The Secret Epidemic Facing Modern Couples

A new cultural norm is fostering a vulnerable style of relationship functioning.

Posted Dec 05, 2016

Mediaphotos/Shutterstock
Source: Mediaphotos/Shutterstock

Do you feel like you love your partner more than he or she loves you? Do you sometimes question how much your partner really wants to be with you, despite the fact that you've been together for many years?

If so, you might be in what researchers refer to as an asymmetric commitment relationship.

Even if you haven’t experienced it yourself, you're likely familiar with this type of relationship. One partner is utterly devoted and eager to make plans for the future. Meanwhile, the other person goes along and enjoys the convenience of the relationship, but is not fully open, engaged, or invested.

Today’s dating norms leave ample room for asymmetric commitment in serious dating relationships. Relationship researchers argue that the stages and steps through which relationships form and progress are blurrier than in years past. There are fewer expected markers of commitment, and many important couple behaviors (e.g., moving in together) occur through a process described in a paper by Scott Stanley and colleagues as “sliding” rather than “deciding."

In other words, our current culture is set up to allow for more asymmetrically committed relationships to persist. People are lingering in such partnerships despite different levels of commitment, while in years past, these relationships would have required decisions that would have solidified or dissolved them.

How common are these relationships and what do they look like?

New research by Stanley and colleagues (2016) aimed to document and compare the basic characteristics of asymmetric commitment relationships (ACRs) and those with mutual levels of commitment (non-ACRs). They surveyed more than 300 unmarried heterosexual couples in serious relationships that had been recruited for part of a larger national longitudinal study.

Their findings suggest that one third of unmarried serious relationships are asymmetrically committed, and this does not refer to minor differences: The researchers were careful to count only those couples that substantially differ in commitment from one another (more than one standard deviation). Women are typically the more committed partner, at a rate of about two to one. And ACRs were particularly likely among those who were cohabitating without marriage, relative to couples who were not living together.

So these relationships are common, and they appear to be problematic. Differences in commitment appear predictive of worse relationship quality, for both the more and less-committed partners (Stanley et al., 2016). The low-commitment partner struggles with more negative interactions, less relationship adjustment, and more aggression, but much of this can be explained simply by their low commitment. The interesting finding pertains to the high-commitment partner: Controlling for their commitment, these devoted relationship partners still reported more conflict, less relationship adjustment, and more aggression (Stanley et al., 2016). Their relationships might be “serious,” but they’re not very happy.

Indeed, in ACRs where women are the weak link (i.e., less committed), breakups are more likely. Surprisingly, this isn’t the case when men are the weak link. This suggests a heightened importance of women’s commitment relative to men’s on determining if a relationship will continue.

What should you do if you find that you’re in an asymmetric commitment relationship? Should you cut your losses, lean into the relationship, or sit back and see what happens?  If your relationship is by all outward markers serious, it might be worth it to initiate a conversation about its future, and your individual and mutual commitment to it. Get a sense of the balance in your partnership. If you keep your partner at an emotional distance despite knowing that the person wants more, you may want to consider whether this is really the best relationship for you. If you’re more committed than your partner, you could evaluate if you’re really comfortable with this imbalance.

Commitment can change, of course, but not without an impetus, and even then, there's no guarantee of change. If a hard conversation compels you to go separate ways, that’s not something to be afraid of: It could free you to find a relationship that better suits you.

References

Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Scott, S. B., Kelmer, G., Markman, H. J., & Fincham, F. D. (2016). Asymmetrically committed relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Advanced online publication.

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