| October 19, 2017

Dating, Marriage, Podcast, Relationships & Family

Podcast #349: Is This a Date or Not? The Problem With Ambiguity in Relationships

Dating has never been more ambiguous than it is today. People sort of end up with each other without explicitly defining the nature of their relationship, level of commitment, or expectations for the future. What begins as hanging out, slides into spending the night, which slides into moving in together, and can even sometimes slide into marriage.

While keeping your romantic relationships ambiguous may seem to make them safer and less complicated, my guest today has conducted research that shows that’s not necessarily the case. His name is Scott Stanley, he’s an author and professor of psychology at the University of Denver, and he specializes in studying commitment, co-habitating, and marriage.

Today on the show, Scott explains why dating has gotten more ambiguous during the past 20 years and why that has led people to slide into relationships instead of explicitly deciding and committing to them. He then highlights research that shows that, contrary to popular belief, co-habitating before marriage actually increases the chances of divorce when you do decide to get married and how living with someone makes it harder to break up with them, even when you realize you should.

We then get into what men can do to make dating less ambiguous and more decisive, and how being upfront about your intentions with women will make you more attractive, reduce drama down the road, and put you in a better position for a happy and fulfilling marriage. Scott then shares what you should do if you feel like you’ve slid into your relationship and what married couples can do to strengthen their marriage.

Whether you’re dating, thinking about getting married, or already hitched, this podcast is crammed with research-backed advice on how to have better relationships.

Show Highlights

  • Why and how dating today is much more ambiguous than 20-30 years ago
  • The truth about the link between cohabitation and marital success
  • Why living together makes it harder to break up
  • The biggest change in the dating world in the last 40 years
  • The problems with keeping relationships ambiguous
  • Why giving labels to a relationship is actually a good thing
  • How can men make dating less ambiguous?
  • Why taking risks in dating is important
  • What to do if you’ve slid into marriage
  • Maintaining a strong marriage, and getting through rough spots
  • The power of small, easy acts of kindness in a relationship

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Dating has never been more ambiguous than it is today. People sort of end up with each other without explicitly defining the nature of the relationship, level of commitment, or expectations for the future. What begins as hanging out slides into spending the night, which slides into moving in together. While keeping your romantic relationships ambiguous may seem to make them safer and less complicated, my guest today has research that shows that’s not necessarily the case.

His name is Scott Stanley. He’s a Professor of Psychology at the University of Denver, and he specializes in setting commitment, cohabitation, and marriage. Today on the show, Scott explains why dating has gotten more ambiguous in the past 20 years and why that has led people to slide into relationships instead of explicitly deciding and committing to them. He then highlights research that shows that contrary to popular belief, cohabitating before marriage actually increases the chances of divorce when you do decide to get married and how living with someone makes it harder to break up with them, even when you realize you should break up with them. We then get into what men can do to make dating less ambiguous and more decisive and how being upfront about your intention with women will make you more attractive, reduce drama down the road, and put you in a position for a happy and fulfilling marriage. He then shares what you should do if you feel like you’ve slid into a relationship and what married couples can do to strengthen their marriage now.

Whether you’re dating, thinking about getting married, or already hitched, this podcast is crammed with research-backed advice and how to have better relationships. After this show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/stanley, where you find links to resources where you delve deeper into this topic.

Dr. Scott Stanley, welcome to the show.

Scott Stanley: Hey, thanks for having me on the show. I’m excited to be here.

Brett McKay: You’re a psychologist who specializes in research on relationships, particularly marriage and cohabitation and dating. I’m curious, what’s your story? How did you get involved in that area of psychology?

Scott Stanley: Well, I’m a bit older now, and I was, way back when, in college, I was an accounting major of all things, and after a couple of years, I was doing great at it, but I decided this is going to be really boring, and I started to get interested in psychology. I had a brother having some serious mental health problems at the time, and started taking classes in psychology, and I ended up taking a class with a guy named Howard Markman who, he and I have worked together now, I don’t even want to tell you how long. It’s like over, it’s decades. He’s doing research on marriage and how you help people do better in marriage, prevent marital problems. I got very into it, and so I’ve been very interested ever since, and that’s been my niche in the field of psychology. It’s something I really love.

Brett McKay: What I’d love with to do with you and this conversation is kind of walk people through the various stages of relationship that starting from dating, courtship to marriage and what you do when you’re in a marriage. Let’s start off with dating. You’ve written an article and published some blog posts about this topic of how dating today is much more ambiguous than it was maybe 20, 30 years ago.

Scott Stanley: Yeah, I think, here’s what I think happened. In fact, let me contrast. I’m old enough to go back to the day when, let’s say back when I was in high school. If you wanted to hang out with a girl, you got super nervous and got up the gumption to call her on the telephone or you, I mean, you could do this in person, but that’d be even more crazy. You’d call her on the phone in sheer panic and terror, and ask her out on like a date, like you got a plan. I mean, could just be like going out to get a burger and go to a movie, but you’re making an offer, and she gets to respond to that.

Then if you’re dating, if you’re going out for a while, people sort of know it. They kind of know you’re a couple. People are taking. If that’s going pretty well, it wouldn’t be very long before you would talk to each other, and the most amazingly brief conversation, which would be something like, “Hey, do you want to go steady?” “Yeah, let’s do that,” and then you’re telling everybody you’re going steady. That’s the end of the deal. It’s like it was super clear, it was super public. You announced it. It was mutual. Everybody understood what that meant.

You contrast that with today, and especially I think taking off over the last 20 years or so, things have become more and more ambiguous. There’s fewer steps and stages. There’s a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty about what things mean and what people are doing out there. I think the reason is this, I think that it feels safer, and it feels safer in a very particular way. If I’m not having to be really clear and put it out there what I really want, if I’m not asking clearly, if we’re not talking, if it’s not getting totally clarified somehow in the structure, how people do things these days, maybe it’s not going to hurt as bad if it doesn’t work out or if we break up. I think that fear comes out of all the gigantic wave of divorce that started in the ’70s and moved through the ’80s. I think people just started to feel a lot of instability about relationships, about dating, about being with people, and I think people got afraid of being clear. I think people got afraid of putting it out there, and now you get all this ambiguity where people aren’t even sure with what they’re doing on Friday night is actually a date because that would mean something different than just hanging out.

Brett McKay: Is this where you got the idea of, you’ve coined this phrase “sliding versus deciding.”

Scott Stanley: It comes out of that mix, but let me give you the detail on that. We started doing research, and I say we, especially me and my colleague, Galena Rhoades, also Howard Markman, but me and especially Galena Rhoades started doing research, a lot of research on cohabitation 15, 17 years ago and one of the things that was always true in the literature about the research on cohabitation that was very puzzling was this and I’ll give you the contrast. For decades, going back to the mid 90’s people have believed, like an overwhelming percentage of people believe that the number one thing you can do to make it more likely that your marriage will work out is live together before marriage.

The funny thing is or the problem is, is the research has really never shown that. You can find the odd little study here and there that’s like a one off study, but there are scores of studies over like 30, 35 years now on cohabitation and cohabitation before marriage. The debate has shifted a little bit and I’ll explain that to you but basically, the data used to show that people that lived together before marriage were actually more likely to divorce, more likely to have higher conflict, be less happy, you know, all these kinds of difficulties in marriage. It’s shifted to a place where it’s a little more equivocal in the last 15 years and I really want to explain that, but essentially the starting place of that story is this really interesting disconnect between something that people strongly believe and just doesn’t have any evidence of being true.

So, even if in the best case for somebody that is sort of pro living together, no matter what, to kind of figure out the relationship, the evidence just doesn’t really show an advantage for that and there is a lot more evidence of disadvantages. Let me get to sliding versus siding, because this is where the story I think gets pretty interesting and this is what people don’t actually get or see about cohabitation. So, I have studied commitment since the early 80’s and one of the things that that primed me to think about is there’s two different ways to think about what commitment is in any relationship. There’s the force you could think of as dedication, which is the “I want to be with you, I want a future with you, I want to share a sense of us as a couple,” that’s all that kind of good stuff there. Then, there’s commitment that comes more from a force that I like to call and others way before me called constraint. So, what are the things that might keep you there when you might want to leave? Now, hold that, so put that thought aside for a second.

When we started doing research on cohabitation I started to realize and Galena Rhoades and I have really been doing a lot of research on this and many published studies on this for some time is that the thing that people maybe aren’t seeing about living together before marriage, or just living together period, is that when you move in with somebody you are making it harder to break up. That’s a really interesting thing, because all the people here in the media, all of the people hear from most other social scientists is no harm, no foul, there’s no cost to living together, in fact it might be good, you might discover something about the partner, that you need to know. But, let’s even take that, let’s say you do learn something that you couldn’t have known some other way, which by the way I think there’s other ways to learn things, you’ve made it harder to break up already. So, what we started to realize is that there is this inertia to cohabitation, and essentially what a lot of people do is that they increase that constraint variable before the dedication has really matured enough between the two. The bottom line is there is we think some people end up marrying somebody that they wouldn’t have married if they hadn’t moved in with them, because they just made it a little bit too hard to break up, so that’s the downside of cohabitation.

Here’s where the sliding part comes in. Along about, late 1993 in a series of interviews, a researcher in Australia, named Jo Lindsay did a remarkable paper with a very small group of couples, and she basically was interviewing them and listening carefully to their story and how they began to live together, and she realized this is not like a clear transition, people are just sort of describing that they were kind of doing this and then they were kind of doing that, there wasn’t a clear thing. Sociologists, Wendy Manning and Pam Smock in 2005 came out with a paper based on more qualitative interviews with people cohabiting. They had a number of conclusions, but the one that really stood out to me was this, that over half of the couples that were cohabiting said that they more slid into it, they more gradually came to be cohabiting than really talked about it, made a decision, and came to an agreement about what they were doing.

Brett McKay: That’s interesting. So, let’s go back, the reason why it’s harder to breakup when you cohabitate is you end up getting an apartment together, half of you is paying the rent, the other half is paying the rent, so that makes it hard. You might get a dog together. What other constraints about living together makes it harder to break up when you’re cohabitating?

Scott Stanley: Let’s say and I think you used my word there, cohabidating, did you use that word or did you say cohabitating?

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Scott Stanley: Because that’s one of my favorite phrases is cohabidating, because cohabidating has become more a part of the dating scene than something leading up to marriage these days. So, let’s work those three things and come right back to your question. What we try to focus on is when is a couple living together sharing a single address? Because, you’re buying things together, you start to bring your stuff over, maybe, and this is the sliding part, by the way. First, maybe you’ve got a drawer with some stuff. First, it’s the toothbrush, then you’ve got the drawer, and then maybe you’ve got part of a closet or your partner gets part of the closet at your house. More and more of the stuff is coming over.

I like to joke that probably an important marker is when the guy’s game console is moved in. But, here you are, you’re buying stuff, you’ve got a routine and all of that is going to be harder to unwind. What it is, it’s this process that’s like the frog in the proverbial pot, you know, that’s heating up slowly, doesn’t really notice kind of what’s going on. That’s what Lindsay was saying and Smock and Manning were saying is that people really slide into this and, which we find too in our big national study, in this we find that the people that started the study that were cohabidating about well over have nearly two-thirds would say that they more slid into it than really talked about it. So, you’re in this state where you’ve made it harder to break up because you’ve got all of these things now to unwind, maybe you’ve even signed a lease, etc., you’ve got all of that going on, you’ve made it harder to break up, but you haven’t really kind of decided yet on a future together. You haven’t really sort of talked through and decided that I want you and you want me, which is the epitome of what my favorite phrase is, is what a lot of people are doing now is they’re giving up options before they made a choice.

They’re actually really putting themselves in a place that might be hard to get out of before they’ve actually decided that’s the place they want to stay.

Brett McKay: This goes back to the ambiguity of dating, right?

Scott Stanley: Yes, so let me come back to that. So many things are ambiguous today. I think it’s the biggest change in romance, dating, sex, dating and mating in the last 40 years is and think of all of the things that are ambiguous now. Whether or not what we’re doing Friday night, is it a date or not? And, by the way, if it were a date then you can talk to people and you can see that that puts more pressure on, it’s like, what does that mean, so, who is paying and what are the expectations versus just hanging out? Hookups, of course, you know, that’s a big thing these days to talk about. Hookups, the whole point of the hookup is that it’s fundamentally ambiguous about what’s going on. There’s some sort of physical contact, but it’s not clear, in fact, on a campus, it may even be clear that it’s not supposed to mean something, we’re not supposed to catch feelings, but it’s an ambiguous thing.

Breakups are really ambiguous now, because if you think about it people don’t just sort of break it off cleanly these days, partly technology comes in here as a difficulty because it’s so easy to sort of monitor somebody after you break up and people are very aware now that they have all of these sort of or they may have like a back burner sort of relationship, “I might come back to you, I might not, I’m monitoring this other person who maybe I never even broke up with, but these other people that I’ve broken up with, you know, I still see them on Facebook, they follow me, I follow them.” So, that’s ambiguous, and cohabitation, and this is where I really started thinking the most about ambiguities, so this preceded all of these other sort of changes. It’s fundamentally an ambiguous condition. If I meet somebody at a party and they tell me, “I’ve got a partner and we’re living together,” what I like to tell audiences is I’ll say, look, from all I know right now, they’ve just told me they’re living with a partner. I know absolutely nothing about their level of commitment to that person. I know that they felt good enough at some point about their relationship to move in or that it was convenient enough financially, but that doesn’t tell me anything about their commitment.

In fact, cohabiting couples are just as likely to have sex with somebody outside the relationship, they’re just as likely to cheat as couples that are dating and not cohabiting. It doesn’t say much about commitment. Contrast that with this, if I meet that person and they say they’ve got a partner and they’re engaged, I know a ton about commitment, because that’s a big public signal of commitment and you don’t get that wrong with a partner. If they tell me they’re married, I know a ton about commitment. I don’t know if it’s a great marriage or not, but I know a ton about commitment. If they tell me they have a life partner, I know a lot about commitment, that’s a strong statement about where that person is at regarding the other person and what they think. They tell me they’re living together, I don’t know much of anything and in fact, if I thought they were attractive and I was on the market, I’m going to be likely to see them as still being on the market.

Brett McKay: OK, so, I mean, that’s interesting. There’s a lot to unpack there. One question I have first, so this ambiguity, people do it in the dating scene because it feels safer.

Scott Stanley: Yes, less risky.

Brett McKay: Less risky, but, as you said, cohabitation, people slide into it with this ambiguity, that leads to it makes it harder to break up, it feels safe, but how does dating ambiguously, it feels safe in the beginning, but how does that, even if you don’t cohabitate, right, what’s the downside of sort of keeping things ambiguous? Do you see what I’m saying?

Scott Stanley: Yeah, I certainly see what you’re saying. Let’s come back a bit to the cohabitation part, too on the end of this, because it will make a lot of sense then in terms of what sort of changes that risk profile. So, here is where it gets risky. You can sure see with people being kind of freaked out about love and commitment, plus people getting married later and later and later, so they don’t want to like get settled down too fast or whatever, so they’re playing it cool with a particular partner. Here is where it gets risky. The problem with ambiguity is as a relationship goes on and this could be the man or the woman, or whoever, as a relationship goes on it gets more risky because one or both are really developing and attachment for that other person or else it wouldn’t keep going. There’s somebody, is at least, and maybe both, in the best healthy case they’re both pretty into each other, and they’re both getting attached, and they’re both kind of moving towards greater and greater clarity and at some point, maybe they’re like conveying to others that this is my boyfriend, this is my girlfriend, which is I think today’s counterpart to going steady, by the way.

So, here is who it’s risky for, let’s say somebody is really into their partner, but as it turns out, and they don’t know it yet, their partner is not so into them, the partner is pretty happy to have sex with them, the partner is pretty happy to hang out with them, pretty happy to go out with them, maybe even happier to stay in with them, happy to move in with them, but isn’t maybe at all even thinking, maybe has even already decided, well, you’re not the one, you’re just the one that will do for now. This person, let’s say person A is the more committed person. They’re already deeply attached, they’ve got some commitment developing to this person, what ambiguity allows is for a symmetrical commitment to hide out, it allows it to sort of live for a long time, because when you have something like a system where people are sort of used to people announcing you are boyfriend and girlfriend, used to saying, “hey, would you go steady,” again, nobody does that anymore, it goes way back, but when you have that sort of system, it’s forcing sort of a timing for a put up or shut up moment of being really public and clear.

With the massive ambiguity we have now, the person that’s over-committed is really running a risk over time of getting burned, because they’re giving more and more. They’re also burning time on their clock, you know. If they’re really seriously looking for a life partner they don’t know yet that they’re wasting time with this other person that maybe is never going to step up or never intends to step up and this system makes it easy for that person to hide out who is less committed.

Brett McKay: As you’re saying this, it sounds like for a lot of men, the ambiguity plays in their favor, right? Like, maybe they just want a sex partner, so those guys who say that, like what would you say is the downside of that, like are they going to get burned eventually?

Scott Stanley: Yes, you’re raising such an important thing. First off, despite the degree to which there is a lot of people that would like to say there is no differences between men and women, this is one of the areas of the difference between men and women. There is just no doubt on average, there’s always exceptions, and I think these things tend to run about two to one so if we talk about this point, we should recognize that there’s plenty of guys on the other end of that. But, it is true that guys on average are more willing to have a number of casual, sexual relationships than women. I mean, there’s some ways in which that’s changed, there’s some ways in which that’s changing, but that’s historically been true and there’s a lot of evidence of that. So, it does tend to mean if this system of ambiguity on average benefits anybody between men and women, it benefits men a little bit more because it plays to that avoidance to commitment, of not wanting to settle down, not wanting to be really clear or be nailed down.

I remember a focus group study from 2000s, actually put out by the National Marriage Project, and it was so sobering, it was really influential in a lot of my thinking about some of these things, because they interviewed all of these guys about what they were looking for, what they were searching for in relationships, and there was, I don’t know what the number is, but there was enough to make it a serious point in the report, there was enough guys who were living with a woman who could say to the interviewer, “I know she’s not the one. I’m just waiting until I find the one. She’ll do.” I read that and I thought, “Gosh, that’s terrible. How many of those women know.” The answer is, a lot of them don’t, and that’s part of the difficulty with ambiguity.

Now, does this burn men? Here is the way I think about it, ultimately when somebody is ready to settle down in marriage, and I’ll just give you one of the cards to play on this, we can go deeper on this one if you want. When people go to settle down, they’re really ready now, “I want to be married, I want that. I want that lasting love thing.” It does matter how much experience they’ve had in relationships leading up to that point, and while experience is usually a great thing in so many areas in life, you know you want to be the experienced guy at work, you want to be the experienced guy on a sports team, you want to be that guy. In terms of relationships and marriage and romance and sex, it turns out not to be great to have a lot of experience.

There’s a lot of theories, Galena and I have written a lot about why that would be the case, and there’s a number of things we talk about, one of my favorites is this one. So, let’s say we’ve got a guy named Joe. Joe finally settled down, picked Susie, four years into marriage they’ve got a kid, maybe they’ve got another kid on the way. Let’s just say they’ve got one kid, keep it pretty simple, so that she’s not pregnant at the moment, but the sex isn’t like as exciting as it used to be and Joe is starting to think, I wish this was better, I wish this was more exciting, I wish we did some of the things we used to do. It’s pretty normal stuff in a marriage, it’s the stuff that married couples kind of have to figure out. Well, Joe is getting a little unhappy now, getting a little bit wondering about the sex life.

So, let’s think about, let’s have Joe and Bill. Let’s say Joe had 10 sexual partners before marriage and let’s say Bill only ever had sex with his wife. Which, is, by the way a lower risk pattern in marriage. If you only ever lived … If you’re going to live with somebody before marriage, if you only ever lived with the one you married and if you only ever had sex with the one you married, those marriages tend to be doing a little bit better. But, way, way better? No, but somewhat better. Let’s go back to Joe. Joe is a little unhappy sexually, so he starts to compare his wife, he starts to compare Susie, not even to just like one of those 10, I think what actually happens is you can kind of start to form this image of this super lover in your head that’s like the average of the three best sexual partners of those 10 that you were with and now your wife has to compete with that in your head. I think that’s pretty hard to do.

Brett McKay: Yeah, OK, that’s interesting and what’s interesting about that is that the sex part, though it’s an important part is only one part of a marriage.

Scott Stanley: That’s right, absolutely right. In fact, that’s one of the most important things about the secret of doing well in marriage is understanding, you know, you’re making a different bargain now. You’re looking for something, you’re looking for lasting love. You’re looking for all of the good stuff that comes from really being together. By the way, and you probably know the data on this, married guys have more sex than other guys. Marriage, there’s marriages that don’t turn out well, there’s marriages that are really painful and difficult, but on average, people do really well over life in marriage, but it’s not like a party every day, and it’s not always scintillating, and one of the ways I like to think about this now for people that really want to do well in life in terms of the family and marriage thing, you want to be careful, you want to look around, you want to do a good search and you want to make a good choice in a partner.

You don’t want to move in before marriage, or, by the way, just to complete this loop, you don’t want to move in at least until you’re engaged, because if you go back to everything I said about cohabitation and Galena Rhoades and I published study after study on this now, the people that are already engaged before they move in or married before they move in don’t have that higher risk thing that’s related to cohabitation before marriage. The group that is at higher risk is the people that lived together before they made the future clear. That fits everything that we’re saying about inertia and the difficulty for some people with cohabitation is you might be making it more likely that you’re going to be with that person and that’s maybe not who you chose.

In the best case, you do all that well, you don’t get locked down too soon and you make a good choice, and then what’s going to happen is life’s up and down. You’re going to have some days you’re not so happy, you’re going to have some years you’re happy, you’re going to have some years that you’re tougher. That’s normal, but what you have is this understanding and this commitment together that we’re doing life together and that’s the really good stuff when people can really develop it and have it and keep it. That’s like a powerful thing.

Brett McKay: How can men make dating less ambiguous? Because, usually, you know, it’s still today, men are typically expected to do the asking and lead the relationship forward and sort of take the initiative in that aspect. How can the guy do that without freaking women out. If feel like now there’s the expectation where it’s like, “OK, he’s asking me on a date, right,” like, that means a lot. So, what can you do to make it more of a deciding, you’re deciding the relationship instead of just being ambiguous about it?

Scott Stanley: Here’s an idea, and I don’t know, I’m not in the dating scene, but this makes some sense to me and it beats the heck out of something like texting her, saying, “you up?” I think a guy can, in person or on the phone, you could do this in text, but text is so … I just read a big study yesterday that there is so much information in voice tone than there even is in face, facial expression. So, imagine how much less information there is like in texting or emailing or messaging on Facebook or whatever. This would be a gutsy move, but it’s hard to imagine that a woman wouldn’t be responsive to this. I mean, what would it be like to actually call her up and say, “Hey, I’d like to take you out Friday,” and then instead of leaving her in a mound of ambiguity about what that means, what is he expecting? What is that going be?

Try doing what people used to do, here’s what I would like to do, I would like to take you out to dinner here and then there is this concert, there’s this show, there’s this something to do afterwards, or I’d like to walk along the river. Whatever might make sense. It could be a bike hike, you know, let’s go bike down there and let’s go have dinner by the water and then let’s bike back. Ask her out and have a plan. I think one of the things that could really work well for women about that and it used to work pretty well is you’re not only, you’re taking a lot of ambiguity out of the mix for her right off the bat, because you’re declaring that you’re actually interested in taking her out.

Yeah, that’s a little freaky and we live in a culture that’s extra freaky, but I kind of think that the guy that does that, for a lot of women, is going to look pretty impressive, because they know that that takes some guts and it’s not an easy thing to do. Then, the fact that you actually say, clearly, “Here’s what I’m thinking, and I’ll have you home by 11.” You could even say something like that if you want to really put her mind at ease about, “Well, if we’re going out to dinner, what does that mean?” If you have a plan and you be clear I think you’re taking a lot of anxiety off the table for her at risk to yourself, because if you’re going to really get rid of ambiguity somebody is taking some risk to be declarative about being interested. So, as the guy, if you’re taking that lead and willing to do that, I mean, women can do this, too, by the way, but if you’re willing to do that, I think it’s a pretty strong thing to do in terms of showing a woman that you’re serious and that you’re interested and you’d like to know more about her.

Brett McKay: Right, so you’ve got to take a risk.

Scott Stanley: Yeah, you’ve got to take a risk.

Brett McKay: It’s manly to take a risk.

Scott Stanley: It’s manly to take a risk. I think it’s a good thing to take a risk.

Brett McKay: Going back to the benefits by making it less ambiguous, you’re going to save yourself a lot of heartache in the future, a lot of mental bandwidth, emotional bandwidth dealing with getting out of something that you sort of slid into.

Scott Stanley: Yeah, and you know what, this is a great question, just about, let’s think about what are you actually risking? In the moment, and this is always scary, whoever is asking somebody out, you know, it’s a scary thing, because in the moment, you are risking because you’re saying you want something and what you want in this case is to get to know this person and have more time with them, so yeah, you’re willing to take that risk. But, you’re also going to get pretty valuable information. You’re not only giving them information, right off the bat, which is a pretty great thing for them, you’re actually going to get information because let’s say this is a woman you were pretty interested in and she just says, flat out, right there on the phone, she friend zones you. You know, I’m just not really interested in that, that’s not what I’m up for, that’s not where we’re going. By the way, this could be like an online thing, too, it could be online dating, but formed into a real request, which could be for coffee, by the way, for a first meeting, but either way, you’re taking the risk, you’re asking, but you’re going to get some information, because if she’s like “Well, I, you know, I think there’s a shower for my pregnant girlfriend Friday night, I’ve got to check.” That’s pretty valuable to you, because do you want to actually start spending a lot of time in a vague way trying to figure out something with this woman over the next two months that maybe you could know within the next 15 minutes by asking her out in a clear way? I’m not saying you’re proposing marriage, I’m not saying you’re asking her to have your baby and have a life with you. It’s like, “Hey, how about Saturday night, I’ve got this idea, would you do that with me?”

Brett McKay: And, as the relationship progresses, you want to have like those decisive moments where you’re not just sort of sliding into it.

Scott Stanley: Yeah, so let’s come back to cohabitation for a second. Let’s say somebody says to me, and again, keep in mind, you can hear all sorts of social scientists these day say there’s no risk to cohabiting. It’s just not … That’s only true, we’ll come back to this and then we’ll come back to deciding, that’s only true if you cohabit only after you’re engaged or you don’t already have a child together and/or you’re over the age of 23 and you only ever cohabit with that one person that you marry. So, think about that for a moment, because people see this headline in news articles that there’s no longer a risk to cohabiting before marriage. That’s not true for most people because most people are not going to fit all of those criteria. So, here is why the deciding part … Let’s say you’re growing in the place where you know you really want to marry this person, well, I am suggesting to people you’re adding some risk if you slide into moving together before you’ve really clarified a future. Some people are going to decide from a values, maybe religious beliefs, they’re going to wait until marriage, that certainly looks great on paper by the way. But, I always encourage people, at least you want to know what’s the future and one of the biggest future questions you could ask is do we have a future, are we going to get married, will you marry me. If that question is mutual and determined, you could struggle in a lot of ways in your marriage, but because you’ve decided that before you moved in together, you’re not likely that couple that we’re concerned about who ends up marrying somebody just because it got too hard to leave. So, you could be making … I think of it this way, anytime there’s an important relationship transition that could limit your future options, you should be making a clear decision and not sliding.

Brett McKay: And it seems like something that needs to be connected with that is maybe public declarations. That seems to be an important aspect of that.

Scott Stanley: Thank you for picking up on that, because it’s one of the things I think the most about now. I think it’s a crucial thing. One person being committed to the other in this context, in terms of trying to lower risks and making a good choice, one person being committed together doesn’t mean a lot, because somebody could be telling themselves, well, and I think people do this all the time, well, I know I really like him, I want to be with him, I’d like to marry him, I know it’s going to freak him out if I bring up the M word, so I’m just going to kind of maneuver things or hope that we start living together, which is again so easy to do since the paradigm there is this sliding thing where we’re just sort of gradually there, and then somebody’s lease is up and like oh, yeah, why don’t you just be here. That’s not much of a discussion about what it means and about the future. So, since that’s such a common thing, I see people sort of thinking, well, I can just sort of reel that person in, and that’s just a bad play. It’s high risk, because getting married once you’re already constrained doesn’t do the same thing as getting married when you’re not constrained.

The signal thing, I was coming back to that, that one person can be very committed to marrying their partner, but there’s not like a public declaration together about who we are and what we’re doing, then they might be fooling themselves about what the relationship is. They might be reading into stuff that’s not there.

Brett McKay: It’s got to probably be more than just a Facebook status. It’s got to be something heavier, probably.

Scott Stanley: Yeah, and you know, Facebook status, I was pretty excited when that got to be a thing, because I was already 20 years ago, I was starting to pay a lot of attention to this sort of loss of steps and stages and this loss of ways people had to kind of signify to other people that we’re a thing, that we’re a couple, and then Facebook came out I don’t know, what would that be 10 years ago or so, and I thought, well that’s kind of cool, but that’s become passe now, and I don’t even know how much people are doing it. You might get a little bit more information these days out of whether somebody will post a picture of them as a couple versus them as an individual. There is some information in those things that sort of is replacing a little bit what used to be there. If you really want to know, you want something that is a public signal that we’re a couple with a future, that everybody that matters to you and your network gets and understands, because then you’re not going to be misunderstanding each other.

Brett McKay: Let’s say there’s a guy listening to this podcast, and lhe’s listening and he’s like, man I slid into this relationship that I’m in right now. What’s their next step? What should someone do if they’ve slid into a relationship, they’re not happy with it, they’re feeling constrained.

Scott Stanley: Well, I think if somebody recognizes themself in that, let’s answer your question for two people, and this isn’t exactly the right answer for everybody but these two are pretty common. Let’s take the first situation, it’s somebody that means eventually to be married and plans to settle down, but they’re not married yet, they don’t have a child together, so it’s a relatively simple situation, and they’ve figured out I have slid through this and this and this and this isn’t the person. I’m constrained, I’m feeling that, I’m feeling like the constraints are higher than the dedication, you’ve got to find a way to break up.

I mean, why wouldn’t you break up? That’s like if you’re living together, I think that is the couple that before marriage would benefit from moving out and then you know if there really is something there, they can get back together, they can figure that out, they can make a decision, they can sort of put the things in the right sequence then if they want. But, I think you’ve got to give yourself a way to get out and you have to push it because otherwise, the inertia is just going to keep going. You’re going to keep doing things that will make it harder to eventually leave. One of the biggies of course is that you’re assuming you’re sexual you might just have a baby coming along one time here, and now you’re really in it, because even if that relationship doesn’t make it you’re a parent with that person for the rest of your life. So, if you recognize that you’ve slid so far and you’re not married and that’s the future you want, you find a way to break up. I think it’s a more challenging question, now, for the person that’s married. By the way, some people have slid all the way up to a certain point in marriage and it’s still the same person they would have chosen, it’s just they got there by sliding, so I might even be talking more to that person now, because I think that person is pretty common.

What I think that person can do is to recognize it’s time to make a choice that you’re in this marriage and this is what you’re doing and that you are choosing this partner. Yeah, you walked the aisle, yeah, you had a wedding, but you were all so constrained by that time, the choices people make when they’re really already constrained just don’t tell you as much about what they really want. So, for the person that’s slid far along and is committed, is married, maybe they’ve got a kid and it actually is going to be for many of these folks, their better life to make that work and that may be the very same person they would have chosen if they were making decisions all along, but they never really anchored their commitment in choosing this person because everything was a slide. What I say to that person is, it’s time to look yourself in the mirror and decide. You know, really challenge yourself to you know, I’m not just going to hang out. It’s kind of a gut check thing where you decide, I’m choosing this, I’m going to do this and I’m going to invest with her and make this the best life we can have together instead of hanging out and sliding all the rest of the way.

Brett McKay: Do you do anything like a public declaration or is it between you and the other person?

Scott Stanley: You know, that’s a great point. If you had two people, this happens, I don’t know how often it happens, it happens often enough. If you have two people that sort of recognize that moment together I think you could make it a public thing. Sometimes people will retake their vows, they’ll do another ceremony, that would be more typical in certain religious settings where they might sort have a recommitment ceremony. Even just as a couple, two people that recognize that together and yeah, we kind of slid all the way here, but we don’t want to do this, we want to do this right. I don’t know if it has to be like … It would be hard to say what you’re going to tell your friends, “Hey, you know, Susie and I, we’ve been married for five years now. We’ve finally decided we’re going to really be married.” I don’t know how you say that, right, I don’t know what you do, but you could sure say it to each other. I think it’s very common that you might not be doing that as a couple and it might just be you and you might just be thinking, yeah, I’m a slider, but you know, this is a pretty good person and this is a pretty good deal, and I want to make it work. I’m deciding right now to do my part and give my best to my partner.

Brett McKay: So, just a recap, basically, don’t be ambiguous with your dating if you’re in the dating scene, because it will save you a lot of trouble later on. Some guys don’t plan on getting married until 30, mid-30s, and this is going to require them to have some, I don’t know, restraint, and not just go with the flow, and that’s kind of hard sometimes when you’re in your 20s.

Scott Stanley: Right, because the whole culture is gong, you know, everything is going a certain direction and anytime you decide to do something a little different … In fact, this is a great sort of implied question, let’s say a guy really sort of shifts his deal a little bit and starts to be much more intentional and less ambiguous. He’ll have to make some decisions within himself because I actually think what’s going to happen is he’s going to get more women interested in him. I think there will be women that are going to pick up on that and say, “Well, this is a serious guy. You know, this is the real deal,” and so I think a guy that decides that he’s going to be less ambiguous may even become sort of more attractive to more women and he’s going to have to decide what he’s really about.

Brett McKay: Yeah, we’ve had relationship people on the podcast before, and they say like the one thing women want, as you said, they want security. So, just being explicit about what you’re doing with the relationship, that eliminates so much of the anxiety when that’s going to make you more attractive.

Scott Stanley: Yeah, be explicit and be genuine. Obviously, people could use this as a way to game people, that would be pretty tragic, but there are those people out there, but for the guy that really wants to be genuine and serious, women tend to like that a lot.

Brett McKay: OK, so, let’s say … That was really useful, I unpacked a lot there. Let’s say we followed everything, the guy was, he decided he was very up front, explicit, not ambiguous, gets married, didn’t do the cohabitating thing, what can that guy do to maintain that strong marriage or those moments when the marriage gets weak, what can he do to help strengthen it?

Scott Stanley: So, let me give one piece of advice, just to him and then another that’s sort of to him and his wife. So, just to him, one of the things that I love to talk about and it comes out of the work on commitment and the theory on commitment. One of the things you see when somebody is really committed to their partner is that they more freely, willingly, and without grumbling about it do little things that are kind of sacrifices for their partner, they’re not giant sacrifices, they’re little sacrifices where you know sort of like, she’s going to like it better if I do this. I know if I do this for her today it’s going to really help her a lot. I know she likes it when I do this. The way I like to put it to anybody, male or female about their relationship is this, you probably know, unless you’re not paying any attention to your partner, we all know a few things that just are always appreciated by our partner, maybe not every day recognized, but there’s some things where we know she really likes it when I do that, and she likes it when I do that, and she likes it when I do that.

Here’s my favorite way to construct this list, construct that list, but make it this way, it’s those things that you know that you can do that are easy to do, you know she likes it and this is the best part, you know you’re really not really likely to do any one of those three things today. In fact, you’re not really very likely to do any one of those three things this week, but you know that list. You know what it is. You can do them, they’re small, you know she likes it, and you’re not likely to do them. Then, make it a regular habit of yours a couple of times a week to do one of those things. It’s not rocket science, because you’re just acting then on your commitment, you’re pushing yourself to do that little bit extra and I think people, I think it’s a very strong play for the quality of your marriage for your relationship because it really signals that you thought about them, it’s a little more likely to stand out to them, because it’s the right list of stuff that you know that they tune into and you know that they care about. Not all the time, but most of the time, so that’s the individual, and that’s a general do your part.

To the two, I think one of the most important things that we emphasize in all of the stuff that we’ve done with couples over the years and the things we do about preventing declines in marriage and keeping marriage strong is keep fun and friendship alive. People just slack on that. It’s another form of sliding, we just sort of let it slide away as opposed to just kind of deciding together, 15 minutes, two hours at a time whatever you can do, whatever can work to preserve times together, a time or two a week where you’re together and you’re not working on anything, you’re not trying to fix anything, you’re not talking about money. In fact, you don’t bring any of that stuff up, but you’re doing something that you both like to do together. That could be taking a walk, taking a hike, taking a bike ride, binge watching on Netflix, whatever it is, you’re making the time for that and all of the rest of the world, all of the noise, problems, off limits, maybe even mobile devices out of the room or not with you or tucked away, because those are really distracting. So, preserve fun and friendship.

The other one is this, if you’re really struggling with communication and conflict, that’s something you can learn to do differently, and it’s a common thing in marriage, so I encourage people, you know, we have an online program where people can really work to communicate better if they want. Books, we’ve got books, all kinds of books out there. There’s different ways people can learn. You go to a therapist, go to a counselor, go to a relationship education workshop. Do something to learn how to handle conflict better so that it’s not damaging your relationship, because when you have the conflict regularly not being handled well, which can be pretty common it’s like acid on that good stuff, that positive connection that you’re building by doing the things around commitment and fun and friendship.

Brett McKay: That’s great, well, Scott, this has been a great conversation. We really unpacked a lot, I feel like.

Scott Stanley: Yeah, we covered some ground.

Brett McKay: But, there’s a lot more people could investigate. Where can people learn more about your work?

Scott Stanley: So, if people want to read a lot about this sort of dating/mating stuff, cohabitation, I write a lot about the things that we do research on and the things that we publish research on, on my blog, which is slidingversusdeciding.com. You can spell it a number of ways, or just search for my name and the blog. But, slidingversusdeciding.com, they can read all kinds of things about the very things that we just, everything we just talked about, I’ve written a lot about on that blog. If they want to go further, if you’ve got a couple like a married or premarital couple, trying to sort of figure out their deal and figure out what their future is, they want to do something like an online program, we’ve got a really great one that’s only $25 and it’s at lovetakeslearning.com. It’s a program called e-prep at lovetakeslearning.com. They can do that, they can work through some of the kinds of things that we teach couples in our workshops and in our books to strengthen their marriage, to strengthen their relationship.

Brett McKay: Awesome, well, Scott Stanley, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Scott Stanley: Thank you, I really appreciate it.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Dr. Scott Stanley, he’s a Professor of Psychology at the University of Denver, and you can find out more information about his work at slidingversusdeciding.blogspot.com. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.is/stanley where you can find link to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure you check out the Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com and if you enjoyed the podcast and have gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate if you would take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Also, share the podcast with a friend, the more the merrier here. As always, thank you for your continued support, until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

Last updated: December 7, 2017

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