The Two Year Rule
From an article by the Institute of Family Studies
Marriage Foundation research director, Harry Benson, recently published a book, "Commit or Quit: The Two-Year Rule and Other Rules for Romance" based on wisdom gained from over 30 years of marriage and the latest social science on relationships to help young couples work toward building more stable unions.
His central recommendation is that dating and cohabiting couples should have a serious discussion about the future of their relationship and where it is going within two years, and if the relationship is not headed toward marriage by then, it is time to end it. He writes, “waiting longer won’t tell you much more than you know now [about your partner] and it keeps you in the high-risk cohabiting camp rather than moving into the low-risk married camp.”
IFS interviewed Harry about the book and here are some excerpts:
I think the biggest barrier for all couples to overcome at some stage in their relationship is moving from ambiguity to clarity. So, at some point, everyone has to have a serious conversation about their future. And when that is, that’s definitely an open question. And the risk to a relationship is that you don't have that conversation. So I wanted to see what research might have to say about this. Is there a perfect time to have that ‘define the relationship' conversation, that 'are we committed for life' conversation'? And the answer is that the research certainly points in a direction of a two-year rule.
The vast majority of over 300 people from various backgrounds I spoke to thought that the optimum time within which to have that serious conversation about the future is within two years. And the overwhelming majority also said the maximum was within three years.
Professor Steve McKay from University of Lincoln and I also looked at 25,000 cohabitees in the British Household Panel Survey who had lived together in the 80s and 90s. We followed them all for a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of 20 years. What we found was that couples who were living together in their first year, 4 out of 10 of them would go on to split up within the next 10 years, and 5 out of 10 would go on to marry. And so, 1 out of 10 would stay together, presumably happily, unmarried. But over time, the longer people live together, two interesting things happened. One was that the chances of splitting up never improved (and that's quite different to married couples, where divorce rates fall once you get past the first few years). With cohabiting couples, that's not true. The odds never improve.
There's no question that if you marry rather than cohabit, your chances of staying together after that are also dramatically better. And we found that the highest proportion of people made a decision either to commit or quit, to get married or to split up, at about two to three years. So that was more evidence that suggests that the two-year rule makes sense.
I think most people probably think of commitment as the act of wanting to be with somebody. And what they forget is that there are other forces involved - dedication and constraint. And these are the external forces which make you have to be together more than just want to be together. And that is the model that I find that grounds me in the way I think about marriage and cohabitation.
I think the model of dedication/constraint is incredibly helpful because it tells you, for example, during lockdown that we have put an extra constraint around relationships. And if you have this model of dedication and constraint in your head, then you realize that people who were more dedicated at the beginning of lockdown are going to have found that extra constraint of not being able to leave, of having to be together all the time, as actually an affirming and positive force. It will have made lockdown a positive experience for them and for their family. And I think that for those whose dedication levels were lower going into lockdown, they are going to have it to be an extremely uncomfortable experience. Because they've added a constraint, which has made it extra hard for them to leave and could cause their relationship to be more troubled as a result.
In the past, we found out about each other before we lived together and put this external lock on our relationships. Today, we tend to do it the other way around. We tend to cohabit first before we've established whether we want to be dedicated to one another. And that's a reason why I think so many young couples need to know that you need to choose well, but you also need to know that you can get stuck in a relationship. And that's what the two-rule is designed to break. It’s to say here's your way out; here's your exit route.
When my children were getting to dating age, I wanted to come up with some simple principles rather than just communicate better or handle conflict better. I wanted to come up with some ideas to help them to choose well and to avoid choosing badly, which is pretty important. And I used the word marriageable because I also wanted to include commitment in the process—that at some point you need to make a commitment. Men's commitment was not just tied to the decision, but it was also tied to their willingness to sacrifice. So my second rule was born, which is, “does he fight for you?” Which I think is just as important. Men tend to commit through making a decision and through putting themselves out.
I think it is important to clear the air and get on the same page in the relationship. The worst thing for a relationship is to drift on in a state of ambiguity. Or even worse, asymmetry, where one person is more committed than the other, and they make assumptions about each other. Clearing the air needs to be done at some stage. So, I think an engagement conversation, or at the very least, a conversation about where your future is going together, is really important. One way or another, you've got to find a way of making sure - particularly for young women. The biggest risk to your relationship is a lack of commitment. If you want to clear the air and remove that ambiguity, you have to have that conversation at some point - either he commits—or you quit.
Read the full interview here.
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