Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Give me a sign: What Signals Commitment?

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, particularly when one partner wants to know if the relationship they are in right now 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 asymmetrical commitment. That’s a lousy place to land.

What’s a good signal of commitment? 

By good I mean that the signal is valid. The signal reflects something about commitment; it's not mere noise. Some of the characteristics of good signals of commitment or potential to have commitment with a person are these:

1.  The behavior is actually related to something about commitment. 

For example, I don’t imagine it shocks anyone reading this that a desire of another person to have sex with you doesn’t contain information about commitment. Some people 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.” Hm. Context matters a lot here. It may sound silly to you 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, well, don’t be falling for that. 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 much greater amount of information, especially if it’s accurate. It gets at the essence of commitment, which is about wanting and planning a future together.

Cohabitation is popular, of course, on the dating/seeking/mating scene. However, cohabitation is not a reliable signal of commitment but, as I wrote in another piece, other things are:

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 there is a lot of commitment. Even apart from marriage, I believe that a couple who 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, very often does not. (As a very complex but important aside, I do think the socioeconomic context of some couples makes marriage nearly impossible economically; 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 have meaning 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 the choice is already constrained.

Similarly, as I described in a prior post, “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.   

Signals contain more information when a person has options. When you have more options to choose among, what you pick tells me more about who you are. 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. (Which, at the risk of over-sharing, is a great brand and 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 made. That means that some people are routinely misinterpreting the behavior of their partners, and thinking that something may signal commitment when it does not. It also means that some couples who have been together a while with an unclear future, who also have the constraints that come with living together, will have difficulty accurately reading the commitment in each other about a future, together.

3. Small sacrifices can be good signals of commitment.

By sacrifice, I don’t really mean some extraordinary feat of self-sacrifice of one for the other. Of course that would matter but I really mean small, day-to-day indicators that a person is willing to put their partner or the relationship first. And I mean mutual. A healthy relationship includes two givers who are each give to the other and the relationship in small ways that matter.  

If you are seeing someone and considering a future, 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, and I make no attempt to cover that literature here and now. But scholars have found and argued that some types of sacrificial behavior are reliable indicators of commitment.[i] Here are some examples:

             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.

Bigstock Photos
As an example showing just the opposite—and quite clearly—of insufficient commitment, I vividly recall a little scene of a young couple in an airport. I was on a layover when I overheard their argument. I wasn’t eavesdropping as much as they were talking loud enough 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 with sleeves to put on. Well, 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 he 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 look 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 look-out for signals of love and commitment that mean something. For some of you, it would be wise to ask trusted friends or family what they see and what would count for them. Love can sometimes be blind.

[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.