Why Commitment Develops?
So why would somebody give up any choices in life? What is it about commitment that would make the whole idea of giving up anything worthwhile? Figure 1 presents a model for how commitment develops. The reason commitment develops answers the question as to why one would ever make a choice to give up other choices in the first place. First, attraction develops based on partners’ similarities and differences. There is a great deal of mystery, thankfully, in the roots of attraction, but let’s assume for the moment that the attraction has developed between two people. Because of this, they spend more time together. As the relationship progress, the ongoing satisfaction between partners results in a growing emotional attachment. However, along with the attachment comes a type of anxiety. I believe this is a nearly universal phenomenon. Why do we get anxious? We get anxious because we start to think about and feel the potential for loss of something valuable (Stanley, Lobitz, & Dickson, 1999): “I like you, I like spending time with you, I enjoy being with you. What if you’re not going to stay with me? What if you’re not going to remain in my life?” While I think this attachment process is entirely normal; I also believe that people will vary in how they experience it based on their own attachment history in their family of origin or in prior, romantic relationships. It is important to recognize that the development of attachment is not the same as the development of commitment, nor is attachment the same as commitment.
Strong attachments between partners often lead to commitment, but this is not automatic. It is the formation of commitment—a clear series of decisions about choices and the future—that brings security to a relationship, thereby settling any anxieties about attachment. Attachment often pushes one to desire security but commitment brings evidence that one can actually trust that security exists. This simple model portrays what may be the most important role that commitment plays in relationship success and failure. Accordingly, marriage represents the highest expression of security between romantic partners. Therefore, a clearly understood, expressed, and regularly acted out I do is going to be the strongest foundation for relationship quality and security. Of course marriages are not always permanent. But, generally speaking, two partners derive a sense of permanence and a future when they look each other in the eyes and say I do and—by implication—I will. Couples clearly expressing and acting on such commitment will have an easier time in large measure because the long term perspective is in place to begin with, and that is crucial to help them. Weather the ups and downs that are inevitable in life together. Conflicts, set backs, and challenges that could otherwise threaten a relationship will be managed better because of the secure bond. The world`s [people] view of how commitment in relationships develops appear to be changing. In a report entitled Hooking Up, Hanging Out and Hoping for Mr. Right, Norval Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt examined the dating experiences of women on college campuses, focusing on how they are thinking about their relationships and how relationships form (Glenn & Marquardt, 2001). One fact gleaned by observing the current dating scene among college students is that there are relatively few standards and structures for relationship development compared to past eras. Personally, I have been struck by how much has changed in recent decades. It used to be that there were relatively clear steps in relationship formation for a great number of people.
While I am sure customs have always varied by region and cultural background, relationships progressed along pathways marked by stages of commitment. For many, dating moved toward “going steady” who may have moved to a woman being “pinned” or wearing her beau’s class ring, and so forth. These actions represent emblems of commitment, with such patterns being ways young people practiced making commitments. It seems that such steps of practicing commitment are no longer existent for many younger people in America. In talking to experts in this field, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not at all clear that anything else has replaced these patterns that have largely disappeared. In contrast, there is a general practicing of not committing, or not committing in any particularly tangible ways. I’m not suggesting—not at all—that young people should become, using Norval Glenn’s (2002) concept, prematurely entangled and thereby close out alternative options too early in a relationship. Yet, I am suggesting that some important symbols of commitment have been lost in recent years and I think the loss is meaningful. Such a shift in basic relationship development behaviors is clear in Glenn and Marquardt’s report.
It is also very clear in Popenoe and Whitehead’s (2002) findings that such emblems of commitment are no longer made in young adulthood. Rather, relationships and boundaries and futures are ambiguous as couples develop toward the possibility of marriage. Hence, with regard to the developmental model presented earlier, attachments without commitments have become widespread. This change, I believe, has consequences. Where We Find Few Differences between Men and Women in Commitment Before exploring the ways in which I believe commitment works differently for men and women, I want to look at a few ways in which men and women are quite similar with regard to commitment. In a nationwide, random digit dialing phone survey that we conducted in 1995, we found that married men are, on average, just as dedicated as married women to their spouses (if not more so) (Stanley & Markman, 1997; Stanley, Markman, & Whitton, 2002). Similar findings were also found in the large survey we conducted in Oklahoma. Additionally, in the Oklahoma study, there were no meaningful differences between men and women in terms of how trapped they felt in their marriages (Johnson et al., 2002). Being equally dedicated to marriage does not mean that people derive equal benefits from the dedication of their partners.
The benefits of commitment in marriage may be somewhat different between men and women. On balance, it appears that men and women both benefit from marriage, though men may benefit somewhat more; and women clearly are more likely to suffer the most when marriages fail or are of chronic low quality (Waite & Gallagher, 2000). I will come back to this point about benefits of marriage. In the same national poll noted above, cohabiting individuals were, on average, less dedicated to their partners than their married counterparts, even when controlling for length of relationship in years (Stanley, Whitton, & Markman, 2004). Hence, it is not merely institutional commitment that matters in our culture (i.e., whether you are married or not). Commitment to the institution of marriage does tend to differ between marrieds and cohabiters (Nock, 1995). More importantly, institutional commitment appears to be linked with interpersonal commitment (dedication) to the partner. Thus, some people may under-interpret the meaning of their partner’s reluctance (male or female) to move toward marriage in the future. Resistance of marriage may, quite often, mean uncertainty about the relationship, not merely uncertainty about marriage per se.
Differences between the Sexes in Views of Marriage and Commitment.
With this background on commitment in mind, I want to explore a theory about one of the major ways commitment is different between women and men related to marriage: Although married men and women may be equally committed (dedicated) on average, men see the line between marriage and not marriage differently than women do. Below, I review the research and thinking that led me to this theoretical statement. This is, to be clear, a theory requiring more thought and testing in the years to come; but it is a theory that explains a great deal of what people often see in the behavior of men compared to women.
The Desire for Marriage.
Let us look at some simple findings that suggest a difference between men and women in the view of marriage. First, various findings suggest that men, compared to women, see marriage as more desirable or important. In a 1998 poll, 39% of unmarried men reported that they would prefer to be married, whereas 29% percent of unmarried women reported that they would prefer to be married. In a 1994 with a similar question, but different wording, 59% percent of unmarried men said they want to get married, whereas 48 percent of women said they did. There is some evidence of a difference in men’s and women’s views of marriage having opened up on the past few decades in the Monitoring the Future surveys conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan. Over the past few decades, roughly 38% of male high school seniors agree or mostly agree that people who marry have happier lives than those who remain single or cohabit (see Figure 2). While the percentage has remained unchanged for males during this period, between 1976 and 2000, the percentage of female high school seniors who think that marriage matters in this same way fell from 37.8% to 28.5%. This is an amazing gap opening up between young men and young women, with women increasingly coming to think, at least in high school, that marriage really does not matter. Of course, these data also make it clear that the majority of both young men and women believe similarly, but I think the change in female beliefs is particularly disturbing.
It is almost as if we have finally succeeded in talking young women into thinking that marriage does not really have a great bearing on their prospects in life—this at the same time, as I will mention later, it is becoming clearer that marriage may make a particularly important difference in how men treat women. Broadly speaking, all of these data show a 10-point difference in the percentage of males and females regarding beliefs about the value or desirability of marriage. This is a curious thing. The popular conception is that men are commitment phobic, especially about marriage, and women are the ones eager to move relationships toward that committed state. But these data suggest that men, maybe more than women, would be the ones pursuing marriage because they may actually see it as a more desirable or important step. What could explain this disconnect between the popular perceptions of men and the sentiments that men express? As I mentioned above, I think an understanding of how men vs. women see crossing the line between marriage and not marriage may explain a great deal. To build the case for this theory that there are important differences in views about “the line,” I will present findings from four sources, but I would point out that there are many other ways these arguments could be supported.
What is presented here are merely the steps on the path I took, and they are in the order I find most logically compelling for this presentation, not at all in the order that I encountered them:
1) qualitative, focus group research by Whitehead and Popenoe presented this year, and at this conference;
2) findings and thought from the work of sociologist Steve Nock;
3) findings from work in our lab on sacrifice and commitment; and
4) findings from our research on cohabitation prior to marriage.