Which is more important for commitment: Safety or growth?
By Gale Lucas
Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes; but no plans.
~ Peter F. Drucker
Commitment is important to achieving success. We need to be committed to our career and our relationships if we want these to be realized. Many people have opinions about “the right mindset” that is needed for sustaining commitment, but few have considered what fundamental goals align best with maintaining commitment (to a career or significant other, for example). Researchers have identified two fundamental goals: the goal to be safe and responsible, and the goal to achieve hopes and growth. Which of these goals helps us to maintain commitment, say, to our romantic partner? The answer is in: it depends on the nature of the relationship and one’s partner.
Romantic commitment and the content of our goals
Research generally shows when partners support each other’s goals, they are more committed and more likely to stay together. However, much of this research doesn’t consider the content of the goals. Does it matter what kinds of goals our partner supports? Our research demonstrates that it does matter, and it also depends on the nature of the relationships (dating vs married). When couples are just dating, all that matters for commitment is that partners support each other’s goals for achieving their hopes and growth. However, after couples are married, they not only need to continue to support each other’s growth-related goals to boost commitment, but also need to support each other’s goals to be safe and responsible as well in order to keep commitment high.
Understanding this finding could be important for preserving commitment. Feelings of being supported that people use to judge how committed they are in a dating relationship may not be sufficient for projecting how committed they would feel as a married couple. The sense of support that’s important to us when dating seems to only partially capture what we will need from the person we end up marrying, and this could be part of why so many marriages fail.
An additional source of marital satisfaction and commitment can come from when partners are well suited to work on goals together. When spouses “divide and conquer” joint goals as a couple, research suggests that it works best for each spouse to hold a different type of goal (safety vs growth). That is, when couples pursue a goal as a unit, it’s better for the relationship (and commitment) if one of the partners is more focused on goals for achieving their hopes and growth, and the other partner is more concerned with goals to be safe and responsible. In this sense, opposites might not just attract, but they can also fit together in the long run (at least in terms of goal content).
When we are too committed_
Marriages might fail because spouses don’t support and complement each other in the right ways. However, they can also fail because one (or both) of the partners has trouble “sticking it out” through tough times in the marriage. Research shows that individuals with higher grit have greater success achieving important life goals that require commitment, such as marriage. Indeed, grittier folks are more likely to hold onto their romantic relationships compared to those lower in grit. They are also more likely to persist at other long-term goals, like graduating from school, for example. On the other hand, we have also found that grittier individuals continue persisting to their detriment. In contrast, less gritty individuals are better able to figure out when to “cut their losses” and move on.
How can grittier people be encouraged to not persist too long? Research on safety versus growth goals suggests a way to help gritty individuals to move on: focus on their ideals or hopes and their goals for growth and advancement. Indeed, this research has found that focusing on one’s goals for growth can help people cut their losses before their “undying” commitment becomes detrimental.
Beyond focusing on growth-related goals, as I explain in an interview, gritty individuals could also be encouraged to take heed that blind perseverance might actually hinder their success. Specifically, they should consider being more strategic with their effort: when life gives you unsolvable problems, move on to solvable ones. Taking a metered approach like this might help gritty folks know better when to move on, thereby reducing sunk costs and wasted effort, increasing their success in life even further.
Do you think you have high levels of commitment? You can find out which of the “5 Cs of resilience,” including commitment, is your strongest “C”