According to new research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, rituals within dating relationships provide a backdrop for couples to consider their progression toward marriage. These rituals appear to either facilitate or weaken daters’ commitment to get married.
Deciding to get married is a substantial decision that not only changes the label of the relationship but introduces new arrangements to the couple, such as legalities, shared finances, and shared property. Study authors Christopher R. Maniotes and his team point out that the decision to get married requires confronting uncertainty about the future. In the face of such uncertainty, couples are motivated to gather as much information about the relationship as they can. The authors propose that rituals are a source of such information, offering a lens through which the partners perceive each other and their relationship.
Maniotes and his team conducted a study using data from a larger study involving 232 heterosexual couples from the Southwestern U.S. The individuals were between the ages of 19 and 35, had never been married, and the couples had been together for around 2.5 years. The study was conducted over nine months and involved three separate interview phases.
“During each interview,” Maniotes and team explain, “participants were given a graph with “chance of marriage” on the y-axis and time in months on the x-axis and were asked to indicate points in the development of their relationship when the chance of marriage changed.” The participants were then asked to report what had happened during those dates that had caused the chance of marriage to “go up or down.”
The researchers analyzed the subjects’ responses and uncovered three ways that rituals appeared to inform couples’ commitment to wed — rituals allowed for family interactions, relationship awareness, and conflict management to take place. These features appeared to provide the couples with information about their relationships, at times facilitating and at times inhibiting their commitment to wed.
First, family interactions encouraged commitment among couples by offering them the chance to find acceptance from extended family, validating the partnership, and encouraging certainty about the relationship. For example, one participant described feeling newly accepted as a family member after attending a wedding on her partner’s side of the family. However, when a family ritual left a partner feeling unaccepted by extended family, this appeared to inhibit commitment within the couple. In these cases, daters often described arguing with their partners and struggling to see themselves finding a meaningful place in their family.
Rituals also appeared to provide an opportunity for conflict management within the couple. As Maniotes and team say, conflict during rituals sometimes promoted commitment between the couple. For example, one couple reported that successfully overcoming a Valentine’s Day fight had the effect of reaffirming their relationship. However, rituals appeared to add weight to existing conflicts, and if conflicts were not successfully navigated, commitment was inhibited.
Rituals also prompted greater relationship awareness, making daters more aware of their progression as a couple. In particular, weddings were often cited as occasions that spurred reflection about the couple’s own progression toward marriage. Moving in together also caused subjects to reflect on their relationship status and commitment, with one participant describing living together as seeing their partner in “a different light.”
In all, Maniotes and his colleagues say that rituals allowed couples to gain more information about their relationships, often leading to conversations concerning the future of the relationship and spurring feelings to do with marital commitment. “Whether the degree of certainty came from external sources such as family or internal sources such as introspection about one’s own actions, the result was still the same – changes in commitment to wed were inextricably tied to the various rituals individuals experienced,” the researchers say.
The researchers note that their study was limited in that it did not examine whether the couples actually did get married or not. A follow-up study could extend the current findings by shining light on which rituals were the most important in the ultimate decision to get married.
The study, “Destination marriage? The diagnostic role of rituals in dating relationships”, was authored by Christopher R. Maniotes, Brian G. Ogolsky, and Jennifer L. Hardesty.