First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage? 4 Commitment Patterns That Might Predict Your Chance Of Getting Married

Couple in cafe
These commitment types, from dramatic to partner-focused, may predict whether your relationship is headed for marriage or a break-up. Natalia Clikka, CC BY-SA 4.0

You’ve probably heard the “Playground Song” before — you know, the one that goes, “First comes love, then comes marriage.” This children’s song outlined the trajectory relationships should take for many of us at a young age. But how do you know if your relationship is moving along this path? A recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found there are four distinct commitment patterns that might help couples determine whether their relationship is headed for marriage or a break-up.

Previous studies have observed signs that foretell whether a relationship is likely to head toward marriage. A 2014 study, for example, found certain characteristics increased couples’ likelihood of getting married and living together, including high scores on attractiveness, personality, and grooming. This study, however, only scratched the surface when it comes to investigating the longevity of relationships.

In an effort to dig deeper and determine a relationship's true fate, researcher Brian Ogolsky, a professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois, and his colleagues looked at over 300 couples’ commitments to getting married and how they fluctuated over time. The couples, all in their mid-20s, were asked to draw out graphs portraying their commitment to wed over the course of the study. On the vertical y-axis, they marked their intent to wed on a range from 0 to 100 percent, while on the horizontal x-axis, they indicated how this changed over time, in months.

Once a month for seven months, participants updated their graphs while partaking in short interviews. During these interviews, participants divulged information regarding changes in their relationship status, including transitions from dating to broken up, casual to serious dating, and serious dating to engaged. They then participated in a final interview nine months after the study began.

The interviewers plotted key dates on the graphs to note where the likelihood of marriage changed for better or worse. Factors, such as spending too much time with friends, fighting, or simply being too different often decreased the couples’ commitments to wed, the study found. On the other hand, meeting partners’ families, spending a lot of time together, having a lot in common, and receiving positive feedback from friends and family increased the likelihood of marriage.

Based on the participants’ feedback, the researchers found there are four distinct commitment patterns in relationships: Dramatic (34 percent of the sample), partner-focused (30 percent of sample), socially involved (19 percent of sample), and conflict-ridden (12 percent of sample).

Those placed in the dramatic group, known as an "up and down" type of relationship, were found to be more than twice as likely to break up than any of the other three groups. These individuals spent more time apart and had lower opinions of the relationship, while families and friends were also less supportive of keeping it together. Meanwhile, those in the partner-focused group took a “My partner is the center of my universe” approach. These couples were more likely to see their relationships progress from casual to serious dating.

The conflict-ridden group, known as “the fighters,” were more likely to keep their relationship status stable compared to the dramatic group. Lastly, the changes that occurred in the socially involved group were mostly based on the amount of interactions couples had with their social groups, and what those friends and families thought about the relationship. Unlike the dramatic group, they experienced fewer fluctuations and downturns.

These results suggest it’s good to be partner-focused but not dramatic. The dramatic group was suspected to be more prone to break up because the couples maintained so much contact with their social networks, which led the researchers to conclude some people in these social circles could have served as “backburner” relationships — people who they maintained contact with due to the possibility of starting a later relationship.

These findings suggest we can learn from our relationship’s past in order to live with it in the present, and maybe even take steps toward where we want to go with it in the future — for better or for worse.

Sources: Ogolsky BG, Surra CA, and Monk JK. Pathways of Commitment to Wed: The Development and Dissolution of Romantic Relationships. Journal of Marriage and Family. 2015.

French MT, Popovici I, Robins PK et al. Personal traits, cohabitation, and marriage. Social Science Research. 2014.

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