Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jul 31, 2020

Do You Want to be in a Relationship Right Now?

by Kenneth Tan and Christopher R. Agnew
Young couple looking at one another with doubtful expressions

Around the world, a growing number of people seem to have an aversion towards intimacy. Marriage rates have been steadily declining, and relational arrangements characterized by an absence of commitment, such as “hooking up” and “friends with benefits,” have become more common. Are people becoming less receptive towards being in committed relationships? We examined this question by studying what we call commitment desirability—the extent to which people want to be in a close, committed relationship at any given point in time.

Not surprisingly, people differ in how much they want committed relationships; some people currently want to be in committed relationships much more than other people do.  For example, our data show that people who are single and not currently in a romantic relationship have less desire for commitment compared to coupled individuals, partly due to their current single status.  But even single people who were lower in commitment desirability scored around the midpoint of our measure, suggesting that almost all of us have at least some desire for a committed relationship.

Given that people differ in how much they want to be in a relationship, we investigated how these differences in commitment desirability play out as people think about and seek commitment. We conducted three studies that included both individuals who were in relationships and those who were single.

In the first study, which involved coupled individuals, we found that people who more greatly desired to be in a committed relationship believed that their future relationships would be more stable, especially when they perceived that their current partners were highly committed to their relationship  The second study found that people who desired committed relationships relied on their partners more and were less inclined to break up with their partners, especially when they perceived that their partners were highly committed to their relationship.

So, people who desire committed relationships see their relationships lasting longer, rely more on their partners, and are more committed to them.  However, in both studies, people’s devotion to their relationships was much stronger when they thought their partner was committed to them. This finding suggests that people who want relationships aren’t just blindly committing more to their partners; they are also protecting themselves from getting too close to partners who are not also interested in commitment.

We were also interested in how single people who are high in commitment desirability differ from those who are lower.  We found that single individuals who desired commitment were more interested in potential partners who also displayed high commitment desirability. They also believed that these relationships would be more successful in the long term.

But what about people who are low in commitment desirability? Were individuals who were low in commitment desirability drawn to partners who also reported a low desire for commitment? Our results suggest this might not be the case. People low in commitment desirability were simply less discriminating about their choice of partners—they didn’t care as much whether their partner desired commitment or not.

Overall, our research suggests that, if you want to be in a committed relationship, it pays to be strategic and to pay attention to how much your prospective partner wants to be in a relationship and how committed they are to you. After all, we do not want to get hurt by choosing or staying together with someone who does not want to be in a committed relationship about as much as we do. Our findings also suggest that, if you find a partner who is strongly motivated to be in a committed relationship, that person will be happier if you provide assurances that you are there for them and that your relationship will be successful and stable over time.

For Further Reading

Tan, K., Agnew, C. R., & Hadden, B. W. (2020). Seeking and ensuring interdependence: Commitment desirability and the initiation and maintenance of close relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46, 36-50.

Agnew, C. R., Hadden, B. W., & Tan, K. (2019). It’s about time: Readiness, commitment and stability in close relationships. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10, 1046-1055.

Hadden, B. W., Agnew, C. R., & Tan, K. (2018). Commitment readiness and relationship formation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44, 1242-1257.


Kenneth Tan, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in the School of Social Sciences at Singapore Management University. His research interests revolve around close relationships, specifically commitment, partner perceptions, and relationship dissolution as well as their effects on individual and relational well-being.

Christopher R. Agnew, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychological Sciences and Associate Vice President for Research at Purdue University. A social psychologist, his research focuses on close, interpersonal relationships and the use of relational models to understand social and health processes.


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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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