Families as They Really Are

Image by Mike Gattorna from Pixabay

This post originally appeared on the blog of Humanities Washington, a nonprofit based in Washington State.

What can a show about cleaning your house tell us about the state of society? A lot.

This winter, millions of viewers in nearly 200 countries watched the Netflix series “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Kondo, a Japanese organizing expert, guides people in home makeover projects that require families to declutter and remove objects that do not, in her words, “spark joy.” As Kondo’s website states, the method is not just about doing the work of tidying up—it is about mindfulness and introspection. In other words, tidying up is not just a home project; it is a project of the self.

Kondo is on to something: the objects in our home each tell a personal story, one with a unique set of characters, plot twists, and emotional undertones. They might be saved love letters or childhood baseball gloves. They might be threadbare linens from a grandparent who immigrated with only one suitcase. They might be antique silverware that has been saved for a son or daughter, but involve a fear that the child may not want them. These objects feed into our sense of self, which can in turn tell us important things about society as a whole.

As a sociologist, I gather these stories and notice larger patterns, collecting and curating what are called home object stories in order to tell the story of our larger society. People are more united than they might think in their seemingly lonely quests for figuring out what to do with home possessions, and “Tidying Up” provides a surprisingly detailed window into our shared concerns about clutter.

So what do the possessions of ten American families say about contemporary families and society?

First, we are witnessing a large shift in what is considered a healthy lifestyle, particularly when it comes to consumption and self-control. In the middle of the 20th century, material goods were seen as a crucial part of fulfilling the American Dream for those families who could afford it, from TV trays to new cars parked in the driveways of new suburbs. But later decades brought recessions, recognition of environmental degradation, and a fear that we were all buying too much stuff and ending up miserable anyway. Now, to deal with all our stuff, we are encouraged to boost our self-control (or perhaps the illusion of it). If, by changing how we manage our personal struggles, we can become healthier, it’s no accident that the improvement of self includes managing our home objects. The recurring theme is that our individual happiness is intimately tied to our acquisition and management of possessions. In the past century, we’ve swung from “buying brings happiness” to “curating and purging certain bought items brings happiness.”

Throughout “Tidying Up,” viewers are guided through households with voiceovers and confessional moments that highlight the very thin line between what happens to objects and what happens to people. People thank their T-shirts before tossing them in the donation pile; they thank their family members for their willingness to work on their own stuff. People confess that they want to change their stuff because they want to change themselves. Not unusual were references to “taking control of one’s things” as an integral part of the project of “taking control of one’s life.” If a pair of shoes “sparks joy,” keep them and maybe joy will be sparked in your intimate family relationships, too.

In the past century, we’ve swung from “buying brings happiness” to “curating and purging certain bought items brings happiness.”

Second, the social group you identify with impacts the likelihood you’ll participate in the decluttering movement. Our home spaces and stuff, and televised renditions of decluttering practices, are not just about dividing those whose personalities lead them to minimalism and those whose personalities lead them to hoarding. Projects surrounding home stuff are also about group differences and inequalities. For example, there are real and troubling racial and socioeconomic inequalities between those who can afford to own a home in a desirable neighborhood (and maybe a storage unit to house extra stuff) and those who cannot. Within homes, we still see a division of household labor such that women disproportionately bear the burden of household tidiness and management of the entire tidying project. We know that what objects matter in a family depend on that family’s geographic location, racial-ethnic identity, immigrant status, and social class.

In the show, Kondo assists a family that moves to Los Angeles and downsizes into a small apartment. The mother in the family experiences the emotional toll of being held responsible for the organization and tidying of all family members’ objects. By the end of the episode, not only have family members taken a larger role in their own tidying, but the narrative explicitly notes the likelihood of this burden falling too much on women, who perform a “second shift” of unpaid domestic labor even if they still work outside the home. In my research on love letters and photo albums, I found that women were more likely than men to feel responsible for organizing, storing, and saving kinship mementos. And they were more likely than men to curate these items in decorated boxes and in places where they would be kept safe. In other words, the project of “tidying up” is still a gendered project, whether it’s about laundry or love letters.

Finally, family life is changing in the U.S., both in terms of what families look like and in terms of what families do. The definition of “family” is increasingly diverse: gay marriage is legal, couples are having children later, aging populations are staying healthier longer, and the proportion of American families headed by a married couple has declined to less than 50%. In other words, it is safe to say there is no longer a “typical” American family. As all of these shifts happen, the role of home objects necessarily shifts, too.

While the show was criticized for showing relatively affluent families from a similar geographic area, and for espousing ideals of minimalism that are more likely to be held by those who can afford to get rid of stuff, “Tidying Up” does portray a more diverse set of family forms than televised families from even a decade ago did. One cohabiting couple, for example, seeks the help of Kondo to tidy up in order to show one partner’s parents that they have more concretely moved into an “adult” stage. The pair aligns the “adultification” of their home décor and organization with their goal of displaying their relationship as more permanent and committed. This matters in particular for this couple because, as gay men, they feel the need to demonstrate relationship seriousness in the absence of marriage, and in a social context where the legitimacy of gay relationships may still be questioned. Having a tidy linen closet, then, not only contains a blending of the partners’ mismatched towel collection as a symbol of their commitment to each other, it also signifies to parents that they are no longer children.

If you’ve ever felt like you’re the only person who’s had a hard time figuring out what to do with your stuff, and that if you were only able to get rid of more things you’d feel so much happier, you are not alone. We have come to culturally define home curation as an individual project. But the project does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs amidst a set of cultural shifts that include: changing family diversity (who counts as “family” when we decide who gets Grandma’s table?), geographic mobility (how do we transport Grandma’s table across five states?), family roles (who is in charge of the labor of figuring out what to do with the table?), changing ideals about the role of consumption in our lives (Grandma’s table does not fit with my minimalist aesthetic), and even a reinforcement of the value that we are supposed to tackle this stuff on our own (I need to figure out what to do with Grandma’s table on my own).

Our individual stories matter, but we are richer for understanding how these personal stories are part of a larger story. So, the next time you winnow a shoe collection or sift through a deceased relative’s power tools, remember that shoes and tools bear the stories of their individual possessors, but they also bear the stories of the social world in which they were bought, worn, used, stored, lost, held dear, and thrown away. It is that social world, in fact, that shapes how we come to view shoes and tools as desirable, cherishable, or disposable in the first place.

Michelle Janning is a professor of sociology at Whitman College and author of The Stuff of Family Life: How Our Homes Reflect Our Lives. She is currently presenting her free Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau talk, “What Your Home Says About the World,” around the state. Find an event here.

One of the most robust findings in industrialized societies is that children no longer confer an advantage in life satisfaction or happiness to their parents relative to those who do not have children. While the extent of the gap varies by country, life stage, and other characteristics of parents, there does not seem to be a time or place where parenthood positively affects well-being after industrialization strips children of their direct economic value to parents (and creates long periods of dependency and educational spending instead).

In a 2016 study, authors Chris Herbst and John Ifcher show a different trend, however.  Using U.S. data over the past 30 years and comparing parents actively parenting children under 18 in their household to those without children in their household, they show this happiness gap slowly closing and disappearing completely after 1997. They discussed these findings in a 2017 blog post for the Institute for Family Studies, believing that the gap has closed because non-parents have become increasingly vulnerable to loneliness, social distrust, and economic insecurity.

Looking carefully at their analysis, however, it seems like a different story could also be told. First, Herbst and Ifcher exclude two important categories of parents whose prevalence and distress have presumably grown over time: non-custodial parents and parents of children over 17. These groups are instead considered “non-parents” in the Herbst and Ifcher trend analysis. Non-custodial parents as a percentage of all biological parents have increased since 1986, and research shows this group of parents to be particularly distressed (see Simon and Caputo), since separation or divorce decrease daily contact with their children and increase expenses for non-custodial parents. While single parents are more distressed than married parents, non-custodial parents are more distressed than both groups.

Parents of children over 18 have also both grown as a proportion of all parents since 1986 and seen both their financial and care obligations for their adult children increase over this period. Indeed, developmental scientists now speak about “emerging adulthood” to describe this post-18 to late twenties period of time in which young people are still partially dependent upon their parents for support and guidance. Paying for college has become a major burden for many parents of emerging adults, while the proportion still living with their parents or moving in and out of their parents’ household has grown to post-war highs. The number of young adults with developmental disorders (autism spectrum or ADHD diagnoses) has also increased over time. As the ACA has acknowledged this dependency by allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26, so too must data analysts wanting to understand contemporary parenting and its financial and social stressors. While most analyses find that so-called “empty-nest” parents are happier than parents actively parenting younger children, fewer and fewer parents of children over 18 actually have an empty nest!

When these two groups are combined with respondents who have never had children, they easily swamp the truly child-free in analyses of parental happiness. After all, about 80% of people in the U.S. still eventually have children, and those children will eventually turn 18. So comparing parents of children 17 and younger to everyone else really confounds parenthood with life stage and marital status. Rather than seeing the parental happiness gap converging and disappearing post 1997, what may really be going on is a shift in the responsibilities of parenting both spilling out across non-married households and extending into young adulthood, pulling down the happiness of those mistakenly categorized as “child-free.”

Second, the Herbst and Ifcher analysis does not explicitly consider the fall in fertility and increasing selectivity of parenting. While still high in comparative perspective, teen and unplanned pregnancies have been declining in the U.S. since 1997, and overall fertility rates have declined in all racial and ethnic groups. Some of that decline has been involuntary —  some adults may feel “freer” to not become parents because they cannot find suitable partners, have inadequate or unstable incomes, or jobs that demand too many hours to consider adding children to their lives. These are not exogenous forces affecting fertility– they are in themselves endogenous to social forces that have made the stressors of parenting increase over time to the point that many young adults sadly forego parenthood.

Herbst and Ifcher’s trend analysis is consistent with this explanation. First, they do not find that parental happiness is actually increasing over time. Rather parental happiness has been constant over time while those they characterize as non-parents have become less happy over time.  If parenthood is becoming more selective yet happiness is not increasing, this in itself demonstrates that contemporary parenting of minor children has become increasingly stressful over time. And if “non-parents” increasingly consist of non-custodial parents financially supporting minor children, older parents still supporting adult children, and involuntarily childless people unable to find the partners or jobs that would accommodate their desires for parenthood, it’s not surprising that non-parents’ unhappiness has grown over time.

However, none of their findings comport with the belief that children protect parents against loneliness, social isolation, or financial distress. If anything, the trend over time suggests that the forces that reduce happiness among parents of minor children now extend beyond that group to non-custodial parents, “empty-nest” parents, and involuntarily child-free adults.  Herbst concludes, correctly, that his results are probably affected by these factors: “…we cannot discount the possibility that compositional shifts among parents and non-parents have driven the change in parental happiness.”

What seems clear across studies is that contemporary industrialized societies are struggling to avoid below replacement fertility, and understand how to integrate production and reproduction in a way that respects the sacrifices that parents are routinely expected to undertake to raise healthy educated citizens. When the costs of children are privatized but the benefits are socialized, we see a parental happiness penalty that persists across a wide variety of contexts and circumstances, as well as increasing selectivity in who becomes parents. The challenge is to create public support systems that encourage responsible parenthood among those who want to become parents without coercing those who do not. Ending the extraordinary financial and opportunity costs of parenthood is certainly a good place to start.

Jennifer Glass is Centennial Commission Professor in the Department of Sociology and Population Research Center of the University of Texas, Austin. Her most recent projects explore whether governmental work-family policies improve parents’ and children’s health and well-being, whether women’s jobs really have better work-family amenities than men’s, why women’s retention in STEM occupations remains so low, and how the economic costs of motherhood have changed over time.

Image by succo from Pixabay

Familial conflict is a profoundly intimate and emotional experience. Historically, courts have taken a hands-off approach when dealing with familial conflict, but recent years have seen an increased use of the judicial system to resolve domestic issues.

Ample research notes damaging effects of traditional court models. In fact, the adversarial proceedings associated with traditional court settings can escalate family conflict through revictimization and threats or use of violence. A separate line of research long-ago established that family conflict negatively influences psychological and relational well-being of the adults and children involved in the conflict.

The collective conclusions of these studies prompted scholars and practitioners to advocate for alternative processes that deal with familial conflict in ways that minimize harm and maximize healing. One such alternative has been the development of specialty family courts.

The goals and mission of family courts reflect notions of therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ). TJ is a framework that encourages integration of judicial and treatment services. Proponents of this perspective argue that agents of law have therapeutic potential. Judges, attorneys, and other legal personnel are encouraged to work collaboratively with psychologists, social workers, and other social scientists to focus on fundamental causes of conflict and possible resolutions. TJ encounters are commonly said to share 3 primary components:

(1) Respectful interaction between legal actors and litigants,

(2) Allowing Parties to Express and Explain Their Standpoint, and

(3) Transparent Judicial Decision Making.

Research examining whether and how TJ is practiced in family court settings is scarce. This is important from an evaluative point of view, especially since there is reason to suspect disjuncture between intended and actual practice. Indeed, some of my prior research in other forms of specialty courts suggest that courts fall short of idealized principles and stated missions. In a study recently published by Criminal Justice Policy Review, I report on observations of over 100 hearings, including 8 trials presided over by 5 judges to investigate the presence of therapeutic jurisprudence in a family court setting.

I found that therapeutically just interactions were not uncommon in the court. Court personnel regularly treated the parties with dignity and respect. For example, judges directly communicated with the litigants even when the parties have legal representation. In addition, judges commonly used the litigants’ first and last name rather than the impersonal “plaintiff” and “defendant.” In fact, judges relied heavily on “natural” language and gesturing throughout court proceedings, forgoing legal jargon and the formalities often used in traditional court settings.

My observations further indicate that judges encouraged parties to express and explain their standpoint. One judge, who presided over the majority of the cases, always asked litigants if they wanted to speak even if they had hired attorneys to represent their interests. This same judge consistently reiterated the presented evidence in the case before providing her ruling, citing that she did so to keep “a clean record.” As a part of the judge’s reiteration, she commented on the case content and the litigants’ emotional responses to the content.

Despite the common use of TJ, I also observed some anti-therapeutic encounters. These interactions often included one litigant revealing distressing information about the “opposing” litigant and their relationship. For example, in some rare case parties were prompted – usually by their own counsel – to recount instances of rape, neglect, and other forms of maltreatment. Even when the litigant demonstrated extreme discomfort giving such testimony (i.e., keeping the gaze low and unblinking, answering questions with silence, answering questions by shaking their head side-to-side or stating “I don’t want to say”), attorneys would persistently probe the litigant for details.

In other cases, litigants were confrontationally questioned at length about matters seemingly unrelated to the case facts. For instance, one litigant, who was a non-native English speaker, was questioned at length about his citizenship, work status, and legal certification to drive a motor vehicle. Although these issues were not raised as part of the case complaint, the litigant was questioned about them for over 3 hours. Like traditional court, family court takes place in a public forum, so it was not uncommon for persons unrelated to the case at hand to be present at trials and hearings. As such, these interactions seemed antitherapeutic in that attorneys were seemingly relentless in their queries and/or were antagonistic in their questioning about highly personal and potentially traumatic events in a space that was open to public scrutiny.

Although I am unable to generalize these findings to other courts and jurisdictions, the study highlights the potential to confront conflict with therapeutic means. Although our traditional legal system traditionally encourages adversarial, fact-finding processes as normative, alternative practices are conceivable. Still, the antitherapeutic encounters remind us that practicing therapeutic jurisprudence can be challenging in a broader legal context that is largely built on principles that divide rather than reconcile and seek to find fault rather than heal.

Compelling critiques of the “justice” system are numerous, and a growing body of literature indicates that problem-solving courts do not eradicate inequities. Perhaps it is time for specialty courts to distance their practices from traditional court models. Or better yet, perhaps therapeutic encounters should become more engrained in our routine, everyday life. What if we were to encourage respectful interaction, empowerment to express one’s standpoint, and honest discussions about our decision making across all of our social encounters? Naysayers may dismiss the prospect as utopian or, at least, unrealistic, but being willing to imagine such possibilities could arguably spark a commitment to therapeutic living that we would all benefit from – in and out of the courtroom.

Cindy Brooks Dollar is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her research focuses on inequalities, nonconformity, and social control.  

Although many older Americans have had long marriages, the proportions of Americans over age 50 who have been divorced and remarried have increased substantively over the past 25 years. In fact, individuals in the early ‘baby boomer’ cohort (born between 1946 and 1955) have divorced and remarried more often than any other age cohorts. It is not surprising, therefore, that many multi-generational American families include stepgrandparent-stepgrandchild relationships. This is relevant to multi-generational relationships and perhaps to the future care of these stepgrandparents.

In our studies, we have identified four distinct pathways to becoming a stepgrandparent, and we have conducted a series of investigations designed to uncover how these different pathways affect the formation of stepgrandparent-stepgrandchild relationships. In a recent study we interviewed 48 young adult stepgrandchildren, comparing their perceptions of 44 long-term stepgrandparents who joined the stepfamily before these stepgrandchildren were born, with their perceptions of 28 later-life stepgrandparents who joined their stepfamilies when the stepgrandchildren were late adolescents or young adults). A number of these adult stepgrandchildren had more than one stepgrandparent, and we asked about all of them.

The differences between each pathway have been theorized to result in relationship differences. Long-term stepgrandparents’ are in relationships with stepgrandchildren because they became stepparents when their stepchildren were young – years before those stepchildren reproduced and made them a stepgrandparent. In this figure, Jay is a stepgrandfather to Meg. Jay married Laura in 1994, and Colin became his 8-year-old stepson. As an adult, Colin married Kayla in 2014, and Kayla gave birth to Meg two years later. Jay is a long-term stepgrandfather. As Meg grows up, she will always have had Ian, Laura, and Jay as grandparents on her father’s side of the family (for simplicity, we ignore Kayla’s family tree in this illustration). Jay was a member of Meg’s family long before she was born.

 

 

Comparatively, later-life stepgrandparents acquire adult stepchildren and stepgrandchildren following their remarriage to a grandparent; the new stepchildren are often middle-aged parents, and stepgrandchildren are often adolescents or older. The figure is an example of a later-life stepfamily. Cal married Sue in 2016. Sue has a daughter, Denise, who was 48 when her mom remarried. Denise had three children, ranging in age from 17 to 32 when Sue remarried. Those children are now Cal’s stepgrandchildren. Therefore, Cal is a later-life stepgrandfather to Jannie, Alex, and Fred.

 

The structural factors matter in how multi-generational stepfamilies interact and may affect the quality of stepfamily relationships. We discovered from our interviews that long-term stepgrandparents (like Jay) much more closely resemble biological grandparents in their relationships with stepgrandchildren than do later-life stepgrandparents, and they generally are called by family names (e.g., Grandpa, Nana). In large part this is because of conditions associated with the timing of remarriages and the subsequent personal histories that stepgrandchildren have with biological and stepgrandparents. Although the middle-generation influences how the stepgrandparents and stepgrandchildren bond in both long-term and later-life stepfamilies, parents in long-term stepfamilies control the amount of interactions between the older and younger generations more. Both later life stepgrandchildren and the middle generation adults, because they experience the remarriage of grandparents at the same time, concurrently are grieving the past (i.e., after the death of a grandparent) and trying to make sense of the family transitions. Perhaps not surprisingly, In long-term stepfamilies, relationships and kin connections usually have been defined long ago when the middle generation parents were quite young. The stepgrandchildren did not enter the family until long after remarriage transitions. These long-term stepgrandparent-stepgrandchild relationships and their multigenerational families generally functioned like grandparent-grandchild relationships in first-marriage multigenerational families; later-life families and relationships did not.

The stepgrandchildren did not remember a time when their stepgrandparent had not been a part of the family. Similar to findings from previous research, our results suggest that contextual factors, namely the timing of life events and transitions, duration of key family relationships, and opportunities for intergenerational interaction (e.g., co-residence, affinity-building), matter tremendously for if, how, and to what extent, intergenerational steprelationships are developed, maintained, and associated with caregiving and support exchanges, particularly in later-life.

Results from our study suggest that later-life stepgrandparents may be especially at risk for diminished social support, particularly from adult stepchildren and stepgrandchildren. These relationships often did not have enough time to develop before the older stepgrandparent needed care or other help. The later-life stepgrandparent had not had time to do things that bond people together – hanging out, giving gifts and sharing resources, having fun together. As a result, younger generations did not feel a sense of obligation or a need to reciprocate past gifts of the later-life stepgrandparent. The stepgrandchildren and their parents often referred to the later-life stepgrandparent as “grandma’s new husband” or “grandpa’s new wife.” Although stepgrandchildren’s thoughts and feelings about long-term and later-life stepgrandparents are worth exploring and shed light on complex family processes, we are unable to draw conclusions about the experiences of middle-generation parents or stepgrandparents. Because individuals experience family transitions differently, and these transitions, in turn, inform kinship ideologies and family interactions, more research is needed to glean the perspectives of family members from multiple family roles. Analyses of qualitative data garnered from multiple perspectives (e.g., biological grandparents, biological parents, stepgrandparents) would offer additional insights about family transitions and relationship trajectories. Data from more diverse multigenerational stepfamilies would also add to our knowledge base, as most of our respondents self-identified as White and ‘middle-class.’ Moreover, some stepgrandchildren were reporting on relationships with deceased stepgrandparents. Although the degree to which the death of stepgrandparents influenced stepgrandchildren’s narratives about their family relationships remains an empirical question, it is possible that interviews about dead relatives may differ in important ways from interviews about living relatives. Finally, family relationships and dynamics, including roles/rules, symbols, and language, are likely to vary across cultures, yet we are unable to speak to the influence of culture on intergenerational steprelationships given the cultural homogeneity of our sample.

This study has moved beyond describing stepgrandparenthood pathways to exploring underlying processes in intergenerational relationship building. Relationship quality among stepgrandparents and stepgrandchildren may vary widely, regardless of pathway. We have illuminated here the dynamics by which these distinct types of intergenerational stepfamilies diverge. Researchers and practitioners who work with older stepfamilies can utilize this knowledge to better think about, work with, and support stepgrandparents in later life. For researchers, knowing about pathways to stepfamily status (i.e., “How did they get here?”) provides hypotheses or assumptions to explore. In future studies of stepgrandparents, we encourage researchers to consider and attend to structural pathways, as the variability of stepgrandparent “types” is often an overlooked, yet important, distinction. For practitioners, understanding if, how, and to what extent stepgrandchildren’s relationships with stepgrandparents impact both upward and downward exchanges of social support, particularly as stepgrandparents age, can be useful in working with families to create care plans for older adults in later-life. Issues of who will care for frail stepgrandparents can only be addressed effectively by an understanding of the diversity of multigenerational stepkin relationships. Moreover, understanding pathway implications to stepgrandparenthood can enhance science and practice with older step-couples. Our findings illuminate expectations about new partner involvement in family life following transitions such as death, divorce, and remarriage.

 

 

 

 

Lawrence Ganong is a Chancellor’s Professor of Human Development and Family Science and Emeritus Professor of Nursing at the University of Missouri. Marilyn Coleman is a Distinguished Curator’s Professor Emerita of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri. They have studied post-divorce family relationships and stepfamily relationships for over four decades. They may be reached at ganongl@missouri.edu and colemanma@missouri.edu

When we began the research for our article on divorced coparenting and parent-youth relationships (to be published in the Journal of Family Issues), our expectation was the common sense notion that children will experience fewer negative effects when their parents can cooperatively share parenting responsibilities following divorce. That was not what we found, however.

In our survey of almost 400 divorced individuals with at least one child between the ages of 10 and 18, we asked about their current coparenting experiences with former spouses and their relationships with one of their children (a so-called “target” child).

Types of Coparenting Relationships between Former Spouses

We expected that positive and cooperative coparental relationships would result in more positive parent-child relationships. Clustering coparenting participants into distinct groups based on their communication, cooperation, and conflict, we identified three types of coparenting: (1) Cooperative, (2) Moderately Engaged, and (3) Conflictual and Disengaged. Cooperative parents (41% of the parents in our sample) had the highest scores on communication and cooperation and the lowest scores on conflict. The Conflictual and Disengaged (16% of parents) had the lowest communication and cooperation scores and the highest levels of conflict. Moderately Engaged (43% of parents) were in the middle. These groups were similar to groups of parents identified in other studies (for example, Amato and colleagues, 2011; Beckmeyer and colleagues, 2014).

We expected to find significant differences between the three coparenting types in parental warmth and closeness, parents’ knowledge about their children’s daily lives, and inconsistent discipline, but we did not. Our results may indicate that divorced parents can compartmentalize their relationships with former spouses from their relationships with their children. If true, then perhaps higher conflict relationships with former spouses may have minimal effects on their relationships with their children. This can be viewed as both positive and negative. It may be that divorced parents that have conflictual or disengaged coparenting partners can keep those feelings separate from how they interact with and parent their children. On the other hand, parent-child relationships seem to not benefit when former spouses are able to establish cooperative coparenting.

Most states require divorcing parents to attend divorce education programs. The content, length, and delivery of these programs can vastly differ from state-to-state, but these programs are often based on the same assumption as our study; that cooperative coparenting between former spouses will support positive outcomes in the children. Others, though, provide some evidence that cooperation is difficult to sustain among divorced parents. Our results provide some support that children may not be impacted by disengaged or conflictual coparenting and call for a deeper look into how different types of coparenting (i.e., cooperative, parallel) may be beneficial. Divorce education programs should also ensure that they are addressing contact between parents and children.

Obviously, more research is needed on the effects of coparenting “styles” and children’s wellbeing. We call for researchers and parent educators to explore how angry and uncooperative parents manage to raise children as effectively as coparents who seem to be working together well. Maybe it is the quality of the coparents’ relationships with their children that matters the most after divorce, and not their relationships with each other.

Further Readings

Beckmeyer, J. J., Coleman, M., & Ganong, L. H. (2014). Postdivorce coparenting typologies and children’s adjustment. Family Relations, 63, 526-537.

Ganong, L. H., Coleman, M., Jamison, T., Feistman, R., & Markham, M. S. (2012). Communication technology and post-divorce coparenting. Family Relations, 61, 397-409.

Markham, M. S., Hartenstein, J. L., Mitchell, Y. T., & Aljayyousi-Khalil, G. (2017). Communication among parents who share physical custody after divorce or separation. Journal of Family Issues, 38, 1414-1442.

Troilo, J. (2016). Conceptualizations of divorced fathers and interventions to support involvement. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 5, 299 – 316.  

 

Jessica Troilo is an Associate Professor and Graduate Program Coordinator of Child Development and Family Studies in the Department of Learning Sciences and Human Development at West Virginia University. Jonathon Beckmeyer is an Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies in the School of Public Health, Indiana University. Melinda Markham is an Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Kansas State University.

Years ago, when interviewing a woman in a study of stepfamilies, I (Coleman) was struck by comments she made about her ex-stepdaughter. This woman had helped raise the girl from early childhood (age 2) into early adolescence. The father of this girl had physical custody of her because the child’s mother suffered from a drug addiction. The stepmother I interviewed and the father of this girl had divorced when the stepdaughter was 12 or 13 and the woman never saw the child after that. In the interview, the former stepmother shared through tears that after the divorce her ex-stepdaughter had called and written several letters begging her to get in touch, but she had not, she told me, because “it didn’t seem appropriate.” This was during an era when divorced couples generally were expected to sever all ties and not cooperate with each other in any way – after all, the thinking went, if the couple could get along well, then why had they divorced? When remarried couples divorced, children nearly always went with the biological parent and often never saw or interacted with their stepparent or stepsiblings again. This “clean break” of stepfamily ties after divorce may have seemed “natural” and “normal” to many adults – after all, stepparents were neither genetically nor legally related to stepchildren, but to some stepchildren and stepparents, such as the woman I interviewed and her ex-stepdaughter, these breaks were emotionally painful because they ended long-term family relationships. For example, the stepmother I interviewed had raised her stepdaughter for a decade and was likely an important figure in the girl’s life. The former stepmother’s comment that getting in touch with her stepdaughter “didn’t seem appropriate” nagged at me for years before our research team decided to explore what we called “ex-steprelationships.”

Ex-step kin are not rare. In the United States, about one-third of children will spend part of their childhood living with a stepparent. The divorce rate among remarriages is higher than that of first marriages, so a lot of these children will go through multiple family transitions. Maintaining ties with ex-stepparents could help children in terms of resources, relationships, and emotional stability. Our legal systems, however, generally do not recognize rights or responsibilities for ex-stepparents after a divorce. Without legal precedents, ex-stepkin are left on their own to figure out their postdivorce relationships. To explore this phenomenon, we launched a series of studies in which we interviewed former stepkin (stepchildren, stepparents, and stepgrandparents) using grounded theory methods in which we asked open-ended questions and let the study participants tell us what was important to them.

In the first study, we interviewed 41 young adults who had been stepchildren and who had experienced a parent’s remarriage breakup. Our questions focused on their experiences with former stepparents both before and after the divorce. We found three perspectives about ex-stepparents from stepchildren, which we labelled claimed, disclaimed, and unclaimed. About 25% of the young people we interviewed continued to claim their stepparent as kin after the divorce. Another 25% had claimed the stepparent as kin during the remarriage but cut all ties with them after the divorce (i.e., they disclaimed the stepparent). Finally, about half had never claimed the stepparent as kin (i.e., the unclaimed).

The ex-stepchildren who continued to claim their stepparents and those who had claimed them during the remarriage and disclaimed them after divorce had spent a lot of time with the stepparent when the remarriage was going well. During the remarriage, they felt close to their stepparents and considered them to be a family member if not a parent.

The ex-stepchildren who still claimed their stepparents as kin after divorce got help from parents in doing so. Their parents either encouraged them to stay in touch with ex-stepparents or were neutral about it, and thus did not discourage them from doing so. Those who had half-siblings from the dissolved remarriage were more likely to stay in contact with ex-stepparents than those who did not. The former stepparents were open to continuing to be in a relationship with them and did what they could to keep lines of connection open. Some ex-stepchildren waited until after the post-divorce flames and hostility had died down before becoming involved again with their stepparent. One man waited five years before reconnecting with his stepfather, and they rekindled a very close relationship. The ex-stepchildren who continued to claim their stepparent after the remarriage ended said that they continued to receive support from their ex-step in the forms of help with college expenses, other financial help, and the kinds of assistance young people seek from parents and parental figures (e.g., advice, emotional support).

The ones who disclaimed their stepparents, did so almost immediately after the end of the remarriage, often because of loyalty to their biological parent. Some said they cut off ties with the stepparent because their parent had revealed negative information about the ex-stepparent. These disclaiming ex-stepchildren took the side of their biological parent, and although it often was emotionally painful for them to do so, they quickly and decisively cut off ties to their ex-stepparents. These young people felt sad about the losses they experienced as a result of this divorce, and they often were still angry at the stepparent, whom they generally blamed for the divorce.  In some cases, ex-stepchildren wished they could resolve some of their feelings and wanted to reconnect with the ex-stepparent, but did not know how to make this happen, and even felt ambivalent about whether it should or not.

 

The last group of ex-stepchildren, who had never claimed their stepparents as kin, was older when their parent remarried, the remarriage was relatively short, and the stepparent and stepchild had spent little time together. Some stated they had always disliked the stepparent. These ex-stepchildren felt no sense of loss and some were even relieved after their parent’s divorce from the stepparent. They had made no attempts to connect with their stepparent after divorce and neither had their former stepparent tried to contact them.

 

 

 

 

 

We were encouraged in this study that none of the ex-stepchildren thought that it was inappropriate to continue these stepfamily ties. Some of the claiming ex-stepchildren in our study noted, however, that a lack of social norms and expectations for the ex-steprelationships after a remarriage ends made them unsure at times about what to do. Maybe these young people and their stepparents and parents are creating new norms, but the absence of guidelines or social support is unfortunate, at least for some ex-stepchildren who claimed their stepparents as parents during the remarriage; ex-stepchildren who continued to claim stepparents as kin cited many advantages to maintaining those relationships.

 

Lawrence Ganong is a Chancellor’s Professor of Human Development and Family Science and Emeritus Professor of Nursing at the University of Missouri. Marilyn Coleman is a Distinguished Curator’s Professor Emerita of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri. They have studied post-divorce family relationships and stepfamily relationships for over four decades. They may be reached at ganongl@missouri.edu and colemanma@missouri.edu

Reprinted from Psychology Today

This column is another in the series of articles based on the new Handbook of the Sociology of Gender  edited by Barbara J. Risman, Carissa Froyum and William Scarborough.

What do diapers, depression, and mothers have in common? That may seem like a trick question but the answer has implications for American social policy. Middle-class parents simply take for granted that diapers cost money, one of the many expenses of having a baby. But for poor mothers, who are often single parents, diapers, or rather running out of them, becomes a crisis that can trigger psychological stress, perhaps even postpartum depression. While parents are raising the next generation of American workers, we continue to ignore their needs, and pretend that every family has enough breadwinners to cover their basic necessities. But we know that single mothers, often struggling to live in poverty, face great obstacles. Our social safety net doesn’t provide them with security, and the jobs available to women without college degrees can’t support their families, even if they work so many hours a week they barely see their children. Perhaps poor mothers are the women in our society that are most disadvantaged by gender inequality.

To illustrate this, we introduce you to Patricia, a 32-year-old mother of three. She receives cash aid on the 2nd of each month and immediately buys the 120-count box of store-brand diapers at her local supermarket for $30. “It’s the thing we buy first because it’s the thing we can least do without,” she explained. Though she is grateful that the cheapest diapers do not give her daughter Sofia a rash, she worries that they hold less and leak more. Patricia stretches the box as far as possible. She lets 18-month-old Sofia go without diapers at home, closely monitors and minimizes Sofia’s liquid intake, rarely leaves the house, and “prays she doesn’t get sick because that means more diapers.” When that box runs out, Patricia can usually scrounge up enough change for the smaller $4.25 pack by collecting cans, selling some food stamps, or breaking her four-year-old son’s piggy bank with a promise to replace it. When she cannot, Patricia uses paper towels secured with duct tape. A victim of domestic abuse, Patricia has post-traumatic stress disorder and often goes without food, toilet paper, and tampons to save diaper money because she told Randles: “The kids come first. Providing those diapers means I’m a good mother who keeps them away from my trauma and money problems.”

Patricia’s struggle is not rare. Diaper need—lacking sufficient diapers to keep an infant dry, comfortable, and healthy—is an often hidden consequence of poverty that affects one in three families in America. A Yale University study in 2013 found that mothers like Patricia who don’t have enough diapers for their children were almost twice as likely to struggle with postpartum depression. Though the Yale study could not determine if diaper need caused post-partum depression, mothers Randles recently interviewed help us understand the connection. As Trista, a 28-year-old mother of three confided, “I experience extreme anxiety when I use a diaper. It’s worse than worrying about food because I can always eat less, be creative in the kitchen, and go to food banks. But when you run out of diapers, your child can’t do one of their most basic human things in a dignified and clean way. It more than anything makes me feel like a horrible failure as a parent.” Trista sold her blood plasma twice a week for four months solely to buy diapers for her two youngest children.

Forty-five percent of U.S. children younger than three—5.2 million—live in low-income or poor families that struggle to provide diapers as a basic need of early childhood. Yet, for the most part, U.S. social policy does not recognize diapers as a necessity. Diapers are categorized as luxury “unallowable expenses” under public programs that provide food for young children, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Though parents can use welfare cash aid for diapers, the $75 average monthly diaper bill would alone use between eight to forty percent of the average monthly state benefit. Only one state—California—currently offers diaper vouchers for welfare recipients, and most states still tax diapers based on the logic that, unlike drugs such as Viagra, diapers are not medically necessary.

This oversight is not unique. Most policy in the United States ignores the bodily needs of women and children. Most states also still tax feminine hygiene products. Diaper need and how mothers like Patricia and Trista manage keeping their babies clean and dry are deeply gendered issues. Mothers do most of the physical labor of diapering. Beyond this, poor mothers are more likely to be single mothers, and so do most of the planning and emotional labor for their children. But even mothers with partners told Randles about the stress of the cost of diapers and the work of managing diaper need. When Randles talked to middle-class mothers about how many diapers they had on hand, they casually responded with answers like, “a few boxes in the closet, an extra pack or so in the car, and drawers full near each of the changing tables.” Poor mothers were more likely to respond as Patricia did when she said, “I have seven in the house, two in my purse, and one that I’ve hidden in case of a dire emergency. Based on how often my daughter goes to the bathroom and the likelihood that she’ll pee twice as often as she poops, I know those ten diapers will last me exactly two days before I run out and have to figure out how to get more.” This degree of specificity was perhaps most telling about how diaper need can cause anxiety for poor mothers. The problem is not just that they have fewer diapers, but the amount of stress involved in calculating, saving, and sacrificing to stretch limited diaper supplies as far as possible. Diapers are not a luxury. The taken-for-granted ability to buy ahead, stock up, and not give much thought to running out certainly is.

The near political invisibility of diaper need and mothers’ efforts to manage it reflect what Risman calls the gender structure, or how gender inequality affects all aspects of our of  lives. Women’s continued primary responsibility for unpaid care, including diapering, remains a linchpin of inequality. As a society we continue to devalue the care of others. For poor mothers, most likely to be single, the social, economic, and political devaluation of care creates an overwhelming burden. By failing to account for the real needs of families, parents, and children, social policies enforce gender inequality and lead to children’s suffering. In the United States, we pretend as if individual parents alone should be responsible for children. Parents are tasked with meeting all the practical and emotional needs of families. But we need a village to support today’s children, especially those born into poverty. Policies intended to support families must take into account that mothers, often by themselves, are the ones struggling to keep their children fed, dry, clean and clothed. The invisibility of the need for diapers provides a clear case of how ignoring gender inequality in social policy can have disastrous effects for women, and their children. We’ve successfully confronted similar problems before through targeted gender policies such as WIC that recognize the basic needs of mothers and their families. For the sake of Patricia, Trista, and the millions of mothers like them, it’s time we do it again with diapers.

 

Jennifer Randles is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Fresno State. Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.

Kwanzaa altar

 

Holidays celebrated when it gets darker earlier – like Diwali, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas – can make people feel part of something larger. Maybe because people love holidays alongside those near and dear and those who may still enjoy being sentimental. Celebrating  holidays reminds us that we are part of a group who share our beliefs. But for some, holidays are  being part of the collective of scrooges and cynics that barely tolerate the lights, songs, and other festive stuff. More importantly, are those who feel lonely and removed from the collective support system, something that feels highly individualized and yet, perhaps paradoxically, is common  during the holidays.

This time of year is when our “belonging” to something larger is paired with highly individualized stories of unique gifts, treasured mementos, and objects symbolizing good and bad things about family, past and present. Here I offer ways that seemingly individualized holiday objects tell us an important collective story about roles and relationships in today’s families, and about social processes that extend beyond any individual family story.

Values Associated with Materialism, Spoiled Kids, and “Good” Parenting are Wrapped Up in Kids’ Gifts

It’s not hard to find buying guides for parents whose children want the latest toys and gadgets. It’s also easy to find online advice columns about how best to give children gifts without spoiling them, giving in to a marketplace filled with inequalities, or damaging our natural world. But what we often escapes our thinking is how social class may influence parents’ gift-giving, and how kids’ well-being can be affected by how they talk with classmates about the presents they received (or did not receive) after winter break.

Sociologist Allison Pugh reminds us that while it’s pretty universal for parents to want to give their kids gifts, sometimes parents give in to their children’s material desires and spend more than they can afford to buy an expensive toy or other object (Pugh calls this symbolic indulgence). Importantly, in these cases, parents are trying to give kids what they need to feel as if they belong. For better or worse, consumer culture powerfully influences parents. But if we only focus on the powerful marketplace, we miss important stories about how parents use holiday gift-giving to help their children fit into a peer culture where status is highly valued and is the currency through which children’s dignity and belonging are fostered. And we may miss  how parents from different economic backgrounds vary in how much they can give their kids the gift of “fitting in.” This sociological finding adds complexity to claims about spoiled kids and materialistic parents.

Annually Displaying Cherished Items from Lost Loved Ones Reflects Family Role Expectations

Saving cherished items is a social act, partially because  decisions to cherish something is shaped by values and experiences we collect interacting with others, and by our perceptions of others’ expectations surrounding those items. When giving talks about my book The Stuff of Family Life, the most common topic in the Q & A sessions afterward is about whether adult children will cherish objects their aging parents want to give them. Sometimes children’s reluctance to be excited about antique holiday ornaments from beloved grandparents is seen as reluctance to be connected to past family. The adult child may not see the ornaments as “stand-ins” for the grandparents, but parents may see them as substitutes for grandparents rather than symbols. To preserve ornaments is to preserve memories of grandparents; to dispose ornaments is also disposing the persons. Adult children are expected to demonstrate family loyalty by desiring the ornaments. This can be hard when adult children’s values about having too much stuff or beliefs that objects are unnecessary for memories of loved ones are stronger than their values about being dutiful to parents.

Less contentiously, sometimes adult children will save holiday objects from parents who passed away because the parent loved them. An annual display of the holiday objects from deceased parents can honor past family influence on present family. A father’s menorah may be displayed during Hanukkah to remind someone of the father; the holiday is the vehicle for that memory even if it is not explicitly celebrated.

Holiday decorations have biographies. They enter our lives, are participants in life transitions, and get lost, broken, or forgotten. They can serve as mementos, whether old things from a grandparent or new things, they are meant to create an imagined future nostalgia, something I discuss in my research on the preservation of private love letters. This means they are meant to be shared with children so they know the origins of their family story.

To “hand down” a cherished holiday object entails decisions about loyalty, memory, and longevity, not to mention the object’s aesthetic beauty (or lack thereof). So, when next you hear about a baby’s first [insert winter holiday item here], remember it is not just about that object. It’s also about expectations that it may be saved for when that “baby” leaves home and needs to figure out whether to cherish or dispose of it, which may require negotiating with others’ expectations about the preservation of those memories in physical form.

Object-Centered Holiday Rituals Help Families Find Stability in a Time of Uncertainty

We live in a time of perceived uncertainty. Our everyday lives are moving fast, news headlines showcase political and economic turmoil, and our family structures are changing. Whether because of family border separations, poverty-inflicted adverse childhood experiences, or estrangement, people from varied political perspectives perceive the family and social life as more precarious than ever.

At the same time, we love rituals that offer stability. We live, however, in a time that historian Elizabeth Pleck describes as post-sentimental – a reaction,  to  over-sentimentalization of holidays and the blues that sometimes accompany them. There is also a desire to be more inclusive about what holidays and rituals may be desirable and best represent the diversity of families who are celebrating. The rituals of gift-giving, displaying or using special objects that appear only during holidays, and expanding the repertoire of “acceptable” holiday objects and their use, all strengthen the claim that we seek rituals to clarify and stabilize our lives. This search for stability can appear via use of old objects symbolizing long-held traditions as well as via new and innovative objects that create new traditions that more accurately tell the story of the varied ways that family life takes place today. In both cases, the objects serve as tools for rituals that provide glue in a climate where stable family life can seem fragile.

How Is This About More Than Just My Family?

Of course, many other ways can symbolize family roles and relationships as they manifest during holiday times, including whether digital gifts are as “real” as physical ones wrapped in shiny paper, whether some gifts violate norms about privacy (are underpants too personal a gift from my in-laws?), or how holiday décor, like any display in the domestic realm, calls to mind gendered division of household labor (do women decorate indoors and men hang the lights outside ?). I am sure you can think of objects in your family that carry deeper meanings this time of year.

Here I showcased a few ways to think about individualized experiences with holiday objects – dilemmas about spending and spoiling, attachment to relatives with or without retaining their possessions, and use of objects in holiday rituals. Holding a holiday candle is never just about the candle. It also is never just about the family that only uses it during the holidays. The candle and the person holding it are about collective topics larger than any of us or our families: the marketplace where candles are made; the collective belief system that the candle represents, the light of someone no longer alive, and the tendency to value rituals as a form of social “glue” in  times of uncertainty and perceived loss of social connectedness. Holidays remind us that our family stories are both private and public. Our unique gifts tell a collective story about today’s families.

Michelle Janning is the Raymond and Elsie Gipson DeBurgh Chair of Social Sciences & Professor and Chair of Sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She celebrates Christmas, and has had trouble throwing away her son’s “Baby’s First Christmas” stocking over the last fourteen years. She researches and teaches about the connection between material culture and family roles and relationships. She is the editor of the 2019 book Contemporary Parenting and Parenthood: From News Headlines to New Research, and the author of The Stuff of Family Life: How our Homes Reflect our Lives (2017) and Love Letters: Saving Romance in the Digital Age (2018). Her work can be perused at www.michellejanning.com.

Reposted from Psychology Today

Americans live longer than ever before, with life expectancy increasing from 60 to 80 years of age over the 20th Century. Baby boomers are living what sociologist Phyllis Moen calls a Third Act, discovering new ways to experience healthy active years after retirement. With a rapid increase in life expectancy and rising expectations for the quality of life, baby boomers are forging new ways of aging. So what does this mean for sexuality? Are we beginning to see gender equality between the sheets among the aging boomers?

Remember, it was only 40 years ago that women were considered sexually obsolete after menopause (and, many times, even earlier). Men defined their virility by their ability to get and sustain an erection. Today these may seem like ridiculous calculators of age and sexual fitness as both culture and technology has changed the ways we think about sex and gender.

Boomers pioneered the Sexual Revolution of the ‘60s and yet, they did so after having been raised with the sexual script that men pursue and women submit. This permitted men to interpret an awkward “no, thank you” rejection as a possible “yes” in the making. Still, it was a radical shift in our cultural norms for men to be able to take a woman to bed before promising marriage and for women to seek sexual pleasure outside of relationships. After all, the one night stand of the boomer generation precluded the “hook-up culture” of today’s Millennials.

While much misogyny remained, and gender inequality is still a futuristic goal, the boomers did liberate sex from marriage and made the right to sexual pleasure a human right. Now, it appears that boomers must—once again—break the gender rules set by generations before them when it comes to sex after 50.

For men, erectile dysfunction or ED (an inability to get or maintain an erection) can feel emasculating although such physiological changes are actually explained by the biology of aging. Even with the advent of Viagra and Cialis, which are impressively effective at treating erectile issues, research suggests that some men still feel uncomfortable bringing up sexual difficulties with their doctors. And doctors, too, are reluctant to ask patients over 50 about their sexual health due to old stigmas surrounding sex later in life. Gender stereotypes that men are powerful, and always ready for sex, still haunt the boomer men who were raised in an era when talking about sexual problems held negative stigmas. We do see boomer men working around some of these stigmas though, for instance, many men are ordering ED meds via online prescribers like the popular Roman website.

For women, menopause is often cited as the primary culprit affecting their sexual lives. However, research finds that social and psychological factors such as emotional well-being and a strong emotional connection with one’s partner as well as positive body image may be more predictive of sexual activity later in life than the hormonal changes associated with menopause. That’s not to say age has no physiological impacts on sex for women; discomfort during sex due to less blood circulation in the genital area (reducing vaginal lubrication) is a biological factor that reduces sexual comfort during sexual intercourse in later life. Of course, technology, here too, can come to the rescue with products to increase lubrication and blood flow. In fact, many women find menopause liberating sexually because they no longer have to worry about pregnancy every time they have intercourse. Even more promising, most women who desire to remain sexually active as they age will do so, albeit with a bit more prepping.

The boomers want fulfilling relationships as they age and our culture is beginning to reflect this. Women in their 60’s and 70’s are now being cast in leading roles involving romantic and sexual relationships. Both Jane Fonda’s and Lily Tomlin’s characters in Netflix’s, Grace and Frankie have love affairs, and of course, so do their ex-husbands… with one another. What’s more, people over 50 are the fastest growing demographic of online daters. Indeed, women over 50 who date report frequent and satisfying sex and boomer men can usually find an intimate partner if they are in the market for one.

Boomers are by far the most sexually liberal generation of older adults that we’ve ever seen.  And by pushing against the pre-existing molds of what sex after 50 looks like, boomers are showing us that they want gender equality and sexual satisfaction between the sheets in their encore adulthood, the third act of their lives.

References

Risman, Barbara J, Carissa Froyum and William Scarborough (co-editors). 2018.  Handbook on the Sociology of Gender.  Springer Publishers.

Nicholas Velotta is a Freelance writer and graduate of the University of Washington, and can be contacted at ndvelotta@icloud.com. Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.

A new article published in Journal of Marriage and Family examines the relationship of cohabitation and divorce, and claims that recent research that finds that premarital cohabitation does not impact divorce rates is incorrect. They find that in the first year of marriage, premarital cohabitation is associated with lower divorce rates compared to those who directly marry (because those who would have divorced quickly are filtered out by premarital cohabitation), but that afterwards premarital cohabitation is associated with higher divorce rates. These effects “cancel each other out,” making it appear as if cohabitation is not associated with divorce, when, according to them, it still is; just not in very early marriage.

However this research makes an important omission. They account for the age at which women married their first husband, but don’t account for the age at which they moved in together.  As my past research has shown, accounting for age at marriage but not the age at which couples moved in together artificially inflates the association between premarital cohabitation and divorce for recent cohorts, compared to statistical models that account for the age at which couples moved in together, or even statistical models that do not account for age at all.

This inflation happens because the older that couples are when they move in together with the person they will eventually marry (whether at marriage or beforehand) the less likely they are to divorce.  When accounting for age at marriage only, researchers are comparing couples who married directly at, for example, age 24, to those who moved in together at perhaps age 21 and then married at age 24.

My research argues that a more accurate comparison would compare those who moved in together at, for example, 21 (and then eventually married) to those who both moved in together and married at age 21.  When doing so, the relationship between premarital cohabitation and divorce disappears for some cohorts; and in very recent cohorts, as I show in my recent CCF report, reverses, with premarital cohabitors having a lower risk of divorce compared to couples that marry directly. In other words, the reason premarital cohabitors seem to have a higher risk of divorce is not because cohabitation causes divorce; it’s because premarital cohabitors who eventually marry select partners and move in together at earlier ages compared to other couples who marry at the same age, when they are less prepared for the roles and responsibilities that are associated with eventual successful marriages.

To demonstrate the importance of how researchers account for age on research findings, I recalculated the odds ratios for the relationship of premarital cohabitation and divorce that I present in my recent CCF report on changing cohabitation over time (which accounts for age at coresidence), in statistical models that either account for age at marriage instead, or don’t account for age at all. As you can see in Figure 1 below, models that account for age at marriage show a stronger association between cohabitation and divorce. In the most recent cohort, this effect appears neutral, but when accounting for age at coresidence instead (or even if not accounting for age at all) premarital cohabitation is associated with a lower risk of divorce.

Figure 1: Odds Ratios for the Association Between Premarital Cohabitation and Divorce in First Marriages in Four Cohorts: The Importance of Age Controls

Note: Numbers calculated from the 1988 National Survey of Families and Households (1956-1985, N=3,594) and National Survey of Family Growth (1986-2015, N=9,420) using Cox regressions and based on women <36 at first marriage. Controls for raised not religious, religious attendance, race, education at marriage, mother’s education, prior cohabitations, lived with both biological parents at age 14, birth prior to coresidence, began coresidence while pregnant. Age at Coresidence models additionally control for age at coresidence and age at coresidence squared.  Age at Marriage models additionally control for age at marriage and age at marriage squared. †p<.10, **p<.01

In my new article recently published in the journal Marriage & Family Review I show that the length of time that couples live together before marriage has grown in recent decades (See Figure 2), increasing the importance of correctly accounting for the age at which couples move in together, as it grows further and further from the age at which these couples marry.

Figure 2: Average Duration of Premarital Cohabitation with First Husband among Premarital Cohabitors who Married before Age 36 (Months)

While the overall pattern in this new research of lower divorce rates in the first year of marriage after cohabitation seems plausible, accounting for age at marriage rather than age at coresidence artificially inflates the divorce rates of premarital cohabitors across all marriage durations, calling into question whether premarital cohabitation is in fact associated with higher divorce risks at later marriage durations, as found by the authors. A comparison that accounted for age at coresidence instead of age at marriage would likely have led to significantly different findings.

Arielle Kuperberg is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Sociology and Cross-Appointed Faculty in the Women and Gender Studies Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg and reach her at atkuperb@uncg.edu.