Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Give me a sign: What Signals Commitment?

Correctly “reading” the signs of commitment in a potential long-term partner/mate is crucial. This is most important earlier on, of course, prior to “settling down” with someone, particularly when one partner wants to know if the relationship they are in right now has a future. You can press for this information too soon but you can also wait too long to get the big question, clarified—is this person as into me as I am into them? Can this relationship turn into a commitment? When you don’t get solid information about commitment as things progress, you can miss important signs of asymmetrical commitment. That’s a lousy place to land.

What’s a good signal of commitment? 

By good I mean that the signal is valid. The signal reflects something about commitment; it's not mere noise. Some of the characteristics of good signals of commitment or potential to have commitment with a person are these:

1.  The behavior is actually related to something about commitment. 

For example, I don’t imagine it shocks anyone reading this that a desire of another person to have sex with you doesn’t contain information about commitment. Some people believe it does but I think of that as a type of “relationship reading dyslexia.”    

Ditto if someone says, “I want to make a baby with you” with no other evidence of commitment like, say, marriage. An even worse indicator of commitment is if someone says to you, “I’d like you to have my baby.” Hm. Context matters a lot here. It may sound silly to you but this is, in fact, a relatively common behavior in some teenager groups, where some males say some version of this to females they are interested in, and some females may be flattered and impressed, and, well, don’t be falling for that. Even in these examples, it would be a lot more impressive if someone said, “I want to raise a child with you.” That statement contains a much greater amount of information, especially if it’s accurate. It gets at the essence of commitment, which is about wanting and planning a future together.

Cohabitation is popular, of course, on the dating/seeking/mating scene. However, cohabitation is not a reliable signal of commitment but, as I wrote in another piece, other things are:

If a couple tells you that they are married, you know a lot about their commitment. That does not mean that all is perfect, of course. Likewise, if a couple tells you that they have clear, mutual plans to marry, you can infer there is a lot of commitment. Even apart from marriage, I believe that a couple who says they have a lifetime commitment together is telling you something important about a strong level of intention and commitment. Those things all signal commitment. Cohabitation, per se, very often does not. (As a very complex but important aside, I do think the socioeconomic context of some couples makes marriage nearly impossible economically; for some of these couples, I believe cohabitation can be a marker of a higher level of commitment.)

2.  The behavior is under the control of the one doing it—whatever it is.

For behavior to have meaning about commitment, it must be behavior that the person has control over performing. For example, a shotgun wedding has less information in it about the commitment level of the participants than other weddings because the choice is already constrained.

Similarly, as I described in a prior post, “I love you” contains less information about commitment if it’s in the context of a hormonal rush of chemicals—when the chemistry is driving the bus. Chemistry is fun but it’s not a great bus driver, and some relationships are windy mountain roads without guardrails.   

Signals contain more information when a person has options. When you have more options to choose among, what you pick tells me more about who you are. When a person has diminished options, what he or she chooses contains less information about true preferences.

Think about buying toilet paper in 7-11. I’m not even sure they have it, but let’s suppose they do. It will be one brand, and in one roll quantities, and it will likely cost you 4 bucks a roll.  7-11 is a great chain of stores but they excel at convenience not low price or variety (except for pop and candy bars and such. They are my “go to” supplier of Junior Mints.). What does this mean? If you badly need a roll of toilet paper (not so badly that you are just heading for a restroom, if they have a public one), you’ll take what they have and forego your desire to get the Charmin Ultra Soft you might normally prefer. You’ll take the individually wrapped roll of Scott’s. (Which, at the risk of over-sharing, is a great brand and my favorite.)

How does this apply to dating and mating? Anything that constrains your options, or your partner’s, limits the information contained in the choices made. That means that some people are routinely misinterpreting the behavior of their partners, and thinking that something may signal commitment when it does not. It also means that some couples who have been together a while with an unclear future, who also have the constraints that come with living together, will have difficulty accurately reading the commitment in each other about a future, together.

3. Small sacrifices can be good signals of commitment.

By sacrifice, I don’t really mean some extraordinary feat of self-sacrifice of one for the other. Of course that would matter but I really mean small, day-to-day indicators that a person is willing to put their partner or the relationship first. And I mean mutual. A healthy relationship includes two givers who are each give to the other and the relationship in small ways that matter.  

If you are seeing someone and considering a future, ask yourself if you see evidence that they can put aside what they want at times for what is best for you.

There are a number of studies on sacrifice in intimate relationships, and I make no attempt to cover that literature here and now. But scholars have found and argued that some types of sacrificial behavior are reliable indicators of commitment.[i] Here are some examples:

             Your partner will change his or her schedule at times for you.
             Your partner will do fun things that you know he or she does not like as much as you do.
             Your partner shows up early to help you get ready for some big event.
             Your partner stops what he or she is doing to tune into something that’s stressing you.
You get the idea. Of course, it’s just as important to do such things for your partner, but I’m focused here on you being able to read this person’s level of commitment to you.

Bigstock Photos
As an example showing just the opposite—and quite clearly—of sufficient commitment, I vividly recall a little scene of a young couple in an airport. I was on a layover when I overheard their argument. I wasn’t eavesdropping as much as they were talking loud enough that I could not help but notice. The tension was about her wanting to dress warmer for the flight and him wanting her to stay dressed just as she was. She was in quite short shorts and some type of sleeveless, very light shirt. She didn’t want to be cold on the flight.

I don’t know about you, but I hate those flights where the plane is cold and I don’t have anything with sleeves to put on. Well, she apparently does, too. But he didn’t want her to put more clothes on. I cannot read minds but I could only guess that his motive was that he liked how she looked and he liked how he looked being with her looking that way. I was not impressed by him, and I hoped she would figure out before it was too late what her life with him might look like. Cold.

Sometimes the best signal is the one that clearly shows that something is missing. 

If you are searching for lasting love, challenge yourself to be on the look-out for signals of love and commitment that mean something. For some of you, it would be wise to ask trusted friends or family what they see and what would count for them. Love can sometimes be blind.

[Updated 7-5-17 from a piece first posted May 26th, 2017.]

[i] e.g., Wieselquist, J., Rusbult, C. E., Foster, C. A., & Agnew, C. R. (1999). Commitment, pro-relationship behavior, and trust in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 942-966.; Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., Low, S. M., Clements, M. L., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sacrifice as a predictor of marital outcomes. Family Process, 45, 289-303.

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Little New Data on Reasons People Give for Divorce

Given that I recently wrote both about the average duration of marriages before divorce and also reasons people give for divorce, I thought I'd mention this chunk of new data from Britain.

The data come from a new release by Britain's Office of National Statistics, covered in numerous outlets such as this article in The Daily Express: Divorce rate: Splits in Britain PLUMMET by more than a third since numbers peaked in 2003.

On the subject of reasons people give for divorcing, the article above notes that 37 percent of husbands and 52 percent of wives noted that their spouse had acted unreasonably enough to want to divorce. Obviously, there are a lot of reasons for unreasonableness, such as those I covered in the earlier piece.

Further, as often noted in the U. S. as well, women were the most likely to want to end it, with 62 percent of divorces decress sought by wives.

As for duration of marriages until divorce, the article noted that marriages were lasting an average of 11.9 years. Note that this is an average. My last entry about this subject was more about the most typical year people end marriages, not the average duration of them.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Early Years of Marriage are the Peak Years for Divorce

Have you ever been curious about what years of marriage people are most likely to get divorced? The answer (at least for the U.S.) has long been that the peak years for divorce are in the first five years of marriage. While a lot of divorce happens later in life, I am focusing here on how, for any given year of marriage, divorce is most likely to occur in the early ones. In contrast, the median years until divorce for those divorcing has long been something more like 7 or 8, but that’s a different statistic, representing the fact that of all divorces, about half are likely to occur before 7 or 8 years into marriage and about half are likely to occur after. I have not seen an update on that point for some time but I am also not closely tracking publications on that subject. 

This week, I asked Nick Wolfinger (@NickWolfinger) about recent trends on this long-established finding and he cranked out some analysis using a strong data set for addressing this question (NSFG). While these are not new findings from a recently published paper, they are current and they confirm what has long been understood among researchers. [There may be evidence of peak years for divorcing being a little later into marriage in another large data set but I think Wolfinger's estimates are sound and they are consistent with what I've seen over many years.]

Since many people are curious about this subject, I thought I’d post his tweets. 

Nick followed up his first post on this with a few nuances. I cannot make the charts format quite right when accessing twitter but you’ll get the point.

There you have it. A little update via tweeter posts about how the early years of marriage are the peak years for divorce.  

Monday, May 8, 2017

Good Times and Marital Happiness

by Scott Stanley

Couples can thrive in many ways. As my colleague Howard Markman said long ago, Tolstoy was wrong in the opening lines of Anna Karenina when he wrote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It may be just the opposite; there is the most diversity and mystery on the positive side of how two people connect rather than the negative. Couples who are miserable tend to look pretty similar to other couples who are miserable with either nasty conflict or growing indifference—or both—being their way. There’s not a lot of creativity in all that, but there are an astounding numbers of ways you’ll see couples thriving in happy, healthy marriages.

One of the things that can help keep your marriage strong is to do things together in some of the leisure time you have available. However, how this actually works out depends on if the things you are doing together are things you both like to do together. Some couples have a number of clear, common interests in what they like to do for fun, which makes it pretty easy to decide what to do when you have, or make, the time for it. But not all couples have such common interests, and if you don’t, it will take more thought and care to find what works.

In a study from 2002 that remains one of the best ever on the topic, Duane Crawford and colleagues Renate Houts, Ted Huston, and Laura George described patterns affecting Compatibility, Leisure, and Satisfaction in Marital Relationships. They found that the way leisure time activities impact marital happiness is more complex than you might think it should be. Specifically, they used diary methods to study marital happiness in a sample that they followed for over a decade. They found that the pursuit of leisure activities as a couple was less strongly associated with marital happiness than most people believe.

Crawford and colleagues found something obvious yet nuanced: the benefit in a marriage from spending leisure time together depends on compatibility in interests. Most tellingly, they found that is it no real boost to marital bliss, now or into the future, if a couple routinely engages in leisure activities that mostly only the husband enjoys. In other words, when women are going along to get a long, it’s a lose, lose deal for the marital quality of both partners. These researchers detail some of the reasons why women may be more likely to try to accommodate to their partners’ interests than men. Among the ideas they consider is a point made by Stephanie Coontz suggesting that, too often, husbands may not even be fully aware of their wives lack of interest in some of the things the husbands enjoy doing together because (some) women may be so good at covering up what they really feel about what things the couple do with their leisure time.

Two partners don’t have to have all interests in common to have a great marriage. That would be oppressive and barely possible. However, when a couple mostly does things that are more fun for one partner and not the other, that comes at a cost. Crawford and colleagues also showed that spending a lot of time pursuing individual interests, each partner on their own, can be a sign of problems.

My Advice

Make a list. Couples will do best to find a few things to do for fun and friend time together that they both enjoy. This does not have to be a big list but it’s worth figuring out what’s on it. And communicating about that. Do you really know that your partner shares your fondness for golf? For eating out in sports bars? For lingering in art museums? Figure out the overlapping list and do some of those things regularly.  

Make the time and keep issues off limits during that time. This is, arguably, the most important advice about keeping fun alive in all the books my colleagues and I have written about marriage (for example, this one and that). Most of us are busy and distracted. To do things together, the first priority is to set aside some time for it. That can be a lot or a little, but it needs to be some. Second, and less obvious to many, you need to protect that time from conflict and issues. You can decide not to slide into letting issues and problems (that need solving) to be triggered in time you’ve set aside to be connected. Of course, then you also need to make time to deal with issues as issues, constructively.

Speak up. If you are good faking it (you know what I mean), maybe that’s not doing your marriage any great favors. Sure, each partner should be willing to do some of the things that the other finds enjoyable even if it’s not high on one’s own list. That’s a signof a healthy relationship—not a problem. But if you know that the two of you are rarely doing “fun” things that you find fun, consider speaking up if you are not already doing so.

Focus on enjoying being together. Compatibility in interests is a great strength in a marriage, but even where you are not compatible in your leisure interests, be fully present and work at enjoying that you are doing something together even if the current activity is not your own favorite thing. In light of the findings of Crawford and colleagues, I want to suggest that men, in particular, might need to step it up, here.

Single and Searching? My advice for those looking to make a good match is a common refrain for me. Go slow. Be careful. Know what you want, and look for that. Don’t slide into situations where you increase your odds of settling for a relationship where you share little of the values and interests in life that make it easier to keep a marriage happy. You don’t need to find perfect compatibility. If that’s your goal, good luck with that. But it’s okay and important to look for the type of person with whom you can share a fuller life.

Lastly, I want to suggest that it’s okay if what you do in your leisure time, together or apart, is not the most important part of why your marriage works. Knowing some ways to have fun together is valuable but it’s not the only thing. There are many ways to build a great life together.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

My blog articles dealing with Ambiguity

If you want to read the articles I've written here that deal with the now common and extensive ambiguity in dating and searching, just click here. You will get them all lined up nicely.

Monday, April 17, 2017

They are Watching: Child Wellbeing and Parent Interaction

Our lab has a new paper out on how interaction between parents is related to their children’s emotional wellbeing. The official abstract is here. The lead author is Kayla Knopp. She wrote a very clear lay summary of what is a pretty complex paper, so I asked her if I could post it, here.

Kayla Knopp’s Summary

We found that when couples change their specific interaction behaviors (communication and conflict management skills), their children’s wellbeing also tends to change in corresponding ways. On the other hand, we found no evidence that changes in more general marital satisfaction are linked to changes in children’s wellbeing; our findings suggest that children might respond most to the ways that parents interact with each other.

Breaking this down further, we found that improvements in parents’ communication skills were linked to improvements in their children’s emotional wellbeing (what we and others have called internalizing problems), whereas improvements in both communication and conflict management were linked to improvements in children’s behavioral problems (what we and others have called externalizing problems). That is, children seem to respond emotionally to parents’ communication, overall, but respond behaviorally to parents’ conflict. The overarching conclusion is that parents who improve their interactions with their spouse are likely to see similar improvements in their children’s emotional wellbeing and behavior.

A lot of theories suggest that children may be quite sensitive to the way their parents behave toward one another, and our research provides data that support that idea. The take-home from this study is that if we want to improve children’s wellbeing, teaching their parents how to better communicate and manage conflict is probably a great place to start. Now, we can’t say for sure that these changes in parents’ interactions will cause changes in children’s wellbeing; we did not do the kind of study that can establish a causal link. But what we can say is that our research supports efforts to help parents reduce their conflict and improve their communication.

Scott’s Additional Comments

I want to highlight a couple of points Kayla Knopp makes about our new paper. First, children may not be all that sensitive to how happy their parents are together; they are sensitive to how parents treat each other in ways that can be seen. Second, parents help their children by treating each other with respect—by communicating well and managing conflict constructively. For some couples, this is easier said than done. 

Knopp, K., Rhoades, G. K., Allen, E. S., Parsons, A., Ritchie, L. L., Markman, H. J., & Stanley, S. M. (2017). Within-and between-family associations of marital functioning and child wellbeing. Journal of Marriage and Family, 79(2), 451 – 461. DOI: 10.1111/jomf.12373

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Broken Hearts and Deal Breakers: Reasons People Give for Divorcing

By Scott Stanley

Why do people divorce? What do people say about why they divorced? Those are two different questions, and I am going to focus on the latter—what people say about why.[i] That is a simpler question to answer than the larger and complex question of the various causes of divorce. The five reports I mention rely on a variety of methods and types of samples yet yield similar answers across different samples, methods, and eras. 

Sociologists Amato and Previti (2003)[ii] used data from the “Marital Instability Over the Life Course” project (Booth, Amato, & Johnson, 1998). These data are based on a national survey of people in 1980 and 1997. Those who divorced were asked, “What do you think caused the divorce?” The open-ended responses were coded into categories, with the top reasons for divorcing being:
  • Infidelity
  • Incompatibility
  • Drinking or drug use
  • Growing apart
In 2001, a group of family scholars conducted a large, random, statewide phone survey in Oklahoma.[iii] I was part of this team. We interviewed over 2000 people and asked those who had been divorced choose among nine “major” reasons for divorcing, the list being developed by the researchers ahead of time based on our knowledge of the literature. The top three reasons people gave were:
  • A lack of commitment
  • Too much conflict or arguing
  • Infidelity or extramarital affairs
These reasons were followed by “getting married too young,” “little or no helpful premarital preparation,” and “financial problems or economic hardship.” The reports of marrying too young likely overlap with the general category of incompatibility, since this is one of the risks of marrying very young; people often do not know themselves or what they expect and desire in a mate at age 18. Amato and Previti presenting findings in support of this point, finding that incompatibility was more commonly reported as a reason for divorce among those who had married young than those who had married when a little older. 

Infidelity is on both lists covered so far (and on every list coming up). Clearly, that is a sub-category of commitment problems, so commitment is a major theme in both reports I’ve mentioned thus far. For some, infidelity is the main reason their marriage ended and, for others, infidelity is something that happened at the end of years of other problems, such as nasty conflicts, incompatibility, and substance abuse.

I Blame You

Amato and Previti found that many more people blamed their ex for their marriage ending (33%) than blamed themselves (5%). Similarly, in the report from the survey in Oklahoma, we found that most people (73%) believed that they had worked hard enough on their marriage but that their ex-spouse should have worked harder (74%). As in Amato and Previti, we see that most people who have divorced believe their ex was more to blame.

Mostly, people don’t blame themselves for divorcing. This is a good example of the point I made at the outset. There are many complex reasons why marriages fail, including characteristics of the individuals, family history (growing up), poverty, mental health issues, the way the relationship developed (Too fast or too slow? Timing and sequence. All the things I write about here, regularly), communication ability, attachment dynamics, individual misbehavior, and so on. In contrast, the reasons people give for divorcing are pretty straightforward, and while the actual causes can be complex, most people distill it down to failings on their partner’s side of the equation.

Reasons for Divorce and Final Straws

A study from our lab (Scott, Rhoades, Stanley, Allen, and Markman, 2013)[iv] used a multi-year, longitudinal sample of couples marrying who participated in premarital preparation between the years 1995 and 2001 through their religious organizations. After following this sample for many years, the team contacted those who had divorced and interviewed the fifty-two people who responded about their reasons, using the same list used by Johnson and colleagues These data are less representative than other samples here, but what the study lacked in sample size may be made up for by depth of information. Our team asked people not only the major cause of divorce but also about the “final straw.” The top reported reasons for divorce were:
  • Lack of commitment
  • Infidelity
  • Conflict/arguing
Pretty familiar, right? The most common final straws were:
  • Infidelity
  • Domestic violence
  • Substance abuse
Scott and colleagues made an important distinction in that the reasons why a marriage declines, leading to an end, can be different from what finally breaks the back of one continuing. And when it comes to deciding a marriage is over, women are more likely than men to say it’s done (found by Amato & Previti, and many others). In both Amato and Previti’s study, and in the report by Johnson and colleagues, women were more likely than men to report a marriage ending because of abuse. I still recall a talk based by Amato, years ago, where he noted that, on average, many marriages end when women become fed up with men behaving badly. Clearly, plenty of women behave badly also, as many divorced men will attest. Nevertheless, it is a common scenario where one partner (more often the man) exhibits behavior that the other partner (more often the woman) finally decides is more than too much to bear. In his talk, Amato described the same deal breakers listed by Scott and colleagues as final straws. Similarly, Johnson and colleagues (2002) reported top reasons men and women gave for divorcing, and found that the answers were mostly the same except that women were far more likely (44%) than men (8%) to report that domestic violence was a major reason for divorcing.

In 2004, AARP put out a report based on a large, national survey of older adults, aged 40 and up, on reasons for the divorces they experienced in their 40s, 50s, or 60s. The survey appears to be representative and used excellent methods.[v] Cutting to the chase (because time is of the essence when you are older), people reported these top reasons for divorcing:
  • Abuse: verbal, physical, or emotional
  • Differing values and lifestyles
  • Cheating
Runner up was “simply falling out of love/no obvious problems.” So, the older set, who now account for a lot of divorce,[vi] give reasons for divorce similar to other reports covered here.

Hawkins, Willoughby, and Doherty published a study in 2012[vii] that reported reasons for marriages in the only study I cover here that was not retrospective. As part of the extensive work that Bill Doherty, StevenHarris, and colleagues have been doing about the possibility of reconciliations after filing—but before finalizing—divorce, the study by Hawkins and colleagues reports reasons given for divorcing within a sample of 886 individual parents who were in the process of divorcing. These parents were involved in mandated parenting classes as part of the legal system in Hennepin County, Minnesota. They found the two most common reasons for divorcing to be:
  • Growing apart
  • Not being able to talk together
People who were the least likely to entertain putting the brakes on their divorce reported growing apart, differences in tastes, and money problems. In an interesting twist, given the other findings noted here, abuse and infidelity were not reasons for divorcing that were associated with how much interest someone had in potentially reconciling the marriage.

Having My Baby: Or Not

There is a lot of consistency across these studies but might there be other reasons emerging as the deal breakers in the current era? While not a study, Vicki Larson (@OMGchronicles) recently tweeted about the observations of attorneys in a New York Post piece suggesting that conflicts over having children had become one of the biggest reasons for divorce.

Both I (@DecideOrSlide) and Nicholas Wolfinger (@nickwolfinger) tweeted that we did not know of research supporting this point. (Great science proceeds on Twitter. Follow me.) Nevertheless, Larson and I agreed that this is likely to be a growing reason for divorcing. I believe this is likely. First, I think people are more likely than ever before to slide into important relationships—including marriage and parenting—without making clear decisions about a future together. That means there will be a growing number of relationships moving into marriage that are poorly vetted.

Second, incompatibility has often been given as a reason for divorcing, and different family aspirations could easily become a major driver in this category as having children has become less of a default expectation in marriage. Whether or not two spouses were likely to be good parents, or to attempt to be,  most married couples in the past had children. Now, like everything else, whether or not to have children is much less a given and much more a (potential) negotiation (when it’s not a slide). 

It Takes Two to Tango

While no one can anticipate all the changes and circumstances that will impact a marriage in the future, singles interested in marriage do well to make the best choices they can at the start in preparing for a successful marriage (read more, here). And those who are married and happy who want to avoid divorce in the future have ways to strengthen and build on what they have (read more, here.) We all know that it takes two people to make a good marriage last. One person cannot make it happen without the other person also being willing to invest and grow. As mentioned already, it’s easiest after the fact for each individual to believe that their ex failed the dance. But to make a marriage last, it’s going to work best if each spouse is focused on the mantra my colleague Howard Markman and I push: “do your part.”[viii]
I am sure there are other studies bearing on this of reasons for divorce, but it is obvious that there is a convergence in reasons people give for their marriages ending. The individual stories will be varied and complex but the basic themes remain: broken hearts and deal breakers.

[i] This is not intended to be a systematic review. It is a brief review based on the studies I know about.
[ii] Amato, P. R., & Previti, D. (2003). People's reasons for divorcing.  Journal of Family Issues, 24, 602-626.
[iii] Johnson, C. A., Stanley, S. M., Glenn, N. D., Amato, P. A., Nock, S. L., Markman, H. J., & Dion, M. R.  (2002). Marriage in Oklahoma:  2001 baseline statewide surveyon marriage and divorce (S02096 OKDHS).  Oklahoma City, OK: Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
[iv] Scott, S. B., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Allen, E. S., & Markman, H. J. (2013) Reasonsfor divorce and recollections of premarital intervention: Implications for improving relationship education. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 2(2), 131-145.
[v] The work was conducted by Knowledge Networks, which is a sign of typically excellent survey methods.
[vi] Brown, S. L., & Lin, I. (2012). The gray divorce revolution: Rising divorce among middle-aged and older adults, 1990-2010. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences & Social Sciences, 67(6), 731-741.
[vii] Hawkins, Willoughby, & Doherty (2012). Reasons for divorce and openness to marital reconciliation. Journal of Divorce andRemarriage, 53, 453–463.; See also Doherty, W. J., Harris, S. M., & Wickel Didericksen, K. (2016) A typology of attitudes toward proceeding with divorce among parents in thedivorce process. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 57(1), 1-11.
[viii] For example, in our online program for couples at

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Aggression in Twentysomethings’ Cohabiting, Dating, and Marriage Relationships

By Scott M. Stanley and Galena K. Rhoades

A number of studies have shown that cohabiting couples are more likely to experience physical aggression in their relationships than married couples.[i] Here, we look at two studies that shed light on this subject by exploring how aggression in the relationships of individuals (mostly) in their 20s is associated with various commitment dynamics. Wendy Manning, Monica Longmore, and Peggy Giordano’s new study, Cohabitation and intimate partner violence during emerging adulthood: High constraints and low commitment,[ii] shares some themes with an earlier study of ours (Rhoades et al., in 2010): Physical aggression in unmarried relationships: The roles of commitment and constraints.[iii]

In both studies, physical aggression was measured as having some history of behaviors such as pushing, shoving, hitting and beyond.[iv] Using cross-sectional analyses within a later wave of their longitudinal Toledo Adolescent Relationships Study involving 926 individuals aged 22-29, Manning and colleagues found that cohabiting couples were more likely to report aggression (31%) in their relationship than married (23%) or dating couples (18%). These differences held even when controlling for many other variables.[v]

Similarly, in our Relationship Development Study, a national longitudinal sample of 1,278 emerging adults in unmarried relationships (aged 18 to 34), we found that 48 percent of the unmarried adults reported some sort of physical aggression in the history of their relationship. The percentages in our sample are likely higher due to the wider age range and other differences. While the percentages in either study may seem high to you, they are consistent with many other studies of those in these earlier stages of life.[vi]

In our study, we focused on the odds that people who reported aggression in their romantic relationships would break up in the future. We found that those who reported aggression in the prior year were more likely to break up in the next two years (37% did so), compared to those reporting either no aggression (27%) or aggression that occurred more than a year in the past (30%). The latter two groups were not significantly different in the likelihood of remaining together. We also found that those who were living together—compared to dating and not living together—were more likely to report that their relationship experienced physical aggression within the prior year. Among those with aggression, the odds were five times greater that they would remain together over the next two years if they were cohabiting versus dating (even when controlling for a number of other important variables).[vii]

Commitment Dynamics

Hitting is especially common in relationships during earlier stages of life. Even though many break up, it raises the question of why so many of these couples stay together—a subject addressed by the focus on commitment in both papers we describe here.

There are many different published theories of commitment in romantic relationships. The one we like to use the most is that expressed by Stanley and Markman in the early 1990s, which was informed by the theoretical and empirical work of many luminaries across disciplines and decades. Some of the notables include John Thibaut and Harold Kelley, Peter Blau, George Levinger, Michael Johnson, Karen Cook and Richard Emerson, and Caryl Rusbult.[viii]

Stanley and Markman provide for a straightforward way of thinking about why relationships continue or have certain qualities by dividing commitment into the dimensions of dedication and constraint.[ix] Dedication reflects the desire to be with a person in the future, to form an identity as a couple, to sacrifice for and prioritize the relationship. Dedication can lead you to doing the right or best thing for your partner and the relationship, now and into the future. What we call dedication often goes by the simple name of “commitment” in much of the literature where commitment is measured relatively well.[x]  

In contrast to dedication, constraint commitment is comprised of a collection of relatively disparate dimensions that reflect both past investment in the relationship and factors that make it harder to leave—if one wanted to do so. Constraints come in many forms, and they play a complicated role in the maintenance of relationships. Sometimes they reflect investments (that can be lost),[xi] and sometimes they reflect options that are limited or have become more so. In either case, what constraints do, conceptually and empirically, is raise the costs of leaving and reinforce staying, net of dedication.[xii] Constraints are not all that important in a person’s day-to-day relationship experience unless dedication is burned away; when dedication is gone, it is constraint commitment that can keep you where you are at.

Here are two examples. You have more constraint commitment to stay on current path (in any area of life, not just relationships) when you have fewer alternatives to it. One type of alternative relates to your perception of how available other desirable partners would be if your present relationship ended. Another type of constraint is financial. For example, if you’ve invested more—bought more together, combined accounts, etc.—you have more to lose if you break it off. There are many other types of constraints. Some are easily seen as evidence of past dedication and some are built into a person’s life even before meeting the present partner.

Those who follow our work closely will recognize in these themes why we believe that cohabitation matters (especially before commitment to a future is clear and mutual). While it’s become easy to have positive perceptions about the benefits of cohabiting prior to, or instead of, marriage, what people often fail to recognize is that cohabiting also increases constraints to remain together before dedication has become clear or matured[xiii] This is what we refer to as the problem of “inertia.”[xiv]

The Interplay of Dedication and Constraint in Relationships with Aggression

In both studies in focus here, dedication and various dimensions of potential constraint were analyzed. In their study, Manning and colleagues found that dedication was associated with lower odds of being in a relationship with aggression, as did we in our earlier research. There are at least a couple of reasons why this is so. First, people are generally going to be less committed to a relationship with aggression. Second, a body of studies shows that commitment (think of dedication, here) inhibits negative behaviors, including aggression,[xv] which would partly explain why people who are more dedicated to their partners will report less of it.

The two studies we describe here also found that relationships with more aggression tended to have lower dedication and higher constraints. This is pretty much exactly what you would expect. Additionally, Manning and colleagues found that the high-constraint/low-dedication combination was more common for cohabiters than marrieds or daters.

Both studies contain nuances that make the interpretation about cohabitation and commitment complex. For example, while Manning and colleagues found that both dedication and constraint were associated with aggression, as we just noted, they did not find that these commitment dynamics explained why cohabitation was more associated with aggression than marriage or dating.

Further, we found that living together was strongly associated with the likelihood that relationships with a history of aggression would continue, even while taking into account measures of constraint, overall relationship quality, and dedication. Based on the idea of inertia, you might expect that controlling for some aspects of constraint would lower the degree to which cohabitation was associated with aggression; but living together remained associated with aggression and with aggressive relationships continuing.

Selection, Inertia, and Asymmetrical Commitment

Do the increased constraints of cohabiting make it more likely that people in aggressive relationships will remain in those relationships, or is something else in the mix? All of these findings are consistent with the fact that there is a lot of selection for risk in cohabiting relationships that lack a clear, mutual commitment to marriage (or at least, a future). That is, some people are at greater risk than others for virtually every negative relationship outcome you can think of because of factors related to their history, their family, their genetics, or their economics. And people already at greater risk are more likely to cohabit in the ways associated with the most risk (e.g., with a number of partners and/or before there is a serious, mutual commitment to marriage). We believe that cohabitation is a particular problem for some people because it increases the odds that a relationship already select for greater risk will continue—or continue longer than it otherwise would have. We have shown that moving in together increases constraints and also that constraints make it more likely one will remain in a relationship net of dedication.XiV & XV

In total, these studies make a great deal of sense. What may be missing in them, however, is another dimension we think a lot about: asymmetrical commitment.

The two samples for the studies described here included individuals rather than couples. They do not have measures of commitment from bother partners, just the one. We have evidence that cohabitation without (or before) engagement or mutual plans to marry may be—in a way—a magnet for couples where one partner is substantially less dedicated than the other. We recently wrote about asymmetrically committed relationships (here), describing research where commitment levels of both partners are assessed. We have found that asymmetrical commitment is more likely to exist in cohabiting than dating relationships, and, among marrieds, to be more likely to exist when couples lived together prior to engagement or marriage. While some of these relationships epitomize higher constraint and lower dedication, what matters most for this next point is that the levels of dedication are not mutual.

Asymmetrical commitment may turn out to be one ingredient in the way cohabitation and aggression are linked. We have found that asymmetrically committed relationships are more prone to aggression and generally have low relationship quality.[xvi] Many asymmetrically committed relationships contain one partner who is not committed enough to inhibit negative behaviors and another who, while relatively highly committed, will be massively frustrated by a growing awareness of their partner’s lower commitment. That sounds like a recipe for highly destructive conflict.

Being Safe

Many relationships involve aggression, especially in the earlier stages of life examined in these two studies. While it is common and it comes in many forms, aggression in intimate relationships is unsafe and carries the potential for lasting harm. The most dangerous patterns of all involve aggression that leads to injuries and/or ongoing control and intimidation.[xvii] In contrast, what allows individuals to thrive in life and succeed in relationships is emotional and physical safety with the security of mutual commitment.

Whether cohabiting, married, or dating, if you or someone you know is in an unsafe relationship, there are people who are eager to help. The phone number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-7233.

This article first appeared at the blog of the Institute for Family Studies on 1-17-2017.

Scott M. Stanley is a research professor at the University of Denver and a fellow of the Institute for Family Studies (@DecideOrSlide). Galena K. Rhoades is a research associate professor at the University of Denver.

[i] Brown, S. L., & Bulanda, J. (2008). Relationship violence in young adulthood: A comparison of daters, cohabitors, and marrieds. Social Science Research, 37(1), 73-87.
[ii] Manning, W. D., Longmore, M. A., & Giordano, P. C. (2016, early online version). Cohabitation and intimate partner violence during emerging adulthood: High constraints and low commitment. Journal of Family Issues.
[iii] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Kelmer, G., & Markman, H. J. (2010). Physical aggression in unmarried relationships: The roles of commitment and constraints. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 678-687.
[iv] As it typical in many studies that include measurement of aggression, both studies measured physical aggression based on reports of any history of it in respondents’ relationships (being on the receiving end or dishing it out). Manning et al. used a measure asking about both relatively minor (push, shove, hit) and severe aggression (beat up) and Rhoades et al. used a measure asking about both minor aggression as well as physical injuries. In most studies such as those noted here, the type of violence in the relationships will mostly not be what people think about when they think of battering or domestic violence shelters. Instead, it will be what researchers now well understand to be the relatively more common aggression found in the relationships of young adults who have difficulties managing conflict and regulating negative emotions. That does not change the fact that aggression is always dangerous. Detailing the issues and controversies about types of violence is beyond our scope, here.
[v] The difference between marriage and cohabiting moved to p < .10 rather than p < .05 with all the control and other variables, though the size of the effects was essentially unchanged (an indicator that the analysis becomes a little less statistically powerful with so many variables being included).
[vi] Capaldi, D. M., Kim, H. K., and Short, J. W. (2007). Observed initiation and reciprocity of physical aggression in young, at-risk couples. Journal of Family Violence, 22, 101 – 111.; Cui, M., Ueno, K., Gordon, M., & Fincham, F. D. (2013). The continuation of intimate partner violence from adolescence to young adulthood. Journal of Marriage and Family, 75, 300-313.; Rhoades, G. K., and Stanley, S. M. (2014). Before “I Do”: What do premarital experiences have to do with marital quality among today’s youngadults? Charlottesville, VA: National Marriage Project.
[vii] See page 685 in Rhoades et al. (2010): Odds Ratio = 4.92, controlling for relationship quality, children together, children from prior relationships, duration of the relationship, dedication (interpersonal commitment) to partner, and a host of various measures of constraint commitment.
[viii] For more on theories and some history on research on commitment, see Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2, 243-257.
[ix] Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (1992). Assessing commitment in personal relationshipsJournal of Marriage and the Family, 54, 595-608.
[x] For example, not merely coding a couple as more committed because they are married versus not, but using a scale to assess the construct: Johnson, M. P., Caughlin, J. P., & Huston, T. L. (1999).  The tripartite nature of marital commitment: Personal, moral, and structural reasons to stay married. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 61, 160-177.; Rusbult, C. E., & Buunk, B. P.  (1993) Commitment processes in close relationships: An interdependence analysis. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10, 175 204.; Owen, J., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2011). The Revised Commitment Inventory: Psychometrics and use with unmarried couples. Journal of Family Issues, 32(6), 820-841.
[xi] Things that we would generically refer to as constraints are often called investments in other models of commitment, such as the one used most fully and typically in social psychology that was founded by Caryl Rusbult: e.g., Rusbult, C. E. (1980).  Commitment and satisfaction in romantic associations: A test of the investment model.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16, 172-186.
[xii] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2010).  Should I stay or should I go? Predicting dating relationship stability from four aspects of commitment. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(5), 543-550.
[xiii] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2012). The impact of the transition to cohabitation on relationship functioning: Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(3), 348 - 358.
[xiv] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509.
[xv] e.g., Slotter, E. B., Finkel, E. J., DeWall, C. N. Pond, R. S., Lambert, N. M., Bodenhausen, G. V., & Fincham, F. D. (2012). Putting the brakes on aggression toward a romantic partner: The inhibitory influence of relationship commitment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(2), 291-305.
[xvi] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Scott, S. B., Kelmer, G., Markman, H. J., & Fincham, F. D. (2016, early online version).Asymmetrically committed relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
[xvii] As just one citation for this point, see: Johnson, M. P. and Leone, J. M. (2005).  The differential effects of intimate terrorism and situational couple violence: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey.  Journal of Family Issues, 26, 322-349.