Commitment represents the motivation to stay in a relationship and to work at it. It is not surprising that we stay in relationships while they are highly satisfying, but why stay in a relationship that has not been satisfying lately? People may choose to persevere when things get difficult because they have invested a great deal, they have poor alternatives, or they wish to stay true to their personal values (“I made a pledge to stick with this”). Furthermore, a relationship can, over time, become a big part of “who I am,” and therefore it is not something that is easily discarded.
The decision to commit and work through short-term periods of boredom or distress will allow people to potentially reap the benefits of a loving, long-term relationship. Commitment promotes relationship longevity by motivating people to see, think, and act in ways that help sustain a relationship. For example, romantic partners sometimes can behave undesirably, ranging from annoying little habits to major transgressions. Highly committed people are less likely to notice the bad behavior and are more likely to excuse the behavior if it is noticed (“It’s because she had a bad day at work”). Finally, if explaining away the behavior is not sufficient, committed individuals are more likely than others to accommodate the bad behavior in ways that help keep the relationship going (talk through the problem, loyally keep quiet and move on), and they are less likely to respond in ways that undermine the relationship (scream, throw objects and leave, or neglect the partner). Of course, the darker side of this is that committed individuals may try to accommodate their partners even when the partner is abusive.
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In general, commitment motivates people to sacrifice their self-interest and short-term rewards, and to inhibit immediate negative impulses, on behalf of the relationship. How far a person is willing to go depends upon the level of commitment and the level of costs. For example, research has found that students committed to heterosexual dating relationships judged an attractive opposite-sex person as ordinary-looking, whereas those less committed judged the person as highly attractive. However, when they were led to believe that the other person was attracted to them, committed daters no longer defended the relationship by “devaluing” the attractiveness of the person. The researchers concluded that the daters were not sufficiently committed to withstand the stronger threat. In contrast, married people high in commitment dismissed the highly threatening attractive person as unappealing.
Finally, when predicting the future prospects for the relationship, one’s frame of mind matters. When people are deliberating about the pros and cons of a relationship goal (“Should we go on a vacation together?”) or even a personal goal (“Should I major in psychology?”), they make more accurate predictions about their relationships than when they are thinking about how to implement a goal to which they have already committed to pursuing (“How am I going to get an A in this course?”). For example, after thinking of whether to major in psychology, a person should more accurately forecast relationship longevity than after thinking about how to get an A in a course this term. Deliberation makes people more realistic in their assessments of their relationship prospects. Commitment may help sustain a relationship, but mindset may help one gauge commitment.
- Arriaga, X. B., & Agnew, C. R. (2001). Being committed: Affective, cognitive, and conative components of relationship commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27,1190-1203.
- Johnson, M. P. (1991). Commitment to personal relationships. In W. H. Jones & D. W. Perlman (Eds.), Advances in personal relationships (Vol. 3, pp. 117-143). London: Jessica Kingsley.
- Lydon, J. E., Burton, K., & Menzies-Toman, D. (2005). Commitment calibration with the relationship cognition toolbox. In M. Baldwin (Ed.), Interpersonal cognition (pp. 126-152). New York: Guilford Press.