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Dating in ambiguity: 1 scholar's advice for single adults

Imagine you are on a playground, and you spot a giant, old-school teeter totter. It's bright yellow and it rises well above your head on the upside. You look around the playground, find someone who looks well suited to be your partner and together you climb onto your opposing seats. Rising and falling, you bounce up and down, enjoying the ride. Feeling confident that you and your partner have found a good rhythm, you tuck your feet up off the ground, trusting that the balance and rhythm will continue. Then, just as you begin to relax in your new position, your partner, across from you and on their way back to the ground, turns their legs to the side and casually rolls off their seat as they touch the ground. High in the air on the other side it hits you. You're about to come crashing down.

For Dr. Scott Stanley, a research professor of marital and family studies from the University of Denver, that's the metaphor of choice when describing what he calls "asymmetrically committed relationships."

Dating, relationships and marriage aren't quite what they used to be, Dr. Stanley said while speaking to students, faculty and alumni on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Feb. 7.

Looking back 40 years ago or so, there were pretty clear steps or stages that signaled where a couple was in their relationship with one another.

Guest speaker Dr. Scott Stanley of the University of Denver addresses students, alumni and faculty during the 15th Annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture on Feb. 7, 2019 on the BYU Provo, Utah campus.
Guest speaker Dr. Scott Stanley of the University of Denver addresses students, alumni and faculty during the 15th Annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture on Feb. 7, 2019 on the BYU Provo, Utah campus. Photo: Aislynn Edwards, BYU Photo

"In my day … you asked a girl out, and you went out a few times on dates," Dr. Stanley said. "The next thing was one of you would say, 'You want to go steady?' 'Sure.' And that's the whole discussion."

But there have been dramatic changes in the last few decades in terms of the ways relationships, marriages and families do or don't form, explained Dr. Stanley during his presentation at the 15th Annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture.

Dr. Stanley's research has helped shape much of the academic dialogue surrounding the topics of marriage and families in the U.S. And his theories about the effects of ambiguity among those searching for relationships in today's dating environment heavily stress the negative effects of asymmetrical commitments.

Today's dating culture has become one of fear, anxiety and unrealistic expectations. Rather than committing to something that doesn't meet a person's "sky-high" expectations, people often simply delay making committed relationship choices, or opt to only half-heartedly commit to the relationships they do find. As a result, the number of people choosing the path of marriage has plummeted in recent years while ambiguous relationships like those created by cohabitation and asymmetrical commitments have increased instability for children and families.

In many ways, on the broader scale, marriage is becoming less common, but it is increasing in status. Marriage is viewed as a somewhat unattainable gold-standard, particularly by populations unlikely to feel economically and culturally secure enough to attain it. And while Dr. Stanley noted that exceptions are found primarily in highly educated or highly religious environments or cultures — like those created at BYU or by members of the Church in general — where belief systems regarding the importance of marriage tend to outweigh the social trends of the day, many of the current dating phenomenons can still appear even in societies where marriage is still a common practice or goal.

Signaling, ambiguity and the big delay

Where social norms or patterns used to exist to help signal and define the status of relationships as they progressed, there now exists a seemingly purposeful lack of defining signals in dating. Both fear and a lack of skill in communicating clearly have become driving factors in creating ambiguous, or not clearly defined, relationships, Dr. Stanley noted, so people often fail to communicate what they want or don't want from their relationships.

"Secure commitments are clearly signaled … but ambiguity is the flavor of the age," he said. The results are a phenomenon of ambiguous and often asymmetrical relationships where one partner is more clearly committed than the other.

Guest speaker Dr. Scott Stanley of the University of Denver addresses students, alumni and faculty during the 15th Annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture on Feb. 7, 2019 on the BYU Provo, Utah campus.
Guest speaker Dr. Scott Stanley of the University of Denver addresses students, alumni and faculty during the 15th Annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture on Feb. 7, 2019 on the BYU Provo, Utah campus. Photo: Aislynn Edwards, BYU Photo

Listing three main types of people in play on the relationship fields of today's world, Dr. Stanley explained: there's the seekers, those actively looking to find a partner — which he joked was likely most of the BYU student population; the delayers, those who are determined to not get tied down to any one person or relationship; and the wanderers, or those who are just in and out of the dating scene without giving much thought to what they want.

But even among those who are actively seeking committed relationships, fewer people overall are getting married nowadays, and those who are getting married are doing so at later ages than ever before — a phenomenon he referred to as "The Big Delay."

For some of the students in attendance at that the lecture, Dr. Stanley's research felt spot on for their college dating experiences so far.

Speaking about the idea of struggling to define a commitment, freshman student Dallin Ward said, "I think it's understandable people are afraid. It's hard to say if we're a 'thing' or not."

Students attending the 15th Annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture on Feb. 7, 2019 listen to guest speaker Dr. Scott Stanley in the Hinckley building on the BYU Provo, Utah campus.
Students attending the 15th Annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture on Feb. 7, 2019 listen to guest speaker Dr. Scott Stanley in the Hinckley building on the BYU Provo, Utah campus. Photo: Aislynn Edwards, BYU Photo

Noting the types dating "signals" at play in the BYU dating culture, sophomore Micah Pixton added, "I think there's at least a tacit agreement that you should DTR (define the relationship) at some point."

The fact that the acronym exists explains that people are trying to find ways to signal their commitment, Pixton said, but whether or not it actually happens or when it should happen is often less clear.

"I feel like I'm already starting to look back on relationships and think, 'what was I doing there?'" Pixton said. "Most of the reasons I was probably ambiguous are reasons (Dr. Stanley) stated. Being afraid of rejection, I really don't like rejection. … it's difficult to open myself up emotionally and be vulnerable there. Most people tend to be ambiguous because they are hoping to avoid pain."

Advice for singles who are searching

In his conclusion, Dr. Stanley described how marriage will continue to become a stronger and more powerful signal of the best relationships over time, and as such, working towards it is still an economically and socially wise goal, particularly for those guided by their beliefs towards it.

Leaving tips for those still in the dating scene, Dr. Stanley concluded with the following dating advice.

  1. Take it slow: "Don't go too fast, keep your eyes open and be gathering information." Some people search too little, and some search too long. There are consequences for both, Dr. Stanley said. "But take it slow."
  2. Look for valid signals: While signals will vary between different groups and cultures, he said, "there will be reliable signals if you stop and think about it." Sometimes the best signals will come in the "unscripted" moments when people simply reveal who they really are and what they want.
  3. Pay attention to red flags: A person's little behaviors can reveal a lot about them, Dr. Stanley noted. Pay attention, he said, and "when you get a ton of information, believe it."
  4. Look for someone who shares your beliefs and values.
  5. Avoid high-cost slides: Dr. Stanley noted the importance of making choices about how relationships move forward rather than simply sliding into new situations that will increase the relationship constraints.
  6. Do pre-marital training: It's something everyone can benefit from, he noted, and it's better to do it early.
  7. Be realistic about potential mates: Don't look for perfection, Dr. Stanley said, because it's highly unlikely that perfection is what you can offer them. Look rather for someone who can be a good partner and match, he said.

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