Sliding vs. Deciding

Observations on Love, Sex, and Commitment

The Losses People Fear in Talking About “The Relationship”

Several types of loss that motivate one partner to avoid The Talk

In my last post, I looked at the question of why people might avoid talking about the relationship; you know, avoid the DTR or having “The Talk.” I discussed several reasons people generally avoid having The Talk, including it being too soon or a couple lacking the ability to have such a talk skillfully. The third reason I raised for avoidance pertains to differences in commitment between partners. I am going to focus on that last point, examining what may go through the person’s mind who does not want his or her partner to start in on The Talk. 

Let’s assume a couple who have the names “A” and “B.” I know those are not very imaginative names, but both sets of parents were apparently exhausted and lacked creativity when A and B were born. What are you gonna do? Despite the odd names, A and B found each other (they were in the same line at the Department of Motor Vehicles) and have been involved (a nice ambiguous term) for over a year.

Partner A is more committed to the future than partner B, and A has been thinking a lot about where things are going. In this example, I’m really focusing on a later stage of DTR than merely discovering if each considers what’s happening a relationship. Partner A is the one who wants a future and, naturally, A wants to know what B is thinking about that. 

Clarifying the relationship has become increasingly important to partner A because A realizes that time is going by. A has plans for committed, life-long love. Partner A wants to settle down in marriage and needs to know if this is in the cards with B. Like most people who are “in the market” for life-long love, partner A will be less inclined to spend a lot of time with someone if A learns there is no future. So, it’s really time to start finding out. This is not pushing for clarity too soon. But the time is now.

Even though partner A really wants to get things clear, partner A could still be pretty wary of starting the DTR process. Partner A might avoid this talk because A has a hunch that partner B either sees no future or is not ready to be tied to anything that sounds like a plan. But let’s focus in more on partner B.

Before I do that, note that this scenario is common and depicts a painful reality about commitment: The person who is most committed has the least power. This is an extension of a principle framed decades ago, when Sociologist Willard Waller (1938) wrote about the Principle of Least Interest. Waller noted that, in any relationship (romantic, family, business deal, car buying, etc.) the person with the least interest has the most power. While I can think of some nuanced situations where this is not exactly true, this notion is completely true in the relationship between partners A and B. Since B is less committed, B can more easily walk away and move on from the present relationship. In an important way, A’s desire to push the matter, now, is an attempt to either bring balance to the force or, at least, figure out, unflinchingly, if that balance won’t be happening between A and B.

Since partner A loves partner B, and knows he or she wants a future with partner B, pushing the matter is scary. People tend to avoid scary things until they can’t put them off any longer. At some point, in this type of situation, the cost of not knowing exceeds the cost of finding out the answer you don’t want to hear. For many people, I fear way too much time goes by between when this line is crossed and when the big picture DTR actually happens. 

The reasons why partner B might avoid The Talk seem more complex, in my view, but they all boil down to calculations over types of loss. Partner B likes the status quo. Whatever the relationship is right now, partner B is happy not to rock the boat, and having The Talk will rock the boat, so B does not want to mess with anything. 

What types of loss can The Talk represent to B? At least three I can think of and describe.

One: If partner B is quite a bit less committed, and senses or knows this, partner B will understand that having a clarifying talk will likely mean breaking off the relationship. B avoids The Talk because of a desire to hang onto the present arrangement even when B sees little likelihood of a long-term future.  

Two: If partner B is somewhat less committed than A, but a future is at least possible, The Talk will lead to a type of ongoing negotiation. One talk will lead to other talks because one isn’t going to do for making things clear or settling what’s happening. Partner A will see some possibility of getting resolution, so A will keep pressing. Like the famous line from the climax of the first Star Wars movie: “Stay on target. Stay on target.” One should fear getting that close to the Death Star but partner A will keep driving in the hopes of wiping out the fear. Partner B doesn’t want this process to start because, like I said, B likes the status quo, even if an equal commitment might be possible in the future. That’s the future and this is today, and all this talking about serious stuff just ain’t fun.

Three:  Partner B might avoid The Talk because the end result will be that B has to up his or her commitment. This is sort of like playing poker. Both partners have their cards (their commitment cards and their cards related to how good their alternatives are). Partner A is throwing all in, and partner B is being called to pony up or fold. Partner B has to match the bet of partner A if A pressed hard enough. 

To put it briefly, partner B avoids The Talk because it can lead to one of several types of loss:   

- Loss of the relationship due to break up.

- Loss of peace in the relationship due to ongoing negotiation.

- Loss of freedom due to having to match the bet of A or leave the game. 

If partner A really decides it’s time to push, and you are counting, that’s three “dues” and it’s time to pay them.

 

Scott Stanley, Ph.D., is a psychologist and a research professor at the University of Denver, where he conducts studies on marriage, cohabitation, and commitment.

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