marry, we would then have to allow people to marry box turtles.

It is debatable whether re-legalizing polygamy equates with raising the speed limit to 70, or whether it would be more like raising the limit to 200. For now, I’m looking at it more like 200 — a radical and potentially damaging change.

But lots of people once felt that way about gay marriage, too. And it seems the language debate we once had around sexual orientation being a preference, a lifestyle, or an orientation is starting to replicate itself for plural families. As we saw with gay marriage, the outcome of the language debate has a lot to do with shaping what happens next.

# # #

Your comments are welcome. You can post them in the comments below, by email to ben[at]bencaldwell[dot]com, or on my Twitter feed.

Study: Marriage stays satisfying over time for many more than previously thought

Newlywed couples, once thought to consistently experience a quick drop in satisfaction, actually often remain just as happy (or close to it) over time, according to a recent study. For couples who do get worse, the reasons can be evident early on. The study’s author comments.                       

Wedding ringsAccording to a study published late last year in Family Process, the rapid decline in marital satisfaction following a couple’s wedding — generally thought to be quite normal — is actually something many couples manage to avoid. The “average” couple experiences a drop because for some couples, satisfaction declines precipitously. But many couples, including the most satisfied, actually remain fairly stable in their marital happiness.

Justin Lavner and Thomas Bradbury at UCLA monitored the progression of marital satisfaction over time among 232 couples, starting soon after the couples were married. They found that couples’ progressions in happiness clustered into five different groups. For the three groups who started out the most satisfied, they tended to stay at about the same level (or decline only minimally) in the four years after their wedding day. For the two groups who started married life less satisfied, things tended to get significantly worse with time — dragging down the population average. As might be expected, among those five groups, divorce rates varied significantly, with the groups whose satisfaction declined over time far more likely to split up.

I asked Lavner a number of questions via email about the study and its implications. The following has been edited for length and clarity. My questions are in bold, and Lavner’s responses are in plain text.

BC: How would you describe your findings in plain language, and what surprised you the most?

JL: We set out to examine one of the most often-cited “facts” about marriage — that satisfaction declines as marriage goes on. We wondered whether this average pattern obscured different patterns that couples experience, and if so, what factors characterized people who had different patterns and how these patterns related to later divorce rates.

We found that although the average pattern is indeed one of declining satisfaction, there are a few different patterns that better characterize newlyweds’ marriages over the first four years, including very high, stable trajectories, as well as marriages that start off low in satisfaction and experience large declines very quickly.

Spouses with negative patterns could be distinguished by a range of factors as early as six months into marriage. These included their personality characteristics, how they interacted with their partners during a 10-minute problem-solving discussion, how much aggression they reported, and how much stress they had in their lives. Importantly, these early patterns related to ten-year divorce rates: couples with the worst trajectories had rates of divorce that were more than four times as high as those couples with the best trajectories!

I think the finding that surprised me the most was how early these differences emerged. All of the factors that distinguished between patterns were found at six months into marriage, and some couples were already dissatisfied by then. To me, this suggests that there is a lot more variability in couples early in their relationships than we had previously thought.

BC: I was amazed at the wide disparity in divorce rates for couples based on their marital satisfaction trajectories. How do you think this data can be used to inform and improve treatment for couples at risk of divorce?

JL: We often hear that satisfaction declines as marriage goes on. While that may be true on average, what’s really powerful about this data is that they highlight how couples vary widely in the likelihood their relationships will deteriorate, and also give us a better idea of what types of characteristics make couples more likely to experience negative marital trajectories. Using this kind of data, we can be more targeted in our relationship education interventions and direct services toward those couples who need them most.

BC: One of your key findings is that for both husbands and wives, Personality, Stress, Aggression, and Positive Affect distinguished trajectory groups. What does this suggest for identification and treatment of at-risk couples? Do we need multiple forms of therapy geared toward couples with different traits?

JL: These findings indicate that those couples with the greatest distress (and at highest risk of divorce) are characterized by a full range of negative personality traits, experience more stress, report more aggression, and demonstrate lower levels of positive affect. This suggests that focusing on any one factor in treatment will not be sufficient: for example, we cannot focus on negative communication without recognizing how couples’ personalities and stressful environments will limit the benefits they can achieve from communication training.

I see this not as evidence that we need multiple forms of therapy geared toward couples with different traits, but more that our interventions need to continue recognizing and addressing the multiple factors that affect couples’ lives. My guess is that it is likely to be quite difficult to fully “match” traits with specific forms of therapy to increase success when there are multiple factors at play.

BC: You mention that the data holds some promise for early identification of at-risk couples, but temper this pretty heavily, saying that “it is nonetheless discouraging because it suggests that the task of strengthening these relationships must address a wide range of possible causes for the distress, some of which may be difficult to modify.” Could you expand on this?

JL: Not only are the couples who go on to experience distress those with multiple risk factors, but some of these risk factors are likely to be quite stable, particularly their personalities and the stress they encounter. We also identify this risk very early in the relationship, which means that by the time couples present for therapy (which they are notoriously slow to do), these distressing circumstances have likely plagued them for several years.

That said, I’m still optimistic about therapy possibly changing these trajectories and ultimately reducing divorce risk for these couples, particularly if intervention occurs early and addresses multiple factors of couples’ lives (as integrative behavioral couple therapy and enhanced models of cognitive behavior therapy now do, among others).

BC: You briefly talk about public policy, suggesting that broad-based marriage promotion programs are not likely to be as successful as programs targeting “the challenging circumstances and chronic stresses likely to impede relationship maintenance.” In your ideal world, what would a program designed to reduce divorce look like?

JL: Ideally relationship education programs need to do more to address the complete gestalt of couples’ circumstances — their particular ways of interacting, their personal histories, and how the contexts they live and work in affect their relationships. How this would play out is still an open question, but could include modules such as personality characteristics and emotion regulation strategies, or work stress and how that affects home life, along with stress management techniques. Special attention needs to be given to recruiting and retaining high-risk couples, as this presents the best opportunity to prevent distress and divorce.

I would also like to see more attention given to factors that can promote relationship stability. These findings indicate that many couples have stable levels of satisfaction over time, so how can we help them maintain and even enhance their relationships? For example, Art Aron and his colleagues (Aron, Normon, Aron, McKenna, & Heyman, 2000) have suggested that participating in novel activities can enhance couples’ relationship quality. Our programs must do more to promote relationship functioning, in addition to helping prevent deterioration in relationships.

# # #

Comments are welcome below. In addition, you can email me at ben[at]bencaldwell.com, or help prevent deterioration in my Twitter feed.