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  • The current of our mainstream dating culture is driven primarily by a half century of two forces: the decoupling effect and the divorce effect.  Tweet This
  • Mainstream culture decoupled sex, partnering, and parenting from marriage, and then proposed that couples build a relationship within the liminal space of a situationship, which terminates commitment. Tweet This
  • Only the mutual, lifelong, sacrificial, and loving commitment of the heart can create the security that is essential to human flourishing.  Tweet This
Category: Dating, Single Life

Last week, I discussed a growing relationship trend, “situationships,” defined as a sexually active relationship that has no clear definition or commitment, and no future plans or intentions to establish any boundaries or commitment. In his book, Cheap Sex, Mark Regnerus organized the largest data collection on premarital sex in America, and made indisputable conclusions about the risks from our present unmarried, romantic relationship culture. In the last couple pages of his book, he concludes: 

Women are learning to have sex like men. But peel back the layers, and it becomes obvious that this transition is not a reflection of their power, but of their subjugation to men's interests. If women were more in charge of how the relationship transpired, more in charge of the pricing negotiations around sex, we would be seeing, on average, more impressive wooing efforts by men, fewer hookups, fewer premarital sexual partners, shorter cohabitations, and more marrying going on and perhaps at a slightly earlier age. In other words, the price of sex would be higher. It would cost men more to access it instead. None of these things are occurring. Not one. The route to marriage, something the majority of young Americans still assert as a key goal of life, is more fraught with many years and failed relationships than ever in the past. Once familiar narratives about romance and marriage—how to date, fall in love, whom to marry, why and when—they're no longer widely affirmed. [R]eplacing that, [we now have] this tremendous consternation among young adults about how to even move forward. They asked me, Mark, for advice, but since this is a social problem, not a personal one, I have little to offer other than to counsel them to perceive the realities of the mating market early rather than fail to see it until it has duped them.

Although I greatly appreciate Mark’s research and findings, I would emphasize that we actually do have much to offer young singles. This is something I have been doing for 30 years, and clearly outlined in my book and relationship course by the same title, How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk (or Jerkette).1 I provided a practical gameplan for building a healthy and secure romantic relationship while exploring five, research-based target areas that most strongly predict the marriage potential of a partner.

However, the current of our mainstream dating culture rages on, being driven primarily by a half century of two forces: the decoupling effect and the divorce effect. 

The Decoupling Effect. Essentially, the 1960’s ushered in the practice of nonmarital sexual involvement. Although there have always been some who engaged in unmarried sex, this was the first time that decoupling sex from marriage became a socially acceptable part of dating. This decoupling of sex from marriage naturally led to the decoupling of two additional relationship experiences: partnering (cohabitation) and parenting (unwed childbearing).2

By the 1980’s, unmarried sex and cohabitation had become new stages of dating, with many of the so-called experts calling for sexual involvement almost immediately, and within the year, moving in together.3 However, as sex and partnering decoupled from marriage, so did unwed childbearing with 40% of all first births occurring with unwed mothers. This ratio increases to around 50% for Millennial moms, 55% for Hispanic moms, and 75% for Black mothers, with this trend becoming a major source of our current epidemic of struggling single parents, fragile families, and fatherlessness. 

The Divorce Effect. Concurrent to the decoupling effect was a second driver in the 60’s-70’s, a rapidly increasing divorce rate that leaped from around 20% to 50% of all marriages ending in divorce by the 80’s. Ironically, marriage then became blamed for divorce, leading to a demonization of marriage followed by a stigmatization of commitment. In other words, to avoid the heartache of marriage (which is divorce), mainstream culture decoupled sex, partnering, and parenting from marriage, and then proposed that couples build a lasting relationship within the liminal space of a situationship, a relational experience which terminates the real “culprit,” commitment, as I discussed in my previous blog post. 

In the end, the decoupling effect and the divorce effect combined to greatly diminish the value and need for marriage, causing the postponement and, for many, the loss of ever getting married. This retreat from marriage was nothing more than an attempt to dodge heartache by eliminating commitment and liberating sex. 

But here is the stark reality about personal happiness and relational fulfillment: people not only need to be loved, but also to give love, to sacrifice, and, ultimately, to belong. And because commitment is inherent in love, only commitment—mutual, lifelong, sacrificial, and loving commitment of the heart—can create the security that is essential to human flourishing. 

This is how situationships are similar to the proverbial frog in a pan of water that is heating up to a lethal boil. At first, a situationship feels comfortable, a no-pressure stage in a new relationship. But as the romance heats up, the natural consideration and progression of increasing commitment is disallowed, resulting in at least one partner feeling burned, stuck in a relationship with no clear boundaries or future. The irony is that this attempt to avoid the heartache of a broken commitment has ultimately led to greater heartaches from unformed commitments. 

We must help our current commitment-avoidant dating culture develop a new confidence in building secure commitments that honor the value of giving oneself to another, and recouple sex, partnering, and parenting back with marriage. 

John Van Epp, Ph.D., formerly a therapist for 25 years, adjunct professor, and a contracting trainer for two decades with the military, is currently the President/Founder of Love Thinks, LCC, where he developed evidenced-based relationship courses that have been taught by more than ten thousand instructors to over a million participants internationally. Find his resources on marriage and healthy relationships at www.LoveThinks.comwww.MyLoveThinks.com, and www.RAMseries.com.

1. Van Epp, John. How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2007. The relationship courses based on this book, PICK and Head Meets Heart, can be found on www.LoveThinks.com and www.MyLoveThinks.com.

2.Van Epp, John and De Gance, J.P. Endgame: the church’s strategic move to save faith and family in America. Trinity Press: 2021. In this book, I extensively explain my decoupling theory in four chapters, pages 41-85.

3. Papa, Ashley. The New Relationship Timeline: Are You on Schedule? She quotes extensively from Dr. Paul L. Hokemeyer Ph.D., doctorate in law, M.A. in clinical psychology, who advocates sharing sexual history by second date, having sex by third date, sleeping over by fifth date, and moving in together by 12 months.