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  • If marriage goes away, an increasing number of couples may find it harder to clarify, and signal, that there has been a mutual decision to build a future together. Tweet This
  • Cohabitation is a somewhere-in-between relationship of ambiguous commitment, and that is often intentional. Tweet This
  • Public declarations of commitment provide a lot of information that is not otherwise easily obtained and help to protect either partner from misreading the relationship. Tweet This

Mandy Len Catron’s recent article in The Atlantic raises important questions about marriage and whether or not it remains a social good. She asks, “What is lost by making marriage the most central relationship in a culture?” She covers trends and asks big questions. I found myself agreeing with many of her points while having concerns related to her ideas on the nature of commitment and marriage.  

Marriage and Social Isolation 

Catron is concerned that marriage may be inherently socially isolating. She gives a lot of weight to a study that examined the social ties with friends, neighbors, and friends in singles and married adults. The authors of that study, Sarkisian and Gerstel, found that singles, compared to marrieds, were more likely to be in touch with parents, siblings, and friends, and to both give and receive help in their network. The authors argued that marriage is isolating and that singles, not marrieds, are more socially integrated.1

Even though she and her partner have not married, Catron's concern is deepened because they have already experienced this dynamic of growing isolation since moving in together. She weaves a compelling argument that this dynamic is worsened by marriage because of the change in expectations about the relationship. She buttresses this point by quoting Eli Finkel in The All-or-Nothing Marriage, where he describes how people have come to expect levels of self-fulfillment, growth, and support in marriage that are unparalleled in history. That expectation, along with arguments made by Sarkisian and Gerstel, leads to her suggestion that the level of self-sufficiency expected in marriage will foster social isolation. That is worth thinking about. 

I am no historian, but it is not hard to believe that marriage used to be more reinforcing of social ties. Amato, Booth, Johnson, and Rogers reported in their book, Alone Together, that marriage was changing to where couples had fewer friends, memberships, and social involvements than in years gone by. Further, they found that this decrease in shared social connection was associated with declines in marital quality. Amato and colleagues concluded that individualism was the culprit. I wrote a blog article about that book in 2009, entitled, We, We, We, All the Way Home! I do not have trouble believing that some aspect of how people now couple-up might be feeding an unintended piggishness in connection to others. 

Having studied commitment for decades, I can see how two people growing in commitment together will lessen (at least for a time) their connections to others. Commitment is grounded in a growing sense of mutual identity and a future which may well, for a time, reduce the depth of connection to others. As I wrote in my “We, We, We” piece:  

Couples do best when engaged in some significant shared commitments outside their relationship, such as to groups, clubs, church/synagogue, etc., and efforts to help others. This trend toward growing isolation is concerning. Amato and colleagues note one exception to this trend, which is involvement in religious organizations, particularly churches. There is a movement toward increased church involvement among married couples since 1980.

The exception that Amato and colleagues noted is not a path for couples who have no interest in religious involvement, and it may be complicated for those who do, but who have been burned by their past religious involvement. But there remains a path for any couple. As I wrote: 

If you and your partner have gotten pretty isolated, it’s worth taking a bit of time to reflect on your options for doing at least one thing together where you can be involved, together, with others. That would take a decision. You’re not always safe when you are sliding into home.

Couples who find ways to make this happen will develop stronger relationships built around shared meaning. As for Catron’s critique, I believe she is highlighting two independent phenomena that conspire to generate what she observes. One is societal and one is normative (in couple development). The former is reflected in all we see in this increasingly Bowling Alone world that Robert Putnam has so aptly described. Catron acknowledges that this criticism of marriage may be merely a matter of degree, suggesting that this danger exists for any seriously involved couple. I believe that, but I do not believe that eschewing marriage is the solution— except for those who plan to keep their commitment to a partner in check. Conversely, she provides an example of what may be the strongest way to work against this pattern: Two partners talking together about how to counter the press to become alone together. 

Marriage is a strong, mutual signal of an intention to pursue a life together.

In her overall critique about social isolation, Catron turns some attention to weddings, and how they have become too focused on the individuals and not focused enough on the community around the couple. There cannot be enough social critique of the growing industrial wedding complex, in my view. Catron does not even take the easy shot at the ludicrous amounts of money now spent on weddings. Adding to the debt and lack of a community focus, it is all too believable that expectations for lavish weddings are one of the things that have placed marriage further out of reach for many couples.2 Amber Lapp has eloquently described this very real issue and how it impacts disadvantaged couples, with thoughts on ways to lower financial barriers for those who really want a wedding. 

My colleague Galena Rhoades and I have written about weddings, suggesting from our research and that of others that couples should prioritize the social connections (and guests) over the lavish expense and display. Some families and couples can afford the big to do, which is fine to a point, but the greater value lies in a social celebration and commitment in the context of friends and family. Maybe we’re all losing sight of that. Such thoughts dovetail with the growing attention to the fact that social capital is as important as financial capital for couples

While Catron does not explicitly suggest it, one implication of her arguments is that soaring expectations about marriage have likely fueled, in part, avoidance of marriage and the popularity of cohabitation. Cohabitation does not carry similarly high expectations, and it, therefore, can seem like a safer choice. While there have always been those who have entered into marriage too young, too quickly, or mostly out of economic constraint, there are other options now that many pursue. For many, especially those with less education and means, marriage has become not merely a sobering commitment but an absolutely intimidating proposition. Conversely, this has affected the least those with the most, as college graduates continue to marry at high rates

Is It Simply Commitment, not Marriage, that Matters Most?

In light of the problems she identifies with marriage, Catron wonders if it is simply commitment that matters the most.3 It is an argument often made, and I do accept some aspects of it. Indeed, a robust literature substantiates that high commitment is associated with virtually everything good in romantic relationships.4

And yet, is there something more to marriage? I think so. 

Marriage is a strong, mutual signal of an intention to pursue a life together. I do not assume that marriage is what everyone wants, nor am I naïve about the fact that the aspiration is often unrealized even when desired. Still, that simple description contains the essence of what most people believe is foundational to a commitment in marriage. 

Here, I present three questions that I believe reflect what most people expect out of marriage. If two unmarried partners can answer each of these questions in the affirmative, they may well have a non-married relationship that is quite like marriage, albeit still without some of the legal and tax protections and benefits. That subject is raised by Catron, but I am keeping my focus here on the nature of an understanding between two partners about their commitment to each other. 

In raising these questions, I want to make clear that I would not expect most couples to be able to answer “yes” to these three questions early in a relationship. If these three questions resonate with you, getting the answers correct should be a higher priority than getting the answers too soon. 

Question 1: Have you both agreed to a lifetime commitment to each other?

Two people can be reasonably highly committed without having closure on this question about a long-term future. While many marriages fail, that does not change the fact most people believe they are expressing exactly this intention when they marry. Some people will shy away from asking this question because they are not sure they would like the answer; others avoid asking it because they are all too sure that the answer is not what they want to hear. Done well, discussing such a question might include talking about each partner’s view on serial monogamy, since some people who may be highly committed in a present relationship many also expect there will be others to follow. If two people both believe that their commitment today is enough, come what will about tomorrow, they should be able to talk about that openly. 

Question 2Have you each publicly declared the depth of your commitment to those who matter most in your lives?

Asymmetrical commitment is a real problem, arguably more so in our modern dating world where there are fewer steps and stages than in the past—steps and stages that may have had limitations but that also tended to force clarity about commitment as it unfolded. Public declarations of commitment provide a lot of information that is not otherwise easily obtained and help to protect either partner from misreading the relationship. Marriage, engagement, or two people declaring to others that they are life partners are all strong, public signals of commitment. These may not all be equal in force, but they are all exemplars of a thing. Because of the public nature of the institution of marriage, there are likely further ways that it signals the understanding two people have at one time reached. Andrew Cherlin rightly points out that marriage has become a status symbol, and this is part of Catron’s critique. However, many such discussions focus mostly on economic and resource status, and, in my view, give too little weight to the role of marriage as a potent signal of the commitment two people have made.5

In contrast to marriage, cohabitation conveys little information about commitment unless it is accompanied by some other information that signals a mutually clear commitment to the future. On average, cohabiting relationships do not have levels of commitment as high as seen among those who are married.6 Frankly, to many people, this is part of the appeal of living together. Cohabitation is a somewhere-in-between relationship of ambiguous commitment,7 and that is often intentional. I am being descriptive, not pejorative. For many, ambiguous commitment is a feature of cohabitation and not a bug. 

All of this reflects the fact that people cohabit for many reasons. Samples of cohabiters will be far more heterogeneous than samples of marrieds when it comes to dimensions of commitment. Some cohabiting couples are essentially dating, and some are in relationships quite a bit like marriage. Many others are somewhere in between. Studies by sociologist Susan Brown have shown that relationship quality is similar to marriage in cohabiting relationships where people report having plans to marry. Further, the work Galena Rhoades and I have conducted on premarital cohabitation provides a lot of evidence that being engaged or married before moving in together is associated with better outcomes than starting to cohabit before the big question about the future has been settled.8  

The transition to cohabitation does not entail, on average, a step up in commitment, but it does typically lead to an increase in constraints that can make staying together more likely, regardless of the level of commitment.

Why might that matter? The transition to cohabitation does not entail, on average, a step up in commitment but it does typically lead to an increase in constraints of the sort that can make staying together more likely, regardless of the level of commitment to one’s partner. Further, when one’s options are already constrained, it is harder to infer free volition in a commitment being made, perhaps leaving some who marry to wonder if they would have married this particular person if they had never moved in together.9

Timing should matter whenever a transition entails an increase in constraints. It should make a difference if one had decided on a more restricted path before entering it. The other chief example, of course, is having a child together. Catron notes that stability is the most important thing for children. She acknowledges that there is plenty of evidence that marriage is more likely to be stable than cohabitation for children,10 but she wonders if the magic is less in marriage and more in something else—like selection. Indeed, those on the more stable paths tend to be people who had less risk to begin with, but might marriage do something more regarding stability for children? I have made an argument that it does, and it is another argument about timing. Marriage has, historically, pre-vetted a couple on the question—the very ones I have asked so far—about an intention to be together prior to the fact of there being a child to raise together. Obviously, there are many exceptions in history, but the basic argument seems sound. 

For all its foibles, which are considerable and often enumerated, marriage is easily understood as a step up in declared commitment. If marriage goes away (and like Isabel Sawhill, the author of Generation Unbound, I think it is heading in that direction), an increasing number of couples may find it harder to clarify, and signal, that there has been a mutual decision to build a future together. I believe that will be a loss. 

Question 3: Have you agreed to be faithful to each other for life?  

This last question is a standard part of beliefs about the meaning of marriage. Sure, there are some couples, even in marriage, who explicitly agree to consensual non-monogamy or some other form of open marriage. Nevertheless, most people expect conformity to a narrow definition of lifelong fidelity in marriage. While two people who are marrying can likely infer that this is implicitly agreed upon, they may still benefit from clarifying if both are on the same page about it. Absent marriage, it becomes all the more important for two people to get explicit. 

Not everyone would agree that these three questions are definitional to marriage, nor would everyone agree that these expectations reflect what they want in life. Further, these questions are by no means exhaustive of important expectations partners should discuss. My goal is to present three questions that reflect core elements of what most people, but not all, believe are important to an understanding of commitment in marriage. 

In reading Mandy Len Catron’s article, it is easy to believe that she and her partner are highly committed to one another. They are also clearly able to talk about such things, openly. All couples who are, or who are becoming, seriously involved would do well to talk through their major expectations. Such conversations are difficult but increasingly important in a world of so many possibilities. 

Scott M. Stanley is a research professor at the University of Denver and a fellow of the Institute for Family Studies (@DecideOrSlide). 

1. I have not read nor carefully considered the quality of this study, but my goal here is not to analyze that study or argue with the conclusions. The results seem plausible enough to work with them at face value.

2. Edin, K., & Kefalas, M. Promises I can keep: Why poor women put motherhood before marriage (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005).

3. On this latter point, Catron cites a paper by Jesse Owen, myself and colleagues built around our work focusing on the contrast between sliding through important relationship transitions versus making clear decisions about them. Those findings show that those who report being more decisional in the physical and emotional aspects of their relationships—whether they are dating, cohabiting, or married—reported higher levels of satisfaction and commitment to their partners. Those are valuable findings, but they are not surprising in that the study is on the characteristics of individuals more than how commitment developed between two partners. Most of the work my colleagues and I have done, theoretically and empirically, in this area is on applying commitment theory to how couples go through important relationship transitions, with the exemplar being cohabitation. That is a different matter than the paper cited, and it is more directly relevant to the subject here. For more on our broader work in this area, there are plenty of journal and blog articles you can read, such as hereherehere, or here (the latter being a concentrated summary with many further links to published papers). 

4. Just a few examples can be noted here: Jones, W. H., & Adams, J. M. Handbook of interpersonal commitment and relationship stability(New York: Plenum, 1999).; Rusbult, C. E., Agnew, C., & Arriaga, X. , The Investment Model of Commitment Processes. Department of Psychological Sciences Faculty Publications. Paper 26 (2011).; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W., “Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment,” Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2 (2010):243-257.

5. Before his untimely death, sociologist Steve Nock and economist Robert Rowthorn were strongly pursuing the application of economic theories on signals to marriage. In that same time period, I had started to think increasingly about the nature of emblems in the development and expression of commitment between two partners. I have shifted to the language of signals. For more on these subjects: Rowthorn, R. “Marriage as a signal.” In A. W. Dines and R. Rowthorn (Eds.), The Law and Economics of Marriage and Divorce (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).; Nock, S.L. “The Growing Importance of Marriage in America. “ In H. E. Peters and C. M. Kamp Dush (Eds.), Marriage and Family: Perspectives and Complexities (New York: Columbia University Press,  2009).; Stanley, S. M, What is it with Men and Commitment, Anyway? Keynote address to the 6th Annual Smart Marriages Conference. Washington D. C., July 2002. 

6. I believe our paper is the first to document this, but it is not hard to document this in numerous studies at this point: Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., & Markman, H. J. “Maybe I do: Interpersonal commitment and premarital or nonmarital cohabitation,” Journal of Family Issues, 25 (2004): 496-519. 

7. e.g., Lindsay, J. M. “An ambiguous commitment: Moving into a cohabiting relationship,” Journal of Family Studies, 6, no. 1 (2000): 120-134. See also Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J., “Sliding versus Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect,” Family Relations, 55(2006): 499-509.; Manning, W. D., & Smock, P. J., “Measuring and modeling cohabitation: New perspectives from qualitative data,” Journal of Marriage and Family, 67 (2005): 989 - 1002.

8. I am writing here about a fairly robust but nuanced line of research, as noted in endnote 2 above. But I also should note that the whole question of whether premarital cohabitation is associated with greater risks for divorce and lower happiness in marriage is quite a bit less settled than many assume. 

9. While I am not attempting to address the matter in this piece, the severe constraints on the lives of those in poverty make everything I write about here more complicated and challenging. For more on that subject, I recommend the book, Cohabitation Nation by Sharon Sassler and Amanda Jayne Miller.

10. For more on this, there are a variety of sources, including: Manning, W. D. “Cohabitation and child wellbeing,” The Future of Children, 25, no. 2 (2015): 51–66; This piece on the IFS blog by Wendy Wang;  Rackin, H. M., & Gibson-Davis, C. M., “Social class divergence in family transitions: The importance of cohabitation,” Journal of Marriage and Family, Advance online publication, 2018.