- Dating is the relationship initiation phase, and both people evaluate each other as potential marriage partners.
- How you relate to one another when dating is oriented to self-presentation, self-protection, and partner evaluation.
- How you relate to one another in marriage is caring for and about each other in a non-contingent manner.
The interpersonal process in a relationship is about how you interact with one another, not what you are interacting about. It’s about what is happening between the two when talking, deciding, having fun, having sex—doing all the things couples typically do.
Couples typically pay more attention to what is happening than to the process—how they are interacting. It’s best to pay attention to the how.
Dating is the relationship initiation stage, which involves mutual evaluation of one another as a potential marriage (or committed relationship) partner along with a sense of fairly low commitment.1 Once you and your partner have committed to each other, it is time to drop the evaluative focus. You then put your efforts into being a collaborative partner.
How to Interact in Marriage
There are three dominant models of how to interact in a marriage: the gender model, the business model, and the collaborative model.
The Gender Model
According to ingrained views of masculinity and femininity, interacting with one another is “doing gender.” While a husband considers his wife's wishes, he is the ultimate determiner of how things are negotiated. How good a partner you are depends on how closely you conform to the traditional roles of husband and wife.
The Business Model
A newer notion of how to interact comes from the business world. Applied to marriage, this means the partners do things for each other with the expectation of a return. It is viewed as a fair way to manage the relationship interpersonally.
The dynamic in such a transaction is also based on the notion that what we want from each other is expressed as “I need.” Marriage has become the way we get our own individual needs met. The basic idea is, “You satisfy my needs, and I satisfy yours.”
The Collaborative Model
Negotiating collaboratively the things that are important for each partner to flourish in life requires that partners in a marriage maintain a simultaneous perspective of themselves both as individuals and as a couple; they must have a sense of “being in this together” while also having individual life plans. Being collaborative in negotiating in a marriage is about sharing authority, accepting responsibility, and negotiating in good faith.
Wants and desires that flow from individual life plans are not “entitlements” (needs) that must be fulfilled. You value things but are willing to negotiate with your partner.
Dating Is Not the Same As Marriage
Margaret Clark, a relationship researcher at Yale, described dating as the relationship initiation stage, which involves evaluating one another as potential marriage (or ongoing committed relationship) partner.1 She argued that in dating, you focus on yourself. Remember that in dating, you assess how the two of you interact with one another—what is occurring between the two when you are talking, deciding, having fun, having sex, etc.
Clark and her associates have identified three self-oriented interpersonal processes occurring in a healthy dating relationship. They are: how you present yourself, protecting yourself while you open up to your dating partner, and evaluating the dating partner’s qualities as a marriage partner.
The interpersonal processes described by Clark are ones that you will use if you want a collaborative marital relationship, not one bound by gender or based on the idea of a business transaction.
Three Healthy Dating Processes If You Want a Collaborative Marriage
Once you are aware that you are attracted to another person as a potential partner because of some special qualities you see (physical attractiveness, personality characteristics, what you have heard from a friend), the initial stage of a relationship has begun.
You want to present yourself as a collaborative partner, capable of being attentive, understanding, and providing for the other—a good example of how to do this while dating is to offer support to the other person. Offering support depends on your awareness of what is important, what they want, and what will be helpful to your dating partner. You might offer a ride to the airport, sit for a pet, treat to a meal, or a listening ear in a time of trouble. The important point is to do this without expecting something in return. This kind of self-presentation conveys the kind of partner you can be.
As you begin to present yourself as a desirable partner, you will strive to protect yourself from the possibility that this potential partner may not reciprocate your interest. This self-protective approach begins once you become attracted and present yourself as an interested person.
The concern may be showing interest in developing a close relationship before telling if your dating partner is interested in establishing a collaborative relationship. Offering support while not requesting support is a good way to elicit interest without becoming too dependent on your dating partner. You could offer a ride to the airport, noting that it is not out of the way. This shows your want to be responsive without risking rejection if they say no thanks.
Once attracted to another, you will evaluate whether the person will be a good, collaborative relationship partner. This must be a covert process because: (1) it is for your benefit, and (2) it conveys an interest in the person, which you are not ready to reveal prior to your partner evaluation.
This evaluation is done by observation. There are no “tests” you want to use. Does the person offer non-contingent support? Does he/she express emotions and reveal vulnerabilities? It is important to see if the person you are dating is able to receive the support you give without feeling a sense of debt, i.e., that you are owed something.
Increasing confidence that your dating partner cares buffers against rejection by the partner. You can then risk greater interdependence. However, partner evaluation will continue until you and your dating partner decide whether to make a marital commitment to each other.
Gender in the Dating Relationship
Women may fall into the idea of offering support non-contingently in the dating phase of the relationship but not assess accurately the ability of the man she is dating to provide support for her noncontingently. Unfortunately, after establishing a committed relationship, giving more support than is asked for will foster an unhealthy collaborative relationship.
Men have been reared to live in the business world where exchange (operating contingently) is the proper way to establish working relationships. In turn, they may give support with the expectation of a return benefit.
This gender difference may end up creating a “mismatch” in which one partner is operating collaboratively while the other is operating in an exchange manner, which, of course, will lead to relationship dysfunction.
The Transition to Marriage or an Ongoing Committed Relationship
Clark and her associates have done us a great service by pointing out how different the interpersonal process in dating is from what we want in our marriages. Dating is about assessing whether your dating partner will make a good collaborative partner.
As you both show a capacity for caring non-contingently, your self-protection and partner evaluation strategies will decrease. As you openly commit to the relationship, fully express your support for each other. Are you willing to show your vulnerabilities, can you express wants and desires, and can you openly express your emotions positively?
Your marital relationship's commitment to and longevity will be enhanced as you collaboratively negotiate your shared individual life plans and marital life goals.
1. Beck, L.A. and M.S. Clark. What Constitutes a Healthy Communal Marriage and Why Relationship Stage Matters. Journal of Family Theory and Review. 2 (2010): 29-315.