It will come as no surprise that research shows highly committed couples are more likely to stay together. But what if there is a mismatch between two partners’ commitment levels? You probably know a couple in which one partner is clearly more invested in the relationship than the other. Perhaps you are highly invested in your own relationship but your partner is not. Or maybe you’re not that thrilled with your current relationship, but you know your partner is devoted to you.
According to Stanley and colleagues, recent changes in relationship norms make the possibility of mismatched commitment levels greater than ever before.1 Certain cultural signals of commitment, such as “going steady,” getting formally engaged, or getting married have declined. These signals help couples get on the same page in terms of the direction of their relationship; the absence of such formal milestones can leave partners confused about each other’s intentions. Stanley and colleagues also argue that people are now more cynical about love and commitment, and more concerned with rejection. Uncertainty about where a relationship is going can make people more concerned with protecting themselves and avoiding getting hurt, rather than focusing on nurturing the relationship.
There has also been a trend for couples to slide into relationship transitions, such as moving in together or having a child, without making a formal commitment first. Couples may wind up taking an important life step together without really hashing out how they feel about the seriousness of the relationship. Together, these factors create ambiguity for individuals who may be unsure of how committed their partner is to the relationship.
Mismatches in commitment can have a profound effect on relationship dynamics. Waller coined the term principle of least interest to explain how this mismatch affects the power structure in a couple.2 The partner who loves the least has more power in the relationship. But more than just a power imbalance, differences in commitment can affect the extent to which the members of a couple see themselves as a unit—their “we-ness.”3 Without this sense, it can be difficult for partners to navigate challenges in their relationship, in terms of handling conflict or supporting one another.4
In a new study, Stanley and colleagues examined commitment asymmetries in 315 unmarried heterosexual couples from a nationally representative sample of Americans, who were surveyed seven times during a two-year period.4 Rather than examine the absolute difference between members’ levels of commitment, the research team focused on couples with large discrepancies. Smaller discrepancies in commitment might just reflect different understandings of the relationship or definitions of commitment, and may not be meaningful in terms of how partners interact. So a couple was only classified as asymmetrical if the difference in partners’ level of commitment was substantial—one standard deviation apart. In these couples, the less committed partner was described as the “weak link,” while the more committed partner was described as the “strong link.” While most couples (64.8 percent) had relatively similar levels of commitment, 22.8 percent had a male “weak link” and 12.4 percent had a female “weak link.”
What characteristics distinguish symmetrical from asymmetrical couples?
Couples living together or who had a child together were more likely to find themselves in asymmetrical relationships. This was true regardless of the overall level of commitment in the relationship. The researchers believe that both of these factors put external constraints on relationships that enable them to last longer, even if one partner wants out.
How satisfying are asymmetrical relationships?
Both strong and weak links tended to have more negative interactions with their partners, such as small fights blowing up into accusations or criticisms, in comparison to those in symmetrical relationships. Much of the difference between weak links and those in symmetrical couples was explained by the lower overall levels of commitment in these couples. The negative behavior of these weak links was simply a result of low levels of commitment, not of differences between how they and their partners saw the relationship. However, regardless of the overall commitment level of the couple, strong links tended to report more negative interactions, more physical aggression against partners, and less satisfaction with the relationship than those in symmetrical relationships.
These results suggest that the strong links found their relationships especially frustrating. Perhaps the experience of negotiating conflicts and compromises with someone who is clearly less involved in the relationship brings out anger and causes the strong links to act out. Strong links may become irritated when their demands are unheeded by the partner who has more power in the relationship. However, it is also possible that the strong links’ negative behavior itself causes the weak links to feel less committed.
How stable are asymmetrical relationships?
Asymmetrical relationships were more likely to break up at some point during the two-year period of the study, but these effects depended on gender: Relationships with a female weak link were the most likely to break up, with 54.1 percent of those relationships ending. But relationships in which the man was the weak link were no more likely to break up than relationships with symmetrical levels of commitment—around 30 percent broke up. Ultimately, the main predictor of a breakup was how committed the woman was. Couples with a more committed female partner were more likely to stay together—male partners’ commitment was not a determinant of break-up.
Previous research also found that women’s levels of commitment are especially likely to determine whether a couple will break up, and that women are more likely than men to initiate divorces.
Why is the woman’s level of commitment the only determinant of break up?
Some research has shown that women are more likely to be annoyed by their partners' bad behavior.5 Recall that “strong links” tended to engage in more bad behavior toward their partners. When male strong links behave badly it may have a stronger effect on their partners than when female strong links engage in such behavior. Women also tend to notice relationship problems more than men do,6 which could explain why their levels of commitment are key to determining breakup potential. Other research has found that women desire more closeness and connection in their relationships than men do,7 so finding oneself less committed to a relationship may be more disturbing to women.
This research shows that when evaluating the health of your relationship, it’s not just your commitment that matters, but how your commitment matches up with your partner’s.
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior, and read more of her articles on Close Encounters.
1 Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2, 243- 257.
2 Waller, W. (1938). The family: A dynamic interpretation. New York: Gordon.
3 Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (1992). Assessing commitment in personal relationships. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54, 595-608.
4 Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Scott, S. B., Kelmer, G., Markman, H., & Fincham, F. D. (2016). Asymmetrically committed relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, published online before print as doi:10.1177/0265407516672013.
5 Jack C. Lambert, J., C., & Hopwood, C. J. (2016). Sex differences in interpersonal sensitivities across acquaintances, friends, and romantic relationships. Personality and Individual Differences, 89, 162-165.
6 Suh, E. J., Moskowitz, D. S., Fournier, M. A., & Zuroff, D. C. (2004). Gender and relationships: Influences on agentic and communal behaviors. Personal Relationships, 11, 41–60.
7 Feeney, J. A. (1999). Issues of closeness and distance in dating relationships: Effects of sex and attachment style. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 16, 571-590.