At some point in your life, it’s likely you’ve said to yourself that you’re not “ready for a relationship.” This lack of readiness to get involved with someone, called “relationship commitment,” may apply after you’ve just been through a painful breakup, or it could mean never having been ready at all for a committed, intimate relationship. Perhaps you feel that you can’t get involved with someone until you have a more secure sense of your own identity and what you want out of life. It’s also possible that you need time to regroup after a relationship you thought would last forever ended unexpectedly. In either case, your reluctance to find someone to commit to can feel odd or abnormal, given that the rest of the people you know seem to be happily coupled.
According to Purdue University’s Benjamin Hadden and colleagues (2018), “despite the seeming ubiquity of advice surrounding readiness in popular culture, the scientific literature on the role of commitment readiness is near nonexistent” (p. 1242). Still, proposing that timing may be everything when it comes to relationship commitment, the authors put their “Relationship Receptivity Theory (RRT)” to the test. Feeling ready doesn’t mean, they argue, afraid of emotional intimacy or even of being single. They maintain that people may feel ready for a relationship “while being perfectly at piece with remaining single” until they find the right person (p. 1243).
Being ready for commitment, Hadden et al. propose, also influences your behaviors across all phases of relationship formation. When you’re ready for a relationship, you might engage in such activities as paying more attention to your appearance and resupplying your closet. You’ll think more about dating, and regard the benefits of a romantic relationship as higher than the costs. Furthermore, you’ll be more likely to invest yourself in your newly-formed relationship. People low in relationship commitment might get involved with a new partner but remain emotionally more distant out of fear of becoming too reliant on that person. You can probably relate to this idea if you think about people you’ve known who feel that they “should” be in a close relationship (based on age, status, or family pressures) but never allow true intimacy to flourish.
Across a series of studies, the Purdue researchers first established (among both online adult samples and college students) the extent to which relationship commitment would relate to interest and pursuit in becoming romantically involved. Then they asked college students to provide data on relationship commitment and interest across the span of a 2-week period using a daily diary technique. Their measure of commitment readiness asked participants to indicate whether they felt the timing was right for a relationship; participants also completed measures assessing fear of being single, avoidant attachment (inability to become emotionally close to others), and interest in a romantic relationship (defined in terms of the “ideal” closeness with a partner). The question then became whether that fear of singlehood, reticence to emotionally attached, or inability to feel close to someone would outweigh relationship readiness in predicting who would become romantically involved over the course of the study.
The first two studies examined the general relationship between commitment readiness and both interest in, and pursuit of a romantic relationship, taking into account those competing factors of attitudes toward singlehood, ability to become securely attached, and desired degree of closeness with a partner. Then, the authors took their approach to the next level to see just how commitment readiness would play out over the course of a relationship in its early stages of evolution. Thus, the third study in the series examined the extent to which relationship readiness influenced the subsequent qualities of relationships that the participants went on to form over the course of a 5-week and 3-month period following an initial diary study period of 2 weeks. In this college student sample, the rate of relationship formation averaged around one-third, meaning that the majority of participants did not go on, after the initial assessment, to form a close relationship. Nevertheless, enough of them did to make it possible for Hadden and colleagues to complete their analyses.
For the most part, the authors observed, as predicted, a positive association between scores on commitment readiness and the initiation of a relationship in the subsequent months. Participants who responded that they indeed felt ready for a relationship engaged in both active pursuit of a partner as well as being receptive to a relationship. This latter factor was represented by being responsive to interest expressed by someone else, or just being open in general to going out on dates when offered the chance. Speaking to “the unique nature of readiness as a construct,” their findings showed that “timing matters” in allowing people to feel that they can handle a relationship at a given point in time (p. 1254). Then, moving on to the next level, once the relationship-ready got involved with a romantic partner, the chances were that they would feel more satisfied, be willing to invest more in the relationship, and feel that it’s worth it to keep the relationship going.
If “timing is everything,” what influences that internal clock of yours that suggests it’s time to start looking for a partner? As the authors note, people with a relationship history marked by frequent heartbreak, lack of fulfillment, or involvement with overly demanding partners may never feel ready for commitment. Alternatively, returning to this idea of personal identity and self-knowledge, people may not feel ready for a new relationship if they’re trying to establish themselves in a new job, location, or position in life (such as being newly single).
From a theoretical point of view, the factors that influence commitment readiness may, in turn, have an impact on the quality of a newly-formed relationship by allowing people to feel that it’s worth investing their time and energy. You have to be ready for a relationship, on other words, but for that relationship to succeed, you have to understand what’s needed from you in order to make that happen. Maybe your partner isn’t perfect, but you’re willing to commit anyway because you feel you can handle the demands of living with this person.
To sum up, happiness in relationships, at least those studied here in young adults, requires the flipping of your internal switch that leads you to want to get romantically involved. Not only you, but your partner, will benefit in your relationship fulfillment when you both feel the time is right.