Monday, October 18, 2010

Decoding Commitment: When Sally met Harry

Commitment can be thought of in many ways. As I’ve mentioned before, a basic breakdown can be made between commitment that means dedication to something and commitment that means constraints to follow through with something. They are linked. Today’s dedication becomes tomorrow’s constraint. You decide something today—as in really decide to commit yourself to it—and things you do today (and tomorrow) because of that decision-based dedication will increase your constraint to continue on that path. This does not mean that commitments cannot be broken. They are broken everyday. Where would the news industry be without broken promises and commitments? Next time, when you watch the news or television talk shows, think about how many of the stories you are watching involve some type of failed commitment or broken trust. Onward.

Without a decision being forced by someone or something, it’s hard to say a commitment has happened. Even when a commitment has happened within an individual, it may not be as obvious to others. Sometimes that does not matter much and sometimes it matters a lot because you want to know how committed another person is—to you, for example. This is especially true in romance where there can be a desire for a future in one person that is not reciprocated; and even if the desire is there, when it’s unclear that it’s there, it can be pretty unpleasant for the more clearly committed partner. As I noted in my earlier postings about men and women, and my theory of average differences in how commitment develops, I think it’s pretty critical for people in developing romantic relationships to accurately assess or decode the commitment level of their partners. Not super early on, but certainly as things develop. If you agree that it’s important to be able to correctly read the commitment level in another, what signals commitment these days? I mean, what signals commitment in a romantic relationship that might have long-term potential (like in marriage)? Does cohabitation? Does having a baby? (Note, that 40 years ago, I’d not have had much reason to list having a baby as a potential signal about commitment before a couple is married. Things have been changing, as you no doubt know.)

Check back to my last post for a moment. I wrote about all sorts of things that are associated with a dating or cohabiting couples remaining together a year after we asked them to answer questions about their relationships. In that study that will come out in print soon, by Galena Rhoades, myself, and Howard, Markman, things like having a cell phone plan or a gym membership or a shared lease were more associated with staying together than having a baby together. I speculated that the reason for this is that some of these things that seem so small compared to having a baby seem to have a defining feature that having a baby does not require: they are decisions you have to make, on some level, together. Since decisions are fundamental to commitments, there is some type of commitment reflected in those small investments. Hence, the irony. These relatively minor decisions seem to reflect more about commitment than the major transition of having a child together. One of my favorite lines is coming up just about now: You can have transitions without decisions and those transitions won’t necessarily reflect commitment. I said “won’t necessarily” because they might reflect commitment and they might not. My point is that transitions without decisions don’t tell you much about commitment.

So, you cannot slide into a shared cell phone contract but you can slide into having a baby. We live in a crazy world. Does that mean you could trust that a person is growing in commitment to you if they will join you in a cell phone plan? It may be. Of course, the child would benefit from having two parents who decided to build a family together as a matter of commitment. The cell phone plan is made to expire, parenthood is not.

Think with me about a common romantic scenario. Let’s suppose Harry met Sally; I’m not sure when they met, but they met. Sally loves Harry and Harry loves Sally. That part is easy enough. They are young and in love. However, as things continue, Sally is clear in her mind that she wants a future with Harry; Harry isn’t so sure. Sally wants the commitment nailed down. Harry is not actively looking around, but he’s not sure he’s found what he’s looking for—his soul mate. Sally has a pretty critical job to do. If she doesn’t do it well, she’s at risk of becoming a character in the second edition of the book “He’s Just Not That Into You.” Sally needs to decode, over time, how committed Harry can be to her. Her job would have been easier 40 years ago but it’s not 40 years ago. I’ll write about that another time.

What things can Sally look for in Harry to figure out how committed, or potentially committed, he is to her? I’d argue that many things could inform Sally about Harry’s commitment potential. I’d also argue (and will) that there are two very common transitions that are experienced by couples that are not informative about commitment. Of course, I already mentioned them. One is cohabitation. Two is having a baby before marriage. Yes, these are huge relationship transitions. However, in the context of our current culture, I don’t think either contains much information about commitment. (There is a possible exception here when you are talking about people in disadvantaged communities. Some things do work differently in some segments of our society for a wide range of complex reasons having to do with both economics and perceptions of marriage—especially the perceived probability of success in marriage.)

Chew on two things between now and next time. Do you think cohabitation contains information about commitment (at least, in American culture at this point?). Why or why not? What provides information about commitment? What can Sally look for in order to decode Harry’s commitment potential? What made it easier to clarify or decode commitment in growing relationships in the past?

I’ll get back to you on these things.