There's a way to pace a relationship so it lasts. We have the step-by-steps.
Once upon a time, falling in love was a remarkably straightforward process. A young man asked a young woman out. If he wanted to date her exclusively, he asked her to go steady. If he was in college and the steady thing was going well, he gave her his fraternity pin—a symbol, if she chose to wear it, to all the world that they cared very much about each other. Then engagement and marriage. It's not that romance didn't involve moments of heartache and anxiety, but it proceeded along a recognized, accepted, and very clear trajectory that had a powerful momentum toward commitment.
One of the problems with contemporary romance, says psychologist Scott Stanley, PhD, cofounder of the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) and author of The Power of Commitment, is the absence of those instantly recognizable and often public markers of commitment. It's not that he thinks women today should get pinned, exactly, but without the traditional signposts, couples tend to slide into relationships they haven't thought much about and they each value differently. For instance, you're very touched when he invites you to spend the night. He thinks it's just easier than taking you home. Pretty soon your lease is up and since you're at his place most of the time anyway, you give up your apartment. You think you're preengaged. He thinks you two are saving money.
Stanley says he's seen some version of that story countless times during the 25 years he's spent studying relationships. Both men and women can be commitment-phobes, but Stanley believes that contemporary culture makes men especially disinclined to marry. One reason is the soul mate myth. A 2001 study found that 94 percent of young adults expect a soul mate for a life partner. In his experience, women tend to outgrow this fantasy, but a significant number of men say the reason they're not marrying their live-in girlfriend is that they're not sure she's "the one." His research also indicates that men worry that marriage will make women want children sooner and that men associate the institution with a risk of financial loss. So cohabitation gives a man all the benefits of companionship without the risks of marriage.
Stanley admits that each partner in a relationship falls in love at a different pace (the premise, in fact, of every romantic movie ever made). So how can couples know if they're doing that inevitable waltz to marriage or if they're in separate romantic universes? Stanley says that the only way to figure it out is to pose a lot of questions. The partner who doesn't want to become more committed should examine her motives. Is she trying to gather more information about the relationship and her partner? Or is it that she knows this isn't "the one" and she's just afraid to be alone? A woman who wants more commitment needs to ask her partner direct questions: "Do you ever want to get married?" "Am I the kind of person you think you want to marry?" "Why not now?" "When?" Protect Yourself by Asking Questions
The point isn't to analyze a relationship to death but to get an idea of each person's current feelings, intentions, and plans for the future. "If someone says, 'Yes, I want to be married and I can imagine marrying you, but I don't feel I know you well enough right now' or 'I don't feel like we have the skills to be married yet'—those are good answers," says Stanley. "But if he says, 'I don't think I'm the marrying kind' or 'I like you but I can't marry someone who has children/a dog/isn't my religion', she might want to think about protecting herself."
It's a lesson that a woman we'll call Ella Jamison learned the hard way. Jamison, 29, a divinity student in Virginia, met Mark Lewis (not his real name) while visiting friends in Seattle in the summer of 2003. They drove to a concert together. "We liked the same music; we shared a similar faith." And they found each other attractive. A few days later, she had to fly home to Virginia. "Mark wasn't into e-mail, so we wrote letters," she says. "It seemed a very cool way to get to know each other, and it was very romantic"—so romantic that she invited Lewis to come live with her family after he finished his bachelor's degree that May. "We'd talked about commitment before he came." Two months later, Lewis asked permission of Jamison's parents to propose to her. They gave him their blessing and her grandmother's engagement ring. "But at the end of the summer, Mark went back to Seattle without asking me to marry him—and he kept my grandmother's ring."
Clearly, Lewis would be considered a jerk in any epoch, but the romantic cataclysm he and Jamison experienced is especially common in ours, says clinical counselor John Van Epp, PhD, who created the PICK a Partner (Premarital Interpersonal Choices and Knowledge) relationship education program when he saw his single clients repeat the same disastrous mistakes over and over. "They were smart people who were making a lot of progress in therapy," he says, "but when it came to dating, it was as if they had a toolbox full of bad tools."
Van Epp realized that his clients were moving through the stages of romantic love in the wrong order. "A woman would come in and gush that she'd been at a party and met the love of her life, or a man would tell me that he was at a bar and found a woman who completes him," Van Epp says. "What they found were people they were very attracted to but who they don't know at all. That's why I developed the RAM."
The RAM is Van Epp's Relationship Attachment Model, which includes a diagram that looks like a stereo equalizer and shows you how to tune a relationship by moving the levers up in a specific order—Knowing, Trusting, Relying, Committing, then Touching. Tune Your Relationship
"We all have stereotypes and we project them onto people—for instance, policemen are responsible," says Van Epp. "But that's not always true. " Van Epp tells his clients that before they get involved emotionally or physically with a man, they need to look past his surface attributes. Does he practice what he preaches in the world? Is he a caring friend? What's his family like? If his relatives are nuts, does he know they're nuts?
Once you've got answers to some of those questions, you might trust him with a confidence or opinion or special item. (Though at first, it shouldn't be something too important—like a grandmother's ring.) As the Trust lever moves up, the Rely lever can inch up, too. Again, Van Epp counsels gradual steps. "Ask someone to water plants before you ask him to feed the dog. And do that before relying on him to pick up your kids," he says. Once someone's proven dependable, Van Epp says it's time to start upping the Touch lever.
"Obviously, some people have sex very early in relationships—that's a personal decision," says Van Epp. "But the fact is, we're all on our best behavior when we're trying to woo someone. I just advise caution, because sex creates intense feelings of attachment, and real behavior patterns don't start to emerge until after about three months." That's why he recommends the three-month rule instead of the three-date rule. He's not saying you have to wait 90 days before having sex, necessarily—Van Epp isn't entirely out of touch with the 21st-century dating world. But he does think couples should wait about that long before having serious conversations about commitment.
Jamison thinks her big mistake was trusting and relying on Lewis before she really knew him. "Mark and I hadn't even spent two weeks in the same city before I was planning my future around him," she says. While they were corresponding, Jamison became very ill from infectious diseases she'd picked up while doing humanitarian aid in Kyrgyzstan. "I lost a lot of weight. My skin changed color. By the time he came to live with me, I looked terrible—not at all like the woman he met. I guess Mark couldn't handle my illness and new appearance." Not that Lewis ever said he couldn't handle it. He just hung out with friends instead of her.
As Jamison's relationship with Lewis deteriorated, her parents suggested she take Van Epp's PICK Program. The class helped her look at how Lewis might realistically behave in a marriage and to determine that it wasn't the kind of relationship she wanted. After the course, she confronted Lewis about how badly he was treating her. On the phone she asked, "Do you want to stay in this or not?" He didn't, and they ended it. She called, e-mailed, and even consulted a lawyer about getting her grandmother's ring back. Six months after they broke up, his sister finally sent it back to Jamison.
These days Jamison handles that crushy feeling a lot better. "A few months ago, I met a really cute guy at a bar and he seemed so sweet," she says. "I could tell he wanted to hook up. But I thought, Let me get through this hormonal haze and figure out who he is. Turns out he'd been with every woman in that bar. He was a total player." Learning that fact before she got involved with him felt like progress to Jamison. Recently, she met someone she's interested in. She says he seems nice, "but I'm taking it one slow step at a time."