What is a good signal of commitment? 

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

 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.”

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, but that’s the essence of commitment, which is about wanting and planning a future.

Cohabitation is popular, of course, on the dating/seeking/scene. However, cohabitation is not a reliable signal of commitment. 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.)

 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. 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.

As an example showing just the opposite—and quite clearly—of sufficient 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 be 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 to ask trusted friends or family what they see and what would count for them. Love can sometimes be blind…

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