Many of us have a difficult relationship story that we could share. Unfortunately one of the traits of many modern romantic relationships is ambiguity. Many people find that they are riding along with a romantic partner that is less committed and invested in the relationship than they are. Several years ago, I had found myself in a marriage where it always seemed things were never really working out right. My husband had started becoming less interested in our relationship. The work days started to grow longer, and the time together grew shorter. The more I put into the relationship, the less I got out of it. The more I tried to talk and fix things, the worse they would get, and the cycle would continue. Things didn’t seem to be that way in the beginning, it seemed that we both knew what we wanted, and we wanted it right away. We met, got engaged, and got married all within a year. I gave birth to a daughter a year after getting married. Then six short months after having our daughter, it became increasingly clear that I was in an asymmetrically committed relationship (ACR). An ACR is a romantic relationship that consists of two partners with differing levels of commitment and dedication to the relationship.
My, now ex-husband, had all the control. Every time I posed any concerns they were quickly shot down and discredited. Yet the worse I felt in the relationship, the more often I tried to make things better. I did this in any way possible, such as surprise gifts, nice dinners, and spontaneous advances. However, all of this effort only temporarily helped, and in a few short days things were back to the same place. I tried for a couple years to fix things. I tried to be interesting enough to get the attention of a man that had no drive to be interested in me. He put his interests in other things, and there was nothing that I was going to do to fix that. He was certainly not going to let me know that he was no longer interested in me or in our relationship. He was just letting me ride it alone. Eventually this lead me to breaking down and losing interest in fighting for a relationship that was tearing me apart at every level, and at that point I left, and the marriage ended.
When you find someone you want to commit to, then you and your partner need to lay everything out on the table. In other words, you need to have that defining conversation, talk about all the hard stuff, and have a real understanding on where you and your partner stand. You need to plan for the future together continually. I have learned that you need to make sure that you and your partner are on the same page. You need to be intentional and united as a couple when making decisions. If you two are not looking forward to the same things in your relationship, you may find yourself in an ACR. According to Dr. Scott Stanley and colleagues in their article Asymmetrically Committed Relationships, couples are less likely to find themselves in an ACR if they have mutual plans to marry (Stanley, Rhoades, Scott, Kelmer, Markman, & Fincham, 2017). Some of the main highlights Stanley et al. (2017) found regarding asymmetrically committed relationships:
- The romantic partner who is the least committed in a romantic relationship has the most power.
- Men most often seem to be the “weak link” in their relationships, and if men are the “weak link” in their relationships women are significantly more likely to stay in the relationship.
- Interestingly, if women are the “weak link” in their relationships, then the relationship is more likely to end.
Recently, in the study Unequally into “Us”: Characteristics of Individuals in Asymmetrically Committed Relationships (click the link for free access), Dr. Scott Stanley and a team of five other researchers explored the characteristics of individuals in ACR relationships (Stanley, Rhoades, Kelmer, Scott, Markman, & Finchman, 2019). There are several factors that may be associated with becoming stuck in an ACR. To begin with, there are things that to no fault of your own, predispose you to be more prone to finding yourself in an ACR. For instance, those who come from a family background that was unstable could potentially impact a person’s ability to be able to commit to someone else (Stanley et al., 2019). Aside from family instability, those who have attachment difficulties have a higher chance of getting into an ACR as well. Having attachment insecurities could cause negative expectations of partners, which in turn could lead a person to be the less committed partner in the relationship. All of these factors will have different impacts on the individual, for example those who never had their parents marry actually tend to have the lowest relationship quality (Stanley et al., 2019). To learn more about this study Dr. Stanley has a great YouTube video in which he describes many of the findings from this research study.
Finding yourself in an ACR can be very confusing, painful, not to mention frustrating, especially if you happen to be the more committed partner. As mentioned previously, the least committed in the relationship is the one who holds more power. In my personal experience, this could not be more true. We have previously discussed on this blog some of the ways that romantic partners can be a “strong or weak link” in their relationships. On the road of life, it is easier to navigate this journey with a partner that is committed for the long haul. Unfortunately, too many individuals can get stuck with a partner who creates uncertainty about how to reach the destination (i.e., marriage, children, etc.) as a couple. If you are now worried that you are forever doomed to have poor relationships, there are things that you can do to lower your chances of getting stuck in an ACR.
Sadly being in an asymmetrically committed relationship may potentially be one of the factors that leads to intimate partner violence in some couple relationships. As explained Dr. Scott Stanley and Dr. Galena Rhoades in a blog post for the Institute for Family Studies:
“Asymmetrical commitment may turn out to be one ingredient in the way cohabitation and aggression are linked. We have found that asymmetrically committed relationships are more prone to aggression and generally have low relationship quality. Many asymmetrically committed relationships contain one partner who is not committed enough to inhibit negative behaviors and another who, while relatively highly committed, will be massively frustrated by a growing awareness of their partner’s lower commitment. That sounds like a recipe for highly destructive conflict.”
If you have been deeply hurt by relationships in the past, then you may need to find a way to begin believing that you are worthy of a strong and healthy relationship. There is someone out there that is meant for you, and they will love you the way you deserve. Believing in relationships and love again may require seeing a therapist, but it is worth the effort. You have power over your own life, and the life that your parents had doesn’t have to define the life you will have. When going into a commitment, you need to make sure that you keep all lines open for your partner, starting with cutting out the thought of having options. If you believe that you have better options out there in terms of a partner, than you should not be committing to the person you are with. End the relationship and go find that “better” alternative. If you are going into a relationship thinking that there are better alternatives out there for you, you will most likely be the least committed person in the relationship. At the same time, if you believe that you have no alternatives or poor alternatives, you need to careful of getting stuck in a relationship where you develop a strong, unhealthy dependency on the other person (Stanley et al., 2019).
To avoid being in an asymmetrically committed relationship it would be wise to avoid cohabiting to test a relationship (more on this here and here), and choose to wait on having children until you are married. Sharing an apartment together or having a child together can cause the relationship to continue on when it may have ended without those constraints (Stanley et. al., 2017). Although you may want to get to that destination of having a long-term committed relationship, there is no need to rush what is generally a gradual process. Save yourself time, sanity, and heartache and have the courage to clarify the commitment in your relationship. Although we live in a fast-paced world and it seems like it is best to fast track things, your love life needs to stay in the slow lane. You will be thankful that you took the time to understand yourself, your partner, and your relationship.
- Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Kelmer, G., Scott, S. B., Markman, H. J., & Finchman, F. D. (2019). Unequally into “us”: Characteristics of individuals in asymmetrically committed relationships. Family Process, 58, 1, 214-231.
- Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Scott, S. B., Kelmer, G., Markman, H. J., & Fincham, F. D. (2017). Asymmetrically committed relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 34, 8, 1241-1259.
- Stanley, S., & Rhodes, G. (2017, January 18th). Aggression in twentysomethings’ cohabiting, dating, and marriage relationships. [Blog post]. Institute for Family Studies. Retrieved from: https://ifstudies.org/blog/aggression-in-twentysomethings-cohabiting-dating-and-marriage-relationships
- Stanley, S. & Rhoades, G. (2016, November 2nd). Weak and strong links: asymmetrical commitment in unmarried relationships. [Blog post]. Institute for Family Studies. Retrieved from: https://ifstudies.org/blog/weak-and-strong-links-asymmetrical-commitment-in-unmarried-relationships
I am a first year graduate student at Northern Illinois University in the Applied Human Development and Family Sciences program. I graduated from Northern Illinois University in May of 2020 with a Bachelor of Science in Human Development and Family Sciences with a Child Development: Parent and Infant Studies emphasis. My plan is to become a Certified Family Life Educator and be an advocate for healthy family systems. I am a mommy to a beautiful 6 year old daughter. I also got married in May of 2020 to a firefighter.