Why Men Won’t Commit
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe just issued their State of Our Unions Report from the National Marriage Project at Rutgers (2002). This report contains an analysis of data gathered in focus groups led by Whitehead and Popenoe that explored the beliefs of men in their 20s about marriage and commitment. Barbara and David would be the first to acknowledge that such research lacks representativeness and sophisticated statistical procedures, but it is nevertheless a method of great value for the generation of further thought, theory, and hypotheses. Some things cannot be initially well understood in highly controlled research. I have scarcely had more enjoyment reading any document in our field. It’s a fascinating report.
Whitehead and Popenoe derived important insights about how men view marriage, their female partners, and the process of growing up. Here are the highlights in my reading of what they found. First and foremost, men report that they can enjoy many of the same benefits by cohabiting rather then marrying. Further, they report few social pressures to marry; not from family, not from friends, and not from the families of the women they live with. They also associate marriage, not cohabitation, with the possibility of financial loss. Another fear expressed is that, in marriage, a woman will want to have children sooner. Across a spectrum of possible changes, they are essentially saying they are not ready and that they would like to put such changes off as long as they possibly can—for example, until their late 20s. Essentially, they report that they are not ready for all the responsibility implied by marriage. To them, cohabitation without marriage provides all the desirable benefits of companionship without the potential risks of marriage.
Whitehead and Popenoe suggest that “men see marriage as a final step in a prolonged process of growing up.” There were two elements of their report that I found particularly intriguing; one disturbing and one semi-humorous. First, Whitehead and Popenoe suggest that many young adults today are seeking soul mates. Ninety-four percent (94%) of younger adults actually express this as the most important feature of what or who they are looking for in a mate (Popenoe & Whitehead 2001). Part of what they implied in that sentiment is that a soul mate is someone who will take them as they are and not try to change them. Disturbingly, some significant number of men essentially reported that part of why they were resisting commitment in marriage was that they were not sure their female cohabitant was their soul mate.
Until they find a soul mate, however, they are willing to wait. They don’t want to “settle” for second best in their choice of a marriage partner, though they don’t have the same standards for a choice of a live-in girlfriend. (p. 12, Whitehead & Popenoe, 2002)
Put in my own rough language, some of these men were reporting this sentiment: “I’m happy here for the time being, sleeping with my partner and letting her care for me in various ways, but I am not sure she’s really ‘the one’ for me, and I’m biding my time here while I keep looking around or until I decide that she is the one.” I wondered as I read their report how many women know that their partners may still be “on the market?” How many think they are on a trajectory toward marriage when they are actually in a stationary, low earth orbit? Surely there are many women who are equally uncertain about a future with a particular man, and, therefore, prefer aspects of cohabitation to marriage for the time being. Yet, I have a hunch many of these women think that their male partners are more locked into a future with them than might actually be the case. That is sobering and sad to me.
On a lighter note, I found it amusing that the men were essentially saying that, when they are married, their wives will be allowed to tell them what to do in a way that is not part of the cohabiting compact. There is some clear sense that marriage requires a greater level of mutual dedication and responsibility—as if they are thinking, “When we’re really teammates in life, you will have earned the right to tell me when there is something wrong with my play. But, not until we cross that line and are clearly on the same team.”
Teammates can ask things of one another, but not until one crosses the line and signs with the team. I found this amusing because I was reflecting on this simple finding in light of the evidence of health benefits for men in marriage (Waite & Gallagher, 2000). Most all scholars assume, rightly so I believe, that a major reason for these benefits for men is that their wives tell them what to do in very important ways: “Why don’t you stop with the beer, that’s your third tonight?” “You need to go to the doctor and get that looked into. I want you to go this week.” “You have been working every night, running yourself ragged. You need to cut back.” “You need more sleep; how are you going to get it?”
I’m pretty sure that one major reason that men live approximately 8 years longer if they are married (and are otherwise healthier in various ways) is that their wives tell them what to do and they do some of what their wives tell them. So, younger men are likely seeing something as a drawback in marriage that may be the major reason why they will live longer if they become (and remain) married.
All of this is consistent, of course, with my theory expressed above that men see the line between marriage and not marriage in ways that are, perhaps, quite different from women; that men see this line in particularly clear terms. Women see the line, too, of course, but men seem to think that marriage will change them, and that being a husband is very different from being a boyfriend or live in partner. They clearly believe that a greater level of responsibility is required in the role of husband than in the role of boyfriend, whereas I really do not think that women have this same sense that they (women) are going to change dramatically when they cross the marriage line. Marriage seems to have a big effect on how men think about themselves, what they do, what a woman can ask of them, and what they’re willing to give. This may be the very reason why men are widely seen as resisting crossing the line between marriage and not marriage, especially in comparison to women. They believe that crossing the line has many implications for how they have to behave and what they need to give to their female partners. There are surely many exceptions, but I think, on average, it’s different for women.
What Happens When Men Cross the Line Deliberately?
Sociologist Steven Nock has been, for years, building the case that marriage changes man, amassing both conceptual and empirical arguments that show this is the case. In his book, Marriage in Men’s Lives (1998), he discusses how men’s belief systems about themselves and their wives seem to change when they cross the line. His argument rests on several points, with the major one being the powerful social role of “husband” that is associated with the institutional of marriage. These institutional forces have, historically, been quite potent and generally constructive—though there have been less constructive elements, as well, which Nock handles well in his book as he contemplates the nature of marriage in our modern culture. Nock shows how men begin to see themselves as fathers, providers, and protectors in marriage. He reports behavior changes, as well. For example, men earn more income when they’re married, work more, and spend less time with friends apart from marriage and family, spending more time with family and community around the family. In many ways, men allocate their time differently when they marry.
Other important changes in men when they “cross the line” have to do with the nature of normal, healthy sacrifices that are required in a good marriage over time. Recent work by Sarah Whitton, me, and Howard Markman at the University of Denver indicates the importance of sacrifice in relationships (Whitton, Stanley, & Markman, 2002). We theorized that people should be most willing to sacrifice for their partners when they have a long term view and they have a sense of “us” or “we” or team. In this research, sacrifice was defined as an act of foregoing immediate self-interest in order to promote the well being of a partner or the relationship. We found that sacrifice was seen as less detrimental to the self when males reported high levels of couple identity and when males and females reported having a long term view for the relationship. However, the association between sacrifice and commitment to the future was far stronger for men than women. The findings did not show that women are more or less likely to report sacrificing than men. The difference was more in the degree to which attitudes about sacrificing were tied to commitment to the future. For men to sacrifice for their partners without resenting it, they seem to need to see a clear future together and clear sense of being a team. For men to sacrifice for their partners freely and fully, they may need to be married—to have fully decided that “this woman is my future.” Whatever flips the switch for women is less linked to the level of commitment to the future. I have an idea what that is, and I will come to that shortly.
My main point here is that commitment in marriage changes men. Crossing over the line changes how they see themselves and how they behave. It changes how they view a relationship with a woman and how they are to act in relation to a woman. To be clear, I am not suggesting that marriage makes a dangerous man a safe man. I am saying that, on average, marriage changes the average man in the direction of greater responsibility and sacrifice to a female partner. Consistent with the major point I made in the previous section, this is partly why men resist marriage. They associate marriage with the expectancy of having to grow up. That step across the line will have a powerful impact on their lives. If they can, many men will resist this until quite late into their 20s.
Walking Over the Line vs. Being Dragged Across It
Premarital cohabitation has received much research attention recently. There is some important gender differences beginning to appear in this literature, that relate to commitment, and that shed further light on the themes presented here. This area of research has led me to think that there are some very important dynamics in how marriages form that have implications for men’s and women’s commitment to their partners in marriage. I want to explore some background from this area of research before presenting a hypothesis about men and women and how numerous couples’ transition to marriage these days.
In our larger survey in Oklahoma and surrounding states, we asked young men and women about their beliefs about cohabitation (Johnson et al., 2002). Of those 18-24 years old, 62% of men and 55% of women thought that living together would improve one’s chances in marriage. While Oklahoma is no doubt different in many ways from other states, I am sure that those high percentages reflect a widely held belief by young adults across the U. S. The belief that cohabitation prior to marriage improves one’s odds for marital success is widely held but it is also seriously flawed. It is a belief based on a theory of discovering compatibility and finding a fit, with the particular hope being that “we’ll live together and we’ll discover whether we’re compatible, whether we’re right for one another.” The problem is that this is a strategy selective for risky relationships with nothing in place to lower risks except the hope of breaking up if the fit is poor. Let me put that in plainer terms and then explain the point in detail: it is becoming clear to Galena Kline, me, and Howard Markman (and many others doing work in this area) that those who are at greater risk may be those most likely to act on this belief; yet the only way this strategy can work is if partners who are poorly matched do, in fact, break up rather than remain together. There simply isn’t another mechanism that most couples avail themselves of to otherwise lower the actual risks a couple may experience.
A theory we have developed, inertia theory , suggests that living together triggers forces that makes it more likely that a couple will get married, even if the fit between the partners was poor to begin with, or they were otherwise at higher risk. What couples may not realize is that ending a cohabiting relationship is more difficult (practically, financially, emotionally, and socially) than ending a dating relationship. In effect, constraint commitment (the source of the inertia) is increased by cohabitation, making continuation of the relationship somewhat more likely than if the identical couple had been merely dating, each retaining full access to separate places to live (Stanley & Markman, 1997). We suspect that this is the glaring fact that unsuspecting young couples do not see when they are acting on the belief that cohabiting can lower their odds of marital failure.
To put the underlying theory here in clear conceptual terms, we think that some cohabiting couples may move into marriage without making a deliberate decision to cross the line together. One of the places where we do see important gender differences in cohabitation research is with regard to commitment levels. In our national sample, selecting respondents who have been married up to 10 years, we found that husbands who lived with their wives before marriage were less interpersonally committed (less dedicated) to their spouses than men who did not live with their partners, even controlling for religiosity (Stanley et al., 2004). This research suggests that premarital cohabitation may be riskier for females than for males because some cohabiting men may not fully commit themselves to their partners in a subsequent marriage. Psychologically, they may not have really crossed the line of commitment to their partners in marriage even though they became legally married. In other words, while they may be married, a higher percentage of couple who cohabit prior to marriage likely did not have two partners who clearly and strongly decided to be married; they moved into marriage more from a process of being carried into it than from a process of making a clear decision. Perhaps one partner, more often the male, was actually coaxed or dragged across the line, so to speak, by the other.
What does all of this mean? I think it means that there are a greater number of marriages than ever before that begin with a “Maybe I do” rather than a clear “I do” at the root of the commitment underlying the marriage (Figure 3). Further, I believe there is evidence in the research on premarital cohabitation that men are much more likely to be the “maybe” factor in marital commitment. Does this matter? I think it does and I can express it best as a hypothesis for future research.
A Hypothesis about Men and Women: Commitment vs. Attachment Based Motivation
Drawing on those findings, I have come to a hypothesis that I hope to directly test in the years to come. My hypothesis is that attachment triggers committed and sacrificial behavior in women whereas a decision to be committed triggers committed and sacrificial behavior in men. In other words, women begin to give their best to men when they are strongly attached. However, men may be less inclined to give fully of themselves to women unless they have decided that a particular woman is their future.
This theory could, therefore, explain these phenomena I have covered here:
• Why men seem to resist marriage more than women, even though there is growing evidence that they see the importance of marriage, in some ways, more than women.
• Why commitment levels for men are very strongly associated with attitudes about sacrificing, but much less so for women.
• Why some, but not all, couples who cohabit prior to marriage are at greater risk, and contain men who score lower than other men on measures of dedication to their mates.
• Why male behavior reflecting responsibility in their lives and toward their wives grows when they marry. Related to this reasoning, I would hypothesize that this change will be found to be greatest and most positive when men make deliberate choices to cross the line, compared to scenarios where they slid across the line or felt compelled to cross it in some way that impairs (or reflects) lower intrinsic, dedication to the partner.
If the overall theory and specific hypotheses expressed here are true, they have important implications. For example, if a female thinks that a male becoming attached to her means that he’s committed, she may be wrong. He may not have crossed the line even if he agrees or suggests that they move in together. In cases where the sense of the future is ambiguous, people may grossly misinterpret what behavior, such as moving in together, means to their partner. While I may take this prediction back in the future (and ingest my words), I believe the tendency is generally for females more than males to over interpret what it means that a male is willing to move in with a female—at least in many parts of our society at this time. Some males are, indeed, very attached and seriously thinking about a future with a particular woman. But others may merely be thinking “this is great for now, until I figure out what I’m doing and who I really want to be with in life.” Such a disconnect puts women at greatly increased risks for adverse outcomes, especially if a child results from the union—which has become increasingly common.
Conclusion (and Paradox)
An ancient Greek philosopher, Zeno, described a paradox that I believe is relevant to the themes presented here. He was a philosopher who focused, in part, on the nature of continuums and discontinuities. He posited numerous paradoxes about these and other subjects. Here is one of his masterpieces. Imagine that you’re in a room and you walk halfway between where you are and the wall. Then you do this again, walking halfway between where you are now and the wall. And again, and again, and again. And. well, you get the idea. Zeno noted that if you keep going halfway between where you are and the wall, you will never get to the wall.
Now picture the wall as a line. If you keep going halfway between where you are and the line, you will never cross the line. You’ll get right up to the edge of it, you may even get dragged over it, but you’ll never cross the line from a deliberate choice. Half steps and measures don’t result in the full commitment that a deliberate choice confers and confirms. A deliberate choice brings the fullest sense of mutual dedication in life, together, which in turn causes marriages to thrive. There are many couples who, through any number of pathways, make a very clear decision to cross over the line, as partners in life. They have this understanding as a base from which to move into the future. But men who have not yet committed to their female partners will, understandably so, resist crossing the line. They may inch up to it. They may dangle a toe over it. Yet, without the clear, deliberate step over, the commitment is at best, Maybe I do, not the firmly expressed and embraced I do.