The Three Types of Commitment

In BDSM relationships, we often speak of commitment. What we usually mean by that is that we will do things, in a sustained manner, to benefit the relationship. It is often a commitment to a person (or “people” if you’re poly), but it could also be to a larger collective entity, such as a household or a community group.

Commitment is not a light decision. It requires putting in time and effort, and striving towards goals even in the face of obstruction. If we gave up at the first obstacle it wouldn’t be much of a commitment.


To understand commitment, we need to understand what motivates the behaviour. Different motivations produce different types of commitment.

Research has identified three types of commitment: instrumental, normative and emotional. These correspond to motivations based on: “need to”, “ought to” and “want to”.

Instrumental Commitment

This is a weighing of the costs and benefits, and continuing to invest in a relationship because it is a means to pursuing a goal. Commitment is high when perceived gains outweigh losses. If the gap is large, the commitment is strong, and as it narrows the commitment diminishes.

If you’ve ever been in a job you didn’t love, you’ll recognise this type of commitment. You weigh up your chances of getting a better job or more money elsewhere, and decide if you should stay put or quit.

Normative Commitment

This is about a sense of obligation or duty, and contributing to the person/group because of a sense that you ought to. If you identify strongly with the person or group, either because it makes you feel proud to be a member or because you have benefited and feel you must reciprocate, then commitment increases.

In this situation, commitment is often interpreted as “the right thing to do”, out of a sense of moral obligation based on beliefs about the norms of membership. It’s the reason why you hear “it is my obligation as a citizen” so often in politics.

Emotional Commitment

With emotional attachment to the person or group, the motivation becomes about wanting to do something, regardless of whether you “need to” or “ought to”. There’s a strong sense of belonging and the feeling of being part of the family. You feel happy when things go well, and sad when things go badly.

In groups, emotional commitment develops over time based on positive experiences, such as quality social relationships, trust, feelings of being valued and treated fairly and with respect by those in authority. If leaders are seen as trustworthy and fair then cynicism, which prevents emotional attachment, is less likely to occur. That feeling of trust and fairness also forms the basis for quality relationships.


What do these theories about commitment have to do with BDSM? Commitment matters because it shapes how people think, feel and behave.

On the one hand, a high level of commitment of any kind will benefit cohesiveness and longevity. Employees who are committed perform better on the job and have lower intent to quit.

On the other hand, the TYPE of commitment does matter.

Let’s think about it for three types of BDSM relationships:

Relationship between individuals. This could be Dom/sub, Master/slave, DD/lb or whatever roles works for you. If you’re poly it might be D/s/s or M/M/s or some other combination.

Relationship between individual and the House/Clan or other immediate BDSM family. Formal Houses are a slightly Old Guard concept for many, but they’re not extinct, and many households have an informal relationship with outsiders that forms an extended family.

Relationship with “the community”. Again, this is a slightly difficult concept. Some people in BDSM actively interact with a larger community grouping, while others take a more passive role or don’t interact at all.

I’ll use the generic term “group” to include any of these three types of relationships.

What is the difference between relationships based on instrumental commitment (“need to”), and normative (“ought to”) or emotional (“want to”) commitment?

• Individuals with high normative and emotional commitment are more likely to engage in pro-social behaviours, such as wanting to help others and speaking up for the group.

• Individuals with high normative and emotional commitment are more likely to support policies that benefit the group as a whole, even if there is some personal cost or disadvantage.

• Their sense of “ought to” or “want to” makes people with high normative and emotional commitment more likely to volunteer to help the group in times of crisis.

• The reverse is true for individuals with instrumental commitment, whose commitment is given on a “need to” basis. In times of crisis, the cost/benefit calculation suggests there is no need to stay to support the group and it is time to leave for greener pastures.

I think most people hope to build their individual relationships with another person based on emotional commitment. It would certainly be possible to have an M/s relationship based on normative or instrumental commitment, and I’ve heard of relationships like this, but the glue that really binds two people is emotional glue. The takeaway from this is that emotional commitment requires trustworthiness and fairness, and both sides must feel valued. Harsh and slightly abusive M/s relationships might sound hot to some people, but they will really only get the strength that comes from emotional commitment if both parties can find a way to reconcile that with the need for the relationship to be emotionally supportive.


• Dominant Guide – What’s Love Got To Do With It?
• Sensuous Sadie – BDSM Relationships – Vanilla with a Dash of Kink? Or a Whole Different Animal?
• Deviance & Desire – Pain, Power and BDSM – It’s Not Just “Rough Sex”
• NC State University (H. Wallace Goddard) – Commitment in Healthy Relationships

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