3 Reasons Why We Don't Commit to Relationships

... and 3 ways to move things beyond the casual.

Posted Jun 01, 2015

Welcome back to The Attraction Doctor.

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Are you stuck in a casual relationship with a partner who seems uninterested in a deeper commitment? It can be difficult to understand why a lover is noncommittal or why these commitment issues seem to arise time after time. You may think that your  friend-with-benefits has a "fear of commitment," preventing them from taking on the responsibility of a serious relationship or marriage. There could be multiple reasons for the hesitation, but also concrete steps to help you overcome it.

A look at the modern dating landscape reveals that something in our attitudes toward commitment have changed. Younger men and women seem to be increasingly postponing or avoiding marriage and serious relationships. Among those who do commit and marry, roughly half ultimately break that commitment and divorce. Casual relationships and structures—from friends-with-benefits and cohabitation to out-of-wedlock births—are more common, too.

Why do so many people suddenly seem to be commitment-phobic? More important, what can be done about it? I examined the research for something that might shed some light on the problem, and offer a solution.

Research on Relationship Commitment

A theory of relationship commitment by Carl Rusbult called Interdependency Theory (see Rusbult & Buunk, 1993; Rusbult & Van Lange, 2003) builds off of earlier work on Social Exchange Theory, which I detailed elsewhere. This theory also posits that relationships are an exchange of costs and benefits between partners. It adds a few concepts to explain long-term relationships and extended commitments. Interdependence Theory shows that individuals commit to a partner to the extent that they are dependent on that partner. This dependence is a result of a few factors:

  • Satisfaction. The individual receives many benefits, with few costs from the partner.
  • Alternatives. The individual cannot get their needs met better elsewhere.
  • Investment. The individual has a number of important resources devoted to the partner.

These factors, along with the resulting dependence, foster feelings of commitment—attachment to a partner and a desire to maintain the relationship. Longitudinal studies by Rusbult (1987) support this model. Across a seven-month span of evaluating dating relationships, that study found that increased commitment was related to partners' increases in satisfaction, declining alternatives, and increases in investments. Those who broke off relationships, in contrast, evidenced significant declines in satisfaction, decreased investment, and an increase in the quality of alternatives before the break.

[Further research by Rusbult and Martz (1992) noted that feelings of commitment may persist even with low levels of satisfaction, as long as alternatives are low and investment is high. For example, the pair interviewed women in a domestic violence shelter on the three commitment factors and predicted whether each would return to their abuser. Even though the majority of women were unsatisfied with their high-cost, low-benefit relationships, those that continued to feel committed to their partner cited few alternatives and felt they had a lot invested in it.]

This model appears to hold for both homosexual and heterosexual relationships (Duffy & Rusbult, 1986); accounts for commitment in both dating relationships and marriage (Rusbult, 1983; Rusbult, Johnson, & Morrow, 1986); and predicts commitment to friendships as well (Rusbult, 1980).

Overall, individuals who invest in a partner of any kind, see few alternatives to getting their needs met, and are (at least sometimes) satisfied with the exchange, come to depend on that partner to meet their needs—and ultimately commit to them.

So Why Don't Modern Men or Women Commit?

Interdependence Theory helps explain why individuals in modern society may often be reluctant (or unmotivated) to commit. And recent social changes have altered the modern romantic landscape. We know that women's empowerment movements have reduced women's dependence on romantic relationship partners, especially for economic, childcare, and social support needs. This is undoubtedly a benefit to women who felt pushed to accept unsatisfying or even abusive relationships (as studied by Rusbult and Martz, 1992), but it has had repercussions on women's motivation to commit to potentially healthier relationships as well.

Rusbult notes that alternatives and investment are two key components to relationship commitment. Women with extensive relationship alternatives—whether flings, careers, or social support—may be less motivated to commit to a single romantic relationship. Similarly, individuals with energy devoted to multiple projects may find themselves less committed to their romantic lives.

Men have had to cope with these social changes, too. As women become more focused elsewhere, men face higher potential costs and threats in committed relationships, particularly regarding divorce, child support, and domestic behavior. For some men, modern relationships offer fewer benefits and higher costs, resulting in less motivation to commit. Such men may begin to explore relationship alternatives. As other researchers note, some men choose to meet their sexual and emotional needs with pornography and video games. Others may pursue multiple noncommittal relationships and friends-with-benefits, rather than risk the costs of deeper commitments.

Equal, independent, and homogenous partnerships may offer social benefits but fall short of the satisfaction and commitment experienced in mutually-interdependent and complementary relationships. Ultimately, when both partners truly need each other in complementary ways, invest in each other's well-being, and de-prioritize alternatives, satisfaction and commitment are more likely to result.

How to Increase Commitment

If you are feeling stuck in a noncommittal relationship (or not motivated for a deeper relationship yourself), take heart: It may not your fault. Societal changes have sometimes made romantic commitments less appealing in general, no matter your specific attributes as a person. Nevertheless, although you can't please everyone, there are things you can do to make a romantic commitment more likely and appealing to others, if you so desire.

Simply follow the three main factors of interdependence theory:

  1. Find complements. Even at your best, not everyone is going to value what you are offering (or even want a committed relationship in general). Some individuals prefer alternatives like playing the field, juggling multiple romantic interests, pursuing a career, or entertaining themselves with technology. Therefore, it is important that you find someone whom you complement and who has a strong desire for what you are offering. Take time to decide who you are attracted to, reduce your wish list to the non-negotiables, and look for a compatible partner. You may have luck finding commitment with individuals with a more "traditional" outlook in church or school, or from specific compatibility websites.
     
  2. Be satisfying. Consider your partner's needs and strive to create pleasant exchanges. Also, keep up your physical appearance and positive personality, and share your unique features and skills with your partner. Further, people tend to shy away from relationships that are primarily punishing, so strive to make your relationships rewarding to your partner. More significant commitments may require contracts or prenuptial agreements; nevertheless, increasing satisfaction in these ways can improve commitment and reduce infidelity.
     
  3. Seek investment. A commitment requires two people sharing the work. Be sure to let your partner invest and share in the relationship, and take care of your needs, too. Their caring contribution for you will help increase their feelings of love, along with improving their gratitude for your efforts. Cultivating a meaningful and even spiritual outlook about the relationship can help as well. Fostering such investment techniques are often how professional matchmakers create a committed relationship connection.

If you are so inclined, there are things you can do to increase commitment with your partners. Specifically, it is important to find a partner who is compatible, who is not overly-focused on alternatives to a relationship, and can come to depend on what you have to offer. Then, find ways to satisfy their needs with minimal costs, while letting them invest in your needs and the relationship too. Over time, this approach may mitigate some of the difficulties with modern relationships, creating a mutually satisfying, committed exchange.

Until next time...happy dating and relating!—Dr. Jeremy Nicholson

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References

  • Duffy, S., & Rusbult, C. E. (1986). Satisfaction and commitment in homosexual and heterosexual relationships, Journal of Homosexuality, 12, 1-23
  • Rusbult, C. E. (1980). Satisfaction and commitment in friendships. Representative Research in Social Psychology, 11: 96-105.
  • 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., & Buunk, B. P. (1993). Commitment processes in close relationships: An interdependence analysis. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10, 175-204.
  • Rusbult, C. E., Johnson, D. J., & Morrow, G. D. (1986). Predicting satisfaction and commitment in adult romantic involvements: An assessment of the generalizability of the investment model. Social Psychology Quarterly, 49, 81-89.
  • Rusbult, C. E., & Martz, J. (1992). The decision to remain in an abusive relationship: An investment model analysis. Unpublished Manuscript, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Rusbult, C. E., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2003) Interdependence, interaction, and relationships. Annual Review of Psychology, 54, 351-375.

© 2015 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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