Psychology Behind Commitment in Relationships


Commitment is a frequently used word, especially in the context of relationships. But the relationships need not necessarily be platonic or romantic. These serve as the very foundation of every relationship. John Michael, a Professor of Psychology, says, “Commitment is the glue holding together characteristically human forms of social life.”

Thus, commitments are integral to family dynamics, business relations and even professional relationships. It is a willingness to invest time, effort and one’s emotions into developing and maintaining a connection. Commitment involves giving your time and energy to something you believe in, whether it is a relationship, a cause or a goal.

It’s like binding yourself intellectually or emotionally to a course of action, often involving a promise to follow through with it. However, commitments and promises are slightly different from each other. While promises can be casual, commitment is more serious. Promises, being less binding, are more susceptible to breaking or manipulation, whereas commitment has depth and sincerity, lasting even in difficult situations. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “commitment is what transforms a promise into a reality.”

Theories of Commitment

Even though it may appear academic, understanding the theory of commitment can help us better understand one’s relationships. It can throw light on why some bonds are enduring, and what leads to their dissolution. 

George Levinger’s Cohesiveness Theory of Commitment explores what keeps relationships strong and what causes them to break apart. He focused on two social forces: attraction forces and barrier forces. Attraction forces, like love or fulfilment, pull people towards relationships, while barrier forces, such as feelings of obligation or external pressures, keep them from leaving. These forces determine how committed someone is to their partner, and they can change over time, affecting the stability of the relationship.

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Another prominent theory, Caryl Rusbult’s Investment Model of Commitment, is based on the idea that commitment depends on three main factors: satisfaction, alternatives and investments. These factors influence how committed a person is in their relationship—

  • Satisfaction refers to how happy we feel in our relationship compared to what we have experienced in the past. If we are happier now than before, we are likely to be more committed. 
  • Alternatives are other options that we have outside of our current relationship. If we think we could be satisfied with someone else or doing something else, we might be less committed to our current partner.
  • Investments are the things we have put into our relationship, like time, effort and shared experiences. The more we have invested, the harder it might be to leave, even if we are not completely satisfied or see appealing alternatives. 

Michael Johnson’s Tripartite Typology describes commitment as having three dimensions – structural, moral and personal. Each type of commitment can be experienced differently. For example, structural commitment feels imposed from outside and moral commitment feels imposed from societal beliefs, whereas personal commitment feels freely chosen. 

  • Structural Commitment is a result of external factors that make it harder to quit a relationship. It includes things like having few alternatives, feeling societal pressure to stay with your partner, having made significant investments in the relationship, and thus finding it hard to let go. 
  • Moral Commitment is based on personal beliefs about what is right or wrong. It involves feeling morally bound not to leave the relationship, having a personal obligation to stay, and wanting to be consistent with one’s values and beliefs. 
  • Personal Commitment comes from within yourself. It involves being attracted to your partner, valuing the person and the relationship, and seeing these aspects as part of your identity. 

Johnson’s research suggests that strong moral and personal commitment can sometimes make structural commitment unnecessary. However, if someone lacks moral or personal commitment, structural commitment becomes quite important to keep the relationship going. Understanding the psychological factors behind commitment can help individuals and couples address underlying issues, improve communication, and develop healthier relationship patterns. 

Commitment Issues

You must have met quite a few people around you who fear committing in relationships. The word “commitment issue” is quite frequently used. What could be the possible reasons behind a person not willing to commit? Commitment issues can stem from various psychological factors, including past experiences, attachment styles, fear of vulnerability, and self-esteem issues.

  • Past Experiences: Negative past experiences, such as betrayal or abandonment in previous relationships can lead to trust issues and reluctance to commit in future relationships. These experiences may create a fear of getting hurt again, causing individuals to avoid commitment as a protective mechanism. 
  • Attachment Styles: Attachment theory suggests that early childhood experiences with caregivers influence adult attachment styles. Those with anxious or avoidant attachment styles may struggle with commitment. Anxious individuals may fear rejection or abandonment, while avoidant individuals may resist intimacy and closeness.
  • Fear of Vulnerability: Committing to a relationship requires vulnerability and emotional openness. Some people may fear being vulnerable or dependent on another person, leading them to avoid commitment to maintain emotional distance and self-reliance.
  • Self-Esteem Issues: Low self-esteem can contribute to commitment issues by causing individuals to doubt their worthiness of love and fear rejection. They may avoid committing to a relationship because they feel unworthy or fear they will disappoint their partner.
  • Autonomy Concerns: Some people value their independence and freedom above all else. They may perceive commitment as a threat to their autonomy and fear losing their sense of identity within a relationship.
  • Perfectionism: Unrealistic expectations of the perfect partner or relationship can sabotage commitment. Perfectionists may fear settling down with someone who doesn’t meet their ideal standards or worry about making the wrong choice.

Commitments are often the foundation of enduring relationships. Unfortunately, certain life experiences curb us in many ways. However, acceptance serves as a bridge between the problem and its solution. If we accept the unhealed parts, we can slowly learn to embrace them. We then become more inclined to work on ourselves. To have healthy commitment patterns, one can start with basic exposure.

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Experiences are meant for our growth, not to inhibit us in certain ways. It could be difficult to expose oneself to situations that require committing, but it is also important. Basic exposure can involve volunteering for a social cause, taking up responsibilities at work, maintaining friendships, and completing personal goals. These everyday activities provide opportunities to practice commitment in various areas as they require dedication and responsibilities to fulfil.

Some of our thoughts are buried deep down in our unconscious mind which makes us act in certain ways, which can seem irrational to us. So if you or someone around you seem to struggle with making commitments, therapy can be a good option. A professional can help in untangling the thoughts which can lead to greater self-awareness and help us build more meaningful and enduring relations.

References +
  • Agnew, C. (2009). Commitment, Theories and Typologies. Department of Psychological Sciences Faculty Publications.
  • McDermott, N. (2023). Commitment issues: what you need to know, according to experts. Forbes Health.
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