Things change. How two people come together to become a couple has changed a lot. One of the defining changes in how couples form can be expressed in a single word: ambiguity. Ambiguity, of course, is the quality of being ambiguous. Ambiguous, as Merriam-Webster.com says, means “doubtful or uncertain especially from obscurity or indistinctness.”
I like this last word, indistinctness. It’s just not clear what something is or means when it’s ambiguous. There are several ways one can tell that romantic relationships (non-marital) are more ambiguous than they used to be. For example, when I was in high school (awhile ago), people used to go steady. What’s the comparable term for teens these days? (There has recently emerged something that is closer than anything I’ve seen in many years: being listed on each other’s Facebook page. That can be an important source of information.)
Many people who study teens have remarked about these changes. Years ago, there were more clearly defined stages people went through in moving toward marriage. One typical sequence would be dating, then going steady, then being pinned (a somewhat older tradition that faded away long before other things did), engagement, and marriage. Engagement is still a step that is largely still with us, but it’s probably waning somewhat, too. If you study many cultures on the planet, I believe you will find that, in most, some form of courtship stages served (or still serves) the function of defining where a couple was at on the pathway to having a future together.
One of the greatest changes in relationships in the past few decades is the rise of cohabitation (living together). Australian researcher Jo Lindsay nailed this point when she noted that a defining characteristic of cohabitation is ambiguity. It’s indistinct. Here’s a way you know this is true. If someone tells you he or she is cohabiting with a partner (romantic), what do you know about that couple? I would argue that you know almost nothing. They could be engaged and moving toward marriage. They could be living together for convenience, and more like a dating couple than anything else. They could be testing their relationship—or one may be testing while the other is assuming they are moving toward marriage. Both partners may be simply viewing their relationship as good for the time being, with no one thinking or talking about if there is a future.
I’ll write a lot more about things related to cohabitation in the future, since it’s a major focus of the research that I and colleagues like Galena Rhoades are doing at the University of Denver. I want to come back to ambiguity and ask a question. My points so far here are merely to argue the point that ambiguity now reigns in how couples develop.
By the way, this is why the whole concept of DTR has risen. Define The Relationship. It means having the talk. You know, the dreaded talk. THE TALK. The whole reason why DTR is now so well understood as a concept is that ambiguity needs clarity to break through at some point if a relationship is to have a future. I’ll also write more about DTRing in the future.
My question to you:
If you buy my premise that romantic relationships are more ambiguous than they use to be, why do you think that is? I mean, assuming there is some benefit or perceived benefit, what is it?
I’ll give you a few of my ideas in a future post.