“When a man loves a woman, he can’t keep his mind on nothin’ else; he’ll trade the world for the good things he’s found.”
— Percy Sledge
Just before my wedding (Oct. 13!) I wrote that I had learned Tom and I were considered “deciders” not “sliders.”
That according to Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, his research has shown that “often couples who live together report that their cohabiting ‘just happened.’ ” It’s then not uncommon for the same thing to happen with a marriage itself, meaning inertia keeps them in a relationship that had they been living apart, would have ended. They “slide” into marriage, versus overtly “deciding” about it.
Stanley says this is one reason that couples that live together before marriage or engagement are statistically less likely to be happy in marriage than those who did not cohabit ahead of time.
Here’s the “Part Two” I promised in that column.
No surprise, couples that live together before marriage or engagement are more likely to experience what’s called “commitment asymmetry” than those who do not live together before marriage. That means one is a “slider” and the other a “decider.” Usually, Stanley’s research shows, when there is a difference in commitment level between two persons in such a marriage two-thirds of the time it’s the woman who is the “decider” and the fellow who was the “slider.”
Anyway, I’ve long said that girls shouldn’t call boys, to use my mother’s terminology. And I always ended relationships in which I didn’t feel pursued by the fellow. In fact, I think there should be a little asymmetry, at least at the beginning of a relationship. I just wasn’t quite sure why. I do know that if you are at a dinner party with 10 married couples talking about how they met, we love the stories of the fellow having to pursue his love over her objections, sleeping on her doorstep until she gave in and said “yes,” etc. It’s romantic. But if a wife said, “I had to be gum on his shoe until he finally said ‘yes’ ” – we’d cringe.
Now I get it.
“Forget gender for a minute and think about who can become pregnant,” Stanley told me. “The person who can become pregnant is more vulnerable if they ‘misdecode’ the commitment level of their partner.”
Eureka! The person who can bear children is more vulnerable to the other one leaving than vice versa. This isn’t some false social construct. It’s about reality.
Because women bear children, just biologically speaking, they need to be “extra” sure of the commitment level of their partner. (That’s also true for all those single moms out there looking for a man to marry.) That’s why we women instinctually look – or should look – for a man to pursue us at least at the outset. Biologically, we need to be sure of him, and his initial courting of us toward marriage may be one strong signal that that commitment is there. Or, put another way for a little more clarity, if when it comes to marriage we women have to pursue him, threaten him or rely on inertia in a living-together scenario to get him to the altar, we can be darn sure his commitment level isn’t high. And guess what? It’s not very likely to improve over time. As Stanley puts it, “transition is not transformation.”
For women – excuse me, to make this gender neutral, the one in the relationship who can bear children – to settle for such a relationship is apparently uniquely destructive. I would say: hare-brained.
People who are in asymmetrical relationships before marriage are typically more able to end the romance and find a more suitable partner if they are not living together. That’s one important lesson.
The other lesson is: Girls shouldn’t call boys.
Gosh, Mom was smart.
Betsy Hart is the author of “It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting our Kids – And What to do About It.” Reach her through firstname.lastname@example.org.