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Harry Benson: Would a wise woman pop the question tomorrow?

Harry_benson Harry Benson runs Bristol Community Family Trust, a local charity that is pioneering short relationship courses that teach couples how to stay together, and was deputy chair of the family policy group that produced Fractured Families and Breakthrough Britain.

Marriage may be declining these days but some things never change. Most men still pop the question and most women still like it that way. Above all else, asking for a woman’s hand in marriage is certain to inspire confidence and security about a man’s commitment to the future together as a couple.

Traditionally February 29th, the leap day, is the day when women who are fed up with waiting to be asked get to pop the question themselves. But is this a wise idea?

Before I explain why a wise woman might want to check out some of her assumptions before dragging her loved one up the aisle, allow me to show how this question can shed light on the much wider issue of family breakdown and policy.

For two generations under all governments, there has been a relentless rise in family breakdown, with a net 40,000 new lone parent families formed every year. Lone parenthood invariably makes family life harder and is often tied in with a cycle of negative inputs and outcomes. The cost of supporting Britain’s 1.9 million lone parent families exceeds £20bn every year. The purpose of Fractured Families and Breakthrough Britain was to suggest how government policy might help improve family outcomes, reduce family breakdown, and reduce the ever growing demands on the taxpayer.

For me, the key conclusion in these reports was that family breakdown has been driven by the trend away from marriage, especially the collapse of unmarried families. The media focused almost entirely on our proposals to support married couples. But the bigger issue is how to improve the stability of unmarried couples.

Unmarried cohabitation may have become the norm. And cohabiting couples often report that they are as committed as married couples. Yet the reality is that nearly half unmarried parents split up before heir child’s fifth birthday. In other words, there is a giant discrepancy between what people think and what they do.

For years, social scientists and policy makers alike have debated and investigated whether these differences are the result of selection or family structure. Is family stability more about individual attitudes and behaviours? Or does the act of either marriage or cohabitation change these in some way? My own research, based on 15,000 mothers in the Millennium Cohort Study whose babies were born during 2000 or 2001, shows that unmarried parents are more than twice as likely to split up, even after taking age, income, education, benefit receipt and ethnic group into account. Selection does not explain this gap.

Although the selection vs. structure debate may never be resolved fully, the people I think are getting closest to some compelling answers and solutions are based at the University of Denver. One of their most important new findings is that men who move in with their girlfriend before proposing tend to have consistently lower levels of commitment throughout the early years of marriage compared to men who propose before moving in together. This distinction doesn’t appear to apply to women who commit regardless of the order of events.

The theory is that men in particular need to decide rather than slide in order to commit. Drifting into marriage, more as a result of inertia than a deliberate and intentional decision, can thus make a relationship more vulnerable. One third of men who get engaged having previously lived together never fully commit.

I find this idea often resonates amongst couples whose marriage is in trouble. One wife, recently separated after fifteen years together, was astonished to hear her husband admit he had spent the first six months of their marriage wondering if he had made the right choice. She had no idea he had been in such turmoil. It became easier to understand, even if not to excuse, how lack of commitment led him to drift away from his wife and ultimately have an affair with someone else.

Women and men often have very different assumptions about commitment. Whether you’re a woman desperate to pop the question on the leap day or a politician thinking about wider family policy, this is the key point to grasp. Whereas most women commit to a relationship when they move in together, most men will only fully commit when they have made a clear decision about their future. Getting married needs to be a choice men make for themselves.

In other words, women can wrongly assume their partner is equally committed just because they live together. Alarmingly high break-up rates amongst unmarried parents, whatever the circumstances, make the point. Having a baby doesn’t necessarily mean dad is as committed as mum.

The idea of sliding or deciding also resonates on a far more mundane level. For example, I know I will do things because my wife wants me to do them. But unless I make my own decision to stop being reluctant and start putting my heart into it, I will always feel I have an opt-out clause if things go wrong. I can say I never really committed. She, as a woman on the other hand, is far too generous spirited to take such a childish male stance!

Commitment theory and research
is starting to shed new light on why BOTH family structure AND family process matter a great deal. Marriage is a vital part of the solution. I utterly applaud Mr. Cameron for his clear and unequivocal stance on this issue. But marriage, on its own, is not enough. A successful family policy must find ways to facilitate the relational attitudes and behaviours that marriage most often represents. Relationship education, my area of expertise, shows particular promise for improving both relationship stability and quality.

So here’s my ha’porth, offered with suitable humility, for any woman who wants to feel confident about securing a reliable future together with their partner.

When a man proposes and initiates marriage himself, he is making the clearest statement possible about his commitment to you. This is because men tend to commit when they make their own clear decision about your future together as a couple.

Women, on the other hand, tend to commit when they have moved in with a man. Living together may therefore be your statement of commitment. But your man may not have quite the same feelings of permanence.

The biggest mistake you can make is to make the automatic assumption that he feels the same way as you. Many women find themselves left holding the baby because of their wrong assumptions. A marriage based on inertia or social pressure, convenience or drift is asking for trouble. Don’t let it happen to you.

So if you’re the one popping the question this Leap Day 29th February, make sure he is as intentional about your long-term future together as you are! Asking him to marry you won’t necessarily make him more committed. It will depend on him. But you can be pretty sure about his commitment if he makes it obvious that marriage is what he really wants as well!


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