Whether you’ve been with your partner for many years or have only been dating a few months, you could be at risk of sliding through important relationship decisions. So, what is sliding vs deciding in relationships?

The concept of sliding vs deciding was originally promoted by researcher Dr. Scott Stanley, who studied the ways that partners progress through significant milestones, such as sexual intimacy, living together and marriage. Dr. Stanley found that many modern-day couples move through big transitions not necessarily because they are an ideal match, but because they are succumbing to relationship inertia.

Understanding the difference between sliding (passively moving forward without deliberate decision-making) and deciding (actively choosing to advance with intention) in relationships is key, whether you’re moving in together, getting married, or just taking your relationship to the next level.

This understanding can not only help you more smoothly navigate big life transitions, it can ultimately impact the health and security of your relationship long term. Keep reading to learn more about relationship inertia and how you can focus on making clear decisions in your relationship.

What Is Sliding vs Deciding?

Your journey through relationship milestones can either be deliberate or passive. And research has shown that this distinction can significantly impact the level of commitment and satisfaction in your relationship.

Understanding Relationship Transitions

Sliding into relationship transitions can often occur without much deliberate thought or decision. This is when relationship inertia takes over, and couples just keep moving forward to the natural next step without having an intentional discussion about their future.

For example, couples may move in together or merge their lives more out of convenience or circumstance rather than a conscious choice to deepen their partnership.

This approach can lead to a series of events where one transition seamlessly feeds into the next, without explicit agreements or mutual understanding of the relationship’s future direction. 

Maybe one person starts sleeping over their partner’s house a few nights a week. Pretty soon, they’re leaving a toothbrush there and maybe even a few outfits and other essentials. They may even begin sleeping over more than they are sleeping in their own place. Later, when their lease is up, they decide it makes sense to just move in.

On the other hand, deciding involves an active choice to escalate the level of commitment in your relationship. Each transition is marked by purposeful communication and intentional decisions.

For instance, deciding to move in together after openly discussing what that step means for both of you can fortify your commitment, ensuring that both partners are progressing with clear boundaries and shared goals.

Defining Commitment in Modern Relationships

In modern relationships, commitment is a multidimensional concept.

It’s not just a matter of being exclusive or getting married; it’s about the continuous choice to prioritize and invest in the relationship.

When you are “deciding,” you are actively affirming your dedication to your partner and the relationship. This contrasts with “sliding,” where commitment might accrue by default, without a deliberate pledge or acknowledgment from the partners involved.

It’s no surprise, then, that researchers have found that couples who slide through big relationship decisions are more likely to experience infidelity and other commitment issues.

Two women embrace after discussing sliding vs deciding in their relationship

Common Relationship Transitions That Couples Slide Through

When you enter a relationship, there are critical moments where you either make a conscious decision or simply slide into the next phase. Each transition has its own implications and could significantly affect the quality and future of your relationship.

If you’ve been with your partner for many years, you may realize that you’ve already slid through a few of these relationship changes. This doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed. Instead, consider it a reminder to sit down with your partner and have a serious conversation about the future of your relationship, your commitments to each other and any boundaries you have in relationships.

Here are some of the most common relationship transitions I see couples slide through as a couples therapist:

Sex

You might slide into having sex before establishing mutual expectations. Without discussion, this can create ambiguity regarding the nature of the relationship. For example, you may only want to have sex with someone you believe you have a future with. Your partner, on the other hand, may view sexual intimacy more casually. Without a discussion, engaging in sex could lead one partner to feel more committed to the relationship than the other.

Exclusivity

Deciding to be exclusive is a milestone. Slipping into exclusivity without a conversation can lead to misunderstandings about the level of commitment. Without a clear understanding of what being exclusive means to you (and if you even want to be exclusive with your partner), there could be some pretty big heartache down the road.

Cohabitation

Moving in together is a major step. The line between sliding versus deciding in cohabitation can shape the entire dynamic of your partnership. Many couples sort of fall into living together without ever discussing what it means for the future of their relationship and what kind of commitment they are prepared to make. This can set you up to slide into even bigger transitions down the road.

Pets

Adopting a pet together often happens organically – especially if you’ve already started living together. However, the commitment involved is significant and should align with the shared vision of your relationship. Pets increase your entanglement with a partner and can make it harder to leave the relationship even if you really want to.

Marriage

Entering marriage can sometimes be a slide rather than a choice, without intentional discussions about the responsibilities and expectations that come with it. This is especially true for couples who have already been living together

Pregnancy

Pregnancy can occur unplanned. Deciding how to handle an unplanned pregnancy beforehand ensures both partners are on the same page regarding parenting and family life.

Parenting

The transition to parenting often comes naturally after pregnancy, but it should be a mutual decision to embrace the roles and duties of raising a child together. Many couples start a parenting dynamic based on how a baby is being fed (nursing or bottle-bed), who has a longer parental leave and other similar factors. But this can easily lead to resentment and further miscommunication between partners.                                                                           

A couple smiles for the camera in front of a brick wall

The Effect of Sliding vs Deciding on Relationship Outcomes

In choosing how to progress through significant relationship milestones, the way you make decisions can profoundly influence relationship satisfaction and quality. Whether it’s deciding to move in together, get married, or become parents, engaging in a mindful decision-making process can enhance your connection with your partner and reduce the likelihood of extramarital involvements.

Analyzing Relationship Satisfaction and Quality

Relationship quality and your satisfaction within it are often linked to how intentionally you approach transitions within your relationship.

A 2013 study by Dr. Stanley and other researchers suggests that individuals who actively decide on taking major steps together, rather than sliding into them, tend to report higher levels of dedication and relationship satisfaction.

For example, a mutual decision to live together is associated with stronger partnership bonds, whereas sliding into cohabitation—without a mutual commitment—may result in lower relationship quality and satisfaction later on.

This implies that clear, joint decision-making fosters stronger interpersonal commitment, which can be a critical factor that bolsters the overall health of your relationship.

  • Intentional Decisions: Often correlate with a heightened sense of commitment and relationship satisfaction.
  • Slide Transitions: May inadvertently lead to constraints that don’t necessarily reflect an increase in dedication between partners.

Understanding the Role of Communication in Relationship Transitions

Effective communication plays a pivotal role in your relationship’s dynamics, particularly during critical transitions.

When a couple discusses and aligns on their future together, this shared vision can minimize stress and foster better relational functioning.

Having an open exchange of information ensures that both partners are aware of their mutual interests and potential compromises.

Through transparent communication, you can prevent misunderstandings and reduce the risk of infidelity and other commitment issues, as both partners fully grasp what is at stake with each decision made.

How to Make Sure You’re Deciding, Not Sliding, in Relationships

To foster a robust relationship, intentional decision-making is crucial. Here are steps to ensure you’re actively deciding and not sliding into relationship milestones:

  1. Communicate Early and Often: Begin conversations about expectations and values right from the start, and maintain this dialogue as your relationship evolves.
  2. Set Expectations for Transitions: Clearly define how both of you will approach significant changes like cohabitation, parenting, or professional shifts.
  3. Regular Relationship Check-Ins: Schedule routine discussions to reflect on your relationship’s health and make necessary adjustments, ensuring both parties feel heard and satisfied. Consider taking a healthy relationship quiz, too, to get the conversation going.
  4. Acknowledge the Impact of Decisions: Understand that each step in your relationship impacts interpersonal commitment and relationship quality. Don’t let inertia make these decisions for you.
  5. Seek Professional Guidance: Engage with a licensed couple’s therapist if initiating or navigating through these discussions proves challenging.
Two men smile and laugh together after discussing sliding vs deciding in their relationship

Frequently Asked Questions About Sliding vs Deciding

Still have questions about navigating relationship transitions intentionally? Read our answers to some of the most common questions we get as couples therapists.

What is relationship inertia?

Inertia, in the context of relationships, can lead to a continuation of cohabitation into marriage without a deliberate choice, potentially resulting in less satisfying marriages.

What are the potential psychological effects of transitioning through relationship stages without deliberate decisions?

Transitioning without deliberate decisions can lead to increased ambiguity and uncertainty in the relationship, feelings of entrapment, and might contribute to lower levels of satisfaction and commitment.

How does decision-making affect relationships?

Every time you make a decision with your partner, you have the opportunity to form a tighter bond and become closer together. Of course, decision-making can also be a stressful process for couples, especially if you and your partner don’t agree on the best path forward. 

Still, even these difficult decisions are crucial for a successful relationship, because they mean both individuals are able to share their feelings openly, communicate their needs and set clear boundaries. All three of these things are critical for relationship satisfaction and long-term success.

Need Help Navigating Relationship Decisions?

Whether you’ve already slid through a few transitions with your partner or you want to ensure you make clear decisions in your relationship, a therapist can help.

A couples therapist can work with you and your partner to discuss big life changes and help you make determine the difference between sliding vs deciding in relationships. On the other hand, an individual therapist can help you work out how you feel about a relationship transition and determine what boundaries you would need to set to feel good about a big change.

No matter what kind of support you need, Couples Learn can help. Contact Couples Learn today to discover all of our online therapy options and find your perfect-fit counselor.

A couple embraces and kisses each other