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Timing Matters When It Comes to Relationship Success

Relationship readiness comes under scrutiny in new research on commitment.

simona pilolla 2/Shutterstock
Source: simona pilolla 2/Shutterstock

At some point in your life, it’s likely you’ve said to yourself that you’re not “ready for a relationship.” This lack of readiness to get involved with someone may apply after you’ve just been through a painful breakup, or it could mean never having been ready at all for a committed, intimate relationship. Perhaps you feel that you can’t get involved with someone until you have a more secure sense of your own identity and what you want out of life. It’s also possible that you need time to regroup after a relationship you thought would last forever ended unexpectedly. In any case, your reluctance to find someone to commit to can feel odd or abnormal, given that the rest of the people you know seem to be happily coupled.

According to Purdue University’s Benjamin Hadden and colleagues, “despite the seeming ubiquity of advice surrounding readiness in popular culture, the scientific literature on the role of commitment readiness is near nonexistent." Still, proposing that timing may be everything when it comes to relationship commitment, the authors put their “Relationship Receptivity Theory (RRT)” to the test. Feeling unready doesn’t mean being afraid of emotional intimacy or even of being single, they argue. They maintain that people may feel ready for a relationship “while being perfectly at peace with remaining single” until they find the right person.

Being ready for commitment, Hadden et al. propose, also influences your behaviors across all phases of relationship formation. When you’re ready for a relationship, you might engage in such activities as paying more attention to your appearance and resupplying your closet. You’ll think more about dating and regard the benefits of a romantic relationship as higher than the costs. Furthermore, you’ll be more likely to invest yourself in a newly formed relationship. People low in relationship commitment might get involved with a new partner, but remain emotionally more distant out of fear of becoming too reliant on that person. You can probably relate to this idea if you think about people you’ve known who feel that they “should” be in a close relationship (based on age, status, or family pressures), but never allow true intimacy to flourish.

Across a series of studies, the Purdue researchers first established (among both online adult samples and college students) the extent to which readiness to be in a relationship would relate to interest and pursuit in becoming romantically involved. Then they asked college students to provide data across the span of a two-week period using a daily diary technique. Their measure of commitment readiness asked participants to indicate whether they felt the timing was right for a relationship; participants also completed measures assessing fear of being single, avoidant attachment (inability to become emotionally close to others), and interest in a romantic relationship (defined in terms of the “ideal” closeness with a partner). The question then became whether that fear of singlehood, reticence to be emotionally attached, or inability to feel close to someone would overshadow relationship readiness in predicting who would become romantically involved over the course of the study.

One of the studies examined the extent to which relationship readiness influenced the subsequent quality of relationships that the participants went on to form over the course of a five-week and three-month period following an initial diary study period. In this college student sample, the rate of relationship formation averaged around one-third, meaning that the majority of participants did not go on, after the initial assessment, to form a close relationship. Nevertheless, enough of them did to make it possible for Hadden and colleagues to complete their analyses.

For the most part, the authors observed, as predicted, a positive association between scores on commitment readiness and the initiation of a relationship in the subsequent months. Participants who responded that they indeed felt ready for a relationship engaged in the active pursuit of a partner and were receptive to potential romantic opportunities. Speaking to “the unique nature of readiness as a construct,” the findings showed that “timing matters” in allowing people to feel that they can handle a relationship at a given point. For those who then got involved with a romantic partner, the chances were that the more relationship-ready people would feel more satisfied and be willing to invest more in the relationship.

So what influences that internal clock that suggests it’s time to start looking for a partner? As the authors note, people with a relationship history marked by frequent heartbreak, lack of fulfillment, or involvement with overly demanding partners may never feel totally ready for commitment. People may also not feel ready for a new relationship if they’re trying to establish themselves in a new job, location, or position in life (such as being newly single).

From a theoretical point of view, the factors that influence commitment readiness may, in turn, have an impact on the quality of a newly formed relationship by allowing people to feel that it’s worth investing their time and energy. You have to be ready for a relationship, in other words, but for that relationship to succeed, you have to understand what’s needed from you in order to make that happen. Maybe your partner isn’t perfect, but you’re willing to commit anyway, because you feel you can handle the demands of living with this person.

To sum up, happiness in relationships, at least those studied here in young adults, requires the flipping of an internal switch that leads you to want to get romantically involved. Not only you, but your partner, may benefit if you both feel the time is right.


Hadden, B. W., Agnew, C. R., & Tan, K. (2018). Commitment readiness and relationship formation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(8), 1242-1257. doi:10.1177/0146167218764668