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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Dating Breakups in the Age of Smart Phones: Effects on Future Commitment

Breaking up is hard to do. But today it may be harder than ever for a young couple to end a dating relationship. The marriage researcher Scott Stanley speculated as much in a recent blog post. Stanley is a University of Denver research professor.

Breakups happen often, of course. Consider this scenario:

A young woman and man begin to date. Soon they are seeing each other two, three or more times a week.

The two communicate during the day via smart phones – texting, emailing and phoning. They post each other’s photos on their Facebook pages. Soon they meet each other’s parents; they visit friends together. Typically, the two are seen together at social events.

Over the course of six months, a year or longer, they begin to wonder, at least in the back of their minds, whether in the not-distant future they will get engaged. But then, for one reason or another, doubts arise. Perhaps they sense they are not ready to commit to marriage. Perhaps one partner appears less than fully invested in their relationship.

In any event, these young people ultimately break up. And this is where Stanley’s blog post enters the picture.

He suspects a couple’s breakup today will be less clear-cut than breakups were in the past. Why? Because in deciding to go their separate ways they may not separate their lives in the more definite way young people once did.

You might say their smart phones and laptops have ways of keeping them linked in cyberspace. Is this a problem? It could be if one (or both) of them now meets someone new, falls in love and, before long, makes plans to marry.

Electronic Links to the Past

“People have to work harder now to cut off connections when a relationship ends,” Stanley said. This requires “decisions and steps to make a breakup more total.”

He observed that “letting things slide” in an era of cyberspace “links” to the past means “letting all the connections continue.”

Writing Aug. 7 in his “Sliding versus Deciding” blog, Stanley expressed concern that “new, serious relationships are going to be harder to sustain while people are busily connected to, and still monitoring, their exes.” He stated:

“Electronic connections have staying power. You might ‘unfriend’ someone on Facebook whom you had been seeing or were seriously involved with in the past, but you may also just not bother to get this done. It takes some effort.”

As Stanley viewed it, the norm or “default” for breakups has changed in this era of digital communication devices. “The default for breaking up used to be fairly rapid disconnection from an ex, along with a relative absence of ongoing access to information” about the person’s life, he said.

Typically, “hard breakups” were the default in the past. But Stanley believes “the default is shifting now toward soft breakups.”

In writing about hard breakups, it was not so much the “emotional pain” of it he had in mind. His point was that “breakups used to be more likely to come with clear and definitive ends. Hard stops. Full stops.”

In acknowledging that “friends are great to have,” Stanley also commented that “a gallery of past loves is a pretty complicated audience for a new stage of life” – a stage that involves plans to marry.

The Commitment Challenge

Commitment was Stanley’s underlying concern in all this – the unique commitment a young man and woman make to each other in deciding to marry.

His research into the importance of commitment in marriage is well known. Speaking to a statewide convocation of Ohio’s priests in November 2009, Stanley stressed that commitment involves making a choice. It means choosing one option over others.

A big problem today, he indicated, is that many couples “slide” into marriage without ever truly “deciding” upon a future together. They drift toward their wedding day without clarifying together what commitment means to each of them.

Marriage preparation programs should accent commitment, Stanley suggested. He feared that often when a man and woman wed, “underneath the words ‘I do’ is a question, ‘Do you?’”

Marital commitment, said Stanley, means “choosing ‘us’ for the future.”

The crucial need to make this choice is what prompted Stanley to address the topic of breakups this summer. “A fundamental aspect of commitment relates to how a person manages attraction to, and connection with, alternative partners,” he wrote.

Stanley explained that “committing to one partner means choosing to give up other partners one could have had.”

The point deserves consideration because today’s communication devices tend to mean we can contact people we know anytime — or at least continue hearing about them. “As is so often the case, technology brings a vast number of options,” Stanley noted. But “this also makes choices more important – and more difficult.”

The “essence of commitment” calls for “making a choice to give up other choices,” Stanley emphasized. He hoped anyone “in a relationship with potential for a real, lasting future” would “consider the advantages of making some hard breakups” with the past.


• Marriage in the News: “What Happens To Commitment When The Going Gets Rough?”

Review of Fighting for Your Marriage (3rd ed.), co-authored by Scott Stanley

• Scott Stanley’s blog: Sliding vs. Deciding

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.