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  • "Relationship aversion is creating real problems, but overly rapid relationship development can create problems, too." Tweet This
  • "It’s ok to take your time in dating. There's an interesting paradox here—the more we take the pressure off [dating], the more people will actually feel freed up to do it." Tweet This
  • "While a healthy approach to dating commitment progresses in stages, commitment is ultimately what frees people to see relational investment as the wise, even logical thing to do." Tweet This

In a recent post for Family Studies, I highlighted a variety of patterns around dating and sex at one Christian university. While partnering was taking place in a variety of settings, it was also clear that many students were struggling to find a steady relationship, and some were opting out of romance altogether. I spoke with Dr. Jason Carroll to get his take on these patterns and some practical advice for young adults wishing to form healthy relationships. Dr. Carroll is a professor at Brigham Young University, associate director of the Wheatly Institute, and a leading researcher in the field of marital formation and family life. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity). 

Riley Peterson: In my interviews, I found that sexual activity was prevalent, even among many frequent churchgoers. This was striking, as such behavior ostensibly cuts against their religious beliefs. What can be done to help students stay true to their faith during their college years?

Jason Carroll: We have a lot of people engaging in behaviors that aren’t necessarily congruent with their own stated life goals. The same person may say, “I'm living my ‘single life’ right now” or “I’m just having the ‘college experience’,” and also say, “by the time I’m 30, I’d like to have a successful, lifelong, faith-oriented marriage.” They may even think that by “sowing their wild oats,” “testing sexual chemistry,” or cohabiting, they're somehow helping the process of marriage and family preparation. But none of the studies show any evidence that these behaviors improve positive marital outcomes; in fact, they show they have opposite effects.1

One myth in our modern culture that is fueling these misguided beliefs is the idea that “dating life” is separate and distinct from “marriage and family life.” Many people have been deceived into thinking they can somehow have this time of life that just “doesn't count,” and then effortlessly flip a switch when they get married. But how is sex supposed to go from having a casual or hookup meaning and then simply transform into a deeply significant and sacred bonding part of marriage? We are failing to acknowledge that life is ultimately one, continuous experience. Personal growth is maturational—what happens in young adulthood can have significant impacts later on – whether we intend it to or not. 

Peterson: There are lots of ideas about what young people should accomplish before getting married, including the completion of advanced study and spending time in the professional world. Your work suggests otherwise. In a 2018 post for IFS, you said “the benefits of college education [to relationship formation] occur whether the degree is obtained before or after marriage.” Can you unpack this a bit? How should young adults weigh degree attainment and other expectations when it comes to relationship formation and marriage timing?

Carroll: Yes, I’ve counseled a lot on this. One of the defining features of modern dating is this attitude of “I'm trying to find a relationship that fits my life.” However, most successful marriages involve two people who do the exact opposite—they choose to fit their lives to their relationship. Part of the disconnect here is that we’ve taken what in earlier generations used to be the markers of early family life and turned them into milestones of marriage readiness. A lot of people’s parents and grandparents finished school after marriage, they started careers after marriage, they bought homes after marriage. Now, many believe you need to be done with school, establish a career, buy a home—all before marriage, which is increasingly pushing the marital horizon back for more people.

Now, don’t get me wrong, pursing educational and career goals is very important, but this delay isn’t always positive when it comes to marriage readiness. As we move the age of marriage into the 30’s, and definitely after 35, the risk of divorce actually starts to go back up. These are people who have the highest levels of preparation, economic readiness, and career development, so why would that be? Well, it turns out that values, priorities, and behaviors are much more predictive of marital success than various life accomplishments. We tend to emphasize age, and we certainly hope that age correlates with maturity, but as we’ve seen, a lot of people are going through their 20’s gaining relationship experience that is going to be negative for them. You can’t just assume that older age means greater maturity. You can mess things up with more negative experiences just as much as you can help them with positive experiences. Serial breakups, multiple sexual hook-ups, cohabitation, habitual pornography use, and other common elements of the modern young adult dating scene don’t increase marriage readiness.  

I'm also a realist—there’s a lot of things we need to be paying attention to [that will] create better economic foundations for the rising generation, such as the value of skilled labor training and other career readiness programs. I'm not sure our “college-for-all” model is working. There are also general concerns about rising housing prices and cost of living, but amid this economic instability, I think it’s also important to remember that we live in a highly materialistic culture. For those who would like to marry in their 20s, it may be a matter of asking yourself if you’re willing to decrease some material assets if that's what allows you to pursue a strong marriage opportunity. 

"Part of the disconnect here is that we’ve taken what in earlier generations used to be the markers of early family life and turned them into milestones of marriage readiness."

Peterson: From talking to college students, I heard that many first-year students quickly pair off in serious relationships, going against the wider pattern of relationship avoidance. I also heard that sexual boundaries can be especially fragile in these relationships. Perhaps one understandable hesitation with the “cornerstone marriage” idea is that it may contribute to dating too intensely due to a premature focus on marriage and commitment. What advice would you have for young people who desire commitment, but may not be ready for marriage?

Carroll: I think your question highlights what I call the erosion of courtship and dating in our culture. Right now, there's a lot of emphasis on “hookup culture” and relationship avoidance, but this is only one half the picture. On the other end of the spectrum, we have a lot of these “hooked at the hip,” 24/7, rapid-escalation relationships. We've lost the middle ground. You’re either at one end of the spectrum in this kind of “hanging out,” nobody's partnering-off world, or you're in this other, quickly-attached, prematurely entangled space. To be fair, I think the two extremes are related. A lot of people who’ve been exposed to the “hanging out” world may see this as the only viable alternative—you either jump in and have the immediate boyfriend or girlfriend or you end up without any commitment. And others may be willing to date more but worry that asking someone on a date will be interpreted as a jump into a full-time relationship. 

Now, relationship aversion is creating real problems, but overly rapid relationship development can create problems, too. You start getting all the markers of commitment early on that start to push couples along too quickly. It's a version of Scott Stanley and Galena Rhoades concept of “relationship inertia.” They have primarily tied this to cohabitation, but it can also apply to other forms of premature entanglement in dating. If you are seen and treated as a committed couple by your friends and family and you’re spending all your time together, you may find yourself in a deeply committed, almost quasi-engaged relationship. For many couples this also includes a collapse in sexual boundaries and suddenly you think to yourself, “wait, do I even really know this person?!” 

And this is also where soulmate thinking is problematic. After all, if that person is “perfect for you,” you don't need to develop or check and evaluate the relationship. You just dive into that soulmate pool and press forward with this optimism that everything will work out. None of this fits what we know about healthy progression of commitment in relationships that truly last. 

Previous generations experienced a dating culture that had a healthy middle ground. You could go out on one-on-one dates, and it didn't automatically imply you were a couple. Today, if you try to do this, you’ll immediately get labeled a player, right? If you ask one person out and then you spend time with someone else, it’s like “wait a minute, what are we doing? Are we both your girlfriends?” And you’re like, “No! Nobody's my girlfriend, I’m just trying to go on a date!” 

Although it can be difficult, I encourage people to try to take a more balanced approach to dating, and to create a supportive culture among friends and roommates to do the same. What does this look like? Well, why don't you make a pact that when someone comes back from a first, second, or third date, you don’t let the conversation automatically be “so what's going on?!” Or let’s say a young woman is out on a date. It’s probably best if her girlfriends aren’t back home going through bridal magazines, right? That sort of pressure is not good. It’s ok to take your time in dating. There is an interesting paradox here—the more we take the pressure off of [dating], the more people will actually feel freed up to do it.

Peterson: Speaking of marital readiness, in a 2006 paper, you argued that individuals should achieve three “marital competence behaviors” before marriage. Can you unpack these a bit?

Carroll: Yes, that paper really builds on Luciano L’Abate’s self-hood model. It’s all about the attribution of importance, both in the ability to love and the ability to negotiate. Love can be broken into “love of self” and “love of others.” “Love of self” is not really about self-esteem, but more about “personal security,” which involves emotional stability, secure attachment, and self-worth. We describe “love of others” as “others-centeredness,” which involves developing the capacity to view others as important and investing and engaging with them in ways that acknowledge that importance. These are all key predictors of marital success.2

Building on this foundation of love is the ability to communicate and negotiate, which is the focus of a lot of John Gottman’s work. All couples experience differences that lead to conflict. Some manage this in ways that actually draw them closer together, while others slip into patterns of criticism, defensiveness, and contempt that may ultimately erode the relationship. Good negotiation starts with being a good, empathetic listener. Here, it isn’t just, “did I hear well?” it’s “did you feel listened to?” There's also a skill around sending clear communication. Am I being authentic and real? Am I sharing my feelings in direct ways and trying to correct misperceptions? This is big for dating, because a lot of the “dating games” usually involve some form of unclear communication.

"There’s this idea that 'once I find a really good relationship, then I'll commit to it.' That's backwards. Without commitment, there's no such thing as a 'really good relationship.'"

Peterson: Wrapping things up, what changes do you think we need to see on a societal level in terms of hookup culture, premature entanglement in dating, and broader patterns of relationship avoidance?

Carroll: We have a very thin culture of true marriage preparation and marriage readiness. A lot of young people foster a culture of sexual fragmentation, even as they hope to one day have a marriage of sexual wholeness. They’re learning broken patterns from these sources, and we're somehow surprised that by the time many people get to their late 20s and 30s, they're not doing so well in relationships? They are often lacking a good foundation of relationship skills, sexual exclusivity, and commitment mindedness, which tend to be crucial ingredients in most successful and lasting marriages. 

We also have to acknowledge that delayed marriage is not always a choice. A lot of young people are frustrated by the dating culture and lack of support for relationships. I think the parent generation bears a lot of responsibility for this. I don't see a lot of parents encouraging marriage and the value of marriage for their children. It's almost like they’re saying, “you need to do all these things to get yourself ready for the possibility of not marrying, or the possibility of a marriage that doesn't work. Once you're out on your own, then maybe you can try that marriage thing, but don’t put all your eggs in the marriage basket or count on it too much.” This really teaches young people to view marriage and commitment as a liability.  

Ironically, this attitude itself is a big part of what makes modern marriage so risky, because it encourages a “hedging your bets” approach to relationships where it’s always one foot in and one foot out. There’s this idea that “once I find a really good relationship, then I'll commit to it.” That's backwards. Without commitment, there's no such thing as a “really good relationship.” While a healthy approach to dating commitment progresses in stages, we know that commitment3 is ultimately what frees people to see relational investment as the wise, even logical thing to do. We need to do a better job of encouraging and supporting commitment and cornerstone marriage when it is chosen, rather than it being seen as a counter-cultural trajectory that requires couples to swim upstream.

In general, we need to build on people's relationship hopes. I don't see people turning away from relationships because they don't desire them. Instead, I think relationship avoidance becomes sort of a safe “middle ground” for those who fear a bad relationship more than they desire a good one. This is definitely unfortunate, because there are concrete things everyone can do to improve their relationship outcomes. We need to find ways to better educate the rising generation about the fundamental features of healthy couple relationships. When there’s a standard, it’s easier to evaluate your strengths and improve on your weaknesses, both as an individual and as a couple.

1. See, for instance: Michael J. Rosenfeld and Katharina Roesler, “Cohabitation Experience and Cohabitation’s Association With Marital Dissolution,” Journal of Marriage and Family 81, no. 1 (2019): 42–58; Scott M. Stanley, “Premarital Cohabitation Is Still Associated With Greater Odds of Divorce,” Institute for Family Studies (blog), October 17, 2018; Olga Khazan, “Fewer Sex Partners Means a Happier Marriage,” The Atlantic, October 22, 2018; Nicholas H. Wolfinger, “Does Sexual History Affect Marital Happiness?,” Institute for Family Studies (blog), October 22, 2018; Jason S. Carroll, “Slow But Sure: Does the Timing of Sex During Dating Matter?,” Institute for Family Studies (blog), August 14, 2014.

2. There is a growing body of literature about these “others-centered” virtues, including forgiveness, kindness, responsiveness, and fairness, rather than exploitation. See, for instance: Blaine J. Fowers et al., “The Emerging Science of Virtue,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 16, no. 1 (January 1, 2021): 118–47; Harold Goddard et al., “Qualities of Character That Predict Marital Well-Being,” Family Relations 65 (July 28, 2016): 424–38. 

3. See also: Scott M. Stanley et al., “Sacrifice as a Predictor of Marital Outcomes,” Family Process 45, no. 3 (September 2006): 289–303.