Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Commitment Processes in Accounts of the Development of Premarital Relationships

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Commitment Processes in Accounts of the Development of Premarital Relationships

Article excerpt

CATHERINE A. SURRA The University of Texas at Austin DEBRA K. HUGHES Miami University*

We examined the subjective processes by which premarital partners (n = 113) become more or less committed to wed over time. Two commitment processes were identified. In relationshipdriven commitments, commitment evolved smoothly with few reversals. To explain changes in commitment, partners focused on their interaction and activities with one another and with their joint network and on positive beliefs about the relationship and about network members. Eventdriven commitments had more extreme changes in commitment, with sharp downturns alternating with sharp upturns. Partners attributed changes to episodes of self-disclosure and conflict, negative relationship beliefs, separate interaction with network members, and negative network beliefs. On several measures, event-driven partners reported more negative relationship experiences and were less compatible. Yet the two groups did not differ on love or other indicators of involvement. The implications of the two processes for marital decisions are discussed.

Key Words: commitment, mate selection, premarital relationships.

Whether to wed and whom to wed are among the most consequential decisions that individuals make during their lifetimes. In order to understand fully how individuals make these decisions, two sets of possible influences need to be considered (Surra, Hughes, & Jacquet, in press). The first set is rooted in theories about factors that influence decisions about whom to wed. This set of causes corresponds to an outsider's perspective on mate selection. Research from an outsider's perspective is deductive; investigators make hypotheses about what factors are influential and then test their hypotheses. Most research on mate selection has followed this tradition (see Surra, 1990, for a review). Outsiders' perspectives on mate selection, as evidenced particularly in compatibility theories, generally assume that selecting a mate is approached rationally, with partners taking care to select someone who is a good match (cf. Huston, Surra, Fitzgerald, & Cate, 1981).

In this study, we take an insider's perspective, and examine individuals' own explanations for their decisions about marriage. An individual's own reasons for choosing a mate are the subjective causes that influence marital decisions, and they constitute the second set of influences on marital decisions (Surra et al., in press). Subjective causes may or may not resemble those that are influential from an outsider's perspective. The degree to which coupled partners have social networks that overlap, for example, predicts progress toward marriage (cf. Milardo, 1982), but the partners may not be aware of the influence of that social structure. Instead, partners may be more concerned about other features of the network, such as how family members and close friends feel about their dating partner.

This study concerns the subjective processes by which premarital partners become more or less committed to wed. What factors do individuals themselves say they weigh when making decisions about marital commitment? Is the decision process as carefully wrought and rooted in tests of homogamy and compatibility as many scholars assume, or is it more capricious and grounded in factors such as love, an auspicious confluence of life events, or personal readiness to wed? More than likely, subjective decisions about marital commitment are based on combinations of different considerations, and the considerations may vary for different people. The goals of this study are to identify the different subjective processes engaged in by different partners. The subjective processes are described in terms of the combinations of causes that individuals say they consider, as well as the nature of their developing commitment (e.g., how unstable it is).

DEFINING AND MEASURING MARITAL COMMITMENT

In its most general sense, commitment concerns partners' beliefs about whether their relationship is likely to continue over the long run (e. …

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