When the Woman, Not the Man, Is the Weak Link in a Relationship

(Dreamstime image: Wavebreakmedia)
It’s more likely to fail when she’s less committed.

Sociologists have long theorized that being the more committed partner in a romantic relationship is a very uncomfortable place to be. “If one lover is considerably more involved than the other, his greater commitment invites exploitation or provokes feelings of entrapment, both of which obliterate love,” Peter Blau explained in his classic book Exchange and Power in Social Life (1964). Earlier, Willard Waller coined the idea of the “principle of least interest” in relationships: The person with the least interest in continuing the association has the power to dictate the terms on which it will continue.

But few marriage and relationship scholars had taken up the challenge of empirically investigating such relationship and their dynamics. So Scott Stanley and Galena Rhoades of the University of Denver looked at a sample of 315 young unmarried couples (59 percent dating and 41 percent cohabiting) between the ages of 18 and 34. These couples had been together for two years at the study’s beginning and each romantic partner had rated their level of commitment to the relationship. Twenty-four percent had at least one child from a previous relationship, and 13 percent had a child together.

Just over a third of these couples turned out to have asymmetrical levels of commitment. Men were almost twice as likely to be the weak link in the relationship, 23 percent to 12 percent. The couples who live together are at higher risk of asymmetrical commitment than are those who merely date (42 percent to 30 percent).

Stanley and Rhoades found, as they predicted, that both people in an “asymmetrically committed relationship” report much lower relationship quality, more conflict, and more aggression than do couples in which each partner is equally committed. “It is immensely dissatisfying and frustrating to be the more committed partner in an unequally committed relationship,” as Stanley and Rhoades note.

Were these asymmetrical relationships more likely to break up? Yes, overall, but when the scholars looked closer they found that this was mostly true when the less committed partner was a woman. “Overall, women’s levels of commitment were vastly more predictive than men’s levels of who stayed together and who did not (five times more predictive),” Stanley and Rhoades report.

When she’s just not that into you, there’s no future in a relationship. But the converse is not necessarily true. I suspect that this is one of the more profound gender differences: Men prefer having a woman, even one they aren’t that into, to not having a woman. Women more often prefer being alone to being in a poor-quality relationship.

When she’s just not that into you, there’s no future in a relationship. But the converse is not necessarily true.

We have no baseline data to know for certain whether asymmetrical commitment is on the rise, but Stanley and Rhoades think it is. Courtship rituals designed to elicit expressions of commitment have faded. Dating and relationship norms (other than avoiding violence) have thinned out, and cultural scripts about relationships have been tossed into the ashbin of history. Getting pinned is something one does in wrestling, not relationships, and even the concept of “the date” is growing ambiguous.

Children of divorce, seeing their parents’ rotating relationships thereafter, have both a longing for stable love and a fear of ending up with the short end of the commitment stick. So today “more people are finding themselves in long-term, unmarried relationships, sometimes for many years, before they realize that their partner is just not that into them. Sliding into moving together or having a child together is often not transformative.”

If you want a happy and stable marriage, don’t slide, decide.

Most Popular


Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More