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Technology has made cheating on your spouse, or catching a cheater, easier than ever. How digital tools are aiding the unfaithful and the untrusting—and may be mending some broken marriages.
All illustrations by Kristian Hammerstad
Jay’s wife, Ann, was supposed to be out of town on business. It was a Tuesday evening in August 2013, and Jay, a 36-year-old IT manager, was at home in Indiana with their 5-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son when he made a jarring discovery. Their daughter had misplaced her iPad, so Jay used the app Find My iPhone to search for it. The app found the missing tablet right away, but it also located all the other devices on the family’s plan. What was Ann’s phone doing at a hotel five miles from their home?
His suspicions raised, Jay, who knew Ann’s passwords, read through her e-mails and Facebook messages. (Like others in this story, Jay asked that his and Ann’s names be changed.) He didn’t find anything incriminating, but neither could he imagine a good reason for Ann to be at that hotel. So Jay started using Find My iPhone for an altogether different purpose: to monitor his wife’s whereabouts.
Two nights later, when Ann said she was working late, Jay tracked her phone to the same spot. This time, he drove to the hotel, called her down to the parking lot, and demanded to know what was going on. Ann told him she was there posing for boudoir photos, with which she planned to surprise him for his upcoming birthday. She said the photographer was up in the room waiting for her.
Jay wanted to believe Ann. They’d been married for 12 years, and she had never given him cause to distrust her. So instead of demanding to meet the photographer or storming up to the room, Jay got in his car and drove home.
Still, something gnawed at him. According to Ann’s e-mails, the boudoir photo shoot had indeed taken place—but on the previous day, Wednesday. So her being at the hotel on Tuesday and again on Thursday didn’t make sense. Unless …
In an earlier era, a suspicious husband like Jay might have rifled through Ann’s pockets or hired a private investigator. But having stumbled upon Find My iPhone’s utility as a surveillance tool, Jay wondered what other apps might help him keep tabs on his wife. He didn’t have to look far. Spouses now have easy access to an array of sophisticated spy software that would give Edward Snowden night sweats: programs that record every keystroke; that compile detailed logs of our calls, texts, and video chats; that track a phone’s location in real time; that recover deleted messages from all manner of devices (without having to touch said devices); that turn phones into wiretapping equipment; and on and on.
Jay spent a few days researching surveillance tools before buying a program called Dr. Fone, which enabled him to remotely recover text messages from Ann’s phone. Late one night, he downloaded her texts onto his work laptop. He spent the next day reading through them at the office. Turns out, his wife had become involved with a co-worker. There were thousands of text messages between them, many X‑rated—an excruciatingly detailed record of Ann’s betrayal laid out on Jay’s computer screen. “I could literally watch her affair progress,” Jay told me, “and that in itself was painful.”
One might assume that the proliferation of such spyware would have a chilling effect on extramarital activities. Aspiring cheaters, however, need not despair: software developers are also rolling out ever stealthier technology to help people conceal their affairs. Married folk who enjoy a little side action can choose from such specialized tools as Vaulty Stocks, which hides photos and videos inside a virtual vault within one’s phone that’s disguised to look like a stock-market app, and Nosy Trap, which displays a fake iPhone home screen and takes a picture of anyone who tries to snoop on the phone. CATE (the Call and Text Eraser) hides texts and calls from certain contacts and boasts tricky features such as the ability to “quick clean” incriminating evidence by shaking your smartphone. CoverMe does much of the above, plus offers “military-grade encrypted phone calls.” And in the event of an emergency, there’s the nuclear option: apps that let users remotely wipe a phone completely clean, removing all traces of infidelity.
But every new app that promises to make playing around safer and easier just increases the appetite for a cleverer way to expose such deception. Some products even court both sides: a partner at CATE walked me through how a wife could install the app on her husband’s phone to create a secret record of calls and texts to be perused at her leisure. Which may be great from a market-demand standpoint, but is probably not so healthy for the broader culture, as an accelerating spiral of paranoia drives an arms race of infidelity-themed weapons aimed straight at the consumer’s heart.
Every tech trend has its early adopters. Justin, a 30-year-old computer programmer from Ohio, is at the vanguard of this one.
Justin first discovered CATE on the September 21, 2012, episode of Shark Tank, ABC’s venture-capital reality show. The Call and Text Eraser, pitched specifically as a “cheating app,” won $70,000 in seed money on the program. Justin knew he had to have it.
His girlfriend at the time—we’ll call her Scarlett—was “the jealous type,” forever poking through his smartphone and computer. Not that he could blame her, given that she’d already busted him once for having sex with another woman. “It took a lot of talking and a lot of promising that it wouldn’t happen again,” he told me over e-mail. (I found Justin through a user review of CATE.) “So her wanting to check up on me was understandable,” he allowed. “But at the same time, it was my business and if I wanted to share I would have.”
Even a not-so-jealous girlfriend might have taken exception to many of the messages on Justin’s phone: “casual texting” (that is, flirting) with other women, “hard core” (explicitly sexual) texting, texts arranging “hookups.” In the past, he’d been busted repeatedly for such communiqués. (Scarlett is not the only girlfriend with whom Justin has found monogamy to be a challenge.) With CATE, all Justin had to do was create a list of contacts he didn’t want Scarlett to know about, and any incriminating texts and phone calls with those contacts got channeled directly into a pass-code-protected vault.
CATE is just one of many tools Justin uses to, as he puts it, “stay one step ahead.” His go-to method for exchanging explicit photos is Snapchat, the popular app that causes pics and videos to self-destruct seconds after they are received. (Of course, as savvy users know, expired “snaps” aren’t really deleted, but merely hidden in the bowels of the recipient’s phone, so Justin periodically goes in and permanently scrubs them.) And for visuals so appealing that he cannot bear to see them vanish into the ether, he has Gallery Lock, which secretes pics and videos inside a private “gallery” within his phone.
Justin wound up cheating on Scarlett “several more times” before they finally broke up—a pattern he’s repeated with other girlfriends. Oh, sure, he enjoys the social and domestic comforts of a relationship (“It’s always nice to have someone to call your girl”). He understands the suffering that infidelity can cause (“I have been cheated on so I know how much it hurts”). He even feels guilty about playing around. But for him, the adrenaline kick is irresistible. “Not to mention,” he adds, “no woman is the same [and] there is always going to be someone out there who can do something sexually that you have never tried.” Then, of course, there’s “the thrill of never knowing if you are going to get caught.”
All of which makes it more than a little troubling that, while laboring to keep one semiserious girlfriend after another in the dark with privacy-enhancing apps, Justin has been equally aggressive about using spy apps to keep a virtual eye on said girlfriends.
Therapists say they’re seeing more spouses casually tracking each other, and lawyers are starting to recommend digital-privacy clauses for prenup and postnup agreements.
Justin has tried it all: keystroke loggers, phone trackers, software enabling him to “see text messages, pictures, and all the juicy stuff … even the folder to where your deleted stuff would go.” He figures he’s tried nearly every spy and cheater app on the market, and estimates that since 2007, he has “kept tabs,” serially, on at least half a dozen girlfriends. “The monitoring is really just for my peace of mind,” he says. Plus, if he catches a girlfriend straying, “it kind of balances it out and makes it fair.” That way, he explains, if she ever busts him, “I have proof she was cheating so therefore she would have no reason to be mad.”
Not that Justin is immune to the occasional flash of jealousy. More than once, he has gone out to confront a girlfriend whose phone revealed her to be somewhere other than where she’d claimed to be. One relationship ended with particularly dramatic flair: “The phone went to the location off of a country road in the middle of nowhere and there she was having sex in the backseat of the car with another man.” A fistfight ensued (with the guy, not the girlfriend), followed later by “breakup sex” (vice versa). One year on, Justin says, “I still don’t believe that she has figured out how I found out.”
Justin knows that many folks may find his playing both sides of the cheating-apps divide “twisted.” But, he reasons, “I am doing it for my safety to make sure I don’t get hurt. So doesn’t that make it right??”
Right or wrong, cheating apps tap into a potentially lucrative market: While the national infidelity rate is hard to pin down (because, well, people lie), reputable research puts the proportion of unfaithful spouses at about 15 percent of women and 20 percent of men—with the gender gap closing fast. And while the roots of infidelity remain more or less constant (the desire for novelty, attention, affirmation, a lover with tighter glutes … ), technology is radically altering how we enter into, conduct, and even define it. (The affairs in this piece all involved old-school, off-line sex, but there is a growing body of research on the devastation wrought by the proliferation of online-only betrayal.) Researchers regard the Internet as fertile ground for female infidelity in particular. “Men tend to cheat for physical reasons and women for emotional reasons,” says Katherine Hertlein, who studies the impact of technology on relationships as the director of the Marriage and Therapy Program at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “The Internet facilitates a lot of emotional disclosure and connections with someone else.”
At the same time, privacy has become a rare commodity. Forget the National Security Agency and Russian mobsters: in a recent survey conducted in the United Kingdom, 62 percent of men in relationships admitted to poking around in a current or ex-partner’s mobile phone. (Interestingly, among women, the proportion was only 34 percent. So much for the stereotype of straying guys versus prying gals.) On the flip side, according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, 14 percent of adults have taken steps to hide their online activity from a family member or romantic partner. Therapists say they’re seeing more spouses casually tracking each other as well as more clashes over online spying, and lawyers are starting to recommend digital-privacy clauses for prenup and postnup agreements. Such clauses aim to prevent spouses from using personal texts, e‑mails, or photos against each other should they wind up in divorce court.
Tech developers by and large didn’t set out looking to get involved. As is so often the case with infidelity, it just sort of happened. Take Find My iPhone. Apple did not create the app with suspicious lovers in mind, but users pretty quickly realized its potential. Dr. Fone is marketed primarily as a way to recover lost data. Likewise, messaging apps such as Snapchat have many more uses than concealing naughty talk or naked photos, but the apps are a hit with cheaters.
The multipurpose nature and off-label use of many tools make it difficult to gauge the size of this vast and varied market. The company mSpy offers one of the top-rated programs for monitoring smartphones and computers; 2 million subscribers pay between $20 and $70 a month for the ability to do everything from review browsing history to listen in on phone calls to track a device’s whereabouts. Some 40 percent of customers are parents looking to monitor their kids, according to Andrew Lobanoff, the head of sales at mSpy, who says the company does basic consumer research to see who its customers are and what features they want added. Another 10 to 15 percent are small businesses monitoring employees’ use of company devices (another growing trend). The remaining 45 to 50 percent? They could be up to anything.
Apps marketed specifically as tools for cheaters and jealous spouses for the most part aren’t seeing the download numbers of a heavy hitter like, say, Grindr, the hookup app for gay men (10 million downloads and more than 5 million monthly users). But plenty have piqued consumer interest: The private-texting-and-calling app CoverMe has more than 2 million users. TigerText, which (among other features) causes messages to self-destruct after a set amount of time, has been downloaded 3.5 million times since its introduction in February 2010. (It hit the market a couple of months after the Tiger Woods sexting scandal, though the company maintains that the app is not named for Woods.)
Once the marketplace identifies a revenue stream, of course, the water has been chummed and everyone rushes in for a taste. By now, new offerings are constantly popping up from purveyors large and small. Ashley Madison, the online-dating giant for married people (company slogan: “Life is short. Have an affair.”), has a mobile app that provides some 30 million members “on the go” access to its services. Last year, the company introduced an add-on app called BlackBook, which allows users to purchase disposable phone numbers with which to conduct their illicit business. Calls and texts are placed through the app much as they are through Skype, explains the company’s chief operating officer, Rizwan Jiwan. “One of the leading ways people get caught in affairs is by their cellphone bill,” he observes. But with the disposable numbers, all calls are routed through a user’s Ashley Madison account, which appears on his or her credit-card statements under a series of business aliases. “The phone number isn’t tied to you in any way.”
Both sides of the arms race have ego invested in not getting outgunned. Stressing Ashley Madison’s obsession with customer privacy, Jiwan boasts that the shift from computers to mobile devices makes it harder for members to get busted. “It’s much more difficult to get spyware on phones,” he told me. But mSpy’s Lobanoff pushed back: “All applications can be monitored. Let me make it clear for you. If you provide us what application you would like to track, within two weeks we can develop a feature to do that.” It all boils down to demand. For instance, he notes, after receiving some 300 calls from customers looking to monitor Snapchat, the company rolled out just such a feature.
Lobanoff admits that iPhones are tougher to monitor than phones from other brands, because Apple is strict about what runs on its operating system (although many Apple users “jailbreak” their devices, removing such limits). Which raises the question: Is an iPhone a good investment for cheaters worried about being monitored—or would it too tightly restrict their access to cheating apps? Such are the complexities of modern infidelity.
Of course, no app can remove all risk of getting caught. Technology can, in fact, generate a false sense of security that leads people to push limits or get sloppy. Justin has had several close calls, using CATE to conceal indiscreet texts and voicemails but forgetting to hide explicit photos. When a girlfriend found a naked picture of him that he’d failed to delete after sexting another woman, Justin had to think fast. “The way I talk my way out of it is that I say I was going to send it to her.” Then, of course, there is the peril of creeping obsolescence: after several months, regular upgrades to the operating system on Justin’s phone outpaced CATE’s, and more and more private messages began to slip through the cracks. (A scan of user reviews suggests this is a common problem.)
Virtual surveillance has its risks as well. Stumbling across an incriminating e‑mail your partner left open is one thing; premeditated spying can land you in court—or worse. Sometime in 2008 or 2009, a Minnesota man named Danny Lee Hormann, suspecting his wife of infidelity, installed a GPS tracker on her car and allegedly downloaded spyware onto her phone and the family computer. His now-ex-wife, Michele Mathias (who denied having an affair), began wondering how her husband always knew what she was up to. In March 2010, Mathias had a mechanic search her car. The tracker was found. Mathias called the police, and Hormann spent a month in jail on stalking charges. (It’s worth noting that a second conviction, specifically for illegally tracking her car, was overturned on appeal when the judge ruled that joint ownership gave Hormann the right to install the GPS tracker.)
Staying on the right side of the law is trickier than one might imagine. There are a few absolute no-nos. At the top of the list: never install software on a device that you do not own without first obtaining the user’s consent. Software sellers are careful to shift the legal burden onto consumers. On its site, mSpy warns that misuse of the software “may result in severe monetary and criminal penalties.” Similarly, SpyBubble, which offers cellphone-tracking software, reminds its customers of their duty to “notify users of the device that they are being monitored.” Even so, questions of ownership and privacy get messy between married partners, and the landscape remains in flux as courts struggle to apply old laws to new technology.
In 2010, a Texas man named Larry Bagley was acquitted of charges that he violated federal wiretapping laws by installing audio-recording devices around his house and keystroke-monitoring software on his then-wife’s computer. In his ruling, the district judge pointed to a split opinion among U.S. circuit courts as to whether the federal law applies to “interspousal wiretaps.” (The Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuit Courts said it does, he noted; the Second and Fifth said it doesn’t.) Similarly, in California, Virginia, Texas, Minnesota, and as of this summer New York, it is a misdemeanor to install a GPS tracker on someone’s vehicle without their consent. But when a vehicle is jointly owned, things get fuzzy.
“I always tell people two things: (1) do it legally, and (2) do it right,” says John Paul Lucich, a computer-forensics expert and the author of Cyber Lies, a do-it-yourself guide for spouses looking to become virtual sleuths. Lucich has worked his share of ugly divorces, and he stresses that even the most damning digital evidence of infidelity will prove worthless in court—and potentially land you in trouble—if improperly gathered. His blanket advice: Get a really good lawyer. Stat.
Such apps clearly have the potential to blow up relationships, but the question now may be whether they can be used to salvage them as well. Many of the betrayed partners I spoke with believe they can.
A couple of years ago, Ginger discovered that her husband, Tim, was having an affair with a woman he’d met through a nonprofit on whose board he sat. (As Ginger tells it, this was a classic case of a middle-aged man having his head turned by a much younger woman.) The affair lasted less than a year, but it took another eight months before Tim’s lover stopped sending him gifts and showing up in awkward places (even church!).
Ginger and Tim decided to tough it out—they’ve been married for 35 years and have two adult children—but that took some doing. For the first year and a half, certain things Tim did or said would trigger Ginger’s anxiety. He would announce that he was going to the store; Ginger would fire up her tracking software to ensure he did just that. Business travel called for even more elaborate reassurances. “When he was away, I would be like, ‘I want you to FaceTime the whole room—the bathroom, the closet; open the hallway door.’ ”
Ginger’s anxiety has dimmed, but not vanished. She still occasionally uses Find My iPhone to make sure Tim is, in fact, staying late at the office. “And we use FaceTime all the time. He knows that if I try to FaceTime him, he’d better answer right then or have a very, very good reason why he didn’t.”
Jay and Ann, of the boudoir photo shoot, also decided to try to repair their marriage. When he first confronted her with a record of her texts, Ann denied that the sex talk was ever more than fantasy. But when Jay scheduled a polygraph, she confessed to a full-blown, physical affair.
As hard as it has been for Jay, one year later he reports that tech tools are helping. Ann’s affair grew out of her sense of neglect, Jay told me: “She wasn’t getting the attention she wanted from me, so she found someone else to give it to her.” To strengthen their bond, Jay and Ann have started using Couple, a relationship app geared toward promoting intimacy by setting up a private line of communication for texts, pics, video clips, and, of course, updates on each person’s whereabouts. Every now and again, Jay sneaks a peek at Find My iPhone. He also has set his iPad to receive copies of Ann’s texts. “I don’t know if she realizes I’m doing that,” he told me. But in general, she understands his desire for extra oversight. “She’s like, ‘Whatever you want.’ ”
In fact, post-affair surveillance seems to be an increasingly popular counseling prescription. Even as marriage and family therapists take a dim view of unprovoked snooping, once the scent of infidelity is in the air, many become enthusiastically pro-snooping—initially to help uncover the truth about a partner’s behavior but then to help couples reconcile by reestablishing accountability and trust. The psychotherapist and syndicated columnist Barton Goldsmith says he often advocates virtual monitoring in the aftermath of an affair. Even if a spouse never exercises the option of checking up, having it makes him or her feel more secure. “It’s like a digital leash.”
Once the scent of infidelity is in the air, many therapists encourage snooping—to help uncover the truth, but also to reestablish accountability and trust in couples looking to reconcile.
And that can be a powerful deterrent, says Frank, whose wife of 37 years learned of his fondness for hookers last February, after he forgot to close an e‑mail exchange with an escort. “He had set up a Gmail account I had no idea he had,” Carol, his wife, told me. Frank tried to convince her that the e-mails were just spam, even after she pointed out that the exchange included his cell number and photos of him.
Frank agreed to marriage counseling and enrolled in a 12-step program for sexual addiction. Carol now tracks his phone and regularly checks messages on both his phone and his computer. Still, she told me sadly, “I don’t think that I’m ever going to get the whole story. I believe he thinks that if I know everything, the marriage will come to an end.”
For his part, Frank—who comes across as a gruff, traditional sort of guy, uneasy sharing his feelings even with his wife—calls Carol’s discovery of his betrayal “excruciating,” but he mostly seems angry at the oversexed culture that he feels landed him in this mess. He grumbles about how “the ease and the accessibility and the anonymity of the Internet” made it “entirely too easy” for him to feed his addiction.
Frank has clearly absorbed some of the language and lessons of therapy. “As well as it is a learned behavior to act out, it is a learned behavior not to,” he told me. He doesn’t much like his wife’s having total access to his phone, but he claims that his sole concern is for the privacy of others in his 12-step group, who text one another for support. Frank himself clearly feels the tug of his digital leash. “Now that she checks my phone and computer, I have a deterrent.”
Even as he calls virtual surveillance “a powerful tool,” though, Frank also declares it a limited one. No matter how clever the technology becomes, there will always be work-arounds. For someone looking to stray, “absolutely nothing is going to stop it,” says Frank, emphatically. “Nothing.”
In Interrogations, Teenagers Are Too Young to Know Better
By Jan HoffmanOctober 13, 2014 4:49 pmOctober 13, 2014 4:49 pm
Credit Brian Stauffer
Even when police interrogators left the room, cameras kept recording the teenage suspects. Some paced. Several curled up and slept. One sobbed loudly, hitting his head against the wall, berating himself. Two boys, left alone together, discussed their offense, joking.
What none did, however, was exercise his constitutional rights. It was not clear whether the youths even understood them.
Therefore none had a lawyer at his side. None left, though all were free to do so, and none remained silent. Some 37 percent made full confessions, and 31 percent made incriminating statements.
These were among the observations in a recent study of 57 videotaped interrogations of teenagers, ages 13 to 17, from 17 police departments around the country. The research, published in Law and Human Behavior, adds to accumulating evidence that teenagers are psychologically vulnerable at the gateway to the criminal justice system. Youths, some researchers say, merit special protections.
According to federal statistics, nearly 1.5 million teenagers were arrested in 2011, the last year for which data was collected.
“If kids are making these poor decisions because their development is not complete, then to penalize them with long-term legal consequences is unfair,” said the study’s author, Hayley M.D. Cleary, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescents and the law.
Research about adolescents during interrogations is usually drawn from laboratory experiments, surveys or court records. Only a few researchers have had access to actual encounters, typically from one state. Dr. Cleary’s study is the first to examine interrogations from a variety of jurisdictions. The sample, however, is small and limited to agencies that willingly provided videos.
One reason the researchers focused on interrogations is that jurors find confessions highly persuasive. But the validity of a juvenile’s confession can be questionable. Was it given voluntarily, with the teenager really grasping the consequences of admitting the crime? Was it true?
Teenagers, studies show, are not developmentally ready to make critical decisions that have long-term impacts.
“Adolescents are more oriented to the present, so they are less likely than adults to be thinking about the future consequences of what they’re saying,” said Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University who writes about teenagers in the justice system and was not involved in this study.
Teenagers, he added, are also less likely than adults to know that the police can lie during interrogations.
“The police often promise kids things in the present. ‘If you just tell me you did it, you can go see your mom,’ ” he continued. “And because the brain’s reward systems are hypersensitive during adolescence, that immediate reward of confessing will trump the thinking of, ‘What will happen when I come back to court in a month?’ ”
Moreover, research shows that teenagers aged 15 and younger will unwittingly comply with authority figures. They are very suggestible, so that during an interrogation, they are more likely than adults to change their answers in response to interviewers.
In Dr. Cleary’s study, the average age of the juveniles, almost all boys, was about 15. In nearly every interview, the door was shut to the interrogation room, with the suspect sitting in a corner and the interrogator between the youth and the door.
In half the cases, the interrogator had a visible weapon. In 16 percent, the suspects were handcuffed or in leg shackles.
The interrogations were frequently interrupted, with other interviewers coming and going. The teenager often was left alone. One interrogator came and went 19 times.
Dr. Cleary speculated that interruptions could heighten a suspect’s anxiety but they could also afford him mental breaks.
A significant concern about interrogations of juveniles has been their limited capacity to comprehend rights such as the Miranda warnings.
Dr. Steinberg once asked a 12-year-old about the right to remain silent. In his new book, “Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence,” he recounts how the boy, who recognized the Miranda warnings from watching “Law & Order,” replied: “It means that you don’t have to say anything until the police officer asks you a question.” Some jurisdictions require that parents be present for interrogations of teenagers. In Dr. Cleary’s study, only 12 suspects were accompanied by parents during portions of the interviews, whose duration ranged from six minutes to five hours, with the average about 45 minutes.
But if parents are not legally savvy, their presence may not serve young suspects well.
In the videos, five parents remained largely silent. Some lectured their children and then questioned them, taking on the interrogator’s role. A few parents urged their children to come clean, inadvertently sealing their fate.
Parents have conflicting roles, Dr. Cleary said. “They want to defend their children against accusations of wrongdoing. But we also socialize children to obey the law and tell the truth.
“Some parents might have felt compelled to use the situation as a teachable moment, or they might have felt their parenting skills were being threatened.” Dr. Cleary said. “It’s not fair to put parents in that situation, particularly without a lawyer.”But how do parents balance encouraging children to respect authority against the harm that can befall them by speaking with interrogators?
Dr. Steinberg suggests that parents tell teenagers: “If you’re being questioned by police because they think you’ve done something bad, say you need to talk to your parents first.” Parents can decide whether to call a lawyer.
Citing recent research, the American Psychological Association has called for widespread protections for suspects, including teenagers, during interrogations. The recommendations include limiting the length of interviews; videotaping them in their entirety; assuring that teenagers are always accompanied by a lawyer; and that interviewers be trained to reduce the risk of eliciting false confessions from impressionable suspects such as youths.
This spring, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a law enforcement coalition, along with the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, developed online training for those who interview adolescents. Drawing from developmental research, the program instructs officers to explain Miranda warnings in language teenagers will understand and not to make false promises of leniency, because of youths’ proclivity toward gullibility.
“We want to avoid involuntary or false confessions from juveniles,” said John Firman, director of research for the association. “The ultimate goal is to get accurate information from them. And if you don’t understand juvenile brain development, the likelihood is that you’ll get bad information.”
This video provides a useful example of mediation and negotiating. 1. The argument is really about perception and the use of language. They are both talking about the same thing. A good mediator will help the parties speak the same language and get everyone on the same page. 2. The boy expresses someone else's viewpoint - his mom's. When two parents are negotiating it is helpful if the dialogue focuses on their needs and concerns instead of enlisting other family members. 3. The conflict spirals with finger pointing, never a good technique in mediation, whether it is real or metaphorical. 4. Sometimes it's good to have a reality check and go outside and see if its actually raining. 5. When the boy tells the girl you poked my heart, he's telling her a fact and how he feels hurt. The children move closer and are on the path to reconciliation.
Parenting is hard enough when the family is under one roof. But what if your children are 300 — or even 3,000 miles away? Guest host Celeste Headlee hears from parents whose work, military service or divorce take them away from their children
Fathers often get left out of parenting conversations, whether they're about packing the diaper bag or work-life balance. For more, host Michel Martin is joined by a diverse panel of dads.
Most parents I know suffer from occasional — or constant — eruptions of parental self-judgment: moments when they feel they fall short of being the parents they could be. There's a gap between what they know about effective parenting (in the abstract) and what actually happens in everyday practice — in the car, in the supermarket, in the living room.
As a psychology professor, I suffer from a particularly acute form of this affliction. On one level, I know a lot about human cognition and child development. I've published papers and taught courses on material relevant to parenting, if not on parenting itself. The principles of learning that I cover in Cognitive Psychology 101, for example, apply equally well to rats pulling levers and to toddlers sharing toys. So I thought I might have some special advantage when it came to raising my own kids — a leg up, compared to most parents, on how to encourage good behavior, if nothing else.
Three-and-a-half years into my own private practicum in parenting, I'm not so naive anymore.
Of course, there are all sorts of reasons why "knowing better" doesn't always translate into "doing better": we're busy and exhausted, we're lazy and set in our ways. Plus, it isn't always obvious when and how the abstract applies to the concrete. But it turns out that one of the most important lessons from psychology about how to change children's behavior is also the key to why knowledge of better parenting is rarely enough to make us better parents.
The lesson is this: to encourage a behavior, you need to generate the best conditions for it to arise and then reinforce the heck out of it. Merely knowing what you should do is often insufficient to reliably bring the behavior about and merely knowing doesn't offer much in the way of reinforcement.
To back all that up with authority and anecdote, consider the following passage from psychologist Alan Kazdin and writer Carlo Rotella's book on parenting:
"Don't believe that knowing and doing are necessarily related. A lot of parents tell me something like 'My child needs to know that such behavior will not be tolerated in this house.' That is fine as a statement, and I expect that your child, if she's old enough to discuss it, knows the rule. But knowing and understanding the rule by itself will not lead to your child changing the behavior."
"Bottom line: to teach knowing and understanding, talk about the rules, especially when everyone is calm. Look for opportunities to point out examples of following the rules if you see something on TV, in a store, at the mall. Say to your child, 'Look how that boy is playing so nicely with his baby sister.' But bear in mind that none of the above will be sufficient to get the behavior you want."
"Don't confuse ways of imparting knowledge with ways of changing behavior. Imparting knowledge is a useful first step, but the first step by itself does not get up the stairs to the behavior you want." [Line breaks and emphasis are mine. —TL]
The upshot is that if you're hoping to change children's behavior, you need to do more than communicate your expectations.
So what will change children's behavior?
Kazdin and Rotella advocate what they call "reinforced practice" and "positive opposites." In brief, you can encourage desired behaviors by repeatedly eliciting them (or their successive approximations) and reinforcing them as soon as they happen, and you can eliminate undesirable behaviors by reinforcing the positive behaviors you want to replace them with. (See, I wasn't kidding about rats and levers.) Punishment in some forms has its time and its place, but it's rarely effective, and it's rarely the best choice.
These principles don't just apply to kids and to rats. If you want to change your own behavior, exactly the same ideas apply. So if you're hoping to become a better parent, you need to do more than learn some psychology or skim through some parenting books.
As adults we don't have the advantage of benevolent, parental overlords engineering our environments, but we still have some options. For example, psychologist Laurie Santos and philosopher Tamar Gendler, in a short essay at Edge.org rejectingthe idea that "knowing is half the battle," write:
"The lesson of much contemporary research in judgment and decision-making is that knowledge — at least in the form of our consciously accessible representation of a situation — is rarely the central factor controlling our behavior. The real power of online behavioral control comes not from knowledge, but from things like situation selection, habit formation, and emotion regulation. This is a lesson that therapy has taken to heart, but one that 'pure science' continues to neglect."
In other words, we can try to change our own environments to trigger and reinforce the right behaviors, work on making those behaviors routine, and change the way we construe situations — if not the situations themselves — to change the way we feel and the way we act. For instance, construing a toddler's misbehavior as deliberate provocation will likely elicit a different emotional response (and different parental behavior) from construing the same misdeed as the little tyke's exploration of her social world — an experiment in figuring out how you work.
So knowledge is critical, but it's only a first step. And becoming a better parent requires mastering techniques for changing your child's behavior, but also for changing your own.
When it comes to my children, I know that punishment is rarely effective. I try — with varying degrees of success — to implement strategies like reinforced practice and positive opposites. Now I'm trying to do the same for myself. After all, unconstructive self-judgment is itself a form of punishment and not a very effective one. Instead, I'm trying to create circumstances for better parenting, and to pat myself on the back when I pull it off. I can't control how much I'm judged by others. But I can begin to change how much I judge myself.
So here's to less self-judgment, and to more self-reinforcement ... when we manage to pull the right levers.
Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt finalized their divorce Tuesday thanks to Jill Robbins, a private judge. By using her services, Pitt and Aniston were able to keep the proceedings private. They were also able to expedite the divorce.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
We have paid remarkably little attention on this program to a story that has confronted millions of supermarket shoppers on the checkout line and millions of viewers of TV gossip shows. I'm referring to the dissolution of the marriage of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, which, unless you've been up on the International Space Station, you've probably been at least vaguely aware of.
We bring it up here because of one crucial detail in yesterday's news. It said a private judge signed off on court papers finalizing the divorce. We were curious about the phenomenon of private judges, who do not just mediation or arbitration but divorce. Richard Reuben teaches alternative dispute resolution at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law, and he joins us now.
Professor Reuben, most unhappily married people who give up on the institution deal with what I used to think of as a real judge. But in California, something different?
Professor RICHARD REUBEN (University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law): Yes. California does permit parties to ask a court to refer them out to what's called a private judge, sometimes called, somewhat pejoratively, a rent-a-judge. And that private judge will full jurisdiction over the case and needs to apply the rule of law, and his or her decision is as binding as any other court's. The big difference is that it happens in private.
SIEGEL: But at some point along the line, this has to go back to a real judge, doesn't it?
Prof. REUBEN: Indeed, it does. The private judge's decision is technically just a recommendation, although that recommendation is almost always accepted by the court.
SIEGEL: Now to what extent do Mr. Pitt and Ms. Aniston--or, for that matter, any other unhappily married couple--gain greater privacy in their divorce proceedings by going to a private judge or someone who might be disparaged as a rent-a-judge?
Prof. REUBEN: They get a lot more privacy. In a private judging situation, it's private. The press does not have a right to be there; the public does not have a right to be there; there's no public docket.
SIEGEL: And as the public, we have no right to know the terms of a divorce if it's filed this way with a judge?
Prof. REUBEN: Well, that's the way the law would appear right now. But interestingly, the press has, not to this date, ever pressed the issue. So as a practical matter, the press does not have a right to be there until it's able to argue that it should have a right. But as of this point, I'd say the answer is no.
SIEGEL: This was a high-profile Hollywood divorce, but this sort of thing, the idea of the private judge, is not unique to California, I gather.
Prof. REUBEN: That's right, and a few other states have it: Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and the state of Washington.
SIEGEL: Now I've seen various sources giving figures for how much a private judge is paid for his--or in the case of this big prominent divorce, her services. I've seen numbers either $350 per hour, up to $800 per hour. In any case, it sounds like it could be pretty expensive; $2,000 a day at a pretty low rate.
Prof. REUBEN: That's right. It could be expensive. It, indeed, can go from a low range up to hundreds, even over a thousand dollars an hour. That's sometimes considered a good investment. For example, my sense is that Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt probably viewed that as a good investment on their privacy.
SIEGEL: Now at the risk of sounding like a wild-eyed, egalitarian idealist, might there not be something inherently unfair about this, that people with money can not only hire the lawyers they want, but the judge they want and get the privacy that they want and get the timetable that they want for their divorce?
Prof. REUBEN: It sure would seem as though it's manifestly unfair. But in fact, the law, in a lot of different areas and for a lot of different reasons, really does promote the private settlement of disputes as opposed to the litigation of every little issue. So this is something that the law has an interest in; not just because of overcrowding, but because so often you end up with a result that's more acceptable to the parties and, therefore, more easy to enforce.
SIEGEL: Well, Professor Reuben, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Prof. REUBEN: Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: Richard Reuben teaches alternative dispute resolution at the University of Missouri-Columbia Law School. He spoke to us from Columbia, Missouri.
Join Ray Suarez and his guests as they examine the social history of divorce in this country. Is part of this nation's so-called "crisis of values" due to the relative accessibility of divorces? What does the removal of the social stigma attached to divorce say about our culture? Guests: Elaine T. May Professor of American Studies University of Minnesota Emily Brown Divorce mediator Arlington, VA Speaker Family and divorce law attorney Detroit, MI Listeners call in
Article in New York Times
At home in Lisbon, a gay couple invited friends over to a birthday celebration, and at the end of the evening shared a surprise — an ultrasound image of their baby, moving around in the belly of a woman in Pennsylvania being paid to carry their child.
Children play outside at a day care center in Norway. Kids play outdoors, and take naps, even when it's extremely cold.
Argentine parents let their kids stay up until all hours; Japanese parents let 7-year-olds ride the subway by themselves; and Danish parents leave their kids sleeping in a stroller on the curb while they go inside to shop or eat.
Some global parenting styles might make American parents cringe, but others sure could use a close study. Vietnamese mothers, for instance, get their kids out of diapers by 9 months.
Read on for a sampling of parenting lessons from around the world:
1. In Norway, kids nap outside even in subzero temperatures
In Norway, childhood is very institutionalized. When a kid turns 1 year old, he or she starts going to Barnehage (Norwegian for "children's garden"), which is basically state-subsidized day care.
Parents pay a few hundred dollars a month and their kids are taken care of from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Toddlers spend a ton of time outside at Barnehage, even in extremely cold temperatures. It's not uncommon to see kids bundled up outside during a Scandinavian winter, taking a nap in their strollers.
Even with the obvious benefits provided by the government in Norway, some parents complain about the lack of creativity in people's approaches to parenting.
One American mother adjusting to raising kids in Norway wrote:
"There's a sense that there's just one right way to do things. And everyone does it that way. In America there are different parenting styles — co-sleeping, attachment parenting, etc. Here there is just one way, more or less: all kids go to bed at 7, all attend the same style of preschool, all wear boots, all eat the same lunch ... that's the Norwegian way."
2. Vietnamese parents potty-train their babies by 9 months
Here's a good one. In Vietnam, mom and dads teach their babies to pee at the sound of a whistle. Kind of like Pavlov with his salivating dogs. Except this is moms and dads with peeing babies. The Chinese do it too, apparently. Parents start by noticing when their baby starts peeing and making a little whistle sound. Soon enough, the baby starts to associate the whistle with peeing and voila!
Think this sounds a little odd? Or a little like someone is conflating a kid with a pet schnauzer? Well, researchers say Vietnamese babies are usually out of diapers by 9 months. What do you think now?
3. Traditionally, Kisii people in Kenya avoid looking their babies in the eye
Kisii, or Gussii, moms in Kenya carry their babies everywhere, but they don't indulge a baby's cooing. Rather, when their babies start babbling, moms avert their eyes.
It's likely to sound harsh to a Western sensibility, but within the context of Kisii culture, it makes more sense. Eye contact is an act bestowed with a lot of power. It's like saying, "You're in charge," which isn't the message parents want to send their kids. Researchers say Kisii kids are less attention-seeking as a result.
Babies in their strollers are parked outside a cafe in Copenhagen, a common sight in Denmark.
4. Danish parents leave their kids on the curb while they go shopping
In Denmark, writes Mei-Ling Hopgood in How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, "children are frequently left outside to get frisk luft, or fresh air — something parents think is essential for health and hearty development — while caregivers dine and shop."
As you might imagine, this idea sends shivers down the spines of many parents in the United States. In New York, a couple (one of whom was Danish) was arrested for leaving their child outside a BBQ restaurant while they went inside to eat.
"I was just in Denmark and that's exactly what they do," Mariom Adler, a New Yorker out walking with her 2-year-old son, told the New York Times. "We would see babies all over unattended. We were stunned, frankly. But Denmark also struck us as exceptionally civilized."
5. In the Polynesian Islands, children take care of children
We're not talking any old big brother baby-sitting little sister here. We're talking organized kid collective.
Hopgood writes in her book that adults take the lead in caring for babies in Polynesia, but as soon as a child can walk, he or she is turned over to the care of other children.
"Preschool-aged children learned to calm babies," she wrote, "and toddlers became self-reliant because they were taught that that was the only way they could hang out with the big kids."
Jane and James Ritchie, a husband-and-wife anthropology team, observed a similar phenomenon over decades in New Zealand and the Polynesian Islands. But they don't think it would fly in the United States.
"Indeed in Western societies, the degree of child caretaking that seems to apply in most of Polynesia would probably be regarded as child neglect and viewed with some horror," they wrote in Growing Up in Polynesia.
A child waits for the subway to arrive in Tokyo. Kids under 10 are often allowed to take the train by themselves. estudiante/Flickr
A child waits for the subway to arrive in Tokyo. Kids under 10 are often allowed to take the train by themselves.
6. Japanese parents let their kids go out by themselves
Parents in Japan allow their kids a lot of independence after a certain age. It isn't uncommon for 7-year-olds and even 4-year-olds to ride the subway by themselves.
Christine Gross-Loh, author of Parenting Without Borders, lives in Japan for part of each year, and when she's there she lets her kids run errands without her, taking the subway and wandering around town as they may. But she wouldn't dare do the same back in the United States.
"If I let them out on their own like that in the U.S., I wouldn't just get strange looks," she told TED. "Somebody would call Child Protective Services."
7. Spanish kids stay up late!
Spanish families are focused on the social and interpersonal aspects of child development, according to Sara Harkness, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut.
The idea of a child going to bed at 6:30 p.m. is totally alien to Spanish parents, Harkness told TED.
"They were horrified at the concept," she said. "Their kids were going to bed at 10 p.m." so they could participate in family life in the evenings. The same is true in Argentina, according to Hopgood.
8. Aka pygmy fathers win the award
For the Aka people in central Africa, the male and female roles are virtually interchangeable. While the women hunt, the men mind the children. And vice versa.
Therein lies the rub, according to professor Barry Hewlett, an American anthropologist. "There's a level of flexibility that's virtually unknown in our society," Hewlett told The Guardian. "Aka fathers will slip into roles usually occupied by mothers without a second thought and without, more importantly, any loss of status — there's no stigma involved in the different jobs."
This flexibility, apparently, extends to men suckling their children. Ever wonder why men have nipples? That's why.
A child eats vegetable soup in Lyon, France. Many French parents expect their kids to eat sophisticated adult dishes at a young age.
A child eats vegetable soup in Lyon, France. Many French parents expect their kids to eat sophisticated adult dishes at a young age.
9. French kids eat everything
Set mealtimes; no snacking whatsoever; the expectation that if you try something enough times, you'll like it. These are among the "food rules" in France that are taken as given. The result is French kids who eat what adults eat, from foie gras to stinky cheese. Tell that to my nephew.
Editor's note on Aug. 26: GlobalPost is one of several news outlets that provide content to NPR.org. While producing this story, GlobalPost neglected to give credit to Cracked.com for its earlier reporting and included a subhead — "Vietnamese moms train their babies to pee on command" — that was identical to a line written by Cracked.com. That subhead has been rewritten.
We've looked a lot at privacy from the Big Brother standpoint: how the National Security Agency or corporate giants like Google track us online, say for political reasons or to make money from ads.
But there's another kind of privacy concern that is a lot more intimate. You could call it Little Brother, though it's really more like husbands and wives, lovers and exes who secretly watch their partners — from a distance. They are cyberstalking — using digital tools that are a lot cheaper than hiring a private detective.
NPR investigated these tools, also known as spyware, and spoke with domestic violence counselors and survivors around the country. We found that cyberstalking is now a standard part of domestic abuse in the U.S.
Digital Detox At The Shelter
Before we get into how spyware works, let's visit a place that's been transformed by it: a domestic violence shelter — a safe house for mostly women and children. It's run by a group called Next Door, and it's somewherein the heart of Silicon Valley. I can't tell you exactly where because its location is a secret. (I had to sign an agreement to be let in.)
While the kids are playing with dominoes in the living room, counselor Rosa Navarro takes the newest arrival —a woman who has a little boy — into a quiet office for intake.
And that intake includes digital detox.
Navarro tells the woman that because most cellphones have a tracking system, "your ex can find you that way." She advises her to shut off her GPS and Wi-Fi, and stay away from Facebook.
The woman nods and says, "I don't have Facebook. I just do texting." She knows to be cautious because, she says, family members who work at the sheriff's office and for the police warned her.
Navarro says most of the people who come here don't already know. They're oozing data — from their phones, their tablets, their social media accounts — data that an abuser can access pretty easily.
Smartphones and GPS have transformed domestic violence shelters across the U.S.
NPR surveyed more than 70 shelters — not just in big coastal cities like New York and San Francisco, but also in smaller towns in the Midwest and the South.
We found a trend: 85 percent of the shelters we surveyed say they're working directly with victims whose abusers tracked them using GPS. Seventy-five percent say they're working with victims whose abusers eavesdropped on their conversation remotely — using hidden mobile apps. And nearly half the shelters we surveyed have a policy against using Facebook on premises, because they are concerned a stalker can pinpoint location.
Counselors in St. Paul, Minn., had to call the police when an abuser banged on the safe house doors; he had tracked down his wife using GPS. In Dallas, a woman inside a group therapy session thought her phone was off, but it turns out it was feeding data to her abuser. In Jamaica Plain, Mass., counselors had to help one victim debug her shoes after finding a GPS tracker embedded in them. A few shelters say abusers gave iPhones to their children as a gift, during the parents' separation, in order to track down the mom.
It's About Power, Not Just Privacy
Cindy Southworth, an advocate with the National Network to End Domestic Violence, runs a project focused on technology in domestic abuse.
"The strategy of offenders is to have complete and utter domination and control of their victims," she says. "And so it's not enough that they just monitor the victim. They will then taunt them or challenge them and say, 'Why were you telling your therapist this? Or why did you tell your sister that? Or why did you go to the mall today when I told you couldn't leave the house?' "
Southworth talks about technology and tracking in a distinct way. In the wake of revelations about snooping by the National Security Agency, many people use the word "privacy" to summarize concerns about surveillance. But for her, it's about power.
Surveillance has long been part of domestic violence. Back in the day, abusive partners would have you followed around or wouldn't let you leave the house. Now, from work or from the bar, they can just watch you on a laptop.
"What we're seeing is that technology is now the new tool to perpetuate that surveillance," she says.
How Spyware Works
Spyware is software you can use to track someone else by turning their smartphone, tablet or computer into a spy. Spyware companies offer their software as a service. Like Netflix, it's a pay-as-you-go subscription. But unlike Netflix, it's clearly enabling illegal activity.
Detective Brian Hill with the sheriff's office in Anoka County, Minn., gives me a crash course on one popular brand called mSpy. It costs about $70 for a month or $200 for a year. "Very cheap, considering what it can do," he says.
MSpy is easy to install. The stalker just needs a few minutes alone with the smartphone of the person being stalked. So when they're in the shower, just say: "Hey, honey, I need to use your phone. Tell me the passcode!"
Then, Hill shows me how it works on a smartphone that he's hacked: "It tells you to go to the settings, go to the security and the screen lock, and then tells you to check the box for unknown sources."
MSpy has a step-by-step guide — with screenshots — on how to download the app onto an iPhone or Android device, how to activate it, and then how to delete any visible trace of it. It'll just hang out in a hidden folder, with a nondescript name like "Android.sys." If someone happened to find it, they'd just see the iconic green Android robot and think it's part of the phone's operating system. The app also uses less data than basic text messaging services like WhatsApp, "so mSpy stays under the radar that way," Hill explains.
Now the stalker can monitor the person being stalked, from the website of the spyware company. Hill goes to his laptop and logs into his mSpy account. There's a really nice dashboard to organize all the information you're grabbing — and it's a lot of information, like contacts, call logs, text messages, call recordings (full recordings of entire conversations), photos, video files, and a log of every website visited by the person being stalked.
There's also a keylogger function, to record everything the victim types into his or her smartphone. Say the victim goes to do some online banking at Wells Fargo or Citibank. The stalker can see the website being visited, and the username and password typed in, gaining full online access to the victim's bank account.
And say the victim starts a new relationship. It's going great until suddenly the new person stops calling. Maybe he lost interest. Or maybe the cyberstalker blocked him: "You figured out who the new boyfriend is, or the new girlfriend, whatever it is," Hill explains. "You could type in their phone number, and then it'll restrict that call from ever coming into the phone. It won't allow it."
MSpy also does location tracking. It has a map — kind of like Apple's Find My iPhone — that shows where the victim's smartphone is right now at 1:37 p.m. and the exact route it took to get from Point A to Point B.
And mSpy has one more powerful feature: the eavesdropping function. When the person being stalked gets an incoming call, that very second, their speakerphone gets activated and starts recording. The victim doesn't have to answer the phone. The ringer could even be on mute, so you don't know it's ringing. But whatever conversation is happening in that room — say the victim is talking with her sister or her counselor — the smartphone feeds it back to the stalker.
Marketing: Watch Your Workers And Kids
Ads for spyware companies are all over the Internet. And obviously they don't market their apps as tools for obsessed lovers.
In online videos, they market spyware as a safety product. For example, an ad for PhoneSheriff says: "You can track your child via GPS, and monitor texts for abuse including sexting and bullying."
The companies, which tout hundreds of thousands of subscribers, describe spyware as a legal way to watch your employees or your kids — with their full knowledge — to make sure no one's out of line.
NPR called and emailed mSpy (which is based in London, according to its website), PhoneSheriff (in Jacksonville, Fla.), MobiStealth (in Beverly, Mass.) and StealthGenie (which didn't list a location). We wanted to know: How many subscribers do you have exactly? Have you ever reported a user to law enforcement for suspicious activity? What steps are you taking to prevent abuse?
MSpy responded that every customer signs an agreement acknowledging it's illegal to secretly spy on someone and the company is not liable. None of the other companies responded to NPR's inquiries.
Cindy Southworth, the advocate against domestic violence, says a lot of victims don't realize that it's so easy to be tracked in so many ways. People just think they're going crazy. Southworth says they're not: "What I frequently tell victims is: If you suspect that your ex knows too much, it's entirely possible that all your devices have been compromised."
She says trust your instincts. Trust your gut.
By Belinda Luscombe
Nearly 1 in 4 people who is experiencing divorce in the U.S. is over 50. Almost 1 in 10 is older than 64. People over the age of 50 are twice as likely to divorce as their forebears were as recently as 1990. And for that age, education doesn’t matter: those with degrees and those without are having the divorce papers drawn up in equal numbers
Some of this can be attributed to the fact that older people are often on their second or third marriages, which traditionally are less stable than first marriages. But a lot aren’t. “More than half of gray divorces are to couples in first marriages,” write Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin in a new paper for a Council on Contemporary Families symposium, adding that even more than half of these late-life breakups were between couples who had been married more than 20 years.
You’d think after two decades of living in close quarters, people would have ironed out their differences. And you could well be right, but that doesn’t mean they’re happy. “Many of these marriages have not been marked by severe discord,” says the study Gray Divorce: A Growing Risk Regardless of Class or Education, which went online on Oct 8. Instead, it seems like empty-nesters, having finished that joint project known as raising the kids, now find they don’t have so much in common. And since divorce can be free (at least theoretically) of finger-pointing and blame — no-fault divorce is now available in every state — they go their separate ways once the children are grown.
Brown doesn’t think there’s a direct link between no-fault divorce and the uptick in elderly divorces, but rather that they are both part of the same reshaping of marriage that has been under way for several decades. “Marriage is now more individualized,” she says. “For couples who aren’t happy, divorce is an acceptable solution. Neither partner has to be ‘at fault’ — instead, the couple could have simply grown apart.”
The other new realities that make splitting up an increasingly attractive option for the AARP crowd are the fact that women are more financially independent and don’t need to stay with a spouse who really gets on their nerves, nor do their spouses need to stay with them, and the increasing length of time people are living after they stop being in paid employment. “They might spend another 15 to 20 years together beyond retirement, which is a long time if you don’t love someone anymore,” says Brown. Add to that the low stigma attached to divorce and the high level of thrill people expect their marriages to provide (plus let’s throw in, say, the way their spouse crunches on grapes), and it just seems easier to cut bait.
But while gray divorce is not bad for children in the way an earlier divorce can be, it still has a significant cost. Older divorced people tend to have only a fifth of the wealth that older married couples or even older widowed folk have. “The net wealth of those who were widowed after age 50 is more than twice as high as the net wealth of gray divorceds,” says the study. “And … on average, gray divorceds can count on less than $14,000 per year from Social Security.”
Brown is worried about this trend on more than just economic grounds, however. “I think there is good reason for serious concern,” she says. “A growing share of older adults is on the brink of old age alone.” These are the years, after all, when the vows about sickness and health really get tested. “Traditionally, spouses have been the first line of defense in caring for frail elders. But now, an increasing share of older adults don’t have a spouse who can care for them.” Asks Brown: “Who will step in and provide this care?”