The Bejeezus Out of Me

Startling behavioral science.

Romantic Commitment: The Gift That Keeps You Giving

But is that necessarily a good thing?


Renaissance Romance
Well, I'll be doo-doo-doo-down-dooby-doo-down damned.

Millions of years of human evolution and about thirty years of formal inquiry have shown that breaking up is hard to do.  A new study may show why, why that is true.

Research reported during the years 1980-2008 consistently showed that romantic partners are reluctant to watch the trust, love, hope, and time they've invested in a relationship wash down the drain. Indeed, a person's perceptions of the extent of his or her own commitment can become a trap.

But what about when people focus not on their own but on their romantic partner's commitment? The new research, by psychologists at the University of Toronto and UC Berkeley, examined the effect on a romantic partner of perceptions of his or her loved one's investment.

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The researchers conducted three experiments. The first involved 108 dating or married couples. One group of couples was asked to think and write about their romantic partner's commitment to them. One group was asked to think and write about their commitment to their partner. A control group was not asked to think or write about commitment. Everyone was asked after the thinking and writing (or not) to rate their own level of commitment to their current relationship. The researchers found that only people who had thought and written about their partner's commitment scored as having a significantly higher level of commitment. And this wasn't because they felt guilty about leaving. Post-exercise assessments showed that both men and women had been imbued with feelings of trust and gratitude.

But there was a surprise in the data. The "my partner is committed" = "I am staying with my partner" equation only held true for people who scored themselves as being unsatisfied in general with their relationship.

That last finding was unexpected. And so the researchers attempted to replicate the "my partner is committed" = "I am staying with my partner" finding with their second and third studies, both of which were longitudinal but involved fewer couples. Study 2 asked individuals to take notes daily for one week about their perceptions of their partner’s commitment. Data analysis showed an immediate increase in gratitude and in relationship commitment that was still evident nine months later.

In the third study of the series participants noted over a two-week period the frequency at which their partner exhibited his or her commitment. The more frequently an individual perceived commitment, the greater was his or her own commitment three months later.

"Placing resources into a romantic relationship, such as one's time, energy, emotions, and material goods, may be an effective way to elicit feelings of gratitude from a romantic partner," the researchers wrote, speculating that the resulting gratitude is the tie that binds.

More informally, about romantic investments co-author Samantha Joel suggests that they are “a double-edged sword. They make everyone more committed, which is only a good thing if the relationship is a good thing. So, don't make major investments (or encourage your partner to make major investments) unless you're sure the relationship is fulfilling and you want it to last long-term.”

And don't say that this is the end

Instead of breaking up I wish that we were making up again.

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Samantha Joel, Amie M. Gordon, Emily A. Impett, Geoff MacDonald, and Dacher Keltner, "The Things You Do for Me: Perceptions of a Romantic Partner’s Investments Promote Gratitude and Commitment," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 39(10) 1333 –1345. 

Rebecca Coffey is a humorist and journalist. Her most recent book is Nietzsche's Angel Food Cake: And Other "Recipes" for the Intellectually Famished.

Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist and broadcast commentator with Vermont Public Radio. 

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