Mentor Series: Crossing the Line

Mentor Series: Crossing the Line

Men aren't able to commit? "Marriage research rock star" Scott Stanley challenges that assertion.

Dr. Scott Stanley is something of a "marriage research rock star." We snagged the pictures of him here at the 2007 Smart Marriages conference in Denver. We had to be creative to get these shots because of the crowd pressing around him eager to connect. Dr. Stanley is sought out by people of all backgrounds — military and political leaders, professors, social workers, marriage educators, pastors and family counselors. To a broad range of people he has become a trusted source for solid research about marriage and the relationships surrounding it. Dr. Stanley is also a strong Christian who, based on the setting, can speak as insightfully about the book of Genesis as he can about the Journal of Family Psychology.

We recorded this interview in the offices here at Focus on the Family. Typically, it would have been a short drive for Dr. Stanley down from his PREP, Inc. office in the Denver area, but he got caught in a downpour, and we were off to a late start. Fortunately, we were able to meet him at the door with some hot Starbucks and get him settled into one of our cozier meeting rooms for what proved to be one of our best Mentor Series interviews.

This portion of the interview deals with the myth that men aren't able to commit. Surprisingly, Dr. Stanley has found that men can reach commitment levels that exceed women — they just get there down a different path. This groundbreaking insight is essential for both men and women trying to read a relationship's potential.

The following segment of our two-hour interview with Dr. Stanley kicks off with an observation Dr. Stanley made on research regarding marital delay.

Dr. Stanley: Part of what's going on in that scenario is there is such a diminishment of confidence in marriage. There is an increase in the sense that you have to be completely prepared to take care of yourself in life. You need to get your own career, your own education and work life as far advanced as possible before you do this risky thing called marriage, and you need all the possible parachutes in case you end up bailing out.

Steve: Something we've noticed among single men is that there is no urgency to marry — they're not worried that someone else will come and snatch up this great catch they found. What is the lack of urgency from?

Dr. Stanley: I think it has to do with a resistance to "moving across the line." When males cross the line, there is a huge step up in their sense of identity about the commitment and their level of responsibility. So essentially, there's a resistance to crossing the line. Because right now, men can get so much of what they want without crossing it, and they only see increased responsibility from crossing it — "Why would I be in a rush to do that?" In the meantime, they are often treating women in a way that diminishes their value even while they hang on to all their power and choice.

Candice Watters: So does it all come down to sex?

Dr. Stanley: I think it's sex and responsibility, but I think the way that women have lost their power does come down to sex. You can make an empirically based case that women are now seeing a less clear difference between "non-marriage" and marriage. Women start being moved to give all their best to men when they're strongly, emotionally attached. This is actually a very positive thing about how women are built in terms of their bonding system, and I think it's part of why women are more powerfully orientated toward sacrificing earlier in their relationship or until a commitment is established.

But we've convinced women that sex isn't part of what you should be holding out for in terms of acting in a committed way. And sex further accelerates the whole process for women, because they're more affected by oxytocin and the bonding stuff kicks in. For all the power of the way women are built and their more powerful bonding system in terms of the biological part of it, they are much more prone early on — before commitment is closely or remotely formed in the male's view — to over interpret things the male may be doing as signs of commitment.

Candice: I want to come back to a statement you made about men respecting marriage more than women. How can this be true?

Dr. Stanley: This is an idea I've come to believe more and more with the research that we do. The classic view is that men are commitment phobic, and they really don't want to commit, and that's why it's harder for women to get men to walk down the aisle. Whether that was historically true or not, I'm not so sure. What I think is true, now, (and there are different kinds of research that show this), is that men see a much firmer line between marriage and "not marriage" than women do in terms of what it means for their identity and behavior.

Sociologist Steve Nock wrote a terrific book called Marriage in Men's Lives. I'm on the psychological side of marriage research, and Steve is much more of a classical secular researcher, but we both have a very similar belief that marriage has a fairly profound function of changing how men think, how they see who they are. One of the ways that men are best regulated in life is by being married.

You can't point to nearly as much evidence suggesting that marriage changes women as much as it changes men (such as in the direction of greater responsibility, greater willingness to sacrifice and all the behavior that goes with that).

Candice: Because women are already there?

Dr. Stanley: I think women are already there. I think — and we have some research that shows this — women start giving all their best and sacrificing for men regardless of the clarity about commitment to the future. They do this when they're really emotionally attached to a guy.

I don't think that really clicks for a guy until he has decided "you're the one; you're my future." Until that switch is flipped in a guy, evidence suggests it affects the degree to which they're going to sacrifice for a woman and that has lots of ramifications.

But let's go back to your question a second. I think men resist marriage not because they don't believe in it; there's evidence that they believe in it even more strongly now than women. I think men resist marriage more than women because it has more profound effects on how they must behave.

Candice: And are those profound effects on their behavior accurate? When you talk to men who do marry, once they're on the other side of the altar, are they happier?

Dr. Stanley: You can make a pretty strong case that marriage is one of the best things that can possibly happen to a man. (By the way, before I forget, I don't want to suggest in my theory that marriage makes a dangerous man a safe man — what I really want to say is that marriage makes the average pretty good man a better man.)

Candice: Let's go back to the fear issue. The men fear how the responsibilities of marriage will change them. It will affect their identity. Are those fears founded?

Dr. Stanley: Let me give you my favorite example. I was reading one of my favorite websites, the National Marriage Project. In 2002, they had a special report with interview data from single men in their 20s about how they're thinking about marriage and women and cohabitation. What young men were telling them is that marriage means being a grownup. And when I'm getting so much in life and so fulfilled without having to take on the responsibilities of being a grownup, why do I want to rush into it? I eventually want to cross the line, but why rush it.

And one of the things these men said to them is things like this: If I marry her she'll want to have babies. If I marry a woman — this is my favorite — she'll tell me what to do. Now, note the logic of this, because it's pretty stunning and should be very concerning to women in their 20s. Because what the men are essentially saying is: "I have a different kind of relationship until I cross the line. Once I cross the line, I'm responsible to you, and you have a right to start telling me what to do. I'm not exactly looking forward to that, but once I cross the line, I have a different duty and responsibility because we're teammates."

I'm reading this and because of my own warped sense of humor, I start laughing out loud. I'm thinking you dummies. Now, I do have empathy for these guys, but you know, they're saying she has the right to tell me what to do, and they're essentially saying that's bad. I don't want that. And I'm thinking – now, let me think about why researchers believe men live seven years longer on average because they're married. It's because their wives tell them what to do, and maybe they do half of it. You know. Go to the doctor and get that thing on your neck checked. You know, you need to drink less. You're not sleeping enough. Why aren't you coming to bed? What's going on with you? I'm concerned about what you're doing when you go off with these guys. Get your seatbelt on. Yeah, women will tell you what to —

Candice: Get down on the floor and play with the kids.

Dr. Stanley: Yeah. Get down on the floor and play with the kids. You need to exercise. Turn off the TV a little more. Gosh, you know if you do that stuff, you live longer and you're happier and your brain works better and you're healthier. Boy, what a terrible thing.

Candice: Well, and don't married men make more money, especially those with children?

Dr. Stanley: That's right. And this gets into Steve Nock's domain. Because this is exactly the kind of evidence that he points to. There's all this evidence that at marriage, men shift to a greater level of responsibility in keeping jobs, holding down jobs, seeking advancement in jobs and bringing home more money. Is that every man? No. Is that always the man that a particular woman feels like she married? No. But on average, most men. It's just something about crossing the line that moves men to act more responsibly. So, a woman could be thinking, well, he might see these as negatives to get him across the line, but if he crosses the line all these positive things are likely to happen.

Now, let me throw in the big warning on what I just said. Because everything we just said could get a young woman thinking that way. What you see increasingly are scenarios where many marriages begin by the woman eventually coercing, dragging and pulling the guy over the line. But the caution I want to throw in is everything we know suggests that a guy that you have to get across the line isn't probably the best guy to have across the line.

Candice: OK. But is there a difference between helping him, nurturing him, if you will, toward an understanding of why the things he sees as negatives are actually positives, and having a man who responds to that nurture in a positive way with marriage? Is there a difference between that and a woman who "makes it happen" — that she pops the question or that she beats him over the head with this information?

Dr. Stanley: That is a great woman question. You must be a great woman.

Yes. I'm totally convinced there's a difference.

It comes down to whether the guy looks back later and feels like events forced him over the line — including events maybe contrived or at least partly related to what she's done versus him thinking, "OK, we're partners and, yeah, you led on these discussions at times, but I really chose of my own freewill to cross this line." And that's the key.

Lots of young women think if he crosses the line, he's going to be like, OK, he'll be really dedicated to me now. If he's not so dedicated to you before he crosses the line, he's not going to really take a jump up in dedication after the line. If he is really dedicated to you before he crosses the line and then you cross the line hand-in-hand together, what will happen is that his dedication will grow and deepen, and blossom into all these increased behaviors and responsibility — that's a very different thing and positive thing.

Copyright 2007 Scott Croft, Candice Watters, Steve watters. All rights reserved.

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