Friday, July 30, 2021

When couples experienced less negative communication than usual, they were also more satisfied with their relationship; positive communication was rarely associated with relationship satisfaction at the within-person level

Within-Couple Associations Between Communication and Relationship Satisfaction Over Time. Matthew D. Johnson et al. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, May 24, 2021.

Abstract: Relationship science contends that the quality of couples’ communication predicts relationship satisfaction over time. Most studies testing these links have examined between-person associations, yet couple dynamics are also theorized at the within-person level: For a given couple, worsened communication is presumed to predict deteriorations in future relationship satisfaction. We examined within-couple associations between satisfaction and communication in three longitudinal studies. Across studies, there were some lagged within-person links between deviations in negative communication to future changes in satisfaction (and vice versa). But the most robust finding was for concurrent within-person associations between negative communication and satisfaction: At times when couples experienced less negative communication than usual, they were also more satisfied with their relationship than was typical. Positive communication was rarely associated with relationship satisfaction at the within-person level. These findings indicate that within-person changes in negative communication primarily covary with, rather than predict, relationship satisfaction.

Keywords: couples, communication, longitudinal, relationship satisfaction

Do within-couple changes in communication predict future changes in relationship satisfaction? This notion has been foundational to theories, empirical studies, and intervention protocols aimed at understanding and improving couple relations, but the literature has yet to adequately test this fundamental question. This study tested this question by drawing on data from three longitudinal studies of mixed-sex couples comprising community-based and national samples that used observational and self-report measurements at 4-month and annual assessment intervals. The pattern of results across these three studies supports two overarching conclusions regarding the within-person associations between couple communication and relationship satisfaction. First, there was inconsistent evidence for associations between within-person deviations in communication on lagged changes in satisfaction (or for satisfaction on lagged changes in communication). Second, there was consistent evidence for concurrent within-person associations between negative communication and satisfaction (but not positive communication and satisfaction), such that couples were more satisfied than normal at times when they also engaged in less negative communication than was typical.

Lagged Within-Couple Communication and Relationship Satisfaction Associations

We did not find consistent evidence that within-couple changes in communication prompted subsequent deviations in relationship satisfaction. Across studies, intraindividual deviations in positive communication were rarely a significant predictor of future changes in relationship satisfaction, indicating that increases in the extent to which partners expressed themselves and tried to understand their partner better were not associated with subsequent improvements in their relationship satisfaction. Changes in negative communication sometimes predicted worsening relationship satisfaction at the next measurement occasion, but no specific pattern was evident in every study. That is, despite the fact that each study found at least one set of linkages between negative communication and satisfaction in the direction expected by decades of theory, this pattern was not reliably observed and differed in specifics across the three studies. In Study 1, women’s self-reported negative communication predicted their own satisfaction. In Study 2, men’s self-reported negative communication predicted their own and their partner’s satisfaction. In Study 3, women’s self-reported negative communication predicted their partner’s satisfaction. Thus, although there were significant longitudinal within-person links between negative communication to future relationship satisfaction, the lack of cross-study support for any specific pathway casts doubt on the notion that communication is a robust, significant predictor of future changes in relationship satisfaction within couples.

Results were similar for the relationship satisfaction-to-communication within-person lagged links. As with the positive communication-to-satisfaction lagged associations, there was very little support for significant lagged satisfaction-to-positive communication linkages. There was relatively more support for significant lagged satisfaction-to-negative communication linkages; notably, there was a similar level of empirical support for the pathways from within-person changes in relationship satisfaction to future reductions in negative communication as there was from negative communication to future decreases in relationship satisfaction. Once again, however, no consistent longitudinal links emerged across studies. Broadly, such inconsistency in the within-person lagged communication/satisfaction association casts doubt on the robustness of these effects. Insofar as within-person fluctuations in couple communication and satisfaction might be linked, it is most likely these associations are due to changes in negative communication rather than positive communication. Furthermore, it is just as likely that fluctuations in satisfaction lead to deviations in negative communication as it is for negative communication to influence later relationship satisfaction.

Our ALT-SR analyses also considered between-person associations in within-person change trajectories of communication and relationship satisfaction (captured in their slopes). These analyses are not detailed in the article, due to length constraints, but are presented in the Supplemental Material (see Supplemental Table 17). These results are relevant to the cross-lagged within-person associations presented here because the pattern of longitudinal results at the between-person level mirrors those at the within-person level. Intercepts of communication and relationship satisfaction were inconsistently associated with the slope of the other construct and slope-to-slope associations were rare. Furthermore, several of the longitudinal between-person associations were in a counterintuitive direction (e.g., higher initial satisfaction was associated with a more gradual decrease in negative communication over time). Such counterintuitive between-couple findings are not without precedent (Gottman & Krokoff, 1989Karney & Bradbury, 1997) and cast further doubt on the robustness of lagged associations between communication and relationship satisfaction.

Concurrent Within-Couple Communication and Relationship Satisfaction Associations

The concurrent within-couple associations between communication and relationship satisfaction paint a clearer picture. Once again, positive communication was not robustly linked with relationship satisfaction across studies. Consistent positive communication/satisfaction associations emerged in Study 3, but the coefficients were small in magnitude (rs from .05 to .07). The concurrent links between within-couple deviations in negative communication and relationship satisfaction, however, were robust across studies: Upward deviations in one partner’s negative communication generally coincided with intraindividual reductions in relationship satisfaction for oneself and the partner. This pattern was evident in 13 out of 16 total models tested across the studies, with the primary inconsistent result coming from men’s observed negative communication not being associated with their own or their female partner’s satisfaction. These results indicate that deviations in one partner’s negative communication are likely accompanied by concurrent changes in both partners’ relationship satisfaction, while within-couple deviations in positive communication unfold independent of relationship satisfaction. These findings extend a large body of research on between-couple associations between communication and relationship satisfaction (e.g., Woodin, 2011) and contribute additional evidence regarding concurrent within-person links (e.g., Nguyen et al., 2020) by indicating that not only do more satisfied couples communicate more positively and less negatively than dissatisfied couples during conflict, but that couples are most satisfied than normal at times when they are communicating less negatively (though not more positively).

In considering these findings, it is important to contrast the results in our analysis with those of Nguyen et al. (2020) who published the only other study to our knowledge to examine cross-sectional within-person links between relationship satisfaction and communication. Nguyen et al. found fluctuations in positive and negative (for women) communication were linked with concurrent deviations in relationship satisfaction, whereas this study found the most robust evidence in support of negative communication/satisfaction links for both partners. One possibility for the discrepant findings is that communication in this study was assessed specific to conflict situations, raising the possibility that the negative valence of such interactions may explain why negative communication exhibited more robust links with relationship satisfaction than positive communication. Nguyen et al.’s observed communication measure was coded on the basis of one problem-solving task and two support tasks. Given that prior research demonstrated that positive communication exerts more influence than negative communication in the context of positively valenced interactions, such as when partners share positive events with one another (Gable et al., 2006), it is possible that the inclusion of supportive interactions in the assessment of communication accounts for the more robust positive communication/satisfaction association (and lack of a main negative communication/relationship satisfaction effect for men). It is important for future research to continue exploring within-person communication-satisfaction associations in other contexts.

Limitations, Future Directions, and Implications

The findings presented here must be interpreted in light of limitations across these studies. First, as just mentioned, our focus on conflict and problem-solving communication leaves open the possibility that broader communication patterns or communication in other contexts would have different associations with satisfaction. Second, Studies 1 and 3 did not have optimal measurement. Study 1 did not assess positive communication and Study 3 relied on shortened measures of all constructs. These studies drew from large national samples of couples, as well, necessitating the use of self-reported assessment. The inclusion of Study 2 with robust measurement (observed and self-reported) from a less diverse sample was particularly valuable in this regard. Third, the time lags in each study (4 months in Study 1 and 1 year in Studies 2 and 3) cannot address the possibility that there may be more consistent short-term associations between couple communication and relationship satisfaction.1 Along these lines, all self-reports of communication and relationship satisfaction were assessed with trait-like wording, asking participants to report how they typically communicate during conflict situations and their overall relationship satisfaction. State-like measurement focused on communication and satisfaction at a specific point in time (as was the case with the observational measurement in Study 2) coupled with daily or weekly data collection protocols would be valuable to determine whether linkages between communication and satisfaction might exist over shorter lags than used here.

With these limitations in mind, the results from this research have theoretical and empirical implications. Although couple communication has long been theorized as a central predictor of relationship satisfaction (Bandura, 1977Gottman, 1979Markman, 1979Wills et al., 1974), scholars have questioned the robustness of the communication to relationship satisfaction pathway (Johnson & Bradbury, 2015Karney & Bradbury, 2020Lavner et al., 2016). Findings from this study provide novel longitudinal within-person evidence that underscore such concerns; even though some significant cross-lagged links were evident in the analyses, within-couple deviations in communication were not as robustly associated with future relationship satisfaction as would be anticipated based on the behavioral models of intimate relations. This study did reveal, however, robust concurrent within-person links between negative communication and relationship satisfaction: Men’s and women’s relationship satisfaction was higher than average at times when negative communication was lower than average.

These results suggest that the linkage between negative communication and satisfaction may be better conceptualized as one consisting predominately of covariation rather than prediction of change. Such a conclusion aligns with findings from a large machine learning study that examined a wide swath of individual and relational (including conflict) between-person predictors of relationship satisfaction in 43 longitudinal couple studies (Joel et al., 2020). Cross-sectionally, these analyses accounted for up to 46% of the variation in relationship satisfaction, but the longitudinal prediction of future changes in satisfaction proved elusive: Only 5% of the variance in change in satisfaction was predicted in any analysis. Together, these findings suggest that relationship science has been more successful in understanding what predicts how satisfied people feel with their relationship in the moment than in the future.

Given that all relationship-relevant processes play out at some level via verbal or nonverbal communication (Heyman, 2001), it is critical for the field to better articulate exactly how communication plays a role in couples’ relationship satisfaction. We offer three suggestions in this regard. First, an increased focus on moderators of the within-person longitudinal linkages between communication and relationship satisfaction could articulate the conditions under which a deviation in a given couple’s communication patterns is likely to be more or less impactful on their relationship satisfaction. Much valuable research in this vein has focused on additional dimensions of couple communication, such as the directness of the communication (Overall et al., 2009) or severity of the problems being discussed (McNulty & Russell, 2010), that moderate the impact of conflict communication on satisfaction. Another possibility would be to focus on how intrapersonal explanations of partner communication behaviors (e.g., attributions) may buffer the impact of communication on relationship satisfaction (Bradbury & Fincham, 1990). Moderators outside of the couple relationship deserve attention as well, such as contextual influences and individual characteristics. For example, as mentioned, Nguyen et al.’s (2020) study found that within-person fluctuations in negative communication for men (and effective communication for both men and women) were associated with relationship satisfaction deviations only at times when they experienced higher than average stress levels. Continued research in these areas would be of considerable benefit to further refine understanding of the conditions in which couple communication is likely to be more consequential for relationship satisfaction.

Second, the robust concurrent within-person associations between negative communication and relationship satisfaction suggest that the focus on longitudinal associations between communication and satisfaction may be misplaced. Rather, reductions in negative communication may be a concurrent facet of increased relationship satisfaction, or conversely, increased relationship satisfaction may reflect reductions in negative communication. A shift toward emphasizing covariation raises interesting questions for future research about how these variables come to be linked, including whether couples do in fact form judgments about their relationship on the basis of their communication in the manner long suggested by behavioral theory (Bandura, 1977Gottman, 1979Karney & Bradbury, 1995Koerner & Jacobson, 1994Markman, 1979Wills et al., 1974) or whether this covariation simply reflects a more global level of functioning such that at times couples are functioning well, they function well in multiple domains and at times they are functioning poorly, they function poorly in multiple domains.

Third, these findings suggest that theories of relationship development would benefit from increased attention to interpersonal factors other than problem-solving communication behaviors that might prove to be more robust predictors of change in relationship satisfaction over time. Along these lines, prior research has found links between positively valenced communication in nonconflict situations and relationship satisfaction. For example, recent work has demonstrated that within-person increases in perceived expressions of gratitude from one’s partner predicted an intraindividual reduction in future anxious attachment (Park et al., 2019). Insofar as reductions in anxious attachment might serve to increase relationship satisfaction, expressions of gratitude might be one interpersonal process that predicts changes in relationship satisfaction. Alternatively, prior research found that partner responses to positive events were a more robust between-person predictor of future relationship satisfaction than responses to negative events (Gable et al., 2006) and a large literature has found between-person associations between the provision of support during stressful circumstances and relationship satisfaction (Bodenmann, 2005). Future within-person examination of these and other nonconflict communication processes may prove useful to refine perspectives specifying how communication influences the development of relationship satisfaction.

COVID-19 lockdowns & demographically-relevant Google Trends: Changes in searches for terms such as wedding and those related to condom use, emergency contraception, pregnancy tests, and abortion

Berger LM, Ferrari G, Leturcq M, Panico L, Solaz A (2021) COVID-19 lockdowns and demographically-relevant Google Trends: A cross-national analysis. PLoS ONE 16(3): e0248072.

Abstract: The spread of COVID-19 and resulting local and national lockdowns have a host of potential consequences for demographic trends. While impacts on mortality and, to some extent, short-term migration flows are beginning to be documented, it is too early to measure actual consequences for family demography. To gain insight into potential future consequences of the lockdown for family demography, we use cross-national Google Trends search data to explore whether trends in searches for words related to fertility, relationship formation, and relationship dissolution changed following lockdowns compared to average, pre-lockdown levels in Europe and the United States. Because lockdowns were not widely anticipated or simultaneous in timing or intensity, we exploit variability over time and between countries (and U.S. states). We use a panel event-study design and difference-in-differences methods, and account for seasonal trends and average country-level (or state-level) differences in searches. We find statistically significant impacts of lockdown timing on changes in searches for terms such as wedding and those related to condom use, emergency contraception, pregnancy tests, and abortion, but little evidence of changes in searches related to fertility. Impacts for union formation and dissolution tended to only be statistically significant at the start of a lockdown with a return to average-levels about 2 to 3 months after lockdown initiation, particularly in Europe. Compared to Europe, returns to average search levels were less evident for the U.S., even 2 to 3 months after lockdowns were introduced. This may be due to the fact, in the U.S., health and social policy responses were less demarcated than in Europe, such that economic uncertainty was likely of larger magnitude. Such pandemic-related economic uncertainty may therefore have the potential to slightly increase already existing polarization in family formation behaviours in the U.S. Alongside contributing to the wider literature on economic uncertainty and family behaviors, this paper also proposes strategies for efficient use of Google Trends data, such as making relative comparisons and testing sensitivity to outliers, and provides a template and cautions for their use in demographic research when actual demographic trends data are not yet available.

5. Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have a variety of short-, medium-, and long-term consequences for society that may vary across nations, at least in part, in accordance with governmental responses vis-à-vis lockdowns and other health and social policies. Notably, we hypothesized that consequences for demographic behaviors might be more marked in countries with less well managed outbreaks and with fewer safety nets, exacerbating feelings of uncertainty and economic insecurity. Pandemic-related research to date has primarily focused on mortality [2], migratory patterns [34], economic wellbeing and government responses thereto [11538454866], and physical and mental health and wellbeing [11133638464863]. [1] provide a comprehensive review of the pandemic-related research to date. Understanding more fully how population dynamics and, in particular, those related to family demography, may be affected is crucial to predicting subsequent demographic trends. To this end, we use Google Trends data and event study and difference-in-differences techniques to examine the influence of national and, in the case of the U.S., state-level lockdowns during the pandemic on demographically-relevant Google search trends. We focus specifically on sexual behavior-, contraceptive use-, pregnancy termination- and fertility-related searches; coupling, romantic relationship, and union formation-related searches; and union dissolution-related searches. On the whole, we find modest evidence of changes in search patterns related to family planning, but little evidence of changes in search patterns related to fertility, with the exception that current parents may have increased searches for information about having subsequent children. Using Google Trends data, Wilde et al. [61] predict a 15% decrease in fertility; these results are based on keywords linked to unemployment rather than fertility, with the assumption of a causal link between unemployment and fertility, as reported in previous years. When based solely on fertility key-related words, their results suggest no large negative effect on fertility and are in line with our results, in spite of using different fertility key-related. We do find some changes in search patterns related to relationship and union formation, as well as union dissolution. However, these tended to attain statistical significance only in the period immediately surrounding lockdown initiation and to return to average pre-pandemic levels within 2 to 3 months, particularly in the European context; divergence in U.S. trends tended to last longer. This fits with our initial hypothesis that lockdowns will lead to more marked demographic consequences in countries that managed the economic fallout from the pandemic less well and provided weaker financial safety nets.

Starting with our results for sexual behavior-, contraceptive use-, pregnancy termination- and fertility-related searches, we conclude that the introduction of lockdown measures resulted in a short-lived decline in relative searches for condoms in the U.S., but no change in Europe, and that searches for the morning after/emergency pill declined substantially in both Europe and the U.S. at the initiation of lockdowns, returning to average levels in Europe within a few months, but remaining below average after 3 months in the U.S. In both Europe and the U.S., relative searches related to “pregnancy test” declined slightly a few weeks prior to lockdowns but returned to average within 6 to 8 weeks of lockdown initiations. Searches for abortion declined in the U.S. and, to a much lesser extent in Europe, with substantial rebound within 3 months of lockdown initiations. These findings may indicate some changes in sexual behaviors during lockdowns, such that unprotected sex and/or contraceptive failure may have temporarily declined, likely predominantly among non-coresident couples, during the early months of the pandemic and associated lockdowns, but tended to rebound relatively quickly.

We find no change in relative searches regarding overall planning for childbirth associated with lockdowns and their timing, but some suggestive evidence that couples who are already parents may take the opportunity of lockdown to consider having an additional child. We can place our results within the wider literature on drivers of fertility trends. First, these results speak to the literature on the impact unemployment or job insecurity [192223]. Second, they fit with the literature of the response of fertility levels to “shocks”, such as the Great Depression (which resulted in a “baby bust”), or World War II (and its resulting “baby boom”). Seminal work by Rindfuss, Morgan, and Swicegood [25] found, for instance, that economic recessions often lead to a postponement of childbearing, especially for first births. The literature emphasizes the importance of actual versus anticipated financial and employment situations. While actual financial losses and unemployment do correlate with fertility trends, an important pathway to understand the impact of macro-level business cycles on fertility is consumer confidence [2027]. Financial incertitude might be crucial to understanding fertility responses to the lockdowns: while unemployment levels have increased as a result of lockdowns, our results are often stronger in the very first weeks before or after lockdowns, that is, before any substantial impacts on jobs and income losses. Yet, we find no evidence that initial lockdowns lead to significant changes in overall fertility intentions, and only a slight suggestion that higher order births may be being considered by current parents. Our conclusions, however, only relate to fertility intentions (rather than realization) and initial lockdown implementation (rather than potential subsequent economic recessions or the length of the lockdown). Interestingly, the (small) potential impact of lockdowns on higher-order fertility suggested by our results show a relative decline in searches related to higher-order childbearing in the month preceding and the month following lockdowns, with the suggestive evidence of an increase in searches only appearing thereafter. It is possible that this pattern is, at least partially, driven by expectations of future financial and employment instability, particularly if such uncertainty was highest in the earliest months of the pandemic.

Turning to our results on relationships, union formation, and union dissolution, relative searches related to dating (and for dating/relationship applications) and coupling/relationship formation appear to be negatively affected by lockdowns. However, these impacts were often short-lived and, again, concentrated in the weeks immediately surrounding the introduction of shelter-in-place measures. However, fitting in with our initial hypothesis, we find some differences between the U.S. and Europe in these impacts and, in particular, their timing. In Europe, relative searches returned to pre-lockdown levels after only a modest change, whereas changes in searches in the U.S. appeared to be more long lasting. As we had hypothesized, this may reflect that, around the time of national lockdowns, the pandemic was considered to be better controlled in many European settings that in the U.S., and also that economic consequences may have been expected be better attenuated by stronger welfare state policies and faster and more comprehensive economic responses in Europe.

European and U.S. trends were similar for searches related to union formation, with relative declines in searches related to marriage and weddings that persisted in both contexts even three months after lockdowns were initiated, though the magnitude of decline was larger in Europe. To the extent that trends in union formation parlay into subsequent trends in fertility, this may suggest slight declines in near-term first-birth fertility. However, the direction of causality between marriage and fertility is ambiguous. That is, lower marriage rates may reflect individuals or couples not (yet) wanting a child and therefore choosing to not (yet) marry or enter into cohabitation, rather than fertility being driven by changes in marriage or cohabitation formation behaviors [2829]. Moreover, delaying or opting out of marriage will only have an effect on fertility in countries where the tie between marriage and childbearing is strongest [28]. Furthermore, longer-term fertility and family formation plans will also be affected by post-lockdown economic and policy landscapes, which we do not observe.

It is less clear how lockdowns and resulting economic downturns might affect separation and divorce. Two contrasting hypotheses can be made [31]: economic instability increases financial and psychological stress for couples, which increase risk of separation and divorce, and, given considerable financial costs of separation and divorce (including legal costs and the loss of economies of scale), couples might be “priced out” of being able to separate during financially unstable or uncertain times. While evidence suggests that well-being might have decreased and stress increased during the pandemic [36], our results point—if anything—toward near-term declines in divorce, which is consistent with recent evidence from the 2008 recession, which resulted in couples putting off divorcing [3032]. Indeed, we find a modest short-lived decline in divorce-related relative search interest in Europe and a small short-lived decline in the U.S., particularly in the first weeks of lockdowns. Notably, however, we find little evidence of a change in searches for break-up in Europe and a slight, short-lived increase in break-up-related search interest in the U.S. in the wake of the lockdowns.

Overall, differences in demographically-relevant searches in the U.S. and Europe may reflect both the differential handling of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 and differences in underlying social welfare safety nets. Indeed, international heterogeneity in individual perceptions of the effects of the pandemic is remarkable—and tends to vary with both of these factors. For example, while threat perception of Covid-19 to oneself, one’s family, one’s local community, one’s country, and the world were high across most countries at the start of the pandemic, they decreased over time in countries such as Germany and Italy, while increasing in the U.K. and U.S. [39]. Similarly, confidence in institutions such as the health system was lowest in the U.K. and U.S., and highest in European countries, particularly Spain [39]. Also, the economic consequences of the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns have not been shared equally within societies [66]. Of particular concern, inequality in job losses during the pandemic have been found to be particularly stark in the U.S. and U.K. [66]. If a main pathway to understanding possible impacts of lockdowns on future family demographic trends is economic hardship and uncertainty, then we might expect increasingly polarized behaviors, particularly in the U.S. where our results, though still small-to-modest in magnitude, tend to be stronger and longer-lasting than in Europe. Trends in increasing polarization of family formation behaviors have been well underway in the U.S. for several decades [67]. Of course, only time will tell what, if any, influence the pandemic and resulting economic downturn with have on family demographic trends, and where.

Our results must be interpreted in the light of a number of limitations. First, although Google search trends cannot be assumed to fully represent the interests, concerns, or preoccupations of a nation’s population as a whole [6568], the popularity of Google as a search engine in Europe and the U.S., combined with quick and free data access, makes it a useful tool for observing immediate changes in search behaviors in response to the pandemic. Zagheni and Weber [69] recommend using difference-in-differences techniques, such as those used in this study, to assess relative trends in internet search data over time as an efficient means of reducing bias when the population-representativeness of internet searches by a subset of the population is unknown.

Second, as discussed in detail above, Google Trends only reports the relative (not absolute) search trends, specifically the number of searches for a particular term at a given time in a particular geographic unit relative to the total search volume in the geographic unit at a given time. This search index is then normalized to the maximum search volume observed over the period in the geographic unit. In a usual period, as the number of total Google searches is very large in comparison to the number of searches for a given term, a small change in the denominator (all searches) is negligible for the interpretation of the index. However, some periods, particularly those characterized by large shocks—like the introduction of national lockdowns—may generate a large increase in overall Google searches. In this case, the variation in the total number of Google searches might influence the relation of particular searches to the relative search index. This may be particularly true during lockdowns when individuals are required to stay at home and may therefore be more likely to use the internet. This implies that, while the raw number of searches for a particular term may be constant over a period, the number of searches relative to the overall number searches will change if the total number of Google searches increases (decreases) over the period. While we suspect that the total volume of Google searches increased during lockdown, at the time of writing Google could not confirm this hypothesis. Google Trends data must, therefore, be interpreted as reflecting searches for a specific term relative to all Google searches, and not as reflecting absolute search intensity, per se. Nonetheless, a change in relative search intensity during lockdowns can be identified and evaluated.

Third, Google searches do not directly measure behaviors. Future research based on actual levels of demographic behaviors is needed to corroborate whether and how such searches may predict trends in family demography.

Fourth, our results represent average national/state level searches and may mask considerable heterogeneity in the way countries (and states) imposed lockdown restrictions, which in turn may influence perceptions and reactions to these measures. For country comparison purposes, we use a binary treatment: whether the lockdown was implemented or not. This choice does not allow differentiating the extent of different lockdowns in terms of length or stringency, nor considering other forms of restrictions than stay-at-home orders or their changing nature over time. Our analytical framework also does not allow considering intra-country variation within the European countries considered. Further decompositions by smaller geographical areas are warranted.

In sum, using Google Trends data, we find evidence that pandemic-induced lockdowns appear to have small and likely short-lived impacts on family demography-related searches, particularly in the U.S. We interpret these findings within the context of important economic and social policy variation across countries, such that social and economic uncertainty was likely of larger magnitude in the U.S. than Europe. Whereas it is possible that such uncertainty may result in potentially (small-to-modest in magnitude) impacts of the pandemic on future family demography in the U.S., whether any such impacts occur is a question for future research.

Websites promoting extramarital affairs are not merely used for quick sexual encounters, also provide a means of access to long-term sexual & committed partners; results underscore importance of mate poaching for understanding relationship initiation

Exploring Links Between Online Infidelity, Mate Poaching Intentions, and the Likelihood of Meeting Offline. Liesel L. Sharabi, Maximiliane Uhlich, Cassandra Alexopoulos, and Elisabeth Timmermans. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking Vol. 24, No. 7, Jul 15 2021.

Abstract: This study examines digitally enabled mate poaching on Ashley Madison, an online dating platform for extradyadic affairs. To explore mate poaching as a potential explanation for what drives users of Ashley Madison to transition their online relationships to offline encounters, we conducted a multinational survey of 1,676 users (88.5 percent male, Mage = 50.98). Participants provided open-ended data about their mate poaching objectives, which ranged from short-term sexual encounters to long-term sexual and emotional affairs and new exclusive relationships. Structural equation modeling showed that participants' attitudes toward online infidelity predicted whether they would consider meeting someone from the website in person. Mate poaching intentions also mediated the effect of attitudes toward online infidelity on the likelihood of meeting another user face to face in the future. The results extend evolutionary theories of mate poaching to the digital dating environment and demonstrate the value of these perspectives for explaining relationship initiation practices on infidelity websites.


Despite estimates that as many as 10 to 15 percent of relationships begin through mate poaching,4,6 little attention has been devoted to poaching another's partner as a relationship initiation strategy in the context of infidelity websites that enable the pursuit of extradyadic affairs. The goal of the present investigation was to extend research and theorizing on mate poaching to the digital environment by soliciting responses from current Ashley Madison users about their (a) mate poaching objectives, (b) attitudes and intentions for engaging in mate poaching online, and (c) likelihood of moving a relationship FtF.

Ashley Madison is not the only online dating website that can be used for infidelity, but it is one of the few places where it is common. This makes Ashley Madison a unique context for studying relationship initiation practices that are elsewhere less actively used or more highly stigmatized. The results of our descriptive analyses point to several distinct qualities of Ashley Madison's users and the types of relationships they were seeking online. For one, our sample skewed male, which coheres with previous findings showing that men are more likely to mate poach than women.6 In addition, around half of our participants were unmarried, thus demonstrating that certain individuals may use infidelity websites for mate poaching even when they themselves are not currently in a relationship. For individuals who are married, these platforms may be used to pursue mating opportunities with others who possess seemingly better qualities than their current partner, whereas for those who are unmarried, they might provide access to desirable partners who would otherwise be off limits.4,37 We also found that although most participants' goals for mate poaching were directed at short-term relationships, around a third indicated openness to long-term or exclusive involvement. This suggests that infidelity websites are used for more than temporary sexual gratification, and that users may occasionally desire serious relationships with the individuals they meet on these platforms.

Tests of our proposed model uncovered a number of individual factors related to participants' mate poaching intentions and likelihood of meeting offline. Based on research showing that individuals with stronger entity beliefs are more likely to perceive others' behaviors as indicative of their future actions (e.g., “once a cheater, always a cheater”),15 we proposed that participants with more fixed views of personality would be less inclined to mate poach or meet offline. Interestingly, we found that participants' attitudes toward online infidelity, but not their implicit theories of personality, predicted their mate poaching intentions and likelihood of meeting FtF. Perhaps people attribute others' reasons for mate poaching to forces external to the individual, such as frequent conflicts with a partner or feeling undervalued in a relationship, thereby exhibiting self-serving bias rooted in their own engagement in online infidelity.

As expected, participants' mate poaching intentions were a strong predictor of whether they would consider meeting FtF. There was also a mediating effect of mate poaching intentions on the association between attitudes toward online infidelity and the likelihood of transitioning a relationship offline. For individuals who are less inclined to meet others in the flesh, Ashley Madison may be more about the fantasy of infidelity than the reality of FtF contact. Future research can build on these findings by exploring the motivations and behaviors of individuals who use infidelity websites for reasons not involving FtF encounters. In addition, we found that men were less likely than women to anticipate meeting someone in person. If men do indeed outnumber women on these platforms, then it could be that there is more competition among men for partners, while at the same time, women encounter a larger mating pool that allows them to be more selective and presents more opportunities for meeting FtF. These results emphasize the importance of mate poaching intentions for explaining why online encounters transgress offline, where they could potentially develop into traditional affairs.

Our study highlights the connection between the evolutionary roots of human mate poaching behaviors and online relationship-seeking practices. Infidelity websites enable mating strategies that are challenging to implement. People often guard their partners from perceived threats,4 but infidelity websites expand the eligible dating pool by providing access to individuals who are open to extradyadic involvement. There are also consequences to mate poaching that might deter some users of infidelity websites from meeting FtF, including reputational damage,38 the loss of social network ties,10 and retribution by a current partner.39 However, the characteristics of the online environment (e.g., increased anonymity) eliminate some risks, which may explain the enduring popularity of platforms such as Ashley Madison despite the stigma surrounding their use.

Limitations and future directions

This study has limitations. First, users of Ashley Madison and other similar platforms are often men, which limits our ability to make claims about women's experiences on infidelity websites. Second, despite asking participants whether their partner consented to their behaviors on Ashley Madison, we do not know the individual circumstances of other users or the extent to which they made it known whether their relationships were monogamous. Third, to avoid overwhelming participants and risking attrition, we used abbreviated measures to keep the survey short. Fourth, this study focused on user intentions rather than on actual behaviors, and there may sometimes be barriers to meeting others FtF. For instance, Ashley Madison has received scrutiny in the past for using female bots to communicate with male users,40 which would clearly prevent some relationships from leaving the platform. Finally, our study was cross-sectional and relied on participant self-reports. Some Ashley Madison users may hesitate to disclose an interest in permanent mating, and thus the occurrence of poaching for long-term or exclusive relationships may be underestimated. Future longitudinal research should continue to examine the long-term outcomes of the relationships formed through infidelity websites, as well as patterns of serial poaching among users of such platforms.