Correctly “reading” the signs of commitment in a potential long-term partner is crucial. This is most important earlier on, of course, prior to “settling down” with someone, particularly when one partner wants to know if the relationship has a future. You can press for this information too soon, but you can also wait too long to get the big question clarified: Is this person as into me as I am into them? Can this relationship turn into a commitment? When you don’t get solid information about commitment as things progress, you can miss important signs of unequal commitment. That’s a lousy place to land.
What is a good signal of commitment?
By good, I mean that the signal is valid. The signal reflects something about commitment and is not merely noise. Three key characteristics of good signals of commitment are:
1. The behavior is actually related to something about commitment.
For example, I don’t imagine it shocks anyone reading this that the desire of another person to have sex with you doesn’t contain information about commitment. Some believe it does, but I think of that as a type of “relationship reading dyslexia.”
Ditto if someone says, “I want to make a baby with you,” with no other evidence of commitment like, say, marriage. An even worse indicator of commitment is if someone says to you, “I’d like you to have my baby.” Context matters a lot here. It may sound silly, but this is, in fact, a relatively common behavior in some teenage groups, in which males say some version of this to females they are interested in. Some may be flattered and impressed, but even in these examples, it would be a lot more impressive if someone said, “I want to raise a child with you.” That statement contains a greater amount of information, especially if it’s accurate, but that’s the essence of commitment, which is about wanting and planning a future.
"If a couple tells you that they are married, you know a lot about their commitment. That does not mean that all is perfect, of course. Likewise, if a couple tells you that they have clear, mutual plans to marry, you can infer that there is a lot of commitment. Even apart from marriage, I believe a couple that says they have a lifetime commitment together is telling you something important about a strong level of intention and commitment. Those things all signal commitment. Cohabitation, per se, often does not. (As a complex but important aside, I do think the socioeconomic context of some couples makes marriage nearly impossible; for some of these couples, I believe cohabitation can be a marker of a higher level of commitment.)"
2. The behavior is under the control of the one doing it—whatever it is.
For behavior to mean something about commitment, it must be behavior that the person has control over performing. For example, a shotgun wedding has less information in it about the commitment level of the participants than other weddings, because one's options are limited by the context.
Similarly, as I have written before, “I love you” contains less information about commitment if it’s in the context of a hormonal rush of chemicals—when the chemistry is driving the bus. Chemistry is fun, but it’s not a great bus driver, and some relationships are windy mountain roads without guardrails.
Essentially, signals contain more information when a person has options. When you have more options to choose among, what you pick tells more about who you are. When a person has diminished options, what he or she chooses contains less information about their true preferences.
Think about buying toilet paper in 7-Eleven. It will likely be one brand, in one-roll quantities, and it will likely cost you four bucks. 7-Eleven is a great chain of stores, but they excel at convenience, not low price or variety. What does this mean? If you badly need a roll of toilet paper, you’ll take the individually wrapped roll of Scott’s they have and forego your desire to get the Charmin Ultra Soft you normally prefer. (Which, at the risk of oversharing, is my favorite.)
How does this apply to dating and mating? Anything that constrains your options, or your partner’s, limits the information contained in the choices you make. That means that some people may routinely misinterpret the behavior of their partners and think that something may signal commitment when it does not. That also means that some couples who have been together a while, with an unclear future, and who also have the constraints that come from living together, may have difficulty reading clearly in each other what they want for the future.
3. Small sacrifices can be good signals of commitment.
By sacrifice, I don’t really mean some extraordinary feat of self-sacrifice. Of course, that would matter, but I really mean small, day-to-day indicators that a person is willing to put their partner or relationship first. And I mean mutual sacrifice: A healthy relationship includes two givers, who each give to each other and the relationship in small ways that matter.
If you are seeing someone and considering a future together, ask yourself if you see evidence that they can put aside what they want at times for what is best for you.
There are a number of studies on sacrifice in intimate relationships; I make no attempt to cover that literature here. But scholars have found and argued that some types of sacrificial behavior are reliable indicators of commitment,[i] such as:
- Your partner will change his or her schedule at times for you.
- Your partner will do fun things that you know he or she does not like as much as you do.
- Your partner shows up early to help you get ready for some big event.
- Your partner stops what he or she is doing to tune into something that’s stressing you.
You get the idea. Of course, it’s just as important to do such things for your partner, but I’m focused here on you being able to read this person’s level of commitment to you.
As an example of just the opposite of sufficient commitment, I vividly recall a little scene of a young couple at an airport. I was on a layover when I overheard their argument. (I wasn’t eavesdropping as much as they were talking so loudly that I could not help but notice.) The tension was about her wanting to dress warmer for the flight and him wanting her to stay dressed just as she was. She was in quite short shorts and some type of sleeveless, very light shirt. She didn’t want to be cold on the flight.
I don’t know about you, but I hate those flights where the plane is cold, and I don’t have anything warmer to put on. She apparently does, too. But he didn’t want her to put more clothes on. I cannot read minds, but I could only guess that his motive was that he liked how she looked and liked how he looked being with her looking that way. I was not impressed by him, and I hoped she would figure out before it was too late what her life with him might be like: cold.
Sometimes the best signal is the one that clearly shows that something is missing.
If you are searching for lasting love, challenge yourself to be on the lookout for signals of love and commitment that mean something. But remember that love can sometimes be blind: For some of you, it might be wise to ask trusted friends or family what they see and what would count for them.
[i] e.g., Wieselquist, J., Rusbult, C. E., Foster, C. A., & Agnew, C. R. (1999). Commitment, pro-relationship behavior, and trust in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 942-966.; Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., Low, S. M., Clements, M. L., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sacrifice as a predictor of marital outcomes. Family Process, 45, 289-303.