I'm a big proponent of communication in relationships; so I believe that the first (and most important) sign that a partner wants to be more serious with you should ideally be that they tell you. But unfortunately, not all of us are expert communicators — so it's lucky that behavioral science has stepped into the breach to decode those things our partners do that mean they're really taking things to "the next level" with commitment. There are certain obvious signs, of course: wanting to buy a house together, or casually mentioning their mother's wedding gown is just your size. But other "commitment signals" (as they're called in psychology) are more subtle, from making future plans to exhibiting self-sacrifice.
What you do with this information is important: It shouldn't be used as a weapon if your partner tries to break up ("of course you want me around, you travelled to the hospital to be with me that one time!"), and it shouldn't be counted on as evidence of commitment when other signals contradict it. It is entirely possible for ambivalent partners to do some of the things on this list and not others. It's also important to remember that the science behind many of these suggestions is often based on Western, college-age, heterosexual couples — so conclusions may not be universally applicable. And every couple has their own language and signs of intimacy; for instance, you may have realized your girlfriend was serious about you when she introduced you to her super-secret kale salad recipe. Still, as a broad vocabulary of commitment, this may be a useful guide to see what's going on in a relationship where these things aren't explicit.
Here are seven signs, drawn from behavioral psychology, that your partner may be feeling serious about your relationship.
1. They Discuss Your Future As A Couple
This is one of the most potent signals that your partner views your relationship as long-term: they have discussions in which they clearly assume that your partnership is a done deal in future months and years. This can cover anything from conversations that explicitly involve combined plans for the future (like whether you'll buy a house or have children together) to more subtle mentions: "when we're 40" or "when we go to their wedding in 2018" are key signs that you clearly feature in their personal timeline. It's also key that they're consistent about this; the Huffington Post, in analyzing relationship-future conversations, points out that people who aren't actually commitment-focused may mention thoughts about the future, but then deny it if questioned at a later point — so consistency on this front is very important.
2. They Show Affection In Public
This is an interesting one: two pieces of research quoted in Pierre Philpot's The Regulation Of Emotion — one in 2001 and one in 1997 — correlate public displays of affection with long-term commitment. The reasoning? It shows a willingness to sacrifice personal comfort for the sake of the other partner, a common signal of serious partnership. This isn't just kissing or hugging, though; it's also demonstrations of "compassion," which includes open body language, head nods, and genuine smiles (called "Duchenne smiles" in psychology). According to these studies, says Philpot, those behaviors are "conflict-reducing, commitment-enhancing," and also demonstrate that both partners are able to sacrifice their particular individual comfort for the comfort of their loved one (see: the fact that holding hands is often actually not that comfortable). That hug or walking hand-in-hand has deeper significance than it seems.
3. They Are Willing To Have Serious Conversations
The model of committed romantic love in contemporary society is very much one about depth: you're supposed to know each other intimately, including your positions on personal and intimate issues ranging from the care of elderly relatives to future children. The willingness of a partner to have these conversations — and even to instigate them — is a signal that things are moving in a serious direction. It's also a good signal if they pick up on the time in which you're least stressed to have a discussion on a complex, difficult subject; a study revealed that 8:15pm is probably the preferable point at which to raise an issue within a heterosexual relationship.
4. They Consciously Work To Drop Past Negative Romantic Behaviors
Everybody's got skeletons in their closet, especially when it comes to romantic relationships. Maybe your partner behaved poorly with past partners: they may have practiced what The Atlantic called "back burner" relationships, in which one person is put "on hold" for a possible future relationship without investment in one in the present; or they may have had poisonously toxic relationships with ex-partners. If they're consciously and prominently putting those behaviors behind them in an attempt to "do better," it may be a signal that they believe their relationship with you to be a new stage in the evolution of their romantic behavior, with more of an emphasis on adult commitment.
5. They Incur Significant Costs To Show Their Commitment (And Not Just Money)
This comes from an economic model of viewing relationships, but it's not necessarily about monetary costs. In a fascinating study from Japan's Kobe University, researchers looked at "commitment signals" in relationships, particularly romantic gestures, to see what they said about the strength of romantic bonds in both the US and Japan. And they found something interesting: the more "costly" the gesture — emotionally or fiscally — the more likely that the relationship was deeply committed. If a partner throws an expensive party for their lover, travels a long way to be with them, drops everything to be with them in the hospital, or generally sacrifices a resource (money, time, convenience) for the sake of their partner's happiness, it's often a clear sign of a very committed bond. And people understand this language; gestures that aren't "costly" don't produce the same feelings of commitment, and refusal to perform either kind of gesture is a signal that the partner is not committed in the slightest.
This isn't to say that a partner who splashes around a lot of cash but doesn't support you emotionally should be considered a serious prospect; but if you know that your partner must have saved for months to get you that surprise birthday present, it's worth considering when assessing how seriously they've committed to you.
6. They're Emotionally Vulnerable
In 2011, a fascinating study was published about the "communication of commitment" — and the act of confessing love in particular — and what it meant for relationships in general. In the process, the researchers did a lot of work on previous research about commitment signals in humans, and found a huge variety of ways that we let partners know we care for them. Artistic works dedicated to your lover are up there (which is why so many people manage to get laid by doing cheesy songs at karaoke); but they also uncovered categories of commitment communication that depend on emotional trust and connection. One was the provision and acceptance of "emotional help," or support in cases of distress or problems; another was the sharing of secrets with a partner that had not been shared with anyone else. The key factor in both of these is vulnerability, and the willingness of each partner to be stripped bare of their defenses and reach out for help and support.
7. They're Open About You On Social Media (Sort Of)
Here's an interesting fact discovered about social media-based boasting about relationships: a 2015 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that particular forms of Facebook interaction do in fact signal a strong relationship, including the boastful pair-photo status update (they're called "dyadic photographs" in the study). Obnoxious as it may seem, a six-month study of couples who identified as such on Facebook found that those who showed behaviors like posting joint photographs and writing on one another's walls were more likely to be together at the end of the six-month period than those who only did it intermittently or without a lot of interest.
But there was a catch: too much wall-writing, it was discovered, seemed to correlate with an increased chance of breaking up, possibly because it felt too public. The wider issue, though, is one of recognition: if your partner is happy sharing your relationship with the world in general, from their workers to their family to their social network, it's a pretty good sign they're committed.
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