A public science essay by Jacy Black
It’s the phrase a love-sick partner never wants to hear said about their significant other; a phrase uttered by ornery grandmothers everywhere when another year of dating passes without someone ‘popping the question’:
“They’ve got commitment issues.”
With the changing nature of family dynamics and relationships in the technological age, successful marriages in the 21st century have become something of a mystery. How do previous experiences shape future commitment? What is considered in commitment, and how does it last through decades of married life? These topics have exasperated young people and married couples for decades. In a world where “commitment issues” are offered as an explanation for the prevalence of causal relationships and divorce, how do we know what commitment is and how to make it last?
Defining Commitment. Commitment in relationship psychology is a construct that is defined differently depending on the nature of the study. According to Tran and Simpson (2009), “it entails a concern for the future and stability of the relationship along with the desire for the relationship to continue,” (p. 687). Though typically commitment is seen as a positive thing, Rusbult et al. (1991) note in their research this is not always the case. Commitment encompasses a wide variety of factors that bind individuals together in a relationship, whether or not a relationship is a healthy one (p. 56).
Childhood Attachment Styles. Even before Harry Met Sally, psychology tells us that childhood development has an impact on later relationships. Attachment theory, according to Bowlby (1973), proposes that interactions with a caregiver tell the infant important information regarding the caregiver’s reliability and accessibility (as cited in Cassidy & Berlin, 1994, p.972). The emotional bond to the caregiver is formed from this information, depending on the quality of the caregiving. When caregivers are inconsistent, infants are more likely to express anxiety and negativity upon separation and reunion to the caregiver, called anxious/ambivalent attachment (Cassidy & Berlin, 1994, p. 982). When caregivers are rejecting, infants are likely to show anxious/avoidant attachment styles, marked by little distress at separation and avoidance behavior upon reunion (Crittenden & Ainsworth, 1989, p. 439).
These patterns also tend to extend beyond childhood, as research shows the caregiver-infant bond can inform later connections with romantic partners. According to Fletcher et al. (2015),“the bonding and commitment components of adult romantic love are remarkably similar to the love between parents and infants,” (p. 24) including a strong longing to be around one another, discomfort when unable to see one other for long periods, and a keen awareness of the others’ needs.
These similarities are not the extent of the connection between childhood and later relationships, however. A 2011 study conducted by Oriña et al. followed participants long-term; observing interactions with their mothers at age two, resolving a conflict with a peer at age sixteen, and completing a relationship measure with their partner at age 20-21. The study demonstrated that poor parenting in childhood (less supportive and sensitive, more intrusive) or diminished conflict resolution as a teenager (less willing to compromise, less effective approach) increased the likelihood of an individual being the lesser-committed partner in an adult relationship (Oriña et al., 2011, pp. 911-912).
More specifically, maladaptive attachment styles (such as anxious/avoidant or anxious/ambivalent) or negative experiences in relationships can influence an individual’s interpretation and response to current and future relationships in ways that may be harmful (Tran & Simpson, 2009). Tran and Simpson explain, “for example, insecurely attached individuals may anticipate negative reactions or behaviors from their romantic partners, perceive greater partner negativity or mal-intent, overreact to those perceptions, and then unwittingly evoke negative behaviors from their partners,” (2009, p. 687). Simply put, these individuals expect their partners to behave negatively and thus feel less committed to the relationship. As attachment styles are formed in response to caregiver interactions, this provides a mechanism to explain how upbringing and past experience can impact commitment.
However, it is important to remember that no individual is doomed by their past. Being in a committed relationship can also help ease the anxieties of an insecurely attached individual, allowing them to potentially avoid negative actions and promote more substantive and healthy relationships (Kelly, 1987, as cited in Tran & Simpson, 2009, p.687). As Tran and Simpson describe, relationship commitment can “buffer” against the effects of negative experiences in childhood and young adulthood.
What Influences Commitment? Although childhood attachment styles and prior experiences influence commitment, dependence upon a relationship is more directly associated with other factors. Interdependence Theory states that commitment is determined by the level of satisfaction experienced in the relationship, the “quality of available alternatives”, and investment size (Rusbult, 1998, as cited in Mattingly, 2008). As an individual becomes more dependent upon a relationship’s benefits and resources, they tend to become more committed to the relationship as well (Rusbult, 1998, p.360).
Relationship Satisfaction. Relationship satisfaction refers to an individual’s assessment of whether their needs are met in a relationship, which can include “intellectual, companionate, and sexual needs” (Rusbult, 1998, p. 359). Relationship satisfaction shows a positive relationship to commitment, as the more an individual feels their needs are met in a relationship, the more dependent they become and the more committed they feel.
A study conducted by Guilbault and Philippe (2017) confirmed this point. Researchers asked the participants to think about a positive memory they considered important to their relationship. They then asked their partners to assess the degree to which that memory satisfied their needs and to rate the memory’s importance. It was found that the partner’s assessment of their need satisfaction in the memory was associated with their commitment to the relationship (Guilbault & Philippe, 2017, pp. 598-603).
This makes sense. Especially early on in a relationship, we’re trying to figure out what we gain from being with a partner and whether or not the relationship is worth our time and energy. If we feel that a partner can provide us with the things we consider important, we are more likely to feel increased dependence upon that relationship and increased commitment as a result.
Quality of Available Alternatives. Another component of commitment, according to Interdependence Theory, is our assessment of available alternatives. Rusbult (1998) defines the quality of alternatives as “the perceived desirability of the best available alternative to the relationship,”(p. 359). According to Rusbult, the quality of alternatives depends upon the degree to which a person’s needs could be satisfied outside of the relationship, such by friends, family members, other possible partners, or individually. This allows us to assess and compare our relationship to other options and determine how much we want to stay. This works in conjunction with relationship satisfaction; when an individual is satisfied with their relationship and they think the alternatives are worse, they’re more likely to be dependent (Rusbult, 1998, p.359). But, when an individual is unhappy in the relationship and sees “plenty of fish in the sea”, they are less so.
Once we are, in fact, committed – a mechanism called “devaluing alternatives” kicks in. In one of several studies conducted by Johnson and Rusbult (1989), participants currently involved in a relationship were asked to rate the attractiveness of several individuals by their photographs, under the guise of research for an online dating service. These ratings were compared to questionnaire answers regarding the participants’ current relationship satisfaction and commitment. Through this comparison, it was found that more committed partners were more likely to rate the photographs as less attractive, also known as “devaluing the alternatives”. This finding was especially likely when the alternative was very attractive and deemed to be a bigger threat. Further studies by Johnson and Rusbult extend and further this work, asserting that “commitment fairly clearly mediates tendencies to devalue alternatives,”(1989, p.978), and devaluing alternatives is most likely a response to threats to commitment. Although relationship satisfaction does have its role in influencing devaluing alternatives, commitment was demonstrated as the more dominant force in these studies.
Assessing the quality of alternatives, as discussed earlier, could be seen as wondering whether the grass is greener on the other side. However, once someone wants to stay in a relationship (i.e. they are highly committed), they don’t look for opportunities to leave. Instead, the other pastures start to look less green.
Investment Size. There is one more piece to the puzzle. Rusbult (1998) asserts that investment size, or the significance and amount of resources tied to a relationship, can explain why not all committed relationships are healthy or happy ones. The idea says that the resources we gain from a relationship are taken into consideration when assessing commitment. Different types of resources can accompany a relationship, whether financial assets like property or relational resources like family, friends, and children. Rusbult (1998) says this could explain why individuals stay in unhappy, or abusive, relationships– a partner could be invested in, reliant upon, or not willing to lose the associated resources.
Wisdom of an Older Generation. Relationships psychology provides us with a valuable framework with which to approach these topics, but is there something still missing from the conversation? The findings of psychological research have definite merit and value, but there are still many lessons to learn from older generations who have fought for their marriages. The voices I value most on these topics are those of my grandparents, who speak with the experience of a long and successful marriage. When asked about commitment in relationships – this is what they had to say.
“Love is about self-sacrifice,” my grandfather said simply as I asked him to share the culmination of his knowledge on the subject. Considering the fifty years they’ve spent in a loving, committed marriage, there is much I have yet to learn. “It’s being more interested in the other person’s happiness than your own…you don’t really know what love is until your satisfaction, for one reason or another, is challenged or diminished,” ( G. Black, personal communication, May 29, 2020). Listening to his wise words, I was struck by how this view was contrary to a focus on self-satisfaction. Indeed, my grandfather proposed that it was not your happiness that matters most, but the happiness of those you care for—a sentiment very much in opposition to a Western, 21st-century view that epitomizes personal happiness. My grandfather continued, “I think people leave marriages these days because when they don’t get what they want, they find they’re not as interested in their partner over themselves.”
He may be onto something. Psychological research confirms that healthy self-sacrifice is beneficial to relationships more generally, improving relationship quality and diminishing conflict (Impett et al., 2005, p.340). However, I can’t help wondering if my grandfather’s insights signify a bigger mindset difference between the “Boomers” and the infamous Gen-Z with regard to commitment. Increased gender equality in relationships, the explosion of online dating, the rise of casual relationships, and diminished barriers to divorce have changed the rules of engagement, to say the least. The quality of available alternatives has flipped on its head as the dating pool has expanded infinitely, the U.S. maintains that 40-50% of marriages end in divorce (“Marriage & Divorce”, n.d.), and “hookup culture” is the buzzword on college campuses. Modern dating seems to place greater emphasis on personal needs and satisfaction in determining commitment in relationships, rather than viewing commitment as an act of self-sacrifice like my grandfather. This is something I believe deserves attention.
If one of the factors involved in commitment is need satisfaction, then commitment may naturally experience greater turbulence over time as greater stress is experienced, and as the physicality in a relationship changes with age. Self-sacrifice is beneficial to relationships, as are assessments of personal desires and satisfaction that impact commitment (according to the Investment Model). Perhaps this new generation must grapple with where the line is, between advocating for one’s personal needs and sacrificing for the needs of others. Then, healthy, committed relationships may form that both benefit from and overcome the challenges of dating in the 21st-century.
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