Building Commitment in Our Romantic Relationships
In previous pages, I’ve touched on ways to define commitment within ourselves and our romantic relationships, along with some of the significant issues attributed to our fear of commitment. In this final segment, I present eleven ways we can build commitment and strengthen our ties to one another in our romantic relationships under the presumption both individuals express a high priority need for commitment. I discuss the following in no particular order of significance:
- Resist the Urge for Instant Gratification
- Learn to Love Yourself When You’re Alone
- Don’t Rush Commitment
- Spend More Time Together
- Avoid Denouncing One Another
- Practice Random Acts of Kindness
- Establish Boundaries
- Maintain Emotional Intimacy
- Surround Your Marriage with Positive People
- Continuing Education
- Turn off the Tube!
Resist the Urge for Instant Gratification
Growing up, I liked to eat instant oatmeal for breakfast. Boil a cup of water. Add a half cup of instant oats. Stir on high heat for thirty seconds and voilà! Breakfast served. This works great for breakfast in a hurry. Not so much for a budding romance.
In our fast-paced society, we’ve grown accustomed to instant gratification. Years ago, lay-away was commonplace in “big box” stores, where you could plunk down ten percent toward a major purchase and agree to make weekly or monthly payments until the item was paid in full. This pay as you go philosophy went the way of the dinosaur, and unfortunately so have we in terms of our ability to resist our desire for instant happiness in our relationships. Today, people leap at the make-me-happy-now train instead of taking the time to get to know one another. This mindset dilutes our need for commitment by shifting our focus away from taking things slow and replacing it with the mindset we deserve to be happy in the moment, every moment, or we’re gone—before we move on to the next relationship with the same quick and easy just-add-water-and-stir philosophy on romantic satisfaction. Of course we deserve to feel happy. It’s when we absolve ourselves of the effort required to take the time and grow as a couple that we struggle with commitment. I say be patient. Give your relationship time to evolve—assuming you have the right chemistry and good communication—before you press the ejection seat button on your partner and forgo what could become the start of something special. Commitment doesn’t happen simply because you want it to or because you have an urgent timeline to follow. Commitment requires patience and understanding, not instant gratification.
Learn to Love Yourself When You’re Alone
When I propose you should love yourself when you’re alone, I’m not talking about masturbation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say. I’m simply saying your desire to commit begins with you. And if you can’t commit to loving yourself, then you’re going to have a hard time making the commitment to a loving relationship. When I say love yourself, I’m referring to the ability to accept who you are and enjoy the things in life you cherish most. All of us feel lonely at times, but it’s important to discover and enjoy our own pursuits. Whether these interests involve other friendships, shopping, fitness, or spending time with family, we must decide for ourselves to engage in meaningful activities. Remember, a romantic relationship won’t solve all your problems. It might hide them for a while, but like the monsters in a Stephen King classic, unresolved issues have a way of coming back. If you can learn to be alone and find solace with yourself, and thus appreciate the value of your time and independence, you will take an important step toward building a stronger commitment to your relationship.
Don’t Rush Commitment
I am always amazed when I hear a woman express her desire for a husband—on the first date. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a long-term commitment, but it forces a man to leap several stages ahead in his thinking process before he has a chance to get to know you and decide if he’s even interested in a second date, let alone getting hitched at some point. Building long-term commitment in a romantic relationship takes time and evolves when two people develop trust and intimacy with one another. A baby takes nine months to reach full term. We can’t develop nine babies in one month, the same way we can’t fast forward the time it takes a new relationship to form through the strong connections we establish between ourselves. This parallels the challenge of avoiding instant gratification in our relationships. We all want to be happy—to feel safe, secure, and protected in our romantic cocoon. So much so, we often try to instantiate a strong commitment before we’ve established a physical or emotional connection. If you want to build commitment in a new relationship, give it time. How much time will vary from couple to couple, but keep in mind, relationships move through stages. Don’t go looking for a long-term commitment while you’re still in the infatuation stage. Start small, by approaching a commitment of exclusivity between yourselves. Commit to honesty. Commit to open communication. Commit to the next date together. By letting your relationship mature, and allowing yourselves to gain a deeper understanding and respect for one another, you can start to build the type of long-term commitment you seek.
Spend More Time Together
What could be easier than spending time together? Apparently, lots of things, since people so easily overlook this simple and yet critically important facet of a healthy romantic relationship. It’s easy to get swept up in life’s busy moments and find ourselves managing our financial investments more closely than our personal relationship investment. Money will come and go. So will your romantic relationship if you don’t spend quality time together. Your love will expand and deepen over time, strengthening the bonds of your commitment to each other. But only if you allow this to happen by taking an active interest in your beloved; by showing affection; by being receptive, appreciative, empathetic, and caring; by engaging in active conversation; by making your relationship a primary focus in your busy life.
When we make the commitment to spend quality time together, we strengthen the overall commitment of our relationship. Quality time doesn’t have to be a weekend in Vegas or a Broadway musical. Quality time can involve any shared interests or activities like exercise, cooking, washing dishes, attending a Sunday service, or curling up on the sofa for a movie. Even ten minutes on the phone during lunch is better than nothing at all. Almost anything you and your partner do together—tax preparation notwithstanding—will help you sustain a romantic connection and strengthen your commitment to one another. Whether you’ve been together for twenty years or twenty days, don’t take your partner for granted. Spend quality time together, and your relationship will reap the rewards.
Avoid Denouncing One Another
No one likes to hear complaints, especially when your partner levies their own faults on you. Intimate relations have no place for criticism. Work on being less judgmental toward your partner. Blaming your problems or shortcomings on your partner only serves to fuel conflict in your relationship. And while a certain amount of conflict resides in a healthy romantic relationship, having to constantly battle against judgmental behavior only makes things worse. If you feel the urge to judge someone, judge yourself. Don’t use your romantic relationship as a proverbial punching bag. Stop judging. Start praising. Commit to speaking well of your partner, not disparaging them. For some individuals, words of affirmation not only help build commitment, they also represent their primary love language. For these partners, a lack of loving confirmation is like pouring isopropyl alcohol on an open wound. Focus on the positive. Allow your mind to emphasize your partner’s wonderful qualities.
Reject the urge to inflict subtle jabs at your partner. Instead, work on issues constructively. Perhaps a compromise is in order. Or maybe time apart. If serious issues persist, seek help from a certified marriage counselor or family therapist. We build commitment by embracing one another and fulfilling our relationship needs. Leave the mud slinging to our useless politicians who have their own interests at heart. Treat your partner with respect and admiration. Believe in your core values and abide by them. Be willing to compromise for the sake of your relationship.
Separate Fantasy from Reality
I’m not referring to sexual fantasies here, as those can be a healthy part of a balanced sexual diet. I’m talking about the problem of losing touch with the reality of our partner’s attributes and drowning in the fantasies we create for ourselves. Specifically, with the fantasies of how we perceive our partner should be as opposed to how they really are. From hunky actors on daytime soaps to air-brushed magazine models, it’s easy to get lost in mainstream media’s idealistic image of what we believe—or fantasize—about how our partner should look or act. So often we come to expect the fictionalized image of reality to become our reality. You have to look with keener eyes and stay grounded in the here and now without rejecting your beloved because her hair’s too short or his face lacks a harlequin jaw line. By pursuing the imaginary, we lose touch with reality and forget how we ourselves are not perfect; how our partners appreciate, love, and respect us for who we are, faults and all.
* * *
“Do you still believe in the hereafter?” an old man asked his wife of forty years while he sat on the porch with his arm around her shoulder.
“Of course,” the wife replied, gazing up at the stars.
The old man let his arm fall slowly, his hand gently brushing his wife’s breast. “Good,” he said when he looked into her eyes and grinned. “Then you know what I’m here after.”
* * *
A little corny, perhaps, but the joke packs a lot of heart when you think about a long-term commitment and the realities of growing old together. When we feel the right chemistry in a romantic relationship and we strive for open, honest communication, we need to separate fact from fiction and appreciate our partner for who they are. With the right partner, the reality of your relationship can become the fantasy you share together. Nurture yourselves with continuous affection and a healthy dose of romance. Stay focused on the here and now. The roots of commitment grow strongest in the soil of authenticity.
Practice Random Acts of Kindness
In the words of author Henry James, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”
We appreciate those who appreciate us. Love and kindness are reciprocal, a duplex path between partners who share mutual respect and admiration for one another. To build commitment, help your partner feel acknowledged by doing something special for him or her.
* * *
For guys who struggle in the romance department, sending flowers with a handwritten note makes a strong impression. Ditto for cooking dinner, dropping an occasional love note in her purse or her sunglass holder in the car. Or maybe washing her car, taking the kids off her hands for a while, or sending her to a favorite spa with a gift certificate in hand. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive to be special. Sure, cleaning house, pulling weeds, or putting the folded laundry away might not sound like much, but trust me, it can make a world of difference in how your partner views your commitment to the relationship.
* * *
Ladies, if your man likes movies, get him a gift certificate. If he’s the one who always walks the dog, then give him a break from doggie duty. Pay to have his car detailed. Any man would appreciate that. Or a trip to the spa for a sports massage. Serving a favorite meal is another idea, unless you’re already spoiling him with homemade dinners every night. Give him a day to play golf before you present him with another honey-do list. Surprise him with a magazine subscription. Those are cheap, and the sky’s the limit on the type of magazine he might enjoy. Surprise him with a sexy picture in a frame, preferably one of you. Or offer to wash his hair in the tub. Sometimes nothing feels better than a good scalp massage. Not to mention a hot bath together might lead to more fun than you imagined.
In the end, it’s not a matter of how elaborate the act or how expensive the gift, it’s the fact that you took the time to show you cared. Easier said than done for some couples in long-term relationships. On the upside, practicing random acts of kindness involves little time and effort. It also offers a simple way to build commitment in your romantic relationship.
Setting limits, expectations, or boundaries provides another way for couples to build commitment. This doesn’t necessarily imply an iron-clad list of do’s and don’ts, but rather, mutually agreed-upon guidelines to help your relationship navigate potential conflicts down the road. Some examples might include: agreeing not to socialize one-on-one with members of the opposite sex who exist outside your mutual pool of friends; discussing how long your relatives should stay during the holiday season; agreeing not to talk about certain personal relationship problems with other friends or family; avoiding strip clubs on a guys’ night out; setting boundaries on acceptable behavior at a bachelor or bachelorette party; or avoiding the temptation for excessive flirting with the opposite sex at work or during social activities.
Some of these boundaries seem obvious. Others might not appear as black and white. Strive for a balance you can both sustain, without suffocating your relationship with unrealistic expectations or hiding from issues by pretending they’re out of bounds and shouldn’t be talked about. Setting boundaries is not about control. It’s about trust and respect for each other and your relationship as a whole. Don’t make promises you can’t keep or set expectations so high they become untenable.
Boundaries can also be elastic. For example, you might decide to set aside one night a week for a girls’ night out, but on occasion, you might have two or more nights out with your BFFs. Not working excessively long hours would be another elastic boundary, where important deadlines come up, and you can’t uphold your usual “date night” reservation.
Other boundaries might extend to your sexual relationship, where you both agree not to engage in rough sex or bondage or anything you haven’t openly discussed in advance of performing the act itself. When and where to have sex, especially with children in the house might impose certain limits on how frequently or howloudly you have sex after the kids have gone to bed. By establishing boundaries, you afford your relationship the opportunity to grow, and with it, the commitment that will bond it together.
Maintain Emotional Intimacy
Physical intimacy brings two people closer together, literally and figuratively. But the physical nature of sex alone won’t guarantee commitment—not without emotional intimacy, where we express our personal thoughts and feelings with one another in an atmosphere of trust, support, and comfort. When we remain open and vulnerable to sharing our joys, our passions, and our fears, we experience emotional intimacy and deeper commitment. Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly, authors of Receiving Love, explain how partners must open themselves to each other with a willingness to share themselves and learn about each other. In their words, “When there is a true connection in a relationship, giving and receiving are not separate activities, but different places along a continuum of exchanges. They participate emotionally in each other’s lives by using their connected knowing skills.”
Women equate emotional intimacy with frequent and emotional communication between partners to provide a powerful connection, sensitivity, and understanding of one another’s dreams and aspirations. Men equate emotional intimacy with a heightened physical connection by touching, kissing, and holding hands. Because men tend to be less sensitive to physical contact than women, men require more physical touch to meet their emotional needs. For both men and women, emotional intimacy requires a genuine expression of love. By engaging one another to share our true feelings, we commit to one another in a way that transcends our sexual gratification and fulfills our need for love, compassion, and understanding. We maintain emotional intimacy by expressing our feelings of love, appreciation, and desire—the seeds from which commitment grows.
Surround Your Marriage with Positive People
We’ve all had friends at one time or another who were constant downers; always complaining about this or that; always seeing the cup half empty; always eager to drag us into their latest crises. Prolonged contact with friends like these, no matter how well intentioned, only serves to hamper our own enjoyment and enthusiasm for life. This same consequence holds true for married couples who spend too much time with troubled couples having difficulty in their marriage, specifically couples who make a point of denouncing one another in front of friends or otherwise behaving in a manner inconsistent with the love and respect you’ve come to experience with your own spouse. Instead of surrounding yourselves with people who complain —surround yourselves with people who respect and appreciate their marriage. Love begets love. Hate begets hate. Make a habit of socializing with happy, good-natured couples and you’ll experience the positive karma in your own relationship. Or as motivational speaker Tony Gaskins said, “If the people around you don’t change then change the people you’re around.”
With continuing education, I’m not necessarily talking about advancing your education to improve your academic credentials. I’m promoting the benefits of continuous learning with respect to gender differences, conflict management, love, romance, intimacy, and every other important topic this book has touched on. In the words of William Yeats, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” I sincerely hope The Four Cs of a Meaningful and Lasting Romance resonates with you in this regard, though the book is not meant to be all-encompassing. If I had all the answers, I’d be wearing a tunic and sandals with a beard and a copy of the ten commandments carved in stone.
I’ve highlighted many relevant topics in this book, some derived from authors who’ve written volumes on specific aspects of human behavior. I encourage you to browse at least a few of the works in my bibliography. Though I’ve gleaned something useful from every book I’ve cited, the following books comprise my top five choices, an onerous task, as there are many authors with great insight to the multitude of relationship issues I’ve covered thus far:
- The Psychology of Romantic Love, by Nathaniel Branden
- Getting to Commitment, by Steven Carter with Julia Sokol
- The Five Love Languages for Singles, by Gary Chapman
- 1001 Ways to be Romantic, by Gregory Godek
- Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, by John Gray
Continuous education can improve many aspects of our lives and especially with commitment in romantic relationships, because the more we know, the more skills we bring to the table. Skills to help us deal with conflict, communication gaps, gender differences, sexual discontent, and other relevant challenges.
Our thirst for knowledge shouldn’t cease when we’re in love. Don’t let contentment breed resentment. Explore what others have to say. Learn from those wiser than yourself. We are all human beings in a constant, dynamic state of growth as we age, as we explore, and as we experience new aspects of life. When it comes to understanding ways to build commitment, it can be hard to understand why something fails if you don’t understand how it’s supposed to work in the first place. The cliché, experience is the best teacher, might be true. But if you’re willing to pick up a book, watch a video, attend a seminar, or if necessary, engage a marriage counselor for help, you won’t have to exhaust your lifetime waiting for experience to teach you the lesson.
Turn off the Tube!
According to a study from Albion College involving three hundred and ninety married couples and their personal expectations for their partners, frequent television watching can jeopardize the status of a romantic relationship. According to the study, the more one partner believed in the television portrayals of romance, the less likely they were to be committed to their relationship. The study focused on the unrealistic television portrayals of romance and how this can negatively alter our expectations for one another. The study also discovered a correlation with how strongly an individual believed in the television romance and how they perceived their partner’s unattractive qualities as well as their own loss of personal time and freedom.
Guys, straight up: the more you think the prime time vixen in a tight skirt and heels will cure what ails you, the more your partner’s enjoying the fantasy of riding two-up with a tattooed motorcycle dude in a muscle shirt and leather pants. Or as author Susan Gale wrote, “The longer you hide in your fantasy world, the harder reality is going to slap you when it finally tracks you down.”
Seriously, the Albion College study and similar research from psychologists, family therapists, and marriage counselors, echoes a common theme: abstain from watching too much television, particularly in the bedroom. Especially in the bedroom. This should be your oasis. A neutral zone geared toward quality sleep or intimacy, not wincing through laugh tracks or wasting precious time in front of endless commercials and brain-dead programming. A romantic DVD, or pornographic if you both prefer, are exceptions to the rule, as your bedroom offers sanctuary from other family members living in your home.
Commitment in Summary
Professional counselor and life coach, Dallas Munkholm, wrote, “Commitment requires both parties putting away fairy tale dreams and understanding that a strong, happy relationship requires effort.”
Fairy tale dreams are important, but I also agree with Munkholm’s assessment that commitment must be grounded in reality. Commitment doesn’t happen by magic; it evolves over time when we start to think about our lives in terms of “we” more than “me.” Research correlates the quality of our relationships to the quality of our commitment to one another. Yet commitment itself won’t guarantee lasting happiness, as there are lots of couples who lock themselves into miserable marriages or detrimental long-term relationships.
The path to mutual commitment starts with the right physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual chemistry—followed by open, honest communication and a willingness to work through conflicts and achieve compromise. Commitment implies a freedom of choice, not obligation. Commitment builds upon emotional intimacy and our faith in one another. Commitment grows with our shared experiences, emotions, and vulnerabilities. Commitment deepens our love for one another and helps us through the difficult times. Commitment requires forethought and conscious effort on the part of both partners who share a common need for trust, honesty, loyalty, vulnerability, and a willingness to spend quality time together. Or as Oprah Winfrey said, “Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.”
As the last of the 4Cs I describe in this book, commitment represents the essence of a meaningful and lasting romance. For without it, your romantic relationship will drift away, untethered, like a helium balloon.