- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2016

A new study examining the commitment levels of young couples casts doubt on the modern wisdom that moving in together is a prudent step before marriage — especially for women.

Published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships by researchers at the University of Denver last month, “Asymmetrically committed relationships” looked at a sample of 315 unmarried couples between the ages of 18 and 34. The couples had been together for two years at the time of the study’s inception, at which point 59 percent were dating and 41 percent already had shacked up.

The study found that 35 percent of couples had asymmetric levels of commitment, or relationships in which one partner is significantly more interested in staying together than the other. Cohabiting couples were more likely to have varying levels of loyalty to one another than their dating counterparts, 42 percent to 30 percent.

Not surprisingly, asymmetrically committed couples are more likely to report lower relationship quality, including more conflict and aggression, than couples with mutual levels of devotion.

The trouble with cohabitation became apparent when the researchers examined the behaviors of couples based on whether the man or the woman was the “weak link” — the partner who was less committed to keeping the relationship together.

When women are less committed, relationships don’t tend to last long. Two years after the study began, 54 percent of such relationships had ended.

But men are in no particular hurry to break up, even if they don’t see a long-term future with their current partner. In fact, relationships in which men were the “weak link” had a slightly higher rate of survival than relationships fostered on mutual levels of commitment.

“Overall, women’s levels of commitment were vastly more predictive than men’s levels of who stayed together and who did not (five times more predictive),” the study said. “In part, we think this means that there are some men (by no means all or most) who are content to hang out with a woman they are not really serious about until that woman gets fed up.”

And men are nearly twice as likely to be the “weak link” in relationships where partners have asymmetric levels of commitment.

Scott Stanley, one of the study’s authors, said moving in together, in the absence of other romantic customs that have fallen out of fashion, has become a common practice by which couples assess how committed they are to staying together. But he cautioned young couples against the behavior, saying it’s must riskier than other ways of information gathering.

“Moving in together is not a good deal for her or for whoever is the most committed person, because you’ve just made it harder to get out of a relationship with a person who’s just not that into you,” Mr. Stanley said. “And that’s what people don’t easily see; they think they’re going to get really valuable information. But can you get the information in a less costly way? Date longer, keep your own place, take a relationship class together, read some books, talk about the future that you want family-wise and see if the person bails.”

“And a lot of people are in asymmetrically committed relationships and just haven’t figured it out yet,” he said. “And maybe they just haven’t risked talking about it in more depth in order to figure it out.”

It may be intuitive that mimicking married life by moving in together would better prepare couples for marriage, but cohabiting before commitment puts women at a natural disadvantage, said Steven Rhoads, a professor of economics at the University of Virginia who has studied differences between the sexes.

“Men just want to keep sex going until they get a better deal,” Mr. Rhoads said. “I think that’s quite common, and women tie themselves up unnecessarily when they cohabit with men who aren’t ready to commit by proposing. I generally think it’s a terrible idea to cohabit.”

He said cohabiting is particularly devastating for young women, who risk wasting the years during which they are most likely to find a suitable mate and have children by chasing someone who just isn’t that into them.

Mr. Stanley encouraged young couples not to rush into anything.

“Go slow. Think about not moving in together until you’re actually married or engaged,” he said. “At least engaged. And the reason is engagement, or something like engagement, is two people making a clear, public declaration to their whole social system about how committed they are to each other. Basically, you shouldn’t be doing anything serious with somebody — like starting a family, having a child or moving in together, whatever — if you haven’t really clarified that not only you want a future, but that you both want that future.”

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