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For Your Marriage

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

How Committed is the One You Hope to Marry?

How committed to you is the man or woman you’ve been dating and are beginning to think you’d like to marry? More to the point, how do you “decode” this person’s level of commitment?

Scott Stanley believes these questions are vital for men and women who are dating and falling in love, but he cautions them not to attach a “sign of commitment” label to actions that may have little to do with commitment.

“I think it’s important that people have ways to read correctly how committed their partner can be to them,” Stanley told me. Failing to do so could have serious consequences.

Stanley, co‑director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, is widely recognized for his research on marriage and premarital cohabitation. Commitment is a topic he addresses frequently; he did so again Oct. 18 in his “Sliding vs. Deciding” blog.

His blog’s curious name accents a finding of his research, namely that many couples “slide” into big life transitions like premarital cohabitation and even marriage without really “deciding” that they intend to have a future together.

In his recent blog entry, titled “Decoding Commitment: When Harry Met Sally,” he illustrated his point about commitment with a fictional couple. “Sally loves Harry, and Harry loves Sally. That part is easy enough. They are young and in love,” Stanley wrote. However, “as things continue” for them, it becomes clear that “Sally has a pretty critical job to do.”

Why? Because Sally is clear “that she wants a future with Harry,” but “Harry isn’t so sure.” Though “Harry is not actively looking around,” he is unsure “he’s found what he’s looking for — his soul mate.”

Sally must do her job well, Stanley said. Otherwise, she’ll be “at risk of becoming a character in the second edition of the book ‘He’s Just Not That Into You.’” Sally must “decode, over time, how committed Harry can be to her.” Her job “would have been easier 40 years ago,” Stanley commented.

What is “commitment”? What are the signs of it?

A report about to be published by Stanley with two other researchers in the Journal of Family Theory and Review analyzes commitment’s role in “stabilizing romantic attachment.”

In basic terms, commitment can be thought of “as having a sense of ‘us with a future,’” the report states. It says, “A central feature of commitment is the intention to be together in the future.” And it might be said that commitment means “making a choice to give up other choices.”

It appears to me, then, that decoding a person’s commitment level in a romantic relationship means clarifying whether he or she is ready to pursue a future with you. But Stanley’s work suggests that other commitment signs include having “a sense of ‘we,’ of being part of a team”; regarding this relationship as a high priority; and, being willing to make sacrifices for the relationship.

The willingness to sacrifice for the other person is a frequent topic for Stanley. There is a growing belief that the willingness to make sacrifices for the relationship helps to demonstrate commitment, he notes.

Stanley interjects that his notion of sacrifice involves healthy giving, not a willingness to serve as another’s doormat.

Surprisingly, Stanley has found that the willingness to sacrifice is a stronger indicator of commitment in men than in women. Stanley hypothesizes that “for men to sacrifice for their partners without resenting it, they need to have decided that … ‘this woman is my future.’”

Stanley seems particularly interested nowadays in shared decisions couples make, certain types of decisions that may represent signs of commitment unknown 40 years ago. He seems equally concerned that a couple will misinterpret each other’s commitment level.

These concerns reflect his interest in the sliding-without-deciding factor in relationships. He and his fellow researchers have suggested that a man and woman probably cannot “slide” into a shared cell-phone contract or shared gym membership. Steps like these require a decision.

“Since decisions are fundamental to commitments, there is some type of commitment reflected in those small investments,” Stanley’s blog entry said. Various other joint decisions couples make when they are dating – about finances or debt, for example — may help demonstrate that they envision a future together.

On the other hand, Stanley’s research has shown that many couples “slide” into premarital cohabitation without making much of a decision about it or thinking through its meaning. So he would encourage a man and woman not to misread the fact that they are cohabiting as a clear sign of each other’s commitment to a future together.

What may astonish some people is Stanley’s observation that even having a baby together may not reflect a real decision for some and often is not a sign of a couple’s commitment to each other. We live in a “crazy world” where even having a baby together might not contain as “much information about commitment” as having a joint cell-phone contract does, Stanley’s blog proposed.

Ours are not the times of 40 years ago, but couples in a growing relationship need just as much today as in the past to discern the level of their commitment to each other. Stanley urged his blog readers to “chew” on this and to ask themselves:

“What provides information about commitment? What can Sally look for in order to decode Harry’s commitment potential? What made it easier to clarify or decode commitment in growing relationships in the past?”

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.