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Imagine you are on a playground and you spot a giant, old-school teeter-totter. It’s bright yellow and it rises well above your head on the upside. You look around the playground, find someone who looks well suited to be your partner, and together you climb onto your opposing seats. Rising and falling, you bounce up and down, enjoying the ride. Feeling confident that you and your partner have found a good rhythm, you tuck your feet up off the ground, trusting that the balance and rhythm will continue. Then, just as you begin to relax in your new position, your partner, across from you and on their way back to the ground, turns their legs to the side, and casually rolls off their seat as they touch the ground. High in the air on the other side it hits you: you’re about to come crashing down.

For Dr. Scott Stanley, a research professor of marital and family studies from the University of Denver, that’s the metaphor of choice when describing what he calls “asymmetrically committed relationships.”

Dating, relationships, and marriage aren’t quite what they used to be, Dr. Stanley said while speaking to students, faculty, and alumni on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah, on Thursday, February 7.

Looking back 40 years ago or so, there were pretty clear steps or stages that signaled where a couple was in their relationship with one another.

“In my day … you asked a girl out, and you went out a few times on dates,” Dr. Stanley said. “The next thing was one of you would say, ‘You want to go steady?’ ‘Sure.’ And that’s the whole discussion.”

But there have been dramatic changes in the last few decades in terms of the ways relationships, marriages, and families do or don’t form, explained Dr. Stanley during his presentation at the 15th Annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture.

Dr. Stanley’s research has helped shape much of the academic dialogue surrounding the topics of marriage and families in the U.S., and his theories about the effects of ambiguity among those searching for relationships in today’s dating environment heavily stress the negative effects of asymmetrical commitments.

Today’s dating culture has become one of fear, anxiety, and unrealistic expectations. Rather than committing to something that doesn’t meet a person’s “sky-high” expectations, people often simply delay making committed relationship choices or opt to only half-heartedly commit to the relationships they do find. As a result, the number of people choosing the path of marriage has plummeted in recent years while ambiguous relationships like those created by cohabitation and asymmetrical commitments have increased instability for children and families.

In many ways, on the broader scale, marriage is becoming less common, but it is increasing in status. Marriage is viewed as a somewhat unattainable gold-standard, particularly by populations unlikely to feel economically and culturally secure enough to attain it. And while Dr. Stanley noted that exceptions are found primarily in highly educated or highly religious environments or cultures—like those created at BYU or by members of the Church in general—where belief systems regarding the importance of marriage tend to outweigh the social trends of the day, many of the current dating phenomenons can still appear even in societies where marriage is still a common practice or goal.

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