The Things You Do for Me: How Your Partner’s Investments Can Make You More Committed
By Samantha Joel, Emily Impett, & Geoff MacDonald (University of Toronto)
Imagine that your partner uproots his or her life and joins you in your home city, leaving behind friends and family to start completely over. But after a few months, you begin to feel unhappy with your partner and the relationship. Would you end the relationship because of your unhappiness, or would your partner’s great sacrifice motivate you try to find a way to work things out?
People tend to invest a great deal into their romantic relationships, such as time, energy, emotions, material possessions, and sacrifices such as the one described above. Past research has focused entirely on the consequences of investments for the self: how do my investments affect my feelings toward the relationship? Such research has converged on the idea that a more invested partner is a more committed partner (Le & Agnew, 2003). However, no past research has examined the consequences of a partner’s investments for your own commitment. Beyond making your partner feel more committed, will your partner’s investments also make you feel more committed to the relationship?
We predicted that they would (Joel, Gordon, Impett, MacDonald, & Keltner, 2013). Specifically, we hypothesized that people would feel more appreciative of romantic partners who are willing to put more resources into the relationship. In other words, a highly invested partner is a partner worth committing to. Overall, we expected that when people perceive that their partners have put a great deal into the relationship, those investments would lead them to feel more grateful for their partners (i.e., to value their partners more), thus motivating them to continue the relationship.
We tested these hypotheses in a series of three studies. Study 1 was an online experiment conducted with participants currently in relationships. Some people were randomly assigned to think about the various ways in which their partners had invested in their relationships, whereas others were assigned to think about all the ways in which they themselves had invested into the relationships. A third group of participants skipped this manipulation entirely. Then, we asked participants a number of questions about their relationships, such as how appreciative they felt of their partners, and how committed they felt to their partners. Participants who thought about their partners’ investments subsequently felt the most committed to their relationships – even more committed than participants who had thought about their own investments! As predicted, thinking about the partners’ investments made participants feel more appreciative of their partners. These feelings of gratitude helped to explain why the participants who completed this exercise subsequently felt the most committed to their relationships, compared to participants who thought about either their own investments, or no investments at all.
For Studies 2 and 3, we recruited people in relationships and asked them to report back to us daily about how much their partners were investing in their relationships for either seven days (Study 2) or 14 days (Study 3). We then followed up with them either nine months later (Study 2) or three months later (Study 3) to see if their commitment to the relationship had changed. In both studies, when people thought that their partners were putting more into their relationships on a daily basis, their own commitment to the relationship tended to increase over the course of the study. This was explained by feelings of appreciation: participants felt more appreciative of more highly invested partners, thus leading them to feel more committed to the relationship.
Together, these studies show that when one partner invests time, energy, emotions, and other resources into the relationship, the other partner is likely to appreciate that person more and subsequently be more willing to stay in that relationship. Importantly, both gratitude (Gordon et al., 2012) and commitment (Rusbult et al., 2004) are associated with positive relationship outcomes. So, one implication of this work is that investments can be helpful for relationships: they elicit positive relationship feelings that are known to have downstream benefits. Joint investments in particular – such as merging finances, moving in together, or getting married – may produce powerful boosts in relationship wellbeing by making both members of the couple feel more grateful for, and committed to, one another.
On the other hand, the effects in all three of these studies extended even to participants who were less satisfied in their relationships. In other words, even people who were unhappy with their relationships felt more committed to those relationships if they felt their partners were more invested. Thus, investment decisions may be a double-edged sword in that although they promote gratitude and commitment, they may also motivate people to persevere even with chronically unfulfilling relationships. So, as conventional wisdom would predict, upping the relationship ante (by getting a house, or a pet, or a child) really may not be the best move for couples who are on the rocks. Such decisions may carry the risk of motivating people to stay in bad relationships not only because of their own investments, but because of their partners’ investments as well.
Samantha Joel is a Ph.D. candidate in the Psychology Department at the University of Toronto. Her research examines how people make decisions about romantic relationships, such as whether to pursue a love interest, whether to invest in a foundling relationship, or whether to break up with a romantic partner.
Emily Impett is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Her research focuses broadly on interpersonal relationships and well-being, and she is particularly interested in understanding when “giving” in relationships contributes to versus detracts from the quality and success of relationships.
Geoff MacDonald received a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Waterloo in 2000. He is now an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on relational insecurity and experiences of intimacy.
Joel, S., Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., MacDonald, G., & Keltner, D. (2013). The things you do for me: Perceptions of a romantic partner’s investments promote gratitude and commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1333-1345.
Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 257-274.
Le, B. M., & Agnew, C. (2003). Commitment and its theorized determinants: A meta-analysis of the investment model. Personal Relationships, 10, 37-57.
Rusbult, C. E., Olsen, N., Davis, J. L., & Hannon, P. A. (2004). Commitment and relationship maintenance mechanisms. In H. T. Reiss & C. E. Rusbult (Eds.), Close relationships: Key Readings (pp. 287-303). New York: NY: Psychology Press.
Image Credit: By nixxphotography, published on 19 January 2012
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