Talking commitment: Upcoming Hinckley Lecture on cohabitation, commitment and marriage

Cohabitation is not an issue at BYU.

In fact, as well-educated, religious and generally economically-sound individuals, students at BYU are among the least likely to cohabitate before marriage.

But BYU students and couples are just as susceptible as anyone to experience the negative trends and effects of cohabitation on familial outcomes by avoiding commitment and relationship decisions.

At the 15th Annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture, Dr. Scott Stanley, research professor and co-director of the University of Denver Center for Marital and Family Studies, will expound on how relationships form, how commitment develops and the dangers couples face by “sliding” through potentially life-altering relationship transitions and decision making as opposed to discussing and deciding on a future.

Dr. Stanley’s lecture “Sliding vs. Deciding: Cohabitation, Commitment, and the Future of Marriage” will be held on Thursday, February 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hinckley Center Assembly Hall.

Sliding: The non-decision

Talking about your relationship—especially the future of it—can be hard. But the repercussions of not having critical conversations and making relationship decisions are much harder.

“Sliding,” or moving to the next stage in a relationship without discussing the consequences and making a definitive decision and commitment to the future of the relationship, can be seen in relationships at every stage.

 “The people we’ve identified that are at greatest risk [of marital stress] are people who have decided to live together [or move forward in their relationship] before they’ve decided as a couple that they want a future together,” says Dr. Stanley.

Individuals who are not cohabitating face similar risk when they likewise forego crucial clarifying conversations and decision making. In the process of creating relationship ambiguity, couples, in Dr. Stanley’s words, “increase the inertia for their relationship to continue before talking clearly about whether they’re on the same page and where they’re going.”

Following trends and giving up choices

The combination of relationship inertia developing before a couple’s commitment has matured and the cultural trend of individuals preferring ambiguity results in individuals bypassing relationship steps and stages, and in the process, giving up future options.

“People don’t want to be clear,” says Dr. Stanley. “They don’t want clear [relationship] steps and stages because they don’t want to give up any options too soon. Ironically, that’s exactly what happens when they’re sliding through these stages. They’re giving up options before they make a choice.”

With societal trends questioning marriage as an essential life stage, individuals find themselves in situations that they never actually decide on because they bypass the stages and opportunities to make clear decisions for their futures.

Recognizing—and taking—proper steps

According to Dr. Stanley, commitment forms strongest when there are a set of steps and stages that couples move through.

Marriage not only acts as a signifier of higher commitment between two individuals, but it also acts as a major life-orienting step where individuals can make choices that influence their future lives and families.  

“People slide through potentially life-altering relationship transitions now without necessarily seeing what the consequences might be in terms of their future options, [relationship] stability, marriage and family,” says Dr. Stanley.

Recognizing—and taking—these steps and stages throughout a relationship are essential to establishing the commitment that creates the formation and foundation of sound, stable marriages, families and communities.

Regardless of a couple’s living situation, communication and commitment to a couple’s future need to be made before wedding invitations are sent or closets are merged.

Learn about commitment and the dangers couples face by “sliding” through relationship transitions at the 15th Annual Hinckley Lecture with Dr. Scott Stanley on Thursday, February 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hinckley Center Assembly Hall. Admission is free to the public.

Should We Institute Relationship Education for Youth?

“We are failing to equip our youth with the ideas, tools, and practices to know how to negotiate their romantic and sexual lives in healthy, nondestructive ways that prepare them to achieve the happy, functional marriages and families that most of them say they want in future years,” said Christian Smith and his co-authors in their book Lost in Transition: The Darker Side of Emerging Adulthood. Professor Alan Hawkins, in our School of Family Life, agrees. He proposes, in fact, that an institutionalization of better relationship education for youth (YRE) is the answer. He provides an argument for it in the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy.

couple 2“The road that links adolescence to adult family life is not a paved interstate,” he says, “with efficient on- and off-ramps, helpful guideposts, and numerous safety features to prevent or cushion mistakes. Youth navigate [it] alone for the most part. In contrast to a few generations ago, society generally takes a hands-off approach to regulating adolescent and young adult romantic relationships. Not surprisingly, then, many young people arrive at their family destinations battered and bruised.

The Facts

According to Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization focused exclusively on improving the lives and prospects of children, youth, and their families, 80% of young adults surveyed want to get married. However, young adults in general have some of the highest rates of divorce, according to marriage scholar Nick Wolfington.

“Intervening earlier in relationship development, before individuals are committed or perhaps even partnered, has the potential to have an even greater impact on improving relationship quality, reducing divorce rates, and, perhaps most importantly, supporting stable unions for children to grow up in,” said Galena Rhoades and Scott Stanley in their analysis of relationship education.

Hawkins supported this by citing a 2011 study on the evidence of relationship education on high school aged youth: “Overall, [the research] found significant, positive change in students’ relationship skills. These changes were moderated, however, by a number of factors: students in two-parent families showed stronger gains; those in severely economically disadvantaged areas showed little gain; mandated classes produced stronger gains than self-selected classes,” said Hawkins.

Why and How?

effect-1772035_960_720Statistics Hawkins cites demonstrate overwhelmingly that teens’ relationship problems often start early. “Prominent scholars argue,” he says, “that romantic relationships in youth are neither transitory nor trivial, but instead have real effects, positive and negative, on adolescent development.” Youth relationship education has the potential to reduce problematic pathways to marriage (e.g., cohabitation, out-of-wedlock childbirth) and increase the success of their relationships, and thus their happiness.

So, if the need is apparent, how does one implement YRE? Hawkins offers the following suggestions:

  • Private funders and government entities need to invest more in YRE
  • Schools need to be more proactive in providing YRE and must be able to teach all of their students. This can be done by assimilating YRE into required health classes, which have a large reach, as opposed to elective Family and Consumer Science classes
  • Religious settings in conjunction with parental involvement are a good place to suggest YRE
  • Community programs can incorporate YRE into existing youth programs.

Of Paramount Importance

If the only thing that you have to offer in a relationship or marriage is your physical appearance, then you are definitely walking on a very thin line,” said Edmond Mbiaka. It takes more than physical beauty to sustain a healthy relationship or marriage.”  While there are limits to YRE, statistics show the effectiveness of teaching youth how to form healthy relationships, Hawkins says. Finally, Hawkins suggests that instead of differentiating between YRE and CRE (couple relationship education), people refer to them collectively as simply, RE- relationship education: “Removing the C from CRE clarifies that the field is much broader than providing valued relationship education to intact couples; it encompasses the important work of individually-oriented relationship literacy education for youth and young adults. Perhaps this small change in how we refer to the field will spur greater attention to the need to allocate a greater proportion of our resources to healthy relationship formation for young people, to help them better navigate the challenging roads to forming healthy relationships and stable marriages.”

Do you think we should institute YRE?