Is Your Relationship Getting Serious? Should It?

A new study shows how our imaginations fill the gaps when we face uncertainty.

Posted Nov 17, 2014

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More than a year ago, I wrote a post called, “Why aren’t you married yet?" that seemed to resonate with many of my readers. I still get emails and tweets asking me: Did your boyfriend propose?

The answer—I'm a little embarrassed to admit—is no. We've been together more than four years, and we're still not engaged. Has there been progress? Sure. He used to claim that he “hadn’t even thought about marriage.” But just one incriminating blog post and five heart-to-heart conversations later, he now says he wants to propose soon—he just wants it to be a surprise.

Since I’ve now been waiting to be surprised since February, I've come to realize that soon is a relative term. I could be waiting for Godot...

Cue this very interesting study recently published by the University of Illinois researchers, which suggests that couples advancing toward marriage better remember the stages of their commitment than couples weathering rocky times. 

Over a period of nine months, researchers followed 232 non-married couples who had been together for about two years. Each month, the couples reported their perceived likelihood of marriage on a scale from 0 to 100. At the end of the study, each participant was asked to recall their memories of the relationship from the last nine months, which were then compared to the reality of their monthly reports.

The findings show that highly committed people remembered their relationship history accurately, while couples in trouble didn’t.

But what is really interesting about the results is that couples whose commitment had regressed—from serious to casual, or to broken up and back together—actually invented positive memories when reminiscing about their relationship. 

“If we looked at their history as they reported it to us over the nine-month period, we could see that their chances of marriage were plummeting,” says researcher Brian Ogolsky. “Yet their recollection was that things had been going okay....They didn’t know their trajectory looked this dire, but it’s fair to say they were in denial about the state of their relationship.”

It’s easy to criticize the regressor: How can they just reinvent a relationship's history? But we do it all the time in other aspects of life. We embellish our resumes. We shave 5 pounds from our true weight. We exaggerate our accomplishments and successes.

I don’t think any of this is necessarily bad. It’s how we’ve learned to survive in society. And in this society, we’re supposed to be paired off and married.

Of course, marriage isn’t for everyone—but it is for me. And the longer I’m betting on someone—let’s say, four years and 4 months—the more devastating the loss, if I lose the bet. Which is to say, I can completely understand why the regressors recreate their history. So I have to ask: Could I be in denial, too?

Looking back on the last nine months, I distinctly recall times where I felt very frustrated and unsatisfied in this relationship, but I don’t know that they were enough to warrant a breakup. Seemingly not—since we didn’t, right?

But am I simply making excuses so I can better cope with what’s really happening? Am I seeing my slowly deteriorating relationship through rose-colored glasses? Have I been convincing myself that things are going okay, because I'm so hungry for that commitment?

I'll let you know in nine months.

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