by Gena Kaufman
Getty ImagesMoving in together is a big step, but is it enough to feel truly committed? Sharing a bed and maybe even a mortgage seems like it would make most people feel pretty serious about being together.
But a new study has shown that couples who live together but aren't married don't feel the same levels of security as couples who are legally married. Replicating and expanding on an experiment from 2006, researchers studied the effect of holding hands with a partner among couples who lived together, married and not (and same-sex couples, who aren't legally allowed to marry in Virginia, where the study occurred). Participants were asked to lie in an fMRI scanner while watching a computer screen that signaled a potential threat of a shock to the ankle. While doing so, the participant was either holding their partner's hand, a stranger's hand, or alone. When married couples held hands, the person threatened with the shock was comparatively calmer than when alone or with a stranger.
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While it may seem natural that a person would be more comforted by their partner, the same effect didn't occur with opposite-sex couples who were merely cohabiting. It did, however, occur with same-sex couples who weren't married but considered themselves married, but again, same-sex marriage was not legally allowed in Virginia at the time--although a recent federal ruling could be changing that very shortly! Hence, researchers speculate that it's not the legal or religious recognition of marriage that makes people feel secure; it's thinking of your relationship as being committed to the fullest extent possible. (Though personally, I would argue that all people should be allowed the same extent of commitment by law.)
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What's enough for you? What's interesting about the research is that while many unmarried couples would probably say
they are just as committed as married people, there's a physical reaction not happening in their brains. Of course, that's not meant to say that unmarried couples aren't serious about their relationships or committed to each other, or that all couples need to get married to be happy. But it is interesting that it seems to bring a sense of calm in at least one way that other relationships might not.
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Do you personally feel like you need marriage to feel fully committed in your relationship, or not?