You may have noticed, I think correctly “reading” the signs of commitment in a potential long-term partner/mate is crucial. This is most important earlier on, of course, prior to “settling down” with someone. Hence, while reading commitment accurately can be useful in marriage or engagement, what I'm really focused on here are those who are dating (or hanging out—I realize fewer people “date” anymore, but you know what I mean). To clarify further, this whole issue is most important in situations where at least one partner wants to know if the relationship they are in right now has a future. (There are a lot of other posts here about this. I’m going to be more abstract here and then get back to practical in future posts.)
What’s a good signal of commitment?
Some of the characteristics of good signals of commitment (or commitment potential) are these:
1. Does the behavior actually relate to something about commitment? For example, if you read my last few posts, you know that there is good reason to believe that someone’s desire to have sex with you may mean nothing about commitment. I hope that is not a shocking idea to anyone reading this, but people do too often “see” desire and infer commitment. Let’s call that “relationship reading dyslexia.” What’s on the page does not match what got into the brain.
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.” Hm. Context matters a lot here. It may sound silly to you that I even raise this example, but this is, in fact, a relatively common behavior in some teenager groups, where some males say some version of this to females they are interested in, and some females may be flattered and impressed, and . . . . . Don’t be that male or that female, and help your kids understand this. By the way, while I’d like to see people hold out for a lot more than this, it would be somewhat more impressive if someone said, “I want to raise a child with you.” That statement contains a much greater amount of information, especially if it’s accurate.
2. Is the behavior under the control of the one doing it—whatever it is? For behavior to have meaning about commitment, it must be behavior that the person has control over performing. There are tons of extensions of this point. A shotgun wedding has less information in it about the commitment level of the participants than other weddings. As I mentioned in the last post, saying “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.
Just ask LoLo how hard it is to keep the bus on the road! She has her will and her values and her goal, and she has her chemistry. Just how great would the gravitational pull be between Tebow and LoLo at this point? How much does a super strong impulse impact volitional choice? And, how well can volitional choice resist the pull of behavior that’s not consistent with one’s values?
3. Signals contain more information when there are more options. When you have more options to choose among, what you pick tells me more about who you are.
I was inspired to think about this by economists. You don’t usually see the words “inspiring” and “economist” in the same sentence, so if you are an economist, enjoy this moment. I try to avoid being totally infected by their dismal realities but they do get some things right (and they have mad math skills, which must count for something). [Yes, I added the italics to the word “count” for those who have deficient pun receptors.]
Put another way, when a person has diminished options, what he or she chooses contains less information about true preferences.
Think about buying toilet paper in 7-11. I’m not even sure they have it, but let’s suppose they do. It will be one brand, and in one roll quantities, and it will likely cost you 4 bucks a roll. 7-11 is a great chain of stores but they excel at convenience not low price or variety (except for pop and candy bars and such. They are my “go to” supplier of Junior Mints.). What does this mean? If you badly need a roll of toilet paper (not so badly that you are just heading for a restroom, if they have a public one), you’ll take what they have and forego your desire to get the Charmin Ultra Soft you might normally prefer. You’ll take the individually wrapped roll of Scott’s (my favorite brand, actually, and how far wrong can you go with that brand? Slight over-share there.).
Anyway, with limited options, your choice represents less about your preferences. And that goes for commitment, too. With fewer options, what you choose reflects less about volition and preference, so what you choose may not mean you have much commitment to that choice.
How’s this apply to dating and mating? Anything that constrains your options limits the information contained in the choices you make. In their romantic lives, some people are shopping in 7-11 rather than Safeway. Some do so by their own actions or past behavior, and some because they truly have poorer quality options in life. More importantly, some people are routinely misinterpreting the behavior of their partners, and thinking things signal commitment that just don’t.
Okay, enough for now. More on implications of signals in the near future. (That’s signaling my intention, btw.)