Merriam-Webster defines commitment as, “An agreement or pledge to do something in the future.” Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? I commit to having breakfast, lunch, and dinner most days. I commit to getting up on time every morning for work. I commit to always wearing a helmet when I ride my motorcycle.
Sooner or later, everyone commits to something. Even if they decide to commit to being uncommitted. So why do so many of us fear commitment in romantic relationships? People commit themselves to work, to God, and to family and friends. They even commit themselves to marriage, and yet, statistics demonstrate how that turns out poorly half the time.
Folks, commitment should be something we aspire to, not something we run from. Commitment should not imply a grin-and-bear-it attitude, where we tough it out in a bad relationship for the sake of logging another day with a partner we might be better off without. If we share romantic chemistry, effective communication, and work toward positive compromise, then commitment should be something we desire. Commitment implies a willingness to stick with our partner through the good times and the not so good times. I’m not talking about marriage necessarily, or even monogamy in some cases, but a common need to sustain a meaningful and lasting romance versus flirting with an endless pool of candidates. Unlike chemistry, where we either experience a connection or we don’t, commitment invokes certain relationship skills, much like communication and compromise. But before we peel the onion on this rather contentious topic, let’s begin by defining commitment within a common relationship cycle.
The Relationship Cycle
Commitment takes time to evolve, usually during the latter stages of the relationship cycle. Numerous research studies define the relationship cycle in a five-stage model. Slight variations of this model persist between researchers and behavioral therapists who analyze how couples interact with one another, but overall, the following phases occur:
Relationship Stage 1 – Head over Heels
In the head over heels, or “romantic stage,” our bodies produce enormous amounts of testosterone, dopamine and endorphins, which help us feel unusually happy, positive and excited about everything in our life. We’ve all been here. The sun is shining to illuminate the halo above our partner’s head, as everything about them speaks to us in a pleasing manner. We stroll hand-in-hand through the garden of Eden, blissfully caught up in the rapture of love. We experience minimal conflict with our new partner and we have a tendency to idolize one another. We believe this new person in our life will satisfy all our needs and desires. Unconsciously, we seek partners who share characteristics with one or both of our parents. Research also holds that the person we’re most attracted to, shares some of the momentous traits or characteristics of the parent who troubled us the most in childhood. During the head over heels state, our loosely formed, chemically-induced bond, provides an almost euphoric state replete with happiness, laughter, and sexual energy.
Relationship Stage 2 – Disillusionment
In the disillusionment, or “welcome to reality stage,” partners begin to realize their shortcomings. As we learn more about each other, we begin to identify our imperfections and idiosyncrasies. This stage involves learning to communicate and resolve conflict as we begin to disengage and re-evaluate our position in the relationship. In this stage, the initial rush from our chemically-induced bond starts to wane. We become bored, disconnected, and emotionally withdrawn. At a minimum, our core values of trust, respect, honesty, and reassurance are tested.
Relationship Stage 3 – Power Struggle
In the power struggle stage, partners begin to pull away from each other as they become increasingly aware of their differences. More conflict ensues. Resentments build in the absence of open, honest communication. We fear a loss of control or loss of interest in one another. We remain in love, but the romance fades as we begin to realize the consequences of spending time with someone who resembles our most problematic parent.
Relationship Stage 4 – Transformation
In the transformation stage, or “reconciliation phase,” couples discover a deeper connection and trust with one another. In this stage, our ability to resolve conflict improves. Compromise becomes an integral part of this stage, and we learn to accept our differences and establish boundaries between our own independence and our need for togetherness. We begin to reengage in our own outside interests and friendships. An overall feeling of comfort and contentment persists.
Relationship Stage 5 – Commitment
In the commitment stage, or “acceptance phase,” couples look out for each other’s best interests. Partners establish boundaries and become completely vested in the relationship. In this stage, we have learned how to balance our needs for togetherness and alone time, how to maintain a mutually beneficial sex life, how to compromise effectively, and how to communicate successfully with one another.
As the relationship continues to mature, some couples become increasingly committed to one another. They completely accept one another for who they are, faults and all. At this stage, partners no longer coexist because they need each other, but because they have chosen each other to be part of a team. Couples become adept at conflict resolution. Chip Weiner, a licensed mental health and cognitive behavioral therapist, defines this stage as primary commitment. In his words, primary commitment involves “an enjoyable and delusional state characterized by ecstatic feelings toward communication, sex, and time together.”
Some couples formalize their partnership, or commitment, through a long-term relationship or marriage, which Weiner defines as a secondary level of commitment. For some of us, this more formalized secondary commitment phase paves the road less traveled. In this secondary commitment state, reality kicks in. Sometimes for better; often for worse. Motives are questioned. The initial intimacy that raged so strongly in the beginning starts to fade. Lines of communication begin to falter as emotional distance creeps into the relationship. Negative emotions run high, motivated partly by fear and grief from the loss of the initial infatuation. Research suggests less than five percent of couples reach this phase with an established commitment to core values like trust and respect. To coexist with one another in an exclusive romantic relationship is one thing, but to make the jump from here to a long-term commitment or marriage can exhume a host of commitment issues and fears buried in our subconscious. I’ll discuss many of these commitment issues in a later segment.
On the upshot, if we embrace the secondary commitment stage, we find ourselves among the few and far between who’ve endured a sort of couple’s learning curve in the early stages of their relationship. But this secondary commitment stage shouldn’t feel like the last leg of an iron man triathlon, when one is physically spent and psychologically fatigued. Although romantic relationships are not perfect, they shouldn’t be arduous, either. It’s true that building and maintaining a committed romantic relationship takes work, but if you feel like you’re slaving away in the salt mines instead of enjoying the companionship and love you share together, then it might be time to reevaluate your relationship.
Commitment should not imply the need to abandon who you are fundamentally. It should imply a willingness to bridge the gap between a casual association of two partners and a more meaningful and deeply-rooted relationship. But are commitments simply obligations? Or should we distinguish between the two?
Commitments vs. Obligations
From a distance, obligations and commitments might appear as one in the same. And although their definitions seem to parallel one another, a closer look reveals some important distinctions. Both obligations and commitments can be self-imposed, but typically, obligations are imposed upon us by persons of influence or specific circumstance, whereas commitments describe decisions we make without restraint, based on our need to devote our time and energy for the benefit of our relationship. Obligations dictate what we have to do. Commitments dictate what we choose to do.
Since my divorce in 2008, I’ve had an obligation to pay child support for the care and wellbeing of my twin sons with whom I share joint custody with their mother. The law imposed the child support obligation. More importantly, I self-imposed a personal commitment to be the best father I can be for my sons. The obligation to pay child support carries little emotional weight. I write a check that gets spent accordingly to support my boys’ needs. Like my obligation, my commitment remains ongoing, but unlike my obligation, my commitment to my sons carries substantial emotional weight derived from my high priority need to see my sons thrive in every aspect of their lives.
If we snap the chalk line between obligation and commitment in our romantic relationships, the line begins to blur when we look at the different dimensions of commitment. A multitude of variables support various aspects of commitment between a man and a woman engaged in a romantic relationship. Commitment can mean slightly different things to different couples, where some remain together out of obligation; others out of reward. For many, the relationship persists to avoid the high emotional, and sometimes financial costs associated with ending the relationship. Other couples persist for a combination of reasons. The next segment helps describe why.
Dimensions of Relationship Commitment
To gain a better understanding of commitment issues in romantic relationships requires a basic understanding of key commitment variables, or dimensions, which include:
- Moral Obligation
- Additional Relationship Variables
These commitment variables describe our motives for remaining in a long-term relationship. Similar to our communication styles, our personalities may encompass more than one dimension.
Personal / Attraction
The personal / attraction dimension describes how we feel drawn toward our partner. In this dimension, rewards and satisfactions drive our commitment to the relationship. Our physical attraction to one another fuels this dimension. We remain committed, to a large extent, because we like what we see and hear from our partner. We feel a certain chemistry and contentment with one another.
Moral obligation describes how some of us stay in a relationship out of obligation or duty, even in the absence of happiness. For many people, commitment to marriage stems from religious or family obligations. Some individuals feel a moral obligation to their partner on a very personal level. This speaks less to our physical attraction and more to our intellectual state of mind. We feel the moral obligation as a code of conduct more than a physical or emotional need to commit.
Constraint / Structural
The constraint or structural dimension describes how we feel constrained to remain in the relationship despite a low level of personal or moral commitment. This dimension describes how we feel trapped in a relationship for the sake of our children or because of potentially damaging social or financial consequences. People who feel constrained by their commitment remain emotionally trapped in their relationship. Whatever chemistry that initially existed to bring them together has evaporated. Partners no longer feel their commitment to the relationship is the right thing to do. Instead, they perceive it as the only thing to do as if no other options exist.
Additional Relationship Variables
Aside from personal/attraction, moral obligation, and constraint/structural commitment dimensions, additional variables can impact our level of romantic relationship commitment and include:
- Relationship agenda—or the degree to which we want the relationship to continue over time.
- Relationship primacy—or the priority level we give to our relationship over other activities in our life.
- Couple identity—or the degree to which we think of our relationship as a team more than separate individuals trying to maximize our individual gains.
- Sacrifice satisfaction—or how our attraction to other potential partners can diminish our commitment to our current partner. This element relates to availability of partners, which refers to our perceived availability of other suitable individuals in the event our existing relationship dissolves.
Collectively, these variables of relationship agenda, relationship primacy, couple identity, and sacrifice satisfaction, compel us to remain with our partners despite other personal or moral obligations.
Whether your commitment derives from personal, moral, or structural dimensions, it requires freedom of choice, not obligation. We aren’t bound by commitment as a mandated requirement. We derive commitment through our shared experiences, emotions, and vulnerabilities expressed during social and intimate contact with our partners. Unlike obligations, commitment provides our romantic relationship a sense of security and wellbeing—a safety net of sorts to fall back on when unforeseen issues or events overwhelm us.