Thursday, November 3, 2016

Asymmetrical Commitment in Unmarried Relationships


by Scott Stanley and Galena Rhoades

With some couples, one partner is substantially more committed than the other. We call these Asymmetrically Committed Relationships (ACRs). No one who is looking for lasting love wants to find themselves in an ACR but we suspect it has become increasingly easy to land in one. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Commitment and Power

Relationship scholars have long been fascinated by the implications of ACRs, though only a handful of studies examine the characteristics of these relationships.[i]

Decades ago, sociologist Peter Blau wrote at length about differential investment in a relationship. Below is a classic quote from his 1964 book.

“If one lover is considerably more involved than the other, his greater commitment invites exploitation or provokes feelings of entrapment, both of which obliterate love.”[ii]

Decades before Blau wrote, Willard Waller coined the relatively well-known “principle of least interest” about power in relationships. This new principle was influenced by writings of sociologist, Edward Ross.[iii] Waller wrote:

‘‘That person is able to dictate the conditions of association whose interest in the continuation of the affair is least.’’[iv]

The principles Waller and Ross wrote about obviously hold for any relationship, whether romantic, family, or business. In the social science literature focused on the nature of commitment, the same themes emerge.[v] The person who is most committed to a relationship continuing has, in some important ways, less power than the one who cares less—especially if that partner could not care less. Blau drew attention to the nature of these relationships by putting them squarely into the framework of commitment, noting how differential commitment can obliterate love, as large differences in power often do.

In a new study entitled Asymmetrically Committed Relationships,[vi] we along with our colleagues examined asymmetrical commitment in the relationships of unmarried, young adults.

Our study

For our study, we used a subsample of 315 couples in our national, longitudinal sample of dating and cohabiting young adults in opposite-sex relationships ages 18 to 34.[vii] This sample allowed us to directly compare partners’ ratings on commitment (how dedicated one is to the future, to being a couple, etc.). We defined ACRs as those in which the partners differed by 1 standard deviation or more; thus, relationships were either ACRs or not, and within ACRs, there is a weak-link and strong-link partner.[viii] This assured that couples we were analyzing as having ACRs had an, arguably, important difference in partner levels of commitment. To get a feel for this, for a couple where the average of the two partners was, well, average, but with one high and one low, this would be like the strong link scoring at the 69th percentile on commitment while the weak link scores at the 31st.    

Our sample is of couples who were generally in established but unmarried relationships who were together an average of just over two years at the start of the longitudinal study. Forty-one percent were living together and 59% were not. There was a mutual commitment to marry in 47% of the relationships. In 24% of the relationships, one or both partners had a child from a prior relationship and 13% had a child together.

What did we find regarding the numbers of asymmetrical relationships?

  • 65% of relationships were mutually committed and 35% were not.
  • Men were much more likely to be the weak link than women (23% vs. 12%).
We have not always found such interesting differences between men and women on commitment in our studies on premarital cohabitation, but when we have found them, the differences always go in the direction reflected in this study; in non-married or premarital relationships, when there is a difference, men are more likely to be the less committed partner than women, by a factor of about 2:1. One finding from our earlier studies seems especially relevant here.[ix] We found that there was no difference in the commitment levels of husbands and wives among couples who either only cohabited after being engaged or who waited until marriage to move in together, but among those who had lived together prior to being engaged, there was a substantial difference in commitment between partners. Husbands in these marriages tended to be less committed than their wives as well as less committed than men or women in relationships where couples had only lived together after marriage or engagement. For these couples, the differences were strong before marriage and remained apparent and large years into marriage.

Before taking in some other findings, let’s reflect. Say you are considering marrying someone but you believe they are less committed to you than you are to them. You may or may not marry this person but, if you do, you do not want to count on a trip to the alter to fix the gap in commitment. As we like to say, transition is not transformation.

In our work on premarital cohabitation, we have tested the prediction that that moving in together before marriage or engagement is riskier than waiting until after that big question about commitment to the future is settled. Our concern has been that people risk getting stuck in relationships they might otherwise have left because cohabitation made it that much harder to break up.[x] We have found support for that prediction in many samples with findings published in multiple journal articles.[xi] Based on the reasoning behind that prediction, we predicted that those who were currently cohabiting would be more likely to be in ACRs because living together would have made it more likely for these relationships to have continued. That is what we found.   
  • Couples who were living together were significantly more likely (42%) to be in ACRs compared to those who were not living together (30%). 
Similarly, we expected that those with plans for marriage would be substantially less likely to be in ACRs.
  • Couples with mutual plans to marry were significantly less likely (25%) to be in ACRs compared to those without mutual plans (45%).
That last finding must seem terribly obvious, but we were interested in it because of our belief that ambiguity about the nature and status of relationships has become such a strong part of how relationships form these days. Having mutual plans for marriage should be consistent with partners having both high and symmetrical commitment. Even so, we found this non-trivial percentage (25%) of relationships that were ACRs despite mutual plans for marriage. You might wonder how that could happen. Much of what we just wrote about cohabiting prior to being married or, at least, prior to having mutual clarity to a future together provides one explanation.  

The relationship dynamics of asymmetrical commitment

We also looked at the relationship quality of ACRs versus non-ACRs. Both weak- and strong-link partners rated their relationships as having lower overall quality and as having higher levels of conflict and higher levels of aggression[xii] compared to those not in ACRs.

We found evidence that weak links’ ratings of poor relationship quality could easily be attributed to the fact of their low commitment, which makes total sense. First, people will be less committed to relationship that have problems. Second, relationships will have more problems when people are less committed. The strong links’ patterns were more surprising. Typically, being highly committed leads to greater inhibition of negative behavior and happier relationships, but not for strong links. They tended to score very high on commitment (higher on average even than those not in ACRs), but they also reported lower relationship quality, more conflict, and more aggression—including aggression toward their partners.

These findings are consistent with what theorists such as Blau had long suggested: it is immensely dissatisfying and frustrating to be the more committed partner in an unequally committed relationship. That’s not a happy place to be. In fact, in a report we wrote a couple of years ago (Before “I Do”), we showed that those who had perceived, prior to marrying, that they were more committed than their partner reported lower marital quality.[xiii] The perception of asymmetrical commitment was among the best predictors of lower marital quality once married.

Break Ups

Not surprisingly, ACRs were more likely than mutually-committed relationships to break up. But, curiously, ACRs in which men were the weak links were just as likely to continue as non-ACRs. In other words, relationships were not likely to end merely because the man was much less committed than the woman. The relationships most likely to end were those in which the woman was the weak link.


This finding was reminiscent of a few earlier studies, including some from decades ago, that examined differential levels of investment, love, or commitment between partners.[xiv] We knew to test for this but we were not sure how strongly to expect this finding, in this day and age. Overall, women’s levels of commitment were vastly more predictive than men’s levels of who stayed together and who did not (five times more predictive). In part, we think this means that there are some men (by no means all or most) who are content to hang out with a woman they are not really serious about until that woman gets fed up.   

Are there more asymmetrically committed relationships than ever before?

We believe that asymmetrically committed relationships are more common now than anytime in the past 50 years. We cannot test or prove this by any data of which we are aware, but we believe this because of the following reasoning:
  1. There has been a steady decline in cultural rituals and defined steps in the development of romantic relationships. Ambiguity reigns.
  2. There is a growing preference for this ambiguity because people fear rejection and fear that commitment is dangerous.
  3. Important relationship transitions, such as moving in together or having a child together, now increasingly happen more from processes characterized by sliding than deciding. Deciding more often will reflect the formation and declaration of commitment.
  4. This environment of mixed or confusing signals makes it easier than before to get deeply involved in—and stuck in—ACRs.
Think of it this way. With fewer cultural scripts and customs forcing commitment to be made clear (whether high or low, mutual or not), more people are finding themselves in long-term, unmarried relationships, sometimes for many years, before they come to realize that their partner is just not that into them. Sliding into moving together or having a child together is often not transformative. The strongest commitments tend to be those that come about from decisions, particularly decisions people make while they still have full freedom to choose.

All this presents a difficult set of circumstances for many young adults. Sure, it’s not usually too wise to ask about your partner’s willingness to build a life with you on a second date (and we hesitate to use the word “date” since even that concept has fallen under the spell of ambiguity.[xv]) But when the inertia for continuing a relationship is growing, it starts to be increasingly risky to avoid steps to determine if you both are on the same page.

A word of advice. If you are searching for lasting love and commitment, do not wait too long to get things clear about if you and your partner want the same future. We cannot say exactly how long you should know someone before pushing for more clarity about commitment; we just know a lot of people are waiting too long. And, as they wait, the less committed partner has strong reasons to avoid having “the talk” (want more on that? here and here).  

It’s painful to be hanging in with someone who is mostly just hanging around.


[i] You can read much more about the literature on this notion in our new paper. See endnote VI below.
[ii] Page 84 in Blau, P. M. (1964). Exchange and power in social life. New York, NY: Wiley.
[iii] Ross, E. A. (1921). Principles of sociology. New York, NY: Century.
[iv] The principle of least interest: see Page 191 in Waller, W. (1938). The family: A dynamic interpretation. New York, NY: Gordon.
[v] For a review, see Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2, 243-257.
[vi] The official posting for the paper by the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships can be found at the link in this article. If you wish to read the paper and are unable to because of the paywall, you can read our final, submitted version of this paper here.
[vii] The parent sample well reflects the demographics and characteristics of young adults in this age range in the U.S. One paper that describes the sample and methods of the parent study is this one: Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2012). The impact of the transition to cohabitation on relationship functioning: Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(3), 348 - 358.
[viii] To our knowledge, the language of “weak links” and “strong links” was first used by Attridge et al.: Attridge, M., Berscheid, E., & Simpson, J. A. (1995). Predicting relationship stability from both partners versus one. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 254-268.
[ix] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J. (2006). Pre-engagement cohabitation and gender asymmetry in marital commitment. Journal of Family Psychology, 20, 553-560.
[x] For the original, main piece on this assertion, see the following article. What we predicted there has been demonstrated now in a variety of empirical studies: Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509. You can read this manuscript in word document form here.
[xi] All findings controlling for variables associated with selection: e.g., Kline, G. H., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., Olmos-Gallo, P. A., St. Peters, M., Whitton, S. W., & Prado, L. (2004). Timing is everything: Pre-engagement cohabitation and increased risk for poor marital outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 18, 311-318.; Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). The pre-engagement cohabitation effect: A replication and extension of previous findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 107-111.; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Amato, P. R., Markman, H. J., & Johnson, C. A. (2010). The timing of cohabitation and engagement: Impact on first and second marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 906-918.
[xii] In survey studies using general samples such as this one, the type of violence in the relationships will mostly not be what people think about when they think of battering, or domestic violence shelters; instead, it will be what researchers now well understand to be the relatively common aggression found in the relationships of young adults who have difficulties managing conflict and regulating negative emotions. This is a complex subject far beyond our purposes here but we wish to make clear what is measured in this type of survey study.
[xiii] This report is also based on a subsample of our national, longitudinal study of sample of unmarried young adults, whom we followed longitudinally for 5 years.
[xiv] For example, Hill, C. T., Rubin, Z., & Peplau, L. A. (1976). Breakups before marriage: The end of 103 affairs. Journal of Social Issues, 32, 147-168.; Sprecher, S., Schmeeckle, M., & Felmlee, D.  (2006). The principle of least interest:  Inequality in emotional involvement in romantic relationships. Journal of Family Issues, 27(9), 1255-1280.
[xv] See various pieces we have written ambiguity in today’s premarital or unmarried relationships: here, here, or here, for example. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Complexity of Oxytocin: The Trust and Cuddle Hormone

As a side light to other things I do, I follow what I can on the latest findings related to how oxytocin works. Those of you follow me know that I've speculated a number of things related to oxytocin and trust and the chemistry of love, here on my blog. (If you are curious, just use the little search box on the upper left of the blog and put in oxytocin; or, just go here and then read that one and the more recent ones using the nav buttons at the bottom of it.)

As enticing as oxytocin is to think about, with all the continual buzz about it as the trust hormone, cuddle hormone, and bonding hormone, there are also a lot of studies that show that it's role in human relationships is quite complex and depends on what researchers call moderators. Moderators are factors that change the way something works. For example, in the literature on happiness, there has long been some evidence (that may be recently getting overturned) that an extra 50k a year in money (just picking that out of the air) would make a much bigger difference in happiness for someone at very low income compared to someone with a lot of income. That makes sense.

When it comes to moderators, oxytocin findings are quite a bit more complex. See my earlier posts noted above about some of the interesting findings, facts, and speculation.

The most recent thing I have read is this tweet from Rolf Degen in which he summarizes findings from a recent study that suggests that oxytocin, in some conditions, reduces rule conformity. That's surprising because other studies that on oxytocin have suggested that it can promote or even induce trust in relationships. But perhaps it also has ways to make one more wary. If you want to read more the study Rolf Degan cites, you can find both the summary and a link within his tweet, here.

One thing ongoing research shows us in so many areas of life is that we should be a little cautious in getting overly attached to one, simple view of how anything works. That's less convenient of course, but more real.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Captured: A picture of parents watching their emerging adult child's life play out in real time


Like so many others, I have been watching Olympic events with great interest.

This piece just appeared on 8-10, and it's a solid examination by the folks at The Science of Us about the pressures on families, especially the parents, of world class athletes.

Check out this story. Mostly, I suggest you just click on this link and drink in the photo of the parents There, they also link to a piece on Buzzeed that has priceless pictures and little videos. The "bobbing and weaving image is particularly choice--and it moves. And weaves. And bobs.

Really, take a look. Sure, read the article at The Science of Us if you want, but I mostly want you to take in the pictures and little videos.

And then just imagine this caption to it all:

A picture of parents watching their emerging adult child's life play out in real time. 

We are all Olympian parents now.


Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Problem with Living Together to Test a Relationship

By Scott M. Stanley and Galena K. Rhoades

A “Majority of Americans Now Believe in Cohabitation.” That’s the headline and conclusion from a national survey conducted by the Barna Group.[i] They surveyed 1097 adults in April 2016, finding that 65 percent of Americans now approve of cohabiting prior to tying the knot, while 35 percent do not.[ii] Given that nearly 70 percent of Americans marrying today will cohabit before getting married,[iii] these findings are not too surprising.  


The Barna Group also found that 84 percent of those who support premarital cohabitation do so because it provides a test of compatibility prior to marrying. That will be our main focus in this piece, but first, here are some other findings from the report:

  • Millennials are more likely (72 percent) to endorse cohabitation prior to marriage than the older generation (36 percent). 
  • Those identifying as liberal are more likely (86 percent) to endorse cohabitation prior to marriage than those identifying as conservative (37 percent). 
  • Those identifying as more religious, particularly those who report being practicing Christians, are the least likely (41 percent) to endorse cohabiting before marriage while those reporting no faith at all are the most likely to embrace the practice (88 percent).

The survey also asked about behavior, finding that 57 percent of those surveyed had cohabited with a partner outside of marriage at some point. Further, and entirely consistent with what we might expect, older, more conservative, and more traditionally religious respondents were the least likely to report a history of cohabiting compared to the rest of the sample.  

The embrace of cohabitation before marriage is sweeping. As Roxanne Stone, editor-in-chief for the Barna Group, explained, “Even a growing number of parents—nearly half of Gen-Xers and Boomers, and more than half of Millennials—want and expect their children to live with a significant other before getting married.”

Cohabitation is here in a big way.

Reasons Why People Believe Cohabitation is Good

The Barna Group found that 84 percent of those who approve of cohabiting before marriage said that it was valuable for testing compatibility. This has been the dominant belief of young adults for 20 years or more. By way of comparison, in a detailed report on attitudes related to family in 2001, sociologists Arland Thornton and Linda Young-DeMarco[iv] (citing findings from the Monitoring the Future project at the University of Michigan) noted that, by the late 1990s, more than three-fifths of high school students in the U.S. endorsed this sentiment: “It is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along.’’ Simply put, most young people believe this.

The Barna Group found that other reasons for valuing premarital cohabitation paled in comparison to testing, with the reason that “it’s convenient/practical” coming in at 9 percent and “cheap rent” coming in at 5 percent (2 percent chose “other).

Reasons Cohabiters Give for (Actually) Moving In Together

From 2007 to 2012, we followed a national sample of 1294 unmarried young adults (ages 18 to 34) who were in serious romantic relationships, surveying them about their personal lives and relationships for 11 waves.[v] This is the Relationship Development Study (RDS), and the sample well represents Americans in that age range.

At the first time point in this longitudinal study, we asked people if they were cohabiting and, if so, their reasons for doing so. Based on prior work in this area,[vi] we gave people six options for ranking their reasons for moving in with their partners[vii] (displayed in the accompanying chart). Although the Barna Group showed that most people who endorse cohabiting before marriage believe it is a good idea because it provides a good test of compatibility, that’s not the most common reason people give for actually moving in together.


As you can see, we found that the number one reason both males and females gave for moving in together was to spend more time with their partners. Convenience was the second most strongly-endorsed reason, followed by wanting to take a step-up in commitment.[viii] Convenience would include the types of financial benefits noted in the Barna Group report. In our sample, men and women strongly diverged in two categories. Women were more likely than men to say they cohabited because they had a child to raise (13 percent vs. 6.6 percent) whereas men were more likely than women to say they cohabited to test the relationship (10 percent vs. 4.5 percent).

Is Cohabiting a Good Test of a Relationship?

We (particularly Galena) began carefully studying reasons people have for cohabiting around 2005 as part of a range of efforts to study cohabitation and why it was not typically associated with the improved outcomes in marriage that most people expect. Using an earlier sample of cohabiters (not the national and more representative sample we have in the RDS), we gathered in-depth quantitative data from 120 couples, and we looked at reasons people gave for cohabiting and what those reasons were associated with (Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman, 2009[ix]).

In that data set, the top three reasons people gave for cohabiting were to spend more time together (61 percent), financial convenience (19 percent), and to test the relationship (14 percent). These findings parallel those we obtained in the same sample of that report using a more sophisticated scale of reasons for cohabitation that we used in more complex analyses of what is associated with various reasons people hold for cohabiting.  

Women who reported cohabiting for reasons of convenience were more likely to report lower level of confidence in their relationships, less commitment, and higher levels of negative dynamics with their partners. Those findings are consistent with the fact that, for some, cohabitation is something driven by perceived and real necessities. Some people really do have poorer options, and they are more likely to end up in difficult relationships where cohabitation probably would not otherwise have been their first choice, at least with “this” partner.

What about testing? As with our national data set, men were more likely than their partners (all women) to report cohabiting in order to test the relationship. We examined the personal and relationship characteristics of both men and women who reported testing, and found that:

  • “For men, higher levels of depressive symptoms, generalized anxiety symptoms, difficulty depending on others, and anxiety about abandonment were significantly associated with higher scores on testing.” (p. 247)
  • “For women, . . . greater abandonment anxiety was significantly associated with higher testing scores.” (p. 247)
  •  “For both men and women, greater negative interaction and psychological aggression and lower relationship confidence and adjustment were significantly associated with higher scores on the testing subscale. For men only, greater physical aggression and lower levels of dedication were significantly associated with testing the relationship.”


These findings suggest that cohabiting to test a relationship is associated with many kinds of negatives. Does that mean that cohabitation causes those negatives? Probably not. There is a lot more evidence that those negatives were largely there before cohabiting.

We think of these findings this way. If you are considering whether or not you should move in with someone to test the relationships, it’s likely not the wisest thing you could do. In fact, it seems to us that many people who are thinking about testing their relationship by cohabiting already know, on some level, what the grade of that test may be; they are hoping that the answer looks better over time. 

Even cohabiting to spend more time together may not be without risk. We’ve argued elsewhere and often—with a lot of empirical evidence in many published studies—that the number one thing people miss about the risk of cohabiting is that it makes it harder to break up. Cohabiting relationships break up all the time, and increasingly so,[x] but the relative difference is the point. All other things being the same, a couple who is cohabiting will have a harder time breaking up than a couple who is only dating. We think that’s a big deal.

If you want to read more about this issue, what we call “the inertia of cohabitation,” you can read more here and here and here. Or, see our 4-minute video on the subject: Relationship DUI.

What’s the point? Simple, actually. Because many people cohabit before even having mutual clarity about commitment, such as through engagement or marriage, some people end up staying in relationships, including on into marriage, that they otherwise would have left behind.[xi] Essentially, many people slide into situations that make it harder to end a relationship before they have made a clear decision about what is best. The situation looks quite a bit different for those who have strongly clarified mutual commitment to the future before moving in together, such as by being engaged or even—gasp—being married.

Cohabitation Fails the Test

There are a lot better ways to test a relationship than to do something that makes it harder to break up before you’ve really figured it all out. Take a relationship education course (i.e., some kind of premarital preparation before you even get engaged), talk about what a future together would look like, and see if you are compatible by dating. Take the time to see your partner in a lot of different social settings.

Ever take any college classes? If so, you know that people sometimes sign up for a class and then decide, part way in, that it’s not for them and they drop the class. But some people figure it out too late and cannot drop the class or, at best, drop it late and lose their money.

It’s easy to slide into cohabitation without even a serious discussion or decision and then get stuck. When it comes to moving in together before marriage, some people may find that they are failing in a class that has become too hard to drop.  

Scott M. Stanley is a research professor at the University of Denver. Galena K. Rhoades is a research associate professor at the University of Denver.




[i] The Barna Group specializes in survey work that is often used by those in religious ministry. As for the methods used by the Barna Group, they seem reasonable to us and the findings are entirely consistent with what we know in this field. However, we have not examined the specific procedures beyond what is stated in their report, where they note: “The study on which these findings are based was conducted via online survey from April 7 to April 14, 2016. A total of 1,097 interviews were conducted. The sample error is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points at 95-percent confidence level. The completion rate was 85%.”
[ii] In creating their report, the Barna Group combined those who either strongly or somewhat agree into one group and those who either somewhat or strongly disagree into the other.
[iii] Manning, W. D. (2013). Trends in cohabitation: Twenty years of change, 1987-2010 (FP-13-12). National Center for Family & Marriage Research. Retrieved from https://www.bgsu.edu/content/dam/BGSU/college-of-arts-and-sciences/NCFMR/documents/FP/FP-13-12.pdf; See also Kennedy, S., & Bumpass, L. (2008). Cohabitation and children's living arrangements: New estimates from the United States. Demographic Research, 19(47), 1663-1692.
[iv] Thornton, A., & Young-DeMarco, L. (2001). Four decades of trends in attitudes toward family issues in the United States: The 1960s through the 1990s. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63(4), 1009-1037. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2001.01009.x
[v] You can find out more about the sample and the methods in these articles: Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., and Markman, H. J. (2010).  Should I stay or should I go? Predicting dating relationship stability from four aspects of commitment. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(5), 543-550.; Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., and Markman, H. J. (2012). The impact of the transition to cohabitation on relationship functioning: Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(3), 348-358.
[vi] We also gave people the option of saying they moved in together because they did not believe in marriage, which was endorsed by less than 1 percent of the respondents.
[vii] These particular findings from our national sample have not, as yet, been published.
[viii] This was actually listed as “inconvenient to live apart” in the survey
[ix] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). Couples' reasons for cohabitation: Associations with individual well-being and relationship quality. Journal of Family Issues, 30, 233 - 258. doi: 10.1177/0192513X08324388
[x] Guzzo, K. B. (2014). Trends in cohabitation outcomes: Compositional changes and engagement among never-married young adults. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 826 -842. DOI: 10.1111/jomf.12123
[xi] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., and Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509.; You can read a full text version of this paper here

Friday, May 13, 2016

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Searching for “The One”: Mate Selection in this Modern World


In their book Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg focus on how people search for a partner, a date, or a mate in this hyper-connected era of having a seemingly endless number of options. Modern Romance is not for everyone (neither the book nor the reality it reflects). The book is written from the perspective of people who are smack in the middle of this new, unhooked, unscripted maelstrom of love, sex, and disillusionment. It captures how things are for a great number of people, not what many would say is ideal. It is insightful and irreverent. Ansari is, after all, a comedian with the bluntness of those who work the clubs.


Questions around how people search for, and find, partners are part of an entire field of study about matching problems. There is a need to match people to jobs, schools, and mates. From a societal level, there is benefit in maximizing the number of people who match with their best option. Individuals, of course, desire to make the best matches they can in order to increase their odds of personal happiness, fulfillment, and meaning.

You are likely familiar with a myriad of services that solve matching problems of less importance than the search for a mate. Uber, for example, matches drivers and riders. The algorithm to do this is, of course, simpler than whatever it would take to increase people’s odds of lifetime love and commitment in marriage. A 15-minute lift is different from 60 years of driving together through life.

Ansari and Klinenberg describe massive changes since decades past in how people search for mates (or dates, or just sex). In mate selection, people have gone from choosing among two or three options in their neighborhood or apartment building to trying to search through and cope with the awareness of a myriad of options, thanks to advances in the digital realm.

Searches are likely to fall short of leading to good matches when people search too little or too much. What strategy is just right?  It’s very hard to know but the dilemmas involved lead to insights on how to have a reasonable perspective about it all.  

The Train Station Problem

Samantha (Sam, for short) is searching. She wants to find her soul-mate. I don’t merely mean that she wants a mate who shares the deeper beliefs of her soul;[i] she believes there is this one perfect partner out there for her—someone who would complete her in ways far beyond being merely good, reliable, and committed. This is not an unusual goal in modern-day mate searching,[ii] and it complicates things quite a bit.

Eli Finkel and colleagues have described the changing standards that guide our search for mates: “Throughout American history, the fundamental purpose of marriage has shifted from (a) helping spouses meet their basic economic and political needs to (b) helping them meet their intimacy and passion needs to (c) helping them meet their autonomy and personal-growth needs.”[iii] Finkel and his coauthors argue that this expectation leads to average marriages being less happy while a small number of marriages that can satisfy the expectations for personal fulfillment may be happier than the “best marriages in earlier eras.” Sam wants that.  

Samantha is acutely aware of her dilemma. She has no foolproof way of knowing where to find “the one” or how to know for sure who is “the one” when she meets him. Metaphorically, Sam is in a train station trying to figure out which train to get on and stay on for the ride of her life.

Sam has checked out five trains. Those “checks” ranged from having a brief coffee meet-up with one guy she met online to being deeply involved with the last guy, whom she dated for 16 months before eventually deciding he was not the one. That’s a long train ride, and it left Sam further down the tracks at another station. Now she’s worried that she might have missed the best option during those 16 months. Serious involvement often has opportunity costs, you know. Still, she is a believing person, and she takes comfort in a faith that God will not allow her to miss the right train. Still, her belief in destiny is balanced by her belief that the odds are decreasing as time marches on.

Sam wonders if the perfect train has yet to appear at her station or if she’s missed it already. Her fear of missing the best train is palpable and even paralyzing. “What if I make the wrong choice?” “Am I even on the right rail line?” “How long do I stay on one train before I get off if I am not sure it’s the one?” “What if I leave one train and then, later, realize it was the best train for me?” A lot of the time Sam feels like curling up on a bench and just letting all the trains roll through the station without her even looking up.  

Heuristics for Matching

Psychologists Peter Todd and Geoffrey Miller wrote about mate searching in a respected volume on simple heuristics for making the best decisions under various conditions of uncertainty. [iv] A heuristic is a mental short-cut that simplifies decision-making in order to achieve what is often a good-enough solution where the costs of further effort and time are unlikely to be worth the gain.

Todd and Miller describe some of the history of attempts to come up with the best heuristic to solve searching and matching problems in mate selection. They get to the heart of Samantha’s anxiety, described above, which is the “uncertainty that the next prospect that one encounters might be far superior to the best seen so far.”[v] That is, she fears that once she makes a choice, the next train into the station would be the one.

Todd and Miller note that if you could know in advance the number of options you’d get to consider in choosing a mate, you could use a guideline that a number of studies suggest yields the highest likelihood of the best outcome. The rule is to select the best option that appears after you have considered 37 percent of the options. You can see why knowing the total number is important here, because otherwise, you’d have no way to even guess when you’ll hit that 37 percent point. Todd and Miller explain some of the arcane history of this decision rule, and they do a particularly nice job of describing the necessary assumptions for such heuristics to work.

Suppose Sam is going to have 10 trains to consider in her life. By this rule, she should check out the first four but not choose any of them. Those poor guys don’t even know that they have no chance. Sam is tough and she’s working the rule. But starting with number five, Sam is ready to pick the first one that is better than any of the four she’s seen so far. If the best option of all was in that first four, that’s pretty sad. This may be, by the way, why people intuitively favor monitoring past partners through social media; it’s become easy to do, and some people clearly believe that it increases their odds of recalling a train (if it’s available) back to the station.  

Let’s suppose for a moment that the 37 percent rule is pretty good for selecting a mate. (I personally prefer a strategy that’s a bit broader.) As Ansari and Klinenberg argue, part of the problem for today’s young adults is that they are trying to cope with an awareness of a truly countless number of potential partners. While not actually true, a young adult today might think that the 37 percent rule means checking out hundreds or thousands of potential mates. That’s going to take some time, even in Grand Central Station.  

Let’s bring sex into the equation. If a person believes that he or she needs to check out a lot of partners, including testing for sexual compatibility, that’s going to add up to a lot of sexual partners before settling down in marriage. That strategy has numerous risks which I will not enumerate here. Galena Rhoades and I find that the median number of sexual partners emerging adults have before settling on a mate is around five or six, and that having sex with others in addition to the person one marries is associated (although, modestly) with lower marital quality.[vi] In a prior post, we attempted to explain why there could be something causal in that, net of all the risks a person already may have in their demographic background and life history.

Todd and Miller don’t leave us at the 37 percent rule. They note that, even where all the assumptions are met, it only leads to the best solution 37 percent of the time. Their main focus is to make a mathematical case for “satisficing,” or accepting an option that meets a reasonable level of expectation.[vii] For example, they argue that a 14 percent search rule (instead of 37 percent) gets 83 percent of people in the top 10 percent of their options. Contrast that with the people seeking absolute perfection, who may end up searching so long that they leave behind better options before finally settling on the last train to Clarksville.

The Misery of Searching for Your Perfect Soul Mate

As Todd and Miller describe, Frey and Eichenberger (1996) argued that people do not search adequately for a mate.[viii] The distinguished sociologist Norval Glenn also made this point in a chapter published in 2002.[ix] There are many causes of poor searches. One of Glenn’s growing concerns was about how “premature entanglement” was common and could foreclose adequate search for good matches. Norval and I had a wonderful talk about these ideas over dinner in 2000. This was just after I had started thinking a lot about the inertia problem with cohabitation. We both thought that a lot of people were increasing their odds of taking the wrong train when they did not have to do so. Thus, while there is increased freedom of choice and a growing availability of tools for searching, these factors may be offset by the growing trend toward sliding through relationship transitions in ways that lead to giving up options before making a choice.[x] 

You don’t have to stay on a train for miles and miles to get a good sense for it. Many do, however, owing to the ease of entry into cohabitation. People slide into cohabiting,[xi] which rapidly escalates inertia in the form of constraints; constraints make it more likely one will stay in a relationship regardless of dedication to it.[xii] Of course, many others are foregoing serious romantic involvement altogether, being somewhat paralyzed by the fear of making the wrong choice. Why would that be? While there are more tools than ever before that could be employed to search for and sort into good matches, the expectations for marriage are also higher than ever. The increasing availability of tools for searching might merely increase fears of failing to find perfection; the quest may now appear both more possible and impossible at the same time.

Despite concerns in the late 1990s about inadequate search, I believe the changes Ansari and Klinenberg document are real, and that in just the past 15 years, people may have started to err in the direction of searching endlessly rather than searching too little. Of course, an endless search for the perfect mate is also, in a very real way, inadequate. Ansari and Klinenberg call attention to the work of psychologist Barry Schwarz (The Paradox of Choice), who has written lucidly about the dilemmas of having too many options. This argument by Schwartz that they recount is brilliant.

By Schwartz’s logic, we are probably looking for “the best” and, in fact, we are looking for our soul mates too. Is this possible to find? “How many people do you need to see before you know you’ve found the best?” Schwartz asked. “The answer is every damn person there is. How else do you know it’s the best? If you’re looking for the best, this is a recipe for complete misery.”  

That’s a whole lot of train tickets. Schwartz points out that the very belief that you can find the perfect match at the end of a search sets you up to think there must always be something better—an option that you’d not seen or found yet—and this makes people less happy with what they eventually choose.

Commitment is making a choice to give up other choices. That’s the deal. Believing that you could have found perfection—if you’d only searched a little more—will make it harder to commit to, invest in, and be happy with the person you married.




[i] Wilcox, W. B., and Wolfinger, N. H. (2015). Soul Mates: Religion, sex, love, and marriage among African Americans and Latinos. New York: Oxford University Press. 
[ii] Even 15 years ago, most emerging adults believed that when it came to selecting a mate, it was most important that their spouse be their “soul mate.” Popenoe, D., and Whitehead, B. D.  (2001). Who wants to marry a soul mate?  In D. Popenoe & B. D. Whitehead, The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America (pp. 6 - 16). Piscataway, NJ: National Marriage Project.
[iii] Finkel, E. J., Cheung, E. O., Emery, L. F., Carswell, K. L., and Larson, G. M. (2015). The suffocation model: Why marriage in American is becoming an all-or-nothing institution. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(3), 283-244. doi: 10.1177/0963721415569274
[iv] Todd, P. M., and Miller, G. F. (1999). From Pride and Prejudice to Persuasion: Satisficing in Mate Search. In G. Gigerenzer, P. M. Todd, and The ABC Research Group (Eds.), Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart (pp. 287-308). New York: Oxford University Press.
[v] Ibid.

[vi] Rhoades, G. K., and Stanley, S. M. (2014). Before “I Do”: What do premarital experiences have to do with marital quality among today’s young adults? Charlottesville, VA: National Marriage Project.
[vii] Simon, H. A. (1990). Invariants of human behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 41, 1-19.

[viii] Frey, B. S., and Eichenberger, R. (1996). Marriage paradoxes. Rationality and Society, 8(2), 187-206.
[ix] Glenn, N. D. (2002). A plea for greater concern about the quality of marital matching. In A. J. Hawkins, L. D. Wardle, and D. O. Coolidge (Eds.), Revitalizing the institution of marriage for the twenty-first century: An agenda for strengthening marriage (pp. 45-58). Westport, CT: Praeger.

[x] For more on this theme of giving up options before making a choice, you can read this piece or listen to this 24 minute talk I gave earlier this year.
[xi] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., and Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509.
[xii] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., and Markman, H. J. (2012). The impact of the transition to cohabitation on relationship functioning: Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(3), 348-358.;  Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., and Markman, H. J. (2010).  Should I stay or should I go? Predicting dating relationship stability from four aspects of commitment. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(5), 543-550.