Photo: Greg Miller
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?"