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Having Trouble Honoring That Commitment? It Might Be The Way You Think About It

couple in love photo


Think keeping a commitment is just about keeping your word?

What about when something more tempting comes along?

While we can make commitments to people in a variety of ways – such as to show up at work on time, take the dog out, take the kid to school, and pay the bills – perhaps the most salient is the one we make when saying our vows. And yet, to have and to hold until death do us part doesn’t make all of us think about commitment in the same way. For one thing, there are always attractive members of the opposite sex.


Just how tempting an attractive mate can be when trying to honor a commitment was the question researchers were asking when they gathered 120 heterosexual undergraduates in committed relationships to pore over photographs of attractive members of the opposite sex.


After being asked to identify the member of the opposite sex to whom they felt most physically attracted, undergrads were then asked to compose an essay on one of three subjects: the time they felt the most love for their current romantic partner, the time they felt the most sexual desire for their current romantic partner, or anything they wanted to write about. While writing, participants were instructed to put the attractive other out of their mind, and if they did happen to think of them, put a check in the margin of their essays every time they did so.


So what effect did thinking about commitment have temptations? Undergraduates who reflected on the love they felt for their romantic partner thought about the attractive temptation of another as much as six times less than those who didn’t think about the love they felt for their partner – or instead thought only about sexual desire. Even more convincing, undergrads in the love group were not only less likely to think about attractive others, but also hard a much tougher time recalling what they looked like, or just what their appeal was (Gonzaga & Haselton, 2008).


Lead study author, Gian Gonzaga explains, “These people could remember the color of a shirt or whether the photo was taken in New York, but they didn’t remember anything tempting about the person. It’s not like their overall memory was impaired; it’s as if they had selectively screened out things that would make them think about the how attractive the alternative was” (Gonzaga, 2008).


So thinking more about commitment makes us selectively screen out those temptations? Perhaps the result shouldn’t surprise us. Past research has shown that people in romantic relationships do consistently rate potential others as less attractive – and spend less time looking at them – than those who are not in committed relationships.


But what defines just how hard we are willing to work at that commitment – especially in the face of temptations – is how we define commitment. Commitment for most of us doesn’t always mean the same thing. We can be committed to tennis, for example, because we like playing and we feel we are getting better. We can be committed to our job as long as we feel we are compensated fairly. And we can be committed to our relationships – that is, as long as they are going well.


But the problem is – and where most of us hit a roadblock with our commitment – is when things take a turn for the worse. Suddenly our golf swing takes a nosedive and we are hitting the green while staring at a shining white ball perched innocently on the tee. Our coworker gets a raise while we feel we were overlooked. And our relationship – the one we committed to until death do us part – now seems to teeter dangerously between divorce and separation.


This is also the difference between what psychologists call a commitment, and a deeper level of commitment. A deeper level of commitment goes beyond committing to something only when it is going well. Instead, those who commit deeply understand that they may have to make to sacrifices, hit some roadblocks, and ultimately have some resolve in order to keep those commitments.


To measure just how strongly a deeper level of commitment predicted marriage success, researchers presented newlyweds with statements that gauged their level of commitment, such as, “I want my marriage to stay strong no matter what rough times we may encounter,” “My marriage is more important to me than almost anything else in my life,” “Giving up something for my partner is frequently not worth the trouble” and “It makes me feel good to sacrifice for my partner.” The newlyweds were then asked to rate how strongly they agreed with each statement. The researchers then conducted follow ups every six months for four years. In the follow ups, couples were asked questions about their relationship history, their feelings toward each other, the stress in their lives, their level of social support, and their childhood and family.


The result? The couples in which both people were willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the marriage were significantly more likely to have lasting and happy marriages (Schoebi, et.,al., 2011). Explains Benjamin Karney, who co-authored the study, “It (commitment) means do what it takes to make the relationship successful” (Karney, 2011).


But perhaps even more important, is understanding that keeping our commitments isn’t supposed to be easy. Instead, those who have the most commitment success do not harbor any false beliefs that commitments don’t include hard work, sacrifices, and probably some white knuckling through temptations.


It is our attitude toward commitments – and adopting the ‘I will do whatever it takes attitude’ – that separates those who commit when it is easy (and things are going well) yet jump ship the minute the waters gets rough, from those who are willing who are willing to ride out the bumps and bruises of sitting through temptations, the overwhelming desire to quit, and those sneaky rationalizations – all for the promise of ultimately arriving at their goals.


Claire Dorotik-Nana is the author of Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards. For more information on Claire or her work, just visit

Having Trouble Honoring That Commitment? It Might Be The Way You Think About It

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2016). Having Trouble Honoring That Commitment? It Might Be The Way You Think About It. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 6 Jul 2016
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