Put A Ring On It: Trial separation versus trial marriage  

Wise Readers: 


Scientifically speaking, here’s what most women think at move-in: “I wonder when we’re getting married.” And many men think: “I wonder what’s on TV.”


It reminds me of a party I attended years ago, where Jack—successful, in love, and usually quite smart—openly denounced matrimony: “They got married?! How dumb. If it’s working, stay, and if not, leave.” The woman on his arm—Wynne, a luscious catch by any standard—seemed neither surprised nor amused. Nor engaged, after years of cohabiting.


Why are men more reluctant to commit—and how does living together make them even less so? It’s not because men are bad or marriage is a raw deal. In fact, after decades of academic wrangling, it’s now abundantly clear from the work of Dr. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead , Dr. David Popenoe, and others that heterosexual men benefit from marriage as much as women do, and they like being wed; almost 95% say they are happier married than they were single . They are also a wealthier and healthier group than the single, divorced or cohabiting, and far less likely to quite literally die of loneliness. And formerly married men usually remarry quickly, rather than electing to cohabit or go it alone.


But most men don’t start out, either in life or in courtship, being nearly as commitment-focused as women; just watch little boys playing guns, not grooms. Or note men’s preference for visually-based hunt-‘em-down sites like —whereas women gravitate towards marriage-minded eHarmony.  Scientists such as Dr. David M. Buss  and Dr. Donald Symons cite biology: With an endless procreative timeline, a drive to entice young, fertile partners and an enviable capacity to make a baby in less time than it took to craft this sentence, commitment needn’t press, and playing the field can have a large procreative pay-off. But Time is not a woman’s friend in any of these cases, so we’d expect women to be much more commitment-focused from childhood on. And we’d be right.


Social factors –what you and I call Sex—also influence commitment. In a recent national Rutgers survey, men’s #1 reason fueling non-commitment was easy sexual access sans Ring. And living together before engagement further erodes male commitment by meeting men’s inherited needs for the Three F’s—Fertility, Fidelity and The Other F.  


Yes, cohabiting can feel like the ultimate Fun Zone for men, who gain really frequent sex in an atmosphere of Keeping Their Options Open. But women’s mating psychology evolved in an atmosphere of extremely risky pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and baby-schlepping. Without a solid commitment backed by family, society and maybe Daddy’s club (wooden, not country), leaving it to the guy’s whim to bring home the wild boar just didn’t cut it. So, women distrusted cohabiting—and scientifically speaking, still should. Even Here And Now, survival and success of women and children is strongly linked to the presence of a Committed Provider And Protector.


The irony is this: Women like Wynne and Tina (recent column) are choosing cohabitation now more than at any point in prior Western history—usually hoping for permanence and security while doing the very thing that undermines the likelihood of getting it.


Women, be warned: Science shows that most men are inherently more reluctant to commit, and moving in before setting the wedding date hurts your chances of ever having him Put A Ring On It. But there’s still something you can do, and our Wise Readers from the Tina/Pete Shack-up scenario knew what. Wrote one man: “Pete has reservations now and will continue having them once he shacks up….She needs to give him space.” Women were more blunt: “She should move away. To another state, if possible.” A bit harsh, perhaps—but accurate.


If Tina wants full commitment, She Should Leave and begin dating others now. Because distance and insecurity are highly clarifying and motivating. As a former column on barriers showed, things that threaten the connection between a dating couple end fence-sitting and produce decisions…especially for men. Barriers can take many forms, from parental disapproval and long-distance dating and life-threatening illness, to a woman’s refusal to move in, to her insistence on a move-out, to her outright break-up, to her new relationship with someone else. Nothing can force one person to love another, but for men, absence *they did not choose* makes it very clear, very fast whether their attachment is for naught, for now or forever. And women are better off having the answer, no matter what that answer is, than reducing their options by wasting time.


Which brings us back to Jack and Wynne. Wynne abetted Jack’s commitment aversion by giving him what he wanted before she got what she needed, and I longed to counsel her: “Get out of his life faster than he can say Commitmentphobe. No explanations. Just. Leave. Oh, and be dating by Tuesday.” Imagine my shock and his when, less than a week later, she did just that. Three weeks following—after wearing out his knees, his tear ducts and his MasterCard—Jack convinced Wynne to accept his proposal. He planned the wedding down to the last detail, and worships the ground she treads to this day—a decade hence.



Single Ladies, take note: You cannot court a man into committing, and you should not force a man into committing; but you can refuse to move in, or leave and let him figure it out for himself. Although I strongly advise against rubbing men’s faces in it ala Beyonce’s vampy “If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it,” Ms. Knowles’ strength, self-respect and distance are a lot closer to What Works than Tina’s plans to sway her honey with daily close-range pampering. The trial on cohabiting is over, and it’s guilty of maiming wholehearted, enthusiastic, full commitment. Try separation instead.





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All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., 2009

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Reader Comments (35)

Insightful and educational. Thank you for more than 30 years of your friendship.

July 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAdrienne

This is positively brilliant! I literally lauged out loud at the 3F thing. Not only are you providing solid advice, you are a very fun read! It irks me that Jack has to be hit with earthquake (Wynne's leaving) to come to clarity, but when you point out the male mating psychology, it makes sense. Not that I like it, mind you, but at least it makes sense.

July 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoan N.

I think you quoted me about moving out of state!

It really did work for me. We had been dating 4 years and were at a stalemate. I had an opportunity for a temporary out-of-state move, so I took it. Six weeks later, I had a diamond on my finger. We were married within the year.

We did not live together before marrying, and I think that is ideal. Partly because it was important to me to have some years of living alone. Living alone was great for my personal development, even though living together would have saved money.

We have been married almost 14 years and we are still best friends.

July 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous

I love marriage. I love being married. I think it is the best institution ever created. I lived with my wife for a few months before we got married. It wasn't as fulfilling. There is something about a comittment that makes everything feel better (yes, I'm talking about sex). Though we are separated now, I still feel the spiritual bond even though we are not living in the same house. This shows that the bond comes, not from playing house but, from the actual covenant if marriage.

July 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge

@Adrienne, thank you. You warm my heart.

@Joan, thank you! You bring up something that bothered me as I wrote the article, though: I found myself getting mad at Jack, too, and he does *not* deserve that. The fact is, he and other men have evolved their mating psychology for a reason, and women have evolved ours for a reason, and it's the Same Reason: Reproduction. It's just that our differing biologies mean that we often strive to meet that goal in different--unfortunately, often antagonistic-- ways. The battle of the sexes is real.

The evidence does not point to men's active lying to women about commitment in a move-in; it's just that men aren't thinking about commitment very much to begin with, and they're thinking about it even less when cohabiting. Their program seems to require discomfort, longing and effort in order to get clarity about caring and commitment. Women don't require that, and we make a grave error in attributing our mating psychology to men. Wynne was complicit in Jack's non-committal attitude because she not only removed his commitment cues, she gave him cues that said things were fine "as is". But she had her moment of clarity and did a brave thing in moving on. I was amazed by her bravery at the time, and remain so now--Jack is a prize, and she would have grieved to have lost him. But she was being, not just playing, hard to get, so she was ready for whatever happened.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to bring it up. I genuinely like hominids of both genders, and am not attempting to defame either sex here :).

July 27, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

@anonymous, Congratulations and Kudos on your bravery and chutzpah...and your enduring, happy marriage. Thank you for contributing to the survey, and for sharing your personal story here. One thing I didn't get to say in the article is that commitment proceeds so much more smoothly and happily when *men actively choose it* rather than having it foisted on them with an ultimatum. The reason Wynne did the right thing is that she left without explanation. Jack was free to make his decision based on *his* emotional experience, not on threats and abuse. You did likewise, very wisely. My hat's off to you.

@George, Science backs you up on the sex bit, Friend :). Men and women report having better, more satisfying and more frequent sex in marriage than in any other arrangement. And, as with your experience, although evolution may not make commitment a pressing matter for the very young, men really do love being married (often much more than they anticipated). Finally, research backs you up that the marriage itself contains a covenant which, backed by family and society, changes the marriage partners to become increasingly committed. You're batting 1000 :).
I wish you well as you and your beloved work things out. Thank you for sharing your experience.

July 27, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Haha...the third F, I love it! Yet again, I found this article very enlightening, I've always chosen cohabitation when it was an option. Seems like I'll have to rethink the game plan. Thanks Duana!

July 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCourtney

Courtney, please do rethink takes the same amount of work as a marriage, with none of the security, and women cohabiting are at much greater risk of physical and emotional abuse than women who are wed. Keep your power and keep your options open until that date is set, okay?

July 27, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

3rd F, would that be FOOD? JK. All of it makes sense. You don't know what ya got until its ripped from you, or when it ends, or etc.... Whether the situation can be recaptured is up to the parties involved and with the help of the environments that ensue after wards I would think. And as the stats indicate, NEVER PRESSURE A MAN OR GUILT TRIP HIM INTO MAKING THE COMMITMENT! It will not work! And if a ring does come of it, it will never be a real commitment. Its a gut feeling.

July 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Campos

@Gabriel--Good gut you've got there ;).
There is such a thing as being married to someone who remains uncommitted, and forcing marriage is a direct path to it. That's why women can leave...but nothing else. No ultimatums, no tantrums, no long explanations, no guilt trips, no whining... Men have shown themselves very happy to marry a prize, but naturally, they do not wish to be prisoners!

The way for a woman to get that total, joyful, full commitment is to follow the old cliche: If you love someone, set them free. (On the other hand...that does *not* work for men, for reasons we'll cover in another column.)

July 28, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Duana, I appreciate your reply, but I am still angry with Jack (and the whole male species) whether they deserve it or not.

Intellectually, I understand their programming. But emotionally, it infuriates me, and I mean at a primal level, that men are willing to use women in this way. Women have a short shelf life (fertile time period). Men don't. How dare they take our best years, when they know we want a commitment?

I know, I know... women have to respect themselves, draw a line, and leave. But once again, the burden is on us!

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoan N.

@Joan: Perfect--perfect response. "emotionally, it infuriates me, and I mean at a primal level" --You beat me to the punch, Woman!

It turns out that if you want to know what each sex's mating psychology is, all you need to do is look for what infuriates men and women. Bingo!

Although science has only recently revealed the motivation for our (unconscious) inherited drives, our psychologies evolved to protect us through anger.

So, women (being pressed for time and needful of provision) are very, very angered by anything that smacks of a lack of commitment, provision or protection. Women abhor a man who fools us into believing there was more devotion there than there really was; one who lies about loving us to gain sexual access; one who lies about his income or degrees or other signs that he can provide; one who behaves as if commitment might be forthcoming when zero, in fact, is; one who falls in love with another woman. Women fear losing their provider and protector, in other words, or of having him dangled in front of her falsely.

Men need a faithful , fertile partner (after all, the baby might otherwise not be his--or there might not be a baby at all)--and their emotions show that that, and not commitment per se, is their primary concern. They are very, very angered by anything that smacks of sexual cheating (far more than by emotional cheating), or lies about things related to fertility (women who lie about their looks or their age, for instance). They are turned off by Easy Women--in one recent study, they think such women are actually diseased. They are concerned with how many lovers a woman has had--turns out, a higher number indicates less likelihood of Savin' All Her Eggs For Meeeee (Sorry, Whitney Houston).

As for men being willing to use women--Yes, and NO. Research shows that men do very often pretend to feel more commitment than they really feel in order to get up-front sex from a new woman. But it also shows that men usually aren't gaming women long-term--rather, they just aren't putting themselves into the female mating psychology. Women, it turns out, are far more analytical about dating (surprise! :)). Men don't have a time crunch and are acting in accordance with that.

Although I agree with you that it would be highly desirable for men to think of how their actions affect women, I guess my take is this: If women will not do what they must, it's unproductive to blame men for not doing it for them. The data show that women today think that by giving more and more of themselves sooner and sooner, that men will wake up and desire immediate commitment--I hope these past two articles show otherwise and help them to do what really does work.

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Just a quick anecdote about a male who had a love interest who would not commit, but she insisted on moving in without at wedding date nor a commitment. Wanting to play house without a commitment is a two-way street and you will find that when you draw that line, more often than not you have clarity of where the relationship is or is not.

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike said "please" Love Doctor.

I was wondering how one who is in a committed relationship would be able to begin dating "by Tuesday." Even a meeting over lunch or coffee can have a profound effect on two people. Wouldn't you need some time to just step back and re-evaluate? Is it really smart to throw another person into the mix? I heard that it is a common practice today for the 35+ dating crowd to have sex on the first date. Or maybe that was just someone trying to get into my pants while I was enjoying my third or fourth perfectly blended StarF@#&er.

(Sigh!) I miss that dude.

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara

A quick note about Joan's post: Just about any time we find anger, we find that it covers shame. That shame can be about anything at all - being duped by a guy is definitely a cause for shame ("Not again, dammit!") which is covered by a protective anger. I am not saying this is right, wrong, or anything like that, but just saying that any time I find anger, it is always covering shame and protecting us from that vulnerable feeling.

Duana- I will copy my part of the conversation from FB.

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

From FB, following a comment about "be dating by Tuesday" and how fast that turnaround is:

It's not that you need to be falling in love with someone else; it's that you need to be going out and having fun. She didn't say you need to be sleeping with someone else that quickly, just "dating." And even that doesn't mean you have to go out that quickly, but at least have something on your calendar, even if it's for later.

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

Later in the conversation...

I know. But I think the point is to move away from trying to solidify that commitment. If he isn't willing to commit, trying to solidify a commitment is throwing bad money after good. There is someone out there who will commit. Guys often get something we call "one-itis" - the idea that this girl, and only this girl, is right for me. The cure for that is to find out what other options - what other people - are out there. Sometimes all it takes is to find out that there ARE other people out there. If you want to commit more than your partner does, it's time to back off a little bit and re-assess. Then either go forward, or run away, but do it with a clear understanding of the situation, not a rose-colored view of what you would like it to be.

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

More from the FB thread:

I have been through that as well. I moved in with a girl I was ready to marry (read: was already committed to), and let's just say she...WASN'T. It was difficult, to say the least. But going out helped me more than anything else. I only wish I had done it faster. It's not always easy to do. For me, it was a real bitch to do, but it really is a good way to open both of your eyes that your relationship does not have to be a foregone conclusion. Separating and being alone gives you far too much time to wallow in it. Separating and going out to have fun really does work, even if it is counter-intuitive. And it really doesn't have anything to do with the presence or absence of a Y chromosome; it has to do with how committed you are to the relationship.

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

Duana - Yes! Women need to wake up and smell the coffee. It's not that women will not do what they must. Many of them will (Wynn did) once they understand how this little mating game is played. Precisely why your excellent articles must be published far, wide, and often. This information has rocked my world. My mother sure didn't tell me this stuff.

And another thing: I *do* think the men bear some responsibility in these live-in arrangements, particularly when they know the woman's desire is to get married. Men are using women for sex, plain and simple. The fact that women are allowing it doesn't make the man's behavior right. We as ethical human beings are expected in every other area of our lives to consider the effect of our actions on others.

And the final thing: If women didn't push men to commit and marry, where would we be? Commitment is a good thing. And it's the women who are getting us there, not the men. That's why I said in my previous post "the burden is on us." In my opinion, women are the heroes of this world, not only in creating the marriages, but in holding them together.

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoan N.

From our conversation from the FB thread re: dating by Tuesday, I agree with is more difficult for women to just go out with someone else so quickly...would be easier to just separate and be alone to reflect at first until you were ready.

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

Joan, you sound like you don't believe men are capable of commitment without prodding by women. The fact is, we are quite capable. While your experience may be that men don't want to commit, that is your experience. You may be painting half of the human race with too broad of a brush.

You may also be letting your moral stance affect your perspective as well. Whatever behaviors we, as individuals, a society, or a species, may exhibit, we have those behaviors because they have been useful to us in the past. They are not right, or wrong, or good, or bad. They are behaviors which have in the past led to desirable outcomes (however we define desirable). Would you be angry if you asked your dog to guard your sandwich and he ate it instead? Or would you realize that is behavior which has benefited the dog in the past (easy food - I'll eat it)? The dog is not evil, or sneaky, or anything else. He is doing what has worked for him in the past.

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

Daniel, I do think men can commit without prodding (my second husband did) and I don't think they should be pushed into it. "Pushed" was probably a poor choice of words on my part.

Also, I'm not judging any of the male/female behaviors as good or bad. With Duana's help, I'm simply realizing what those behaviors are. The genders seem to be very differently programmed and motivated; no wonder the mating game causes so much confusion, anger, and heartbreak.

What I *am* judging is the concept of commitment itself ...and I'm saying it is good. From my viewpoint, we (men, women, families, children, humanity) all need a level of certainty, predictability, and order in this world. Because men are motivated mostly by sex (and like Jack would happily co-habitate indefinitely) and women are motivated mostly by commitment, the women are shouldering the load of moving us toward marriages, and thus some level of order in society.

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoan N.

@Mike, Daniel and Joan (Oh, my....)-- You guys have gotten into the meat of this. I love it.
Men love commitment (most of them)--after they are in it, and research proves it...they're just more reticent on average than women are to Go There at first. Joan, I am an idealist who wishes, along with you, that people would do the right thing simply because it's the right thing--which is definitely commitment from any scientific vantage point that can be named or quantified. Women are moved to get us there moreso than men most of the time, in the sense that they are more commitment-minded even at the beginning of a relationship. But women aren't commitment-minded out of a necessarily unselfish place--they're doing what works for them in both the short and the long-term (which also happens to be what works for society). Which brings us to a major point of Daniel's: men are doing what is advantageous in the are women.

There is abundant evidence that some things women have done are extremely unkind to civilized life and definitely go into territory most men and women would consider highly immoral--yet are advantageous to women. I plan to do a column on that in the future. One quick example here, though: Current genetic analyses show that anywhere between 10% and nearly 30% of a given nation's children are being reared by men who believe they're the bio dads...but aren't. These men--usually great at being committed providers and protectors--are cuckolded by their wives with men who are of a higher "genetic quality". We Haven't Always Been Nice Girls. And neither gender is unselfish when it comes to the mating dance.

There is some good news here. It appears men and women are coming to a point of truce, very slowly, in their mating psychologies. We are unlikely to reach total synchronicity in short-term mating for centuries...but a future column will show how we are making progress.

July 28, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

@Barbara, Daniel and Michelle,
You've hit on a question a lot of people have trouble with at a break-up. Barbara, I believe you're correct that sex is often expected on a very early date for people in their 30's--a move that can hurt your feelings and that will definitely hurt your long-term prospects, as you're also intuiting. (LOL re: "Or maybe that was just someone trying to get into my pants while I was enjoying my third or fourth perfectly blended StarF@#&er.")

Daniel rightly pointed out that the intent is partly just to distract yourself, though--not to have sex or try to have a deep relationship immediately. As he said, "Separating and being alone gives you far too much time to wallow in it. Separating and going out to have fun really does work, even if it is counter-intuitive."

Another reason to begin dating is to keep yourself from running back to the one you love...Wynne needed to date, not only to keep from being ruined with grief, but to keep from returning to Jack in a weak moment.

A third reason to date quickly rather than to wallow is that Time is not a woman's friend. We have a short window, relatively speaking, to make the best match we can. It is not advantageous to spend a lot of time grieving in solitude for a relationship that is over. And, of course, it's a disadvantage to spend a lot of energy waiting for Jack to come back. If he wants to return, fine...but no place-holding...he can work his way back in to prove sincerity.

A fourth reason to date sooner than later is plain ol' jealousy--It Works to create clarity, just as other Barriers do (Buss' latest book on human jealousy is a huge research catalog about it...fascinating). Now, it could have turned out that Jack didn't care one bit whether Wynne was there or not, dating or not...but her absence and her availability to others made Jack's feelings absolutely obvious to him. As anthropologist and personality/mating expert Dr. Helen Fisher remarks: Dating is not about fair, it's about winning.
And Wynne's name was chosen to reflect that. She did what winners do. She showed strength and purpose and the ability to move on and take care of I have a feeling you yourself can do very admirably, Miss Barbara ;).

Yet--as all three of you point out--it's really tough to do the dating-soon thing. This is tied to personality, as Dr. Fisher has shown in a book I'll cover extensively elsewhere. It appears that only one kind of personality (The Explorer) really finds dating around/dating quickly easy to do, and out of the four of us, including myself, it appears that not one of us has that personality.

Successful mating involves a lot of things, though, that are very uncomfortable...much as finding a job is not necessarily fun. Many things we need to do to find a lifemate range from the tedious to the infuriating. I think dating again, soon, is important in this particular scenario. But it's not something everyone can do, or would want to.

Thanks for so much to think about!

July 28, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

What I am gathering from all this is that neither the man nor the woman should exclusively date until the proposal is made and accepted. If no expectations are inferred, the woman is not losing time with one man, and can shop around until her ultimate provider and protector is found. And a man can be free to hunt and conquer, until he realizes the catch he really wants may get away. And thus, the hopefully, happy ending.

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterVincent
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