Why are cohabiting couples so unstable
By Harry Benson
Deciding, after a lifetime of sliding
In my view one of the most exciting and practical new developments in marriage and relationship research is the influence of sliding versus deciding on commitment. The best evidence for this influence is found amongst couples during their first few years of marriage. Levels of commitment are consistently lower amongst men who move in before getting engaged – i.e. sliding. This is not the case for women regardless of when they move in, nor for men who commit first and then move in later – i.e. deciding. For men, commitment appears to require a clearly expressed decision about the future. Living together, taking out a mortgage, and even having a baby together are not enough. For women, commitment to the person they love seems much more automatic. In other words, sliding into a relationship may be enough to make women feel committed. But deciding about the future is more likely what makes men commit.
This month I came across a couple whose story illustrated this principle beautifully. To protect their identities, I’ve altered names and camouflaged some details.
When Simon and Anne met some years ago, it was love at first sight. Their relationship blossomed quickly and although they didn’t move in together, they did spend a few nights together. Anne was delighted when she got pregnant because it was obvious to her that she and Simon were destined to spend the rest of their lives together.
Alas Simon viewed the pregnancy rather differently. He had never had plans to marry Anne. Indeed, during the few months of their romance, marriage had never even crossed his mind. Although Simon somehow managed to run a modestly successful business, in his own words he was a “commitment-phobe” who drifted from relationship to relationship, “from disaster to disaster”, without ever having much of a plan of what would happen next.
Anne was devastated to learn that Simon wouldn’t move in and get married when she told him she was pregnant. Because she loved him so much and had such a clear sense of their future together, she had wrongly assumed he felt the same way about her. Anne went ahead and decided to have the baby on her own, in the naďve hope that Simon would somehow see the light and find a way to draw their separate lives together. Matters were not helped when Simon drifted back into a relationship with a former girlfriend. The result was confusion and anger.
Things got worse. Throughout the next two years, although love and kindness were never very far away, Simon and Anne fought over access to their child. During a miraculous period of relative calm, Anne persuaded Simon to come on our BCFT relationship course to see if there could ever be hope for them. What they learned on the course affirmed what they had suspected, that they were so good for each other in many ways. But most of all they found they could relate to the sliding-deciding idea.
During a meeting with me a few days later, Anne’s warm words and body language towards Simon strongly suggested she was open enough to give him a second chance. But it was also clear that this window of opportunity wouldn’t last long. Whereas the core problem for most struggling couples is usually bad attitude, their problem was all about a decision. His decision. Simon had to make a clear and unambiguous commitment to their future together. It was now or never.
Another week later, I was absolutely thrilled to receive a letter from Simon. He told me that he and Anne had got engaged and had fixed a date for their wedding in the immediate future. After a lifetime of sliding, Simon had finally decided.