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Sliding vs. Deciding: Expert Relationship Advice for Airmen

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo-Dr. Scott Stanley, a research professor at the University of Denver, shares his research with representatives of Air Force Space Command, June 7, 2017.  Stanley is a leading scholar on relationships, and specializes in cohabitation of unmarried couples.  He was addressing to the Air Force Space Command Prevention Summit, a gathering of community support and violence prevention experts from around the command. (U.S. Air Force photo by Dave Grim)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo-Dr. Scott Stanley, a research professor at the University of Denver, shares his research with representatives of Air Force Space Command, June 7, 2017. Stanley is a leading scholar on relationships, and specializes in cohabitation of unmarried couples. He was addressing to the Air Force Space Command Prevention Summit, a gathering of community support and violence prevention experts from around the command. (U.S. Air Force photo by Dave Grim)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo-Dr. Scott Stanley, a research professor at the University of Denver, shares his research with representatives of Air Force Space Command, June 7, 2017.  Stanley is a leading scholar on relationships, and specializes in cohabitation of unmarried couples.  He was addressing to the Air Force Space Command Prevention Summit, a gathering of community support and violence prevention experts from around the command. (U.S. Air Force photo by Dave Grim)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo-Dr. Scott Stanley, a research professor at the University of Denver, shares his research with representatives of Air Force Space Command, June 7, 2017. Stanley is a leading scholar on relationships, and specializes in cohabitation of unmarried couples. He was addressing to the Air Force Space Command Prevention Summit, a gathering of community support and violence prevention experts from around the command. (U.S. Air Force photo by Dave Grim)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- A leading relationship researcher has some advice for Airmen when it comes to healthy, successful relationships: don’t slide--decide.

“It’s important to not slide through relationship transitions that might impact your life, which could include having sex, becoming pregnant, having a child, moving in together. These are all things that could change your life,” said Dr. Scott Stanley, a research professor at the University of Denver.

Stanley spoke to a group of relationship and violence prevention experts who work for Air Force Space Command.

“People tend to slide through things like this now instead of really thinking through what’s going on and making a clear decision about who they are and what they’re about and what they want,” Stanley said.

According to Stanley, couples often move in together—or cohabitate—to test out their relationship and see if it’s a good fit, which they believe will increase their likelihood of staying together long-term. Not so, says Stanley, who cited research that shows that couples who cohabitate before being married are actually more likely to get divorced later on.

This is because couples who are in the early, very passionate stages of relationships often take a series of seemingly minor steps, or slide, as Stanley calls it. These decisions lead to constraints, which are factors that make breaking up harder.

Examples of constraints include pets, kids, house, money or attitudes of family, friends and religious organizations that add up and eventually make it very difficult to break up, even though neither partner has actually decided that they want a long-term relationship.

Later on, says Stanley, if one partner wants out, they’ve put themselves into a situation where it’s difficult to leave, which leads to bigger problems.

“I’m encouraging people to go a little slower and make decisions with themselves or with their partner about what they’re about and what they’re doing, to talk it out and decide before moving forward,” said Stanley. That’s a message Stanley recommends leaders pass on to their Airmen.

According to Stanley’s research, there is not necessarily a direct link between cohabitation and aggression in relationships.

“Cohabiting makes it harder to leave a relationship, even if you want to,” said Stanley. “So their relationship lasts longer than it otherwise would, and then frustration, conflict patterns develop that can lead to incidents of pushing, shoving, slapping.”

Stanley warns leaders not to try to tell their subordinates what to do and what not to do in their personal lives, which is mostly counter-productive. Instead, Stanley says it’s best to just present the facts in a non-judgmental way.

“You can get emerging adults’ attention by saying sometimes when we’re going really fast in our romantic lives, we’re letting things slide that cause us to lose options before we’ve really chosen what we want in life,” said Stanley.

Christina Grooms, a community support coordinator at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, says Stanley’s message is one that many Airmen haven’t heard before, but could do a lot of good.

“Relationship issues and concerns continue to be the number one issue that we see across the board in the military,” says Grooms, who intends to include the research in Wingman Day, the First Term Airman Course, and other activities.

“Folks can learn more to better their relationships that they’re in, and make better decisions for themselves in the long run.”

Dr. Ken Robinson, violence prevention integrator at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, says it’s possible to bring Stanley’s message to Airmen.

“It’s fact. It’s not conjecture or opinion, it’s based on what the research supports,” said Robinson, “Just talk to them in a down-to-earth way.”

Stanley spoke at the 2017 Air Force Space Command Prevention Summit—a gathering of community support coordinators and violence prevention integrators from around the command. The Violence Prevention Integrator is a relatively new position as part of an Air Force-wide push to equip leaders and Airmen to strengthen relationships and prevent violence and suicides.

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