When it comes to understanding the fate of any given relationship, I’d argue that knowing something about a couple’s commitment level, or their attachment to each other and long-term perspective on the relationship, is critical (see our previous article on predicting breakup here). Beyond predictions about staying together versus breaking up, commitment is also associated with all sorts of positive relationship outcomes (see our previous article on 5 Reasons Commitment is Good For Your Relationship). But how is commitment built in a relationship? More than 30 years of research on this topic has identified three pillars that form the foundation of commitment in relationships.1,2
Pillar 1: Satisfaction
This one isn’t particularly surprising — individuals who are happy in their relationships and feel positively about their partners (i.e., those with high satisfaction) are more likely to be in the relationship for the long haul. Satisfaction stems from the benefits and costs of being in a relationship. A satisfying relationship has a lot of benefits, like intimacy, emotional support, sexual fulfillment, security, and companionship.3 But even the best relationships have some costs. For example, you may have less time to hang out with your friends if you are spending time getting the aforementioned benefits from your partner. These benefits and costs together form a global sense of “outcomes” associated with a relationship. Are the outcomes in your relationship positive? Are the benefits greater than the costs?
The second piece contributing to your satisfaction are the outcomes you expect to receive in your relationship. Do you have really high expectations for your relationship? If so, your outcomes need to be similarly high for you to be satisfied. However, if your expectations are low, it doesn’t take much to make you happy. For example, imagine that Mitchell and Claire are each getting one backrub a month from their respective romantic partners. Claire has pretty low expectations; she only expects to get a backrub once a year, so her current relationship is wildly exceeding her expectations, and therefore she should be really satisfied with her outcomes. Mitchell, on the other hand, expects to get a backrub from his partner once a week, so if he only gets one each month he’ll be very disappointed with his outcomes (and relationship). Of course, exclusively basing one’s relationship expectations on the frequency of backrubs is overly simplistic, but substitute whatever outcomes you value in your relationship and it works just the same.
The bottom line is that relationships that meet and exceed your expectations will be satisfying, but not getting what you want and believe you should get from your partner is a recipe for dissatisfaction.
Pillar 2: (Low) Alternatives
Satisfaction is all about what you get from a current partner. But what about alternative partners, or those people who you could be with if you weren’t with your current partner? Perhaps there is someone who could give you better outcomes than your current partner (e.g., more frequent or better backrubs). If you suspect that you could do better elsewhere, then your commitment to your partner is probably low. Why would you stay in your current relationship if you could be with someone who could better meet your needs for intimacy, emotional support, sexual fulfillment, security, and companionship? (To fully answer this question, see Pillar #3 below.)
Usually when we think about alternatives, it’s that particular someone who you could imagine being with if you weren’t with your current partner — that hot guy in class, the waitress at the coffee shop who always laughs at your jokes, or your neighbor who always likes to stop and chat when you run into each other while walking your dogs. But alternatives don’t necessarily have to be specific “other” possible romantic partners. Maybe you could get better outcomes from spending more time with your friends or focusing on your schoolwork rather than being in your current romantic relationship. Having no relationship at all is a great alternative to being in an unsatisfying or unhealthy relationship.
Pillar 3: Investments
Some days are better than others in your relationship, and attractive alternatives may come and go from your life. As a result, satisfaction and alternatives both fluctuate. But when satisfaction is low (e.g., you just had an argument with your partner) and alternatives are high (e.g., you just found out that your ex wants you back), why do people stay in their relationships rather than breaking up? It comes down to the investments in your relationship.
Investments represent the things you’d lose if your relationship were to end — they are the stabilizing factors that keep things afloat during the tough patches that couples go through. They may be tangible items, like the house you and your spouse purchased together, or intangible things, like the work and effort you put into your relationship over the years. Investments can be from the past, like all of the memories you have with your partner, or may relate to the future, like the vacation you planned together for next summer.4 Social networks, like friendships with others, are another sort of investment — if you were to break up with your partner, who would “get to keep” the friends you and your partner have in common? In short, investments are the things that you value in your relationships that would be lost if you broke up, and they make it harder for people to easily leave their relationships.
Numerous studies show that these three pillars (satisfaction, alternatives, and investments) pull the majority of the weight when it comes to relationship commitment.2 This isn’t to say that other things don’t contribute to commitment, but across the board, these three pillars are essential for understanding how commitment is built.
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1Rusbult, C. E. (1983). A longitudinal test of the investment model: The development (and deterioration) of satisfaction and commitment in heterosexual involvements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 101-117.
2Le, B., & Agnew, C. R. (2003). Commitment and its theorized determinants: A meta-analysis of the Investment Model. Personal Relationships, 10, 37-57.
3Drigotas, S. M., & Rusbult, C. E. (1992). Should I stay or should I go?: A dependence model of breakups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 62-87.
4Goodfriend, W., & Agnew, C. R. (2008). Sunken costs and desired plans: Examining different types of investments in close relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1639-1652.
Dr. Le’s research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.