Although relationships, by their nature, are ever-changing, in some ways they remain constant. Still, a common question people often ask is “how do I know if this relationship will last?” Rusbult’s (1980, 1983) Investment Model offers a lens that helps us better answer that question. This model is important as it has been able to predict whether or not couples remain together in studies ranging from 7 to 18 months (Impett, Beals, & Peplau, 2001; Rusbult, 1983), and even 15 years (Bui, Peplau, & Hill, 1996).
The Investment Model is based on four factors: satisfaction, investment size, quality of alternatives, and commitment. Satisfaction is considered the level of “positive versus negative affect experienced in a relationship’’ (Rusbult et al., 1998, p. 359). Next, investment size ‘‘refers to the magnitude and importance of the resources that are attached to a relationship—resources that would decline in value if the relationship were to end’’ (Rusbult et al., 1998, p. 359). This entails both tangible and intangible qualities: one might think he/she would lose their partner’s affection, family, resources, the stability of being together, the part of his/her identity that belongs to the relationship, and a myriad of other things.
Although counter-intuitive to some, quality of alternatives involves the perceptions of relational rivals or “the extent to which the individual’s most important needs could be effectively fulfilled ‘outside’ of the current relationship’’ (Rusbult et al., 1998, p. 359). The argument is that we are constantly evaluating new potential relational rivals in their abilities to be our romantic partner. Many of you reading this might scoff and say ‘I don’t have any alternatives’—the reality is that you do, but you’re happy in your current relationship and therefore evaluate existing alternatives negatively.
The final factor, commitment is “an intent to persist in a relationship, including long-term orientation toward the involvement as well as feelings of psychological attachment’’ (Rusbult et al., 1998, p. 359). The Investment Model argues that the first three factors – satisfaction, investment size, and quality of alternatives – form bases of dependence that predict commitment. Specifically, a person who is satisfied, has poor quality alternatives, and a considerable investment is dependent on his/her partner, which then predicts commitment.
Once again, these four factors have been able to predict whether or not couples remain together in studies spanning 15 years, reinforcing their importance (Bui et al., 1996). As a communication researcher, it is important to note that communication is related to these relational perceptions. My own research, for example, has shown that the frequency of affectionate communication, both given and received, is positively related to commitment and satisfaction. In other words, individuals who reported giving and receiving a lot of affection also reported being committed and satisfied. Interestingly, the amount of affection that participants received from partners was the strongest indicator of their satisfaction whereas the amount of affection participants expressed to partners was the strongest indicator of participants’ commitment. We argue, then, that affectionate communication functions as a relational thermometer of sorts that allows individuals to gauge the temperature of their relationship based on affectionate messages (which are then related to these important relational factors).
If you believe that you’re meant to spend your life with one person, then you must face the reality that a vast majority of your relationships will fail (until you find “the one”). Often individuals spend too much time in relationships that are not fulfilling or are stuck in toxic communicative patterns. The Investment Model, then, provides a framework for individuals to better understand if they should remain in problematic relationships or if the writing is on the wall.
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-Horan, S. M., & Booth-Butterfield, M. (2010). Investing in affection: An investigation of affection exchange theory and relational qualities. Communication Quarterly, 58, 394-413. doi: 10.1080/01463373.2010.524876
-Rusbult, C. E. (1980). Commitment and satisfaction in romantic associations: A test of the investment model. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 16, 172–186.
-Rusbult, 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.
-Rusbult, C. E., Martz, J. M., & Agnew, C. R. (1998). The investment model scale: Measuring commitment level, satisfaction level, quality of alternative, and investment size. Personal Relationships, 5, 357–391.