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Relationship Investments as a Double-Edged Sword

How your partner’s investments make you more committed (and vice versa)

Imagine that you get a great job offer, complete with an excellent salary, flexible hours and numerous promotion opportunities. The only problem is that this job offer is in a city far away from where you and your partner currently live. Thus, your partner has to choose whether or not to uproot for you, leaving her or his own job and friends behind and starting over with you in this new city. What would be the consequences of your partner making this choice? In particular, beyond the consequences this would have for your partner, how would you feel about your partner making this sacrifice for you?

People tend to invest a great deal into their romantic relationships. We put time, energy, and emotions into our relationships, we tie up our material possessions in our relationships, and we make sacrifices for our partners, both small and large. Past research has focused mostly on the consequences of these relationship investments for the self: how do my investments affect my feelings toward the relationship? Such research has converged on the idea that a more invested partner is a more committed partner.1 Once people have put a great deal into their relationships, they want to avoid wasting those investments, so they’re more likely to continue to persevere with their relationships.

However, we know little about what the consequences of a partner’s investments might be for your own commitment. Beyond making your partner feel more committed, will your partner’s investments also make you feel more committed to the relationship? My colleagues and I predicted that they would.2 Specifically, we hypothesized that people would feel more appreciative of romantic partners who are willing to put more resources into their relationships. In other words, a highly invested partner is a partner worth committing to. Overall, we expected that when people perceive that their partners have put a great deal into their relationships, those investments may lead them to feel more grateful for their partners (i.e., to value their partners more), thus motivating them to continue their relationships.

We tested these hypotheses in a series of three studies. Study 1 was an online experiment conducted with participants currently in relationships. We randomly assigned some people to think about the various ways in which their partners had invested in their relationships, whereas we assigned others to think about all the ways in which they themselves had invested into the relationships. A third group of participants skipped this manipulation entirely. We then asked all participants a number of questions about their relationships, such as how appreciative they felt of their partners and how committed they felt to their partners. Participants who thought about their partners’ investments subsequently felt the most committed to their relationships – even more committed than participants who had thought about their own investments! As predicted, thinking about the partners’ investments made participants feel more grateful for their partners. These feelings of gratitude helped to explain why the participants who completed this exercise subsequently felt the most committed to their relationships.

Study 1 demonstrated that thinking about a partner’s investments leads to short-term boosts in gratitude and commitment. But how do these effects play out in people’s day to day lives? For Studies 2 and 3, we tested this by recruiting people in relationships and asked them to report back to us daily, for either seven days (Study 2) or 14 days (Study 3), about how much their partners were investing in their relationships. For example, in Study 3, we asked participants if their partners had given anything up that day for the sake of the relationship. We then followed up with participants either nine months later (Study 2) or three months later (Study 3) to see if their commitment to their relationships had changed. In both studies, when people thought that their partners were putting more into their relationships on a daily basis, their own commitment tended to increase over the course of the study. Feelings of gratitude explained this increase: participants felt more grateful for highly invested partners, thus leading them to feel more committed to their relationships.

Together, these studies show that when one partner invests time, energy, emotions, and other resources into the relationship, the other partner tends to appreciate that person more and is subsequently more willing to stay in that relationship. Importantly, both gratitude3 and commitment4 are associated with positive relationship outcomes. So, one implication of this work is that investments can help relationships: they elicit all these positive relationship feelings that have benefits later on. Joint investments in particular – such as merging finances, moving in together, or getting married – may produce powerful boosts in relationship well-being by making both members of the couple feel more grateful for, and committed to, one another.

On the other hand, the effects in all three of these studies extended even to participants who were less satisfied in their relationships. In other words, even people who were unhappy with their relationships felt more committed to those relationships if they felt their partners were more invested. Thus, investment decisions may be a double-edged sword in that, although they promote gratitude and commitment, they may also motivate people to persevere even with chronically unfulfilling relationships. So, as conventional wisdom would predict, upping the relationship ante (by getting a pet, or a house, a joint bank account, or even having a child together) really may not be the best move for couples who are on the rocks. Such decisions may carry the risk of motivating people to stay in bad relationships not only because of their own investments, but because of their partners’ investments as well.

This article was originally written for Science of Relationships: a website about the psychology of relationships that is written by active researchers and professors in the field.

1. Le, B. M., & Agnew, C. (2003). Commitment and its theorized determinants: A meta-analysis of the investment model. Personal Relationships, 10, 37-57.

2. Joel, S., Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., MacDonald, G., & Keltner, D. (2013). The things you do for me: Perceptions of a romantic partner’s investments promote gratitude and commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39,1333-1345.

3. Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 257-274.

4. Rusbult, C. E., Olsen, N., Davis, J. L., & Hannon, P. A. (2004). Commitment and relationship maintenance mechanisms. In H. T. Reiss & C. E. Rusbult (Eds.), Close relationships: Key readings (pp. 287-303). New York: NY: Psychology Press.

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