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  • "I think most people probably think of commitment as the act of wanting to be with somebody. And what they forget is that there's another force involved." Tweet This
  • "There's clearly an advantage to being married rather than being unmarried. You're putting the odds in your favor."  Tweet This
  • "The two-rule is designed to...say here's your way out; here's your exit route."  Tweet This

Back when my husband and I were dating and starting to get serious, his dad offered us some unsolicited advice—wait at least a year before getting engaged so we could, as he put it, “go through the four seasons together.” Even though we both thought he was being a bit unromantic (when you’re young and in love, why does time matter, right?), we ended up dating about one year and nine months before saying “I do.”

I thought about my now father-in-law’s advice when I was reading the new book from Marriage Foundation research director Harry Benson, Commit or Quit: The Two-Year Rule and Other Rules for Romance. In it, Benson combines the wisdom he’s gained from over 30 years of marriage to his lovely wife, Kate, with the latest social science on relationships to help young couples work toward building more stable unions. The book is a must-read for any young person who wants to avoid getting stuck in a dead-end relationship—and I think it's an especially important read for older teen or college-aged young women. Benson's central recommendation is that dating and cohabiting couples should have a serious discussion about the future of their relationship and where it is going within two years, and if the relationship is not headed toward marriage by then, it is time to end it. As he writes, “waiting longer won’t tell you much more than you know now “[about your partner] and it “keeps you in the high-risk cohabiting camp rather than moving into the low-risk married camp.”  

I chatted with Benson recently about the book, including his two-year rule, the “marriageability” test, and defining commitment.    

Alysse ElHage: I was fascinated by your two-year rule. How did you come up with it, and why did you settle on two years specifically in terms of what you recommend for dating or cohabiting couples?  

Harry Benson: I think the biggest barrier for all couples to overcome at some stage in their relationship is moving from ambiguity to clarity. So, at some point, everyone has to have a serious conversation about their future. And when that is, that’s definitely an open question. And the risk to a relationship is that you don't have that conversation. So I wanted to see what research might have to say about this. Is there a perfect time to have that ‘define the relationship' conversation, that 'are we committed for life' conversation? And the answer is that the research certainly points in a direction of a two-year rule. 

I did two bits of research for this. One was a not terribly scientific study of over 300 people from various backgrounds. And it may or may not be representative. But it gave me a pretty good indication that the vast majority of people thought that the optimum time within which to have that serious conversation about the future is within two years. And the overwhelming majority also said the maximum was within three years. So that was a pretty good pointer. That was a confidence boost for the idea. In terms of whether people who have that commitment of two years do better or not, that is not as clear. 

But what is interesting is that Professor Steve McKay from University of Lincoln and I looked at 25,000 cohabitees in the British Household Panel Survey who had lived together in the 80s and 90s. And we followed them all for a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of 20 years.  And what we found was that couples who were living together in their first year, 4 out of 10 of them would go on to split up within the next 10 years, and 5 out of 10 would go on to marry. And so, 1 out of 10 would stay together, presumably happily, unmarried. But over time, the longer people live together, two interesting things happened. One was that the chances of splitting up never improved (and that's quite different to married couples, where divorce rates fall once you get past the first few years, and they fall pretty consistently with every single year of marriage together). With cohabiting couples, that's not true. The odds never improve. And that's pretty stunning. 

Staying together longer does not help your cause. So that tells me that it makes sense to make a commitment at some point where you have sufficient information. The other thing is that your chances of getting married drop from 5 out of 10 in the first year of cohabiting, where if you were still cohabiting at 10 years, they drop to 3 out of 10. There's no question that if you marry rather than cohabit, your chances of staying together after that are also dramatically better. And we found that the highest proportion of people made a decision either to commit or quit, to get married or to split up, at about two to three years. So that was more evidence that suggests that the two-year rule makes sense. 

ElHage: Regarding cohabitation, it’s an increasingly common first relationship experience for most young people today. And I know this is especially true in the UK, where you are. So I wanted you to talk a little bit about how you approached the subject of cohabiting in your book and specifically who you see as your target audience and why?

Benson: I think if we're talking about early relationships, we have to talk about the reality that almost everybody cohabits today. That's certainly the case in the UK. It's very nearly the case in the US. And what's happened is that the game of relationships has changed in the last 50 years. And the game-changer was the introduction of the birth control pill. The way our parents did relationships was they got to know each other over a period of time … They got to know each other. They fell in love. There was a point at which they would know enough to be able to make a decision, and then they would get engaged and married. At which point, they would then move in together. And that was the way pretty much everyone did it, before birth control was widely available in the 60s, 70s. Very few people slept together, let alone lived together, because the consequences were clearly pregnancy and either a child or an abortion. And so it made sense from a societal level. 

But the reality now is that birth control has changed the game, and we need to work within those new rules. The reality is that everybody as young adults and my kids and your kids, that's the way things are going to be done. There are some exceptions to this, and there are people who are wonderfully able to hold off living together until they get married, but they are now the new outliers. So, we have to deal with cohabiting. And in my book, I could have put two names on virtually every page, if I tried: Scott Stanley and Galena Rhoades. And I hope I've given them enough credit for it. I think their work is sensational in this area. It has given me, and I'm sure many others in our field, a tremendous foundation of how relationships work. And I'm hugely grateful to them for the immense effort they've put in and the wisdom and insight and just pure academic brilliance, with ideas that actually resonate with actual human behavior. 

ElHage: Exactly, yes, we're so thankful for their work, too, which we feature often on this blog. And speaking of Dr. Stanley, I know you define commitment in the book using a model of dedication and constraint. Explain those terms, if you will, and how they relate to your definition of commitment?

Benson: Yes, I think most people probably think of commitment as the act of wanting to be with somebody. And what they forget is that there's another force involved. That's what Stanley and Rhoades call dedication. But there's another force, which is constraint. And these are the external forces which make you have to be together more than just want to be together. And that is the model that I find that grounds me in the way I think about things like marriage and cohabitation and when we do research on all sorts of things. And, indeed, I've got some new research on relationships during lockdown that leans very heavily on this research and how couples have managed or not managed during lockdown. But I think the model of dedication/constraint is incredibly helpful because it tells you, for example, during lockdown that we have put an extra constraint around relationships. And if you have this model of dedication and constraint in your head, then you realize that people who were more dedicated at the beginning of lockdown are going to have found that extra constraint of not being able to leave, of having to be together all the time, as actually an affirming and positive force. It will have made lockdown a positive experience for them and for their family. And I think it's as true of parents and their kids, as well. And we've got brand new evidence for that in the UK here, which will be coming out soon. And I think that for those whose dedication levels were lower going into lockdown, they are going to have it to be an extremely uncomfortable experience. Because they've added a constraint, which has made it extra hard for them to leave and could cause their relationship to be more troubled as a result. 

"Is there a perfect time to have that ‘define the relationship' conversation, that 'are we committed for life' conversation? The answer is that the research certainly points in a direction of a two-year rule."

In fact, the reason why we have to talk about the risk of cohabiting comes from exactly this model. In the past, before we added all the constraints, we found out about each other before we lived together and put this external lock on our relationships. Today, we tend to do it the other way around. We tend to cohabit first before we've established whether we want to be dedicated to one another. And that's a reason why I think so many young couples need to know that you need to choose well, but you also need to know that you can get stuck in a relationship. And cohabiting itself can cause you to get stuck in a, as Scott and Galena call it, a state of inertia. And that's what the two-rule is designed to break. It’s to say here's your way out; here's your exit route. 

ElHage: Let's talk about your other rules for romance, especially rule number one, which is asking if the person you're dating is "marriageable." I think that's a great question. Why is this such a critical question for young adults who want to eventually get married and have a family one day?

Benson: I've had interesting discussions with my kids, and I've got six kids who are aged from 17 to 29. And when they were getting into dating age, when the older ones were in their teens, I wanted to come up with some simple principles rather than just communicate better or handle conflict better. I wanted to come up with some ideas to help them to choose well and to avoid choosing badly, which is pretty important. And I used the word marriageable because I also wanted to include commitment in the process—that at some point you need to make a commitment. So I deliberately chose the word marriageable. And again, the Denver research was pointing at how men's commitment was not just tied to the decision, but it was also tied to their willingness to sacrifice. So my second rule was born, which is, “does he fight for you?” Which I think is just as important. And in an era of equality, we tend to confuse equality with sameness. And men and women are similar in so many aspects, but on a lot of the relational stuff they're definitely different, on average. And I think this is an interesting area where men tend to commit through making a decision and through putting themselves out. 

My daughters have applied these rules absolutely brilliantly. They’ve even… dumped boyfriends on this basis. In one case, it was because one of my daughters said, ‘Dad, I left him because he wasn't fighting for me.’ I was very excited that she was listening to Dad. And they talked to me about whether the word marriageable is appropriate, because lots of young kids might be put off by that. You know, ‘Are you trying to force me to marry this person? We're only 16 or we're 20, and we just met, it's ridiculous!’ 

And, of course, it's ridiculous. But you need to think about what's coming next. I'm trying to get them to think beyond the now and beyond the sort of ‘Love Island’ stuff… I wanted to get them to look below the surface and think about a future together. 

ElHage: You emphasize the importance of having an engagement conversation to see where the relationship is going at least by the two-year mark if not earlier. This conversation can be difficult for couples to have, yet it’s so important for young women in particular to have that conversation about the future, isn’t it? 

Benson: I think it is important to clear the air and get on the same page in the relationship. The worst thing for a relationship is to drift on in a state of ambiguity. Or even worse, what Stanley and Rhoades call asymmetry, where one person is more committed than the other, and they make assumptions about each other. Clearing the air needs to be done at some stage. And an engagement conversation, I'm not going to be dogmatic and say that every couple should get married, because the research that we've done in the UK, and I'm certain it's the same in the U.S., is that a minority of cohabiting couples do very well, and not all married couples do well. But it is the norm rather than the exception. So there's clearly an advantage to being married rather than being unmarried. You're putting the odds in your favor. 

So, I think an engagement conversation, or at the very least, a conversation about where your future is going together, is really important. And this can be a scary thing. I suspect a lot of couples do what we did when we talked about it, using a code word, like the "M" word or the "Big M." But, you know, one way or another, you've got to find a way of making sure. And particularly for young women, the biggest risk to your relationship is a lack of commitment. That's the point about cohabiting I made earlier: the longer you stick in it, the less likely you are to actually make a formal commitment. And if you want to clear the air and remove that ambiguity, you have to have that conversation at some point. So, I think for women in particular, you need to push that point. And in many ways my book is more written towards young women to say, either he commits—or you quit. 

*Photo credit: Twitter