What makes people feel more (or less) inclined to get married? Research reveals that the ups and downs matter.

Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. Ph.D.

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What makes people feel more (or less) inclined to get married?Brett Jordan/Unsplash

Relationship decisions are rarely as clear-cut as “should I stay or should I go?” Instead, people experience subtle shifts in their commitment that build up over time. For example, what contributes to how serious we are about marrying our partner? Relationship researchers Laura Machia and Brian Ogolsky sought to find out by interviewing participants in stable relationships. During each of eight monthly interviews, 464 participants indicated how serious their relationship was by rating how likely it was they’d marry their current partner – “0% if they were certain they would never marry their partner or never thought about marriage, and 100% if they were certain they would marry their partner in the future.” Each time their “commitment to wed” percentage shifted from one interview to the next, researchers asked why.

Participants expressed a lot of reasons for commitment fluctuations – 13,598 to be exact. The researchers distilled them down to 14 key themes. The most influential reasons were positive and negative characterizations of the partner and relationship. These included direct statements about the partner ("He was fun, considerate and kind”) or about them as a couple ("We were drifting apart"). As you’d expect, positive statements related more to increased commitment, while negative statements were associated with declines.

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What makes people feel more (or less) inclined to get married?Gary W. Lewandowski Jr.

The next-most-mentioned reason was circumstances: unforeseen events or experiences such job loss, a partner becoming ill, or needing to move. Interestingly, this kind of life change could either increase or decrease an individual’s commitment to the relationship. This finding is further evidence that events by themselves – say, a worldwide pandemic – aren’t the sole determinant of a relationship’s fate. A couple’s existing dynamics play a large role, too.

What Predicted Breakups?

Of all the possible reasons that nudged people up or down the commitment scale, one stood out as actually predicting whether a couple would break up: cheating. As much as other factors made people feel more or less likely to consider marriage, involvement with another dating partner was the one true relationship killer.

But there was some good news, too: The study also revealed an easy way to strengthen relationships. The one factor that increased commitment and pushed relationships closer toward marriage: positive disclosure. That’s what psychologists call it when you share information with each other that encourages positive feelings, which in turn supports your relationship. Think exchanging stories about your childhoods, getting to know each other on a deeper level, or sharing good news. These kinds of disclosures strengthen relationships.

Love is a decision, and rarely clear cut

Relationships are complicated, and no one knows for sure what the future holds. It’s hard to know what the best decision is if you’re thinking about whether to stay with a partner or move on. The best relationships have their problems, while the worst still have their virtues. While you don’t want to get stuck with an awful partner, you also don’t want to be unnecessarily harsh toward what could still be a great relationship. Maybe knowing what others consider important factors could help you make your own best choice.

References

Machia, L. V., & Ogolsky, B. G. (2021). The reasons people think about staying and leaving their romantic relationships: A mixed-method analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 47(8), 1279–1293. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167220966903

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Dr. Gary W Lewandowski Jr is the author of Stronger Than You Think: The 10 Blind Spots That Undermine Your Relationship…and How to See Past Them. His TED talk and relationship articles have been enjoyed by over 6 million people.

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