Of all the talks I have given in my life, the keynote at Smart Marriages on “What is it with Men and Commitment, Anyway?” was the most important to me. In the week before that talk, I had many
lines of thinking and theory fall into place about men vs. women and issues related to commitment.
It was a great week for me.
One of the problems with empirical papers in data driven journals is that they
don’t afford much room for exploration of theory, and are instead
(to be) narrowly focused on the finding and data presented, with only some latitude for
extension to theory. In a talk of the sort I gave at Smart Marriages, one has far more
latitude to think and explore the edges. In this case, the edges were well set by various
important findings, but I had room around these edges to allow for
speculation and thought about men, women and marriage in our modern day context.
The talk represents theoretical streams, provocative points about
differences between men and women regarding commitment,
and hypotheses that we have continued to develop and refine in various
research projects at the University of Denver (“we” being me, Galena Kline,
Sarah Whitton, and Howard Markman).
So, two years later, I have finally taken the transcript of that talk, the power point
containing my originally intended message (of course, it being more complete than the
actual talk) and developed a full and updated paper based on the ideas presentated
that year at Smart Marriages. I have just finished getting this into a form that
you can distribute to any who might be interested. I hope it is helpful to members of the coalition.
Scott Stanley, PhD
What is it with Men and Commitment, Anyway?
Scott M. Stanley, PhD
University of Denver
Citation: Stanley, S. M. (2002, July). What is it with Men and Commitment, Anyway?
Keynote address to the 6th Annual Smart Marriages Conference. Washington D. C.
This paper was given as a keynote address to the 2002 Annual Smart Marriages
Conference in Washington D. C. The referencing has been updated as of
November, 2004 to reflect works that were in press or under review that have been
published since the time of the address. The paper reflects the structure of my
thought and comments in the address, though, as a paper, it has the luxury of
greater detail on a number of key points compared to the address. The flow
is also slightly different from the address so as to improve readability of the
paper. The recorded talk (#752-P6) is available on audio or video through Playback Now at
800-241-785 or at http://www.playbacknow.com/cmfce. The footnotes in
this paper contain references to findings in research that are consistent with,
or further bolster, the points being made but that were not available to me at
the time of the address or that I thought would be useful to the reader.
Support: Preparation of this presentation and paper was supported in party
by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health: Division of Services
and Intervention Research, Adult and Geriatric Treatment and Prevention
Branch, Grant 5-RO1-MH35525-12, "The Long-term Effects of Premarital
Intervention” (awarded to Howard Markman and Scott Stanley).
What is it with Men and Commitment, Anyway?
Scott M. Stanley
Before looking at the question of how men may differ from women with
regard to commitment, I want to address the general question, “does
commitment still matter?” Let us begin by looking at some of the findings
that were just released from the Oklahoma Baseline Survey (Johnson et al.,
2002). In this phone survey of 2300 Oklahoma residents, those who had
been divorced were asked about the things that led to divorce. They were
given a list of ten things and asked whether each was a major contributor
to their divorces (see Table 1). Commitment was the mostly highly
endorsed item. In fact, 85% said that “lack of commitment” was the major
reason for divorce. I would not have predicted that it would be so highly
rated in this day and age, much less the highest rated reason for divorce
among the options presented.
Another finding coming from this survey just released from Oklahoma
supports the importance of commitment in marriage. A question was
asked of the currently married respondents: "Have you ever seriously
thought your marriage was in trouble?” Thirty-four percent said “yes.”
Those who said “yes,” were asked, “Are you glad you are still together?”
Ninety-two percent said that they were glad they were still together.
A recent finding from the large-scale National Survey of Families and
Households (NSFH) is consistent with this point from the Oklahoma
survey. As part of a report entitled, Does Divorce Make People Happy,
a team headed by Linda Waite examined longitudinal data from the NSFH
(Waite et al., 2002). Among the findings, of those who were very
unhappy in their marriages at one time point, two-thirds of those who
stayed together were happy 5 years later.
These simple findings suggest that there is something wrong with the
belief that many Americans seem to have: Once a marriage is down,
it’s done. My impression is that Americans generally believe that
marriages don’t recover and that the choice is black and white: either
hang on in stable misery (perhaps some people’s definition of commitment)
or get out. The fact is, some marriages are, indeed, like that. For any
number of reasons, they will not improve. However, there are also
couples who hang in there and bounce back from difficult times. They
endure, persevere, and continue to put one foot in front of the other.
In the end, many get to a very different place in life.
So, at least for some couples, the perseverance that comes with commitment
produces important, positive outcomes. This is also true more broadly,
with couples generally doing best if they have a clear sense of future
together (Amato & DeBoer, 2001; Amato & Rogers, 1999; Waite &
Joyner, 2001). These data I briefly present, along with a great deal of
evidence in various studies not presented, suggest that commitment
certainly does matter in marriage (and divorce). Certainly, the average
person thinks that it matters a great deal.
Before I continue with other points, I want to highlight that nothing in
this talk should be construed to mean that I am arguing that people
should remain in highly destructive relationships no matter what else.
When there is danger of serious harm, safety should be the overarching
What is Commitment?
How do couples experience commitment? Our theory suggests there
are two components to commitment: personal dedication and constraint
(Stanley & Markman, 1992). Personal dedication speaks to how
intrinsically committed partners are to one another whereas constraints are the things that might keep couples together when partners would rather leave. Constraints are the things that accumulate as relationships grow and make it hard to break up, such as financial considerations, responsibilities for children, social pressure, and a lack of foreseeable alternatives. Despite the connotation, constraints can have a positive function in the lives of couples because they can help prevent one or both partners from making drastic decisions that unravel investment during periods of intense unhappiness. However, constraints don’t lead to great, happy marriages. They mostly put the brakes on impulsive, destabilizing behaviors at critical times for many couples. Of course, when someone is really unhappy for a long time in a marriage, constraints can lead a sense of feeling trapped.
Personal dedication, on the other hand, refers to interpersonal and more intrinsic commitment processes, particularly in commitment to the partner and the relationship. It has four important components: a desire for a future together, a sense of “us” or “we” (or as being part of a team), a high sense of priority for the relationship, and more satisfaction with sacrificing for the other.
There are two fundamentals that underline all of what commitment is about for couples. First, developing and maintaining a long-term view is crucial for marital success. Fundamentally, what commitment brings to a marriage is a long-term perspective that allows partners to weather the inevitable ups and downs in marital satisfaction. Second, commitment means making a choice to give up choices. Giving up choices is not a prized notion in American culture. We want to hang on to everything. In fact, we’re generally reinforced to believe that we should hang on to everything and keep all of our options open. Of course, at times, this presents a serious problem for individuals because one cannot have certain things in life by hanging onto everything in life. It is like the proverbial monkey with his hand in the jar who is trying to hold on to so much that he can’t get his fist out. We end up with much less in life when we try to hang on to everything rather then being more devoted and dedicated to a particular path or partner. So, while commitment remains crucial in so many ways to relationship and marital success, there are fundamentals to commitment that are at odds with much in American culture at this point, especially in regard to holding longer term views and making clear decisions to be committed.
Why Commitment Develops
So why would somebody give up any choices in life? What is it about commitment that would make the whole idea of giving up anything worthwhile? Figure 1 presents a model for how commitment develops. The reason commitment develops answers the question as to why one would ever make a choice to give up other choices in the first place.
First, attraction develops based on partners’ similarities and differences. There is a great deal of mystery, thankfully, in the roots of attraction, but let’s assume for the moment that the attraction has developed between two people. Because of this, they spend more time together. As the relationship progress, the ongoing satisfaction between partners results in a growing emotional attachment. However, along with the attachment comes a type of anxiety. I believe this is a nearly universal phenomenon.
Why do we get anxious? We get anxious because we start to think about and feel the potential for loss of something valuable (Stanley, Lobitz, & Dickson, 1999): “I like you, I like spending time with you, I enjoy being with you. What if you’re not going to stay with me? What if you’re not going to remain in my life?”
While I think this attachment process is entirely normal; I also believe that people will vary in how they experience it based on their own attachment history in their family of origin or in prior, romantic relationships.
It is important to recognize that the development of attachment is not the same as the development of commitment, nor is attachment the same as commitment. Strong attachments between partners often lead to commitment, but this is not automatic. It is the formation of commitment—a clear series of decisions about choices and the future—that brings security to a relationship, thereby settling any anxieties about attachment. Attachment often pushes one to desire security but commitment brings evidence that one can actually trust that security exists.
This simple model portrays what may be the most important role that commitment plays in relationship success and failure. Accordingly, marriage represents the highest expression of security between romantic partners. Therefore, a clearly understood, expressed, and regularly acted out I do is going to be the strongest foundation for relationship quality and security. Of course marriages are not always permanent. But, generally speaking, two partners derive a sense of permanence and a future when they look each other in the eyes and say I do and—by implication—I will. Couples clearly expressing and acting on such commitment will have an easier time in large measure because the long term perspective is in place to begin with, and that is crucial to help them. weather the ups and downs that are inevitable in life together. Conflicts, set backs, and challenges that could otherwise threaten a relationship will be managed better because of the secure bond.
American’s views of how commitment in relationships develops appear to be changing. In a report entitled Hooking Up, Hanging Out and Hoping for Mr. Right, Norval Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt examined the dating experiences of women on college campuses, focusing on how they are thinking about their relationships and how relationships form (Glenn & Marquardt, 2001). One fact gleaned by observing the current dating scene among college students is that there are relatively few standards and structures for relationship development compared to past eras. Personally, I have been struck by how much has changes in recent decades.
It used to be that there were relatively clear steps in relationship formation for a great number of people. While I am sure customs have always varied by region and cultural background, relationships progressed along pathways marked by stages of commitment. For many, dating moved toward “going steady” which may have moved to a woman being “pinned” or wearing her beau’s class ring, and so forth. These actions represent emblems of commitment, with such patterns being ways young people practiced making commitments. It seems that such steps of practicing commitment are no longer existent for many younger people in America. In talking to experts in this field, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not at all clear that anything else has replaced these patterns that have largely disappeared. In contrast, there is a general practicing of not committing, or not committing in any particularly tangible ways. I’m not suggesting—not at all—that young people should become, using Norval Glenn’s (2002) concept, prematurely entangled and thereby close out alternative options too early in a relationship. Yet, I am suggesting that some important symbols of commitment have been lost in recent years and I think the loss is meaningful.
Such a shift in basic relationship development behaviors is clear in Glenn and Marquardt’s report. It is also very clear in Popenoe and Whitehead’s (2002) findings that such emblems of commitment are no longer made in young adulthood. Rather, relationships and boundaries and futures are ambiguous as couples develop toward the possibility of marriage. Hence, with regard to the developmental model presented earlier, attachments without commitments have become widespread. This change, I believe, has consequences.
Where We Find Few Differences Between Men and Women in Commitment
Before exploring the ways in which I believe commitment works differently for men and women, I want to look at a few ways in which men and women are quite similar with regard to commitment. In a nationwide, random digit dialing phone survey that we conducted in 1995, we found that married men are, on average, just as dedicated as married women to their spouses (if not more so) (Stanley & Markman, 1997; Stanley, Markman, & Whitton, 2002). Similar findings were also found in the large survey we conducted in Oklahoma. Additionally, in the Oklahoma study, there were no meaningful differences between men and women in terms of how trapped they felt in their marriages (Johnson et al., 2002).
Being equally dedicated to marriage does not mean that people derive equal benefits from the dedication of their partners. The benefits of commitment in marriage may be somewhat different between men and women. On balance, it appears that men and women both benefit from marriage, though men may benefit somewhat more; and women clearly are more likely to suffer the most when marriages fail or are of chronic low quality (Waite & Gallagher, 2000). I will come back to this point about benefits of marriage.
In the same national poll noted above, cohabiting individuals were, on average, less dedicated to their partners than their married counterparts, even when controlling for length of relationship in years (Stanley, Whitton, & Markman, 2004). Hence, it is not merely institutional commitment that matters in our culture (i.e., whether you are married or not). Commitment to the institution of marriage does tend to differ between marrieds and cohabiters (Nock, 1995). More importantly, institutional commitment appears to be linked with interpersonal commitment (dedication) to the partner. Thus, some people may under-interpret the meaning of their partner’s reluctance (male or female) to move toward marriage in the future. Resistance of marriage may, quite often, mean uncertainty about the relationship, not merely uncertainty about marriage per se.
Differences Between the Sexes in Views of Marriage and Commitment
With this background on commitment in mind, I want to explore a theory about one of the major ways commitment is different between women and men related to marriage: Although married men and women may be equally committed (dedicated) on average, men see the line between marriage and not marriage differently than women do. Below, I review the research and thinking that led me to this theoretical statement. This is, to be clear, a theory requiring more thought and testing in the years to come; but it is a theory that explains a great deal of what people often see in the behavior of men compared to women.
The Desire for Marriage
Let us look at some simple findings that suggest a difference between men and women in the view of marriage. First, various findings suggest that men, compared to women, see marriage as more desirable or important. In a 1998 poll, 39% of unmarried men reported that they would prefer to be married, whereas 29% percent of unmarried women reported that they would prefer to be married. In a 1994 with a similar question, but different wording, 59% percent of unmarried men said they want to get married, whereas 48 percent of women said they did.
There is some evidence of a difference in men’s and women’s views of marriage having opened up on the past few decades in the Monitoring the Future surveys conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan. Over the past few decades, roughly 38% of male high school seniors agree or mostly agree that people who marry have happier lives than those who remain single or cohabit (see Figure 2). While the percentage has remained unchanged for males during this period, between 1976 and 2000, the percentage of female high school seniors who think that marriage matters in this same way fell from 37.8% to 28.5%. This is an amazing gap opening up between young men and young women, with women increasingly coming to think, at least in high school, that marriage really does not matter. Of course, these data also make it clear that the majority of both young men and women believe similarly, but I think the change in female beliefs is particularly disturbing. It is almost as if we have finally succeeded in talking young women into thinking that marriage does not really have a great bearing on their prospects in life—this at the same time, as I will mention later, it is becoming clearer that marriage may make a particularly important difference in how men treat women.
Broadly speaking, all of these data show a 10-point difference in the percentage of males and females regarding beliefs about the value or desirability of marriage. This is a curious thing. The popular conception is that men are commitment phobic, especially about marriage, and women are the ones eager to move relationships toward that committed state. But these data suggest that men, maybe more than women, would be the ones pursuing marriage because they may actually see it as a more desirable or important step. What could explain this disconnect between the popular perceptions of men and the sentiments that men express? As I mentioned above, I think an understanding of how men vs. women see crossing the line between marriage and not marriage may explain a great deal.
To build the case for this theory that there are important differences in views about “the line,” I will present findings from four sources, but I would point out that there are many other ways these arguments could be supported. What is presented here are merely the steps on the path I took, and they are in the order I find most logically compelling for this presentation, not at all in the order that I encountered them: 1) qualitative, focus group research by Whitehead and Popenoe presented this year, and at this conference; 2) findings and thought from the work of sociologist Steve Nock; 3) findings from work in our lab on sacrifice and commitment; and 4) findings from our research on cohabitation prior to marriage.
Why Men Won’t Commit
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe just issued their State of Our Unions Report from the National Marriage Project at Rutgers (2002). This report contains an analysis of data gathered in focus groups led by Whitehead and Popenoe that explored the beliefs of men in their 20s about marriage and commitment. Barbara and David would be the first to acknowledge that such research lacks representativeness and sophisticated statistical procedures, but it is nevertheless a method of great value for the generation of further thought, theory, and hypotheses. Some things cannot be initially well understood in highly controlled research. I have scarcely had more enjoyment reading any document in our field. It’s a fascinating report.
Whitehead and Popenoe derived important insights about how men view marriage, their female partners, and the process of growing up. Here are the highlights in my reading of what they found. First and foremost, men report that they can enjoy many of the same benefits by cohabiting rather then marrying. Further, they report few social pressures to marry; not from family, not from friends, and not from the families of the women they live with. They also associate marriage, not cohabitation, with the possibility of financial loss. Another fear expressed is that, in marriage, a woman will want to have children sooner. Across a spectrum of possible changes, they are essentially saying they are not ready and that they would like to put such changes off as long as they possibly can—for example, until their late 20s. Essentially, they report that they are not ready for all the responsibility implied by marriage. To them, cohabitation without marriage provides all the desirable benefits of companionship without the potential risks of marriage.
Whitehead and Popenoe suggest that “men see marriage as a final step in a prolonged process of growing up.”
There were two elements of their report that I found particularly intriguing; one disturbing and one semi-humorous. First, Whitehead and Popenoe suggest that many young adults today are seeking soul mates. Ninety-four percent (94%) of younger adults actually express this as the most important feature of what or who they are looking for in a mate (Popenoe & Whitehead 2001). Part of what they implied in that sentiment is that a soul mate is someone who will take them as they are and not try to change them. Disturbingly, some significant number of men essentially reported that part of why they were resisting commitment in marriage was that they were not sure their female cohabitant was their soul mate.
Until they find a soul mate, however, they are willing to wait. They don’t want to "settle" for second best in their choice of a marriage partner, though they don’t have the same standards for a choice of a live-in girlfriend. (p. 12, Whitehead & Popenoe, 2002)
Put in my own rough language, some of these men were reporting this sentiment: “I’m happy here for the time being, sleeping with my partner and letting her care for me in various ways, but I am not sure she’s really ‘the one’ for me, and I’m biding my time here while I keep looking around or until I decide that she is the one.” I wondered as I read their report how many women know that their partners may still be “on the market?” How many think they are on a trajectory toward marriage when they are actually in a stationary, low earth orbit? Surely there are many women who are equally uncertain about a future with a particular man, and, therefore, prefer aspects of cohabitation to marriage for the time being. Yet, I have a hunch many of these women think that their male partners are more locked into a future with them than might actually be the case. That is sobering and sad to me.
On a lighter note, I found it amusing that the men were essentially saying that, when they are married, their wives will be allowed to tell them what to do in a way that is not part of the cohabiting compact. There is some clear sense that marriage requires a greater level of mutual dedication and responsibility—as if they are thinking, “When we’re really teammates in life, you will have earned the right to tell me when there is something wrong with my play. But, not until we cross that line and are clearly on the same team.”
Teammates can ask things of one another, but not until one crosses the line and signs with the team. I found this amusing because I was reflecting on this simple finding in light of the evidence of health benefits for men in marriage (Waite & Gallagher, 2000). Most all scholars assume, rightly so I believe, that a major reasons for these benefits for men is that their wives tell them what to do in very important ways: “Why don’t you stop with the beer, that’s your third tonight.” “You need to go to the doctor and get that looked into. I want you to go this week.” “You have been working every night, running yourself ragged. You need to cut back.” “You need more sleep; how are you going to get it?”
I’m pretty sure that one major reason that men live approximately 8 years longer if they are married (and are otherwise healthier in various ways) is that their wives tell them what to do and they do some of what their wives tell them. So, younger men are likely seeing something as a drawback in marriage that may be the major reason why they will live longer if they become (and remain) married.
All of this is consistent, of course, with my theory expressed above that men see the line between marriage and not marriage in ways that are, perhaps, quite different from women; that men see this line in particularly clear terms. Women see the line, too, of course, but men seem to think that marriage will change them, and that being a husband is very different from being a boyfriend or live in partner. They clearly believe that a greater level of responsibility is required in the role of husband than in the role of boyfriend, whereas I really do not think that women have this same sense that they (women) are going to change dramatically when they cross the marriage line. Marriage seems to have a big effect on how men think about themselves, what they do, what a woman can ask of them, and what they’re willing to give. This may be the very reason why men are widely seen as resisting crossing the line between marriage and not marriage, especially in comparison to women. They believe that crossing the line has many implications for how they have to behave and what they need to give to their female partners. There are surely many exceptions, but I think, on average, it’s different for women.
What Happens When Men Cross the Line Deliberately?
Sociologist Steven Nock has been, for years, building the case that marriage changes men, amassing both conceptual and empirical arguments that show this is the case. In his book, Marriage in Men’s Lives (1998), he discusses how men’s belief systems about themselves and their wives seem to change when they cross the line. His argument rests on several points, with the major one being the powerful social role of “husband” that is associated with the institutional of marriage. These institutional forces have, historically, been quite potent and generally constructive—though there have been less constructive elements, as well, which Nock handles well in his book as he contemplates the nature of marriage in our modern culture. Nock shows how men begin to see themselves as fathers, providers, and protectors in marriage. He reports behavior changes, as well. For example, men earn more income when they’re married, work more, and spend less time with friends apart from marriage and family, spending more time with family and community around the family. In many ways, men allocate their time differently when they marry.
Other important changes in men when they “cross the line” have to do with the nature of normal, healthy sacrifices that are required in a good marriage over time. Recent work by Sarah Whitton, me, and Howard Markman at the University of Denver indicates the importance of sacrifice in relationships (Whitton, Stanley, & Markman, 2002). We theorized that people should be most willing to sacrifice for their partners when they have a long term view and they have a sense of “us” or “we” or team. In this research, sacrifice was defined as an act of foregoing immediate self-interest in order to promote the well being of a partner or the relationship. We found that sacrifice was seen as less detrimental to the self when males reported high levels of couple identity and when males and females reported having a long term view for the relationship. However, the association between sacrifice and commitment to the future was far stronger for men than women. The findings did not show that women are more or less likely to report sacrificing than men. The difference was more in the degree to which attitudes about sacrificing were tied to commitment to the future. For men to sacrifice for their partners without resenting it, they seem to need to see a clear future together and clear sense of being a team. For men to sacrifice for their partners freely and fully, they may need to be married—to have fully decided that “this woman is my future.” Whatever flips the switch for women is less linked to the level of commitment to the future. I have an idea what that is, and I will come to that shortly.
My main point here is that commitment in marriage changes men. Crossing over the line changes how they see themselves and how they behave. It changes how they view a relationship with a woman and how they are to act in relation to a woman. To be clear, I am not suggesting that marriage makes a dangerous man a safe man. I am saying that, on average, marriage changes the average man in the direction of greater responsibility and sacrifice to a female partner. Consistent with the major point I made in the previous section, this is partly why men resist marriage. They associate marriage with the expectancy of having to grow up. That step across the line will have a powerful impact on their lives. If they can, many men will resist this until quite late into their 20s.
Walking Over the Line vs. Being Dragged Across It
Premarital cohabitation has received much research attention recently. There are some important gender differences beginning to appear in this literature, that relate to commitment, and that shed further light on the themes presented here. This area of research has led me to think that there are some very important dynamics in how marriages form that have implications for men’s and women’s commitment to their partners in marriage. I want to explore some background from this area of research before presenting a hypothesis about men and women and how numerous couples transition to marriage these days.
In our larger survey in Oklahoma and surrounding states, we asked young men and women about their beliefs about cohabitation (Johnson et al., 2002). Of those 18-24 years old, 62% of men and 55% of women thought that living together would improve one’s chances in marriage. While Oklahoma is no doubt different in many ways from other states, I am sure that those high percentages reflect a widely held belief by young adults across the U. S. The belief that cohabitation prior to marriage improves one’s odds for marital success is widely held but it is also seriously flawed. It is a belief based on a theory of discovering compatibility and finding a fit, with the particular hope being that “we’ll live together and we’ll discover whether we’re compatible, whether we’re right for one another.” The problem is that this is a strategy selective for risky relationships with nothing in place to lower risks except the hope of breaking up if the fit is poor. Let me put that in plainer terms and then explain the point in detail: it is becoming clear to Galena Kline, me, and Howard Markman (and many others doing work in this area) that those who are at greater risk may be those most likely to act on this belief; yet the only way this strategy can work is if partners who are poorly matched do, in fact, break up rather than remain together. There simply isn’t another mechanism that most couples avail themselves of to otherwise lower the actual risks a couple may experience.
A theory we have developed, inertia theory , suggests that living together triggers forces that makes it more likely that a couple will get married, even if the fit between the partners was poor to begin with, or they were otherwise at higher risk. What couples may not realize is that ending a cohabiting relationship is more difficult (practically, financially, emotionally, and socially) than ending a dating relationship. In effect, constraint commitment (the source of the inertia) is increased by cohabitation, making continuation of the relationship somewhat more likely than if the identical couple had been merely dating, each retaining full access to separate places to live (Stanley & Markman, 1997). We suspect that this is the glaring fact that unsuspecting young couples do not see when they are acting on the belief that cohabiting can lower their odds of marital failure.
To put the underlying theory here in clear conceptual terms, we think that some cohabiting couples may move into marriage without making a deliberate decision to cross the line together. One of the places where we do see important gender differences in cohabitation research is with regard to commitment levels. In our national sample, selecting respondents who have been married up to 10 years, we found that husbands who lived with their wives before marriage were less interpersonally committed (less dedicated) to their spouses than men who did not live with their partners, even controlling for religiosity (Stanley et al., 2004). This research suggests that premarital cohabitation may be riskier for females than for males because some cohabiting men may not fully commit themselves to their partners in a subsequent marriage. Psychologically, they may not have really crossed the line of commitment to their partners in marriage even though they became legally married. In other words, while they may be married, a higher percentage of couple who cohabit prior to marriage likely did not have two partners who clearly and strongly decided to be married; they moved into marriage more from a process of being carried into it than from a process of making a clear decision. Perhaps one partner, more often the male, was actually coaxed or dragged across the line, so to speak, by the other.
What does all of this mean? I think it means that there are a greater number of marriages than ever before that begin with a “Maybe I do” rather than a clear “I do” at the root of the commitment underlying the marriage (Figure 3). Further, I believe there is evidence in the research on premarital cohabitation that men are much more likely to be the “maybe” factor in marital commitment. Does this matter? I think it does and I can express it best as a hypothesis for future research.
A Hypothesis about Men and Women: Commitment vs. Attachment Based Motivation
Drawing on those findings, I have come to a hypothesis that I hope to directly test in the years to come. My hypothesis is that attachment triggers committed and sacrificial behavior in women whereas a decision to be committed triggers committed and sacrificial behavior in men. In other words, women begin to give their best to men when they are strongly attached. However, men may be less inclined to give fully of themselves to women unless they have decided that a particular woman is their future. This theory could, therefore, explain these phenomena I have covered here:
• Why men seem to resist marriage more than women, even though there is growing evidence that they see the importance of marriage, in some ways, more than women.
• Why commitment levels for men are very strongly associated with attitudes about sacrificing, but much less so for women.
• Why some, but not all, couples who cohabit prior to marriage are at greater risk, and contain men who score lower than other men on measures of dedication to their mates.
• Why male behavior reflecting responsibility in their lives and toward their wives grows when they marry. Related to this reasoning, I would hypothesize that this change will be found to be greatest and most positive when men make deliberate choices to cross the line, compared to scenarios where they slid across the line or felt compelled to cross it in some way that impairs (or reflects) lower intrinsic, dedication to the partner.
If the overall theory and specific hypotheses expressed here are true, they have important implications. For example, if a female thinks that a male becoming attached to her means that he’s committed, she may be wrong. He may not have crossed the line even if he agrees or suggests that they move in together. In cases where the sense of the future is ambiguous, people may grossly misinterpret what behavior, such as moving in together, means to their partner. While I may take this prediction back in the future (and ingest my words), I believe the tendency is generally for females more than males to over interpret what it means that a male is willing to move in with a female—at least in many parts of our society at this time. Some males are, indeed, very attached and seriously thinking about a future with a particular woman. But others may merely be thinking “this is great for now, until I figure out what I’m doing and who I really want to be with in life.” Such a disconnect puts women at greatly increased risks for adverse outcomes, especially if a child results from the union—which has become increasingly common.
Conclusion (and Paradox)
An ancient Greek philosopher, Zeno, described a paradox that I believe is relevant to the themes presented here. He was a philosopher who focused, in part, on the nature of continuums and discontinuities. He posited numerous paradoxes about these and other subjects. Here is one of his masterpieces. Imagine that you’re in a room and you walk halfway between where you are and the wall. Then you do this again, walking halfway between where you are now and the wall. And again. And again. And again. And, . . ., well, you get the idea. Zeno noted that if you keep going halfway between where you are and the wall, you will never get to the wall.
Now picture the wall as a line. If you keep going halfway between where you are and the line, you will never cross the line. You’ll get right up to the edge of it, you may even get dragged over it, but you’ll never cross the line from a deliberate choice. Half steps and measures don’t result in the full commitment that a deliberate choice confers and confirms. A deliberate choice brings the fullest sense of mutual dedication in life, together, which in turn causes marriages to thrive. There are many couples who, through any number of pathways, make a very clear decision to cross over the line, as partners in life. They have this understanding as a base from which to move into the future. But men who have not yet committed to their female partners will, understandably so, resist crossing the line. They may inch up to it. They may dangle a toe over it. Yet, without the clear, deliberate step over, the commitment is at best, Maybe I do, not the firmly expressed and embraced I do.
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