There Are 4 Aspects of Commitment—And One Signals Doom for a Relationship

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Some people resist settling down into a committed relationship, à la King Kong flailing about while held in place by multiple chains. And the truth is, willful commitment and relationship stability can involve some constraints. According to recent research published in the Journal of Family Psychology, long-term relationships are bound together by at least four aspects of commitment—but before you get all king of the jungle about it, do know that only one is truly problematic for a relationship’s survival.

The study, which examined 1,184 unmarried adults in relationships, identified dedication, perceived constraints, material constraints, and felt constraints as factors that make up commitment. Dedication is simply an interpersonal bond and desire to be with someone; perceived constraints are about social pressure and public opinion (like having a shared identity as a couple); material constraints are about merged finances and goods; and felt constraints are the intangible feeling of being "trapped" in a relationship.

Experts In This Article
  • Debra Roberts, LCSW, conversation expert, developer of The Relationship Protocol® communication model, and program creator
  • Lia Love Avellino, LCSW, somatic and relational psychotherapist, and co-founder of Spoke, a community-based organization for group support

While none of those aspects of commitment except dedication sound particularly romantic, the study points out that in addition to increased dedication, more material and perceived constraints can predict a higher likelihood of staying together. Felt constraint was the only factor that correlated with an adverse impact that may lead to breakups.

"If [someone] feels trapped, they might be in survival mode with a fight-or-flight reaction, so it’s not surprising that the biggest predictor of failure is associated with the felt constraint." —Debra Roberts, LCSW

So why is that? According to relationship expert Debra Roberts, LCSW, how we make someone feel during any interaction is what they will take away from the conversation. In the context of a relationship, where one person is unhappy and sees no positive change in sight, this impact can be particularly damaging. "If [someone] feels trapped, they might be in survival mode with a fight-or-flight reaction," she says. "So it’s not surprising that the biggest predictor of failure is associated with the felt constraint."

As a reminder, fight-or-flight mode is a biological stress response to protect us from immediate danger that's meant to be meant to be temporary, not a lifestyle choice. So how can you identify if a felt constraint is keeping you stuck in a relationship?

The first step is to look inward and identify whether you, yourself, might be the issue; different attachment styles can impact how someone views commitment. "Begin to differentiate between feeling trapped by a person or relationship, and feeling trapped in yourself," says psychotherapist Lia Love Avellino, LCSW. "Many of us feel relationship anxiety, such as, 'Is this person good enough or right for me?' But oftentimes what is at the root of this question is, 'Am I enough? Am I living my life as if I am worthy of love and goodness?'"

If the root question is one of self-worth, consider investigating on your own or with a professional. But if the felt constraint really does seem to rest with the other person in the relationship, Avellino suggests paying attention to frequency, duration, and intensity of 'feeling trapped.' Ask yourself: Is this something that happens once in a while? Is it persistent? Do you feel trapped in other areas of your life?

"Explore the feeling of 'trapped,' before assuming it's about the other person," says Avellino. "Consider: What would make you feel free? When was the last time you felt free? What needs to shift in order to make more space for autonomy and choice in your life? Have you expressed this and made your needs explicit to your partner?"

Remember, you are not chained to your relationship. You decide if your partnership is truly right for you. If the constraints are weighing you down, it might be time to set yourself free.

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