Enemy Among Us: Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Special Agent Shannon Burns sipped from the water fountain outside the women’s restroom on the fifth floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. The surrounding offices buzzed with testosterone from the packs of male agents in dark wool suits and laced wingtips gracing the halls, with blimp-size egos floating in their air of superiority. What they had on their collective agenda, Agent Burns could only guess. She’d sensed the glaring looks the minute she’d stepped on their turf in her heels and black slacks with a form-fitting blouse to hug her hourglass figure and accentuate the tight body she worked hard to maintain.

At nearly six feet, she stood taller than many of her bureau peers and held her own in the gentlemen’s club reserved for modern cavemen disguised as federal agents. A rough-around-the-edges girl, she preferred the slow burn from a shot of Southern Comfort to a bottle of expensive champagne. As comfortable in a barroom brawl as she was behind the podium at a charity event, she likened her spirit and tenacity to a modern Annie Oakley with the face of Olivia Wilde.

She wore her auburn hair pinned up with a neutral lipstick color to match her eye shadow and her clear-polish fingernails. She was armed with a letter of recommendation from her former FBI Unit Chief and some measure of influence with friends in high places, and nothing would stop her from advancing her career—except her own inhibitions about transferring to a unit with a reputation for chewing through agents like a German Maschinengewehr at close range—a unit run by a boss with the gravitas of an Arab prince and more clout than Hoover himself.

Don’t screw this up, she told herself, brushing a piece of lint from her blouse. Her watch read 1100, thirty minutes ahead of her scheduled interview time. An interview almost ten years in the making thanks to an archaic system geared more toward advancing the federal politics du jour than promoting worthy candidates from within the bureau ranks.

This morning, like most, she’d spent an hour in the gym and another hour primping her hair and makeup, including time to cover a pimple on her lower chin, a blemish she’d reminded herself not to touch during the interview with the boss she knew only by reputation. Hungry from skipping breakfast, she’d downed a cup of coffee at her office and checked her email before trekking downtown through morning rush hour to reach headquarters with time to spare.

She entered the women’s restroom and checked herself in the mirror. A small coffee stain marred her otherwise spotless jacket sleeve. Her C-cup breasts looked smaller since she’d lost ten pounds, molding her figure closer to the shape she’d strived to achieve. She dabbed the stain with a damp paper towel and left the restroom as prepared as she’d ever be without over-thinking her response to every standard bureau question about to be thrown at her.

“He’s ready for you, Agent Burns,” said a young administrative assistant poking her head above her cubicle.

“I’m early,” Burns replied, her stomach sloshing inside like a half-cooked omelet.

“The last door on the right.”

Agent Burns brushed her hand along her sleeve a second time—a nervous tick she’d inherited from her mother along with her pert nose and almond-shaped eyes the color of emerald green. Don’t blow this, she told herself, advancing with her chin up and her shoulders back. Her throat felt dry. Her heart pounded in her chest. She could fight hand-to-hand and kick down doors with the best of them, but when it came to job interviews, her poise slipped away like a loser on a one-night stand.

Breathe…

At the end of the hall, she knocked on the half-open door to the dark corner office with the shades pulled down, presumably to guard against the threat of sophisticated eavesdropping devices aimed at the windows.

“Take a seat,” Section Chief Charles Kriegel instructed his subordinate from behind a mahogany desk. He was wearing a dark wool suit with gold cuff links and a collar stiff enough to slide down. His forehead was fringed with thinning, silver hair, and he wore an American flag stickpin above his jacket pocket and a starched white shirt with a gold tie clip engraved with the U.S. Marine Corps emblem. Without looking up from the memo on his desk, he pressed the speakerphone button on his landline phone and entered his admin assistant’s extension.

“Chief Kriegel’s office…”

“Send all my calls to voice mail.”

“What if your ex-wife calls again?”

“Tell her I’m in the field.”

“Yes Sir.”

Agent Burns took a seat in the government-issue conference chair with bare metal arms and frayed upholstery, displayed in stark contrast to the opulent furnishings around her. In a room with darkened shades and a single, low-watt bulb inside a green desk lamp, she read the letters of commendation displayed prominently on the wall with a Marine Corps Sharp Shooter plaque and a polished FBI badge framed inside a rosewood box with glare-free glass. An Uncle Sam enlistment poster hung from the opposite wall beside an autographed photo of a candy apple red 427 Shelby Cobra complete with a Playboy model straddling the hood in a thong bikini and stilettos.

On the corner of Kriegel’s desk, a bottle of Viagra sat adjacent to a family portrait and a twenty-year service plaque with the name “Charles Kriegel” engraved in brass letters. A custom humidor sat behind the service plaque beside an FBI mug full of cheap pens. On the opposite wall, a poster of ground zero at the World Trade Center hung above an inch-thick roster made of fine parchment imprinted with the names of every man, woman, and child who’d perished in the towers on 9/11.

Kriegel scrawled a note on his memo pad and pushed the paper aside. He wore a black chronograph on his inside wrist and looked up at Agent Burns for the first time since she’d entered his domain. He held his stare without blinking, his Roman nose protruding from his face like a yacht’s bow pulpit. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m a little early.”

“Better than a little dead.”

“The letter I received from headquarters said to be here—”

“I know what the letter said. I sent it. Why are you here?”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s not a trick question.”

“I’m here for my interview, Sir.” Agent Burns cleared her throat and brushed her hand on her sleeve.

Kriegel checked his watch. “I assume you know how to tell time.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“And yet you’ve been waiting outside my office for more than forty-five minutes.”

“Traffic was light when I left home. I got here earlier than I expected.”

“So you assumed I wouldn’t mind adjusting my morning schedule to accommodate your early arrival?”

“Sir?”

“I like to read the paper on the shitter after I check my e-mail and delete my voice mail messages. I come in early to accommodate my schedule, Agent Burns, not yours.”

“If you’d like me to come back later—”

“What I’d like is for you to tell me why you’re here.”

Agent Burns shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She felt warm beneath her blouse. “It’s an honor to be here. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to work with your team.”

“Thrilled about what?”

“To join your team. I was told—”

“Do I look like an idiot, Agent Burns?”

“No Sir.”

“Burns, no one in their right mind is ever thrilled to work in a violent crimes unit. They get thrown in this cesspool because the job demands someone with their skills or because they sucked the wrong dick at headquarters. Now which was it for you?”

Agent Burns leaned forward in her chair. “Excuse me?”

“Did you pass your hearing test, Agent Burns?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Then tell me if you’re here because the job demands your skills or because you poked your mouth where it didn’t belong?”

“I have the skills,” Burns said hotly. “If you’d read my file—”

“I’ve seen your file, Agent Burns. You worked sex crimes as a vice cop with the Metropolitan Police before your brain fart about joining the FBI brought you here. By some aberration in the admissions process, you got accepted and made it through the training program. Since then, you’ve spent the last five years behind a desk investigating check fraud and various telemarketing schemes.”

“Among other crimes.”

Kriegel rolled his chair back and cracked the blinds. He opened the humidor lid and offered the contents to his visitor.

“This is a non-smoking facility.”

Kriegel removed a single stogie and sniffed the hand-rolled tobacco. He clipped the end with a cutter from his desk drawer. “This facility belongs to Uncle Sam, but this office belongs to me.” He lit the twenty-dollar Cohiba and blew several puffs of smoke, obviously enjoying the flavor of the Cuban cigar. “Get the door, would you?”

Agent Burns nudged the door closed.

Kriegel got up from his chair and settled himself on the edge of his desk, blowing smoke at Burns, who was trying to hold her breath. “So what makes you think you can handle violent crimes, aside from your recent experience in the art of washing checks and educating naïve senior citizens about the telltale signs of a telephone scam?”

Burns settled in for the good fight. “I finished the academy at the top of my class. I hold a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. I earned a distinguished service award for my efforts to bring down an illegal telemarketing scheme. And I can out-shoot any agent on your staff. Sir.”

“Very impressive—if we were hunting serial callers or trading shots at the O.K. Corral.”

“My work at the bureau has been exemplary. My performance evaluations reflect my professional achievements on the job.” Burns crossed her arms and rubbed her hands along her sleeves.

“So you like to break boards with your hands? That sort of shit?”

“If I have to.”

“How do you feel about breaking heads?”

“Sir?”

“Combat, Agent Burns. Boards don’t shoot back.”

“No, Sir.”

“Have you ever served your country?”

“Not in a military capacity. But my evaluations reflect my skills with—”

“Save it, Agent Burns. You sound like a politician.” Kriegel opened the personnel folder on his desk and flipped to the back. “You were also the youngest female promoted to Supervisory Special Agent in Racketeering Records Analysis. An advancement I’m sure you deserved.”

“With all due respect, I received my promotion because I earned it. Nothing was handed to me. I’ve had to study twice as long and work three times as hard to earn the same respect lavished on my peers, some of whom couldn’t hit a barn with a bazooka or run three miles without collapsing from cardiac arrest. I studied pre-law at George Washington and finished three semesters of law school at American University before I joined the Metropolitan Police.”

Kriegel blew smoke. “Why did you quit law school?”

“I didn’t quit,” Burns corrected. She avoided Kriegel’s stare. “I dropped out for personal reasons.”

“Which were?”

“Personal.”

“Your file indicates no one in your immediate family ever served in law enforcement or the military for that matter.” Kriegel rubbed his tongue on the roof of his mouth. He returned to his chair and swept his gaze at the front of her blouse. “So what in God’s name propelled you to pursue a career in law enforcement?”

“I felt a calling.”

“A calling? Burns, people find a calling to join the church or to squat and pee with the tree-hugging liberals in the Peace Corps. No one finds the urge to put themselves in harm’s way, much less drop out of law school twelve weeks from graduation to join the local PD and work vice. It doesn’t add up.”

Agent Burns rolled her shoulders. She crossed her legs, then uncrossed them again. “You mean for a woman?”

“Don’t put words in my mouth, Agent Burns. I run a tight ship. I don’t give a rat’s ass if you’re a man, a woman, or something in between. I need agents I can trust in the field. Period.”

“I was an only child. I fell into law enforcement because my interests led me there.”

Kriegel blew smoke from the corner of his mouth, touching his thumb and index finger around the nub of his cigar. “Nice story, but you still haven’t told me why you asked to be transferred here.”

Agent Burns inhaled through her mouth to avoid the smell from the burning cigar. At a minimum, she would leave Kriegel’s office with a headache and clothes that reeked of smoke. “I didn’t join the bureau to ride a desk and shuffle paperwork for a living.”

“Bullshit.” Kriegel leaned back in his chair. “For a former vice cop, you make a lousy liar.” He smirked at Burns. “Tell me why you left the local PD to join the bureau. And don’t sugar-coat it this time.”

Agent Burns cleared her throat. She hated the smell of cigar smoke almost as much as she hated Kriegel. “I was tired of serving justice in fishnet stockings and leather miniskirts. I was tired of working in a cesspool, to use your words. I wanted people to know I had a brain above my tits and ass.” She watched Kriegel eyeballing her, intently, like a tiger stalking its prey, unflinching in the moment before the attack. For the first time since she’d entered the Hoover Building, she wished she’d never landed the interview.

“Is there something on your mind, Agent Burns?”

“Yes, Sir.” She took a second to collect her thoughts before she asked her next question. “Why did you invite me here? A hundred senior agents applied for this position. Most have a military background and more time in the field. Why give me a second glance?”

Kriegel bit into his cigar and blew smoke through pursed lips. “Maybe I see something in you I don’t see in other agents. Half the women in this bureau were hired to fill a quota. Half the men signed up for the hard-on they get every time they flash their badge and gun. I’m not looking for average talent, Agent Burns. The bureau’s full of mediocrity. I need someone with their shit squared away. Someone who’s not afraid to kick ass and take names later, within the boundaries of the law. I like you Burns. You’re single without any dependents to support. You’re devoted to this organization. And you can hold your own in a fight. This job is yours if you want it.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard what I said.”

“Yes Sir. It’s just—”

“Do you want it or not?”

“I want it,” Burns announced enthusiastically, if not somewhat surprised by how quickly the words shot out of her mouth.

Kriegel pulled the blinds and opened his office window to flick his cigar at the street below. “Then congratulations, Agent Burns. And welcome to my team.” He retrieved a .40 caliber Glock 23 from the floor safe. He holstered the loaded weapon at his waist and grabbed his rain coat from behind the door. “Now let me lay down some ground rules,” he said, pushing his arms through the sleeves. “If you want your career to keep making forward progress, you’ll follow my lead, no questions asked. Understood?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“You’ll report directly to me until I find a replacement unit chief I can trust to lead a second team.”

Burns followed him to the hallway outside the office, a little queasy from a tinge of buyer’s remorse at accepting an offer from an infamous section chief with impossibly high standards and questionable morals. “Yes, Sir.”

“This is my show, Agent Burns. My team. No one picks their nose or takes a dump without me knowing about it. Keep your personal shit personal and your work life at work. Distractions will get you killed faster than you can ask, ‘What happened?’ Keep your head in the game and we’ll do great things for God and country.”

Burns feigned a smile, mumbling a less than enthusiastic, “I won’t let you down.”

“Good. Your transfer is effective immediately.”

“Now?”

“Is there a problem with that?

“No, but my paperwork—”

“Fuck the paperwork. We’ve got a bank robbery to investigate.”

Burns followed Kriegel to the elevator, matching his pace stride for stride. “Bank robbery? I thought we dealt with violent crimes?”

Kriegel pressed the down button. “If you don’t think armed robbery is violent, you’ve got a lot to learn.”

In the basement garage, Kriegel started the government issue Chevy Impala SS and gunned the engine. Before Agent Burns could secure her seatbelt, he dropped the transmission in drive and peeled away.

Burns grabbed the handle above the passenger window. “Respect. I want respect. That’s the real reason I applied for the transfer to violent crimes.”

Kriegel squealed the tires as he turned into downtown traffic. “I know,” he said, cutting across two lanes without checking his mirrors first. “I just wanted to hear you say it.”

* * *

Burns ducked under the yellow crime scene tape outside the Chase Bank. The smell of stale cigar smoke lingered on her person. “Shouldn’t someone more qualified be assisting with this?” she asked Kriegel who advanced inside the bank lobby.

“That’s why I’m here.”

Burns blew a strand of hair away from her face. She’d served a short stint assisting her robbery/homicide division on the Metropolitan Police Department, a very short stint that had ended abruptly when her first case involved the rape and murder of a former vice cop. Aside from textbook training with the MPD and a broad-brush overview at the FBI academy, she had zero practical experience in armed robbery investigations. “Isolate, contain, negotiate,” she recited to her new supervisor with confidence.

Kriegel rolled his eyes. “This isn’t a hostage situation, Burns. Start asking better questions or start asking for another transfer.”

“When did the robbery occur?”

“This morning.”

Burns stepped over shotgun shell casings circled on the floor with red pen and observed the damaged video surveillance camera suspended by a single wire from the ceiling. “Any witnesses?”

“No one useful. This bank robbery is number six in two months. Same MO. Two-man job. One enters with a gas mask and drops a flash grenade. The driver waits outside.”

“Anyone on duty?”

“A rent-a-cop. He’s been admitted to Walter Reed. Poor bastard never saw it coming. Something in the smoke incapacitated him while our perp helped himself to the cash.”

“Are you assuming the perpetrator is male?”

“Statistically, I’d bet on it. Several bank employees pegged him at around six feet. Heavyset. Male voice.”

“Anyone get a look at his face?”

“Not with the gas mask on. We get the same description every time. Big guy with a gas mask and a shotgun.” Kriegel chewed his lower lip. “So far, the banks have all been hit at different times of day.”

Burns scribbled on her memo pad. “Who’s involved at the local end?”

“Arlington PD. But they’re chasing their tails.”

“What about the getaway vehicle?”

“We recovered a delivery van, or what’s left of it. The local PD found the van in an underground garage, along with a burned-up body.”

“One of our perps?”

“Don’t know. We haven’t got a positive ID yet.”

“Any lead on the van itself?”

“We traced the VIN number to a local flower shop. The owner’s clean. Reported the van stolen two days ago.”

Burns flipped the page. “Assuming the DOA was one of our robbers, what do we know about the perp that got away?”

Kriegel stepped toward the teller’s entrance and observed the powder burns from the close-range blast. “An officer said he saw someone running toward a stairwell entrance in the underground garage.”

“Did he get a look at him?”

“Dark hair, dark skin, thin build, late thirties, early forties.”

Burns looked up from her notepad and shook her head. She scratched her nose with the end of her pen. “Who’s our local point of contact? I’d like to know what their crime scene guys come up with.”

“So far, not much. I’ll have our guys go over the van again.”

Burns walked over to the open vault. “Was this open when we got here?”

“The perps never touch the safe.”

“Why not?”

Kriegel took an airline envelope from his coat pocket and handed a ticket to Burns. “That’s what I want you to find out. You leave for Miami tonight.”

“What’s in Miami?”

“Jim McLeary.” Kriegel pulled off his latex gloves and escorted Burns outside. “McLeary’s an expert in latent prints, among other things.”

“What’s his assignment in Miami?”

“Indefinite leave without pay.”

Burns tucked her notepad in her pocket. “I don’t follow you.”

“McLeary redefines the word special in Special Agent. Internal Affairs has had him under their thumb for months.”

“What for?”

“Stealing confiscated drug money.”

“When?”

“A few years back. A joint task force raid with the DEA netted twenty kilos of uncut cocaine and several hundred thousand dollars in cash. The bureau suspected McLeary’s involvement with a member of the Gonsalez Cartel but couldn’t make the charges stick.”

“Sounds like a rotten apple.”

“McLeary is a recluse. Hasn’t been the same man since his wife left him ten years ago. His own kids don’t speak to him anymore.” Kriegel took his phone from his jacket pocket and walked Burns back to the car. “I pulled his file for you. I suggest you look it over on the plane.”

Burns opened her door. “Of all the bureau resources in your command, why reach out to him?”

“Read the file, Burns.”

“I don’t understand.”

Kriegel waved his hands in front of Burns, pantomiming his frustration. “I don’t like wheat germ on my cereal but my doctor says I need more fiber to produce a decent shit. I’m not a fan of Jim McLeary, but we need him on this investigation.”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Grey clouds lingered above the sea of vehicles trapped in the abysmal morning traffic outside the bustling Rosslyn Metro Station along North Moore Street west of the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia. A block away, a stolen floral delivery van went unnoticed in the rush hour chaos as it eased into a metered parking space behind a late model Taurus parked along Wilson Boulevard with a “Baby on Board” sign in the window and a faded Grateful Dead sticker on the bumper.

The lanky van driver with a light brown complexion, jet-black hair, and a cobra-shaped face smothered in three-day whiskers killed the engine. Close enough to view the entrance to the Chase Bank, yet far enough to avoid suspicion, he opened a sliding partition and moved to the back of the van to join a member of the Aryan Brotherhood dressed in jeans and a black muscle shirt with a gas mask over his face.

Centered inside a rack of portable electronic equipment, an image of a human hand appeared on a flat screen monitor, palm out with each fingertip highlighted in red. The image rotated ninety degrees while the software impregnated each fingertip with unique loop and whorl patterns.

The Aryan member followed the virtual hand with his eyes. He loaded twelve-gauge shells in a sawed-off Remington while the driver removed a ventilated hood from a portable manufacturing device to reveal a translucent rubber glove with the same elasticity and fingerprint ridges of human skin.

* * *

Inside the Chase Bank, an armed security guard with silver hair and patent leather shoes manned his post near the entrance. Standing beneath a video surveillance camera focused on the bank’s revolving door, he faced the clock on the wall above the teller stations, where sheets of bullet-resistant glass separated the employees from the general public. He endured the pain in his right heel while he watched the second hand tick past the twelve o’clock hour. The burning sensation in his foot served a nagging reminder of the treatment his dermatologist had applied the day before. After decades of good health and bad, he’d now developed a plantar wart and experienced the searing heat from liquid nitrogen applied at minus two-hundred degrees Celsius. Not as bad as getting shot he surmised, but worse than stepping on a rusty nail.

He turned his head when a patron stepped through the revolving door: a waitress in a grungy uniform with a baby asleep on her shoulder. Seeing the infant reminded him of how young his own children were before they set out to conquer the world and left his wife on her own with no one to care for but herself and an aging husband with a bad back.

He watched the woman approach the teller station as a steady flow of morning customers arrived, including a biker in leather chaps who wore a Harley Davidson jacket with a POW/MIA patch stitched on the sleeve.

With three hours and twenty-eight minutes to go before lunch, the guard thought about his bowling league on Thursday night and how the guys would react when he told them he couldn’t play on account of his bad foot. They’d call him a slackass and torture him with endless jokes about getting old. Some insults he deserved on account of his frugal spending habits; others he could live without. Especially the jokes about his wife and how his friends would “take care of her” when he finally kicked the bucket. On account of his previous bout with prostate cancer, he never took kindly to jokes about his health or his early demise, no matter how well-intentioned the humor was meant to be. There was plenty in life to make fun of without blurring the line between amusing and insulting.

When a text message beeped on his phone, he pictured his wife in the kitchen scrawling out another “to do” list, which prompted her to contact him immediately about some inane chore she’d neglected to mention the night before—usually something involving a ladder or a trip to Home Depot to buy a tool he didn’t have or a new piece of yard décor he didn’t need.

He checked the message, squinting at the unknown number as the bank’s revolving door spun inside its cylindrical enclosure with a whoooshhh of air.

A small metal canister bounced in his peripheral vision and rolled toward the center of the bank lobby. A deafening boom shocked his eardrums. Then the room filled with thick, black smoke.

Stunned momentarily by the flash-bang grenade, he reached for his service revolver only to succumb to the noxious gas stinging his eyes. He fell to his knees faster than it took him to realize the bank was being robbed.

* * *

The man in the gas mask entered silently, his actions deliberate as he panned the shotgun in the open lobby.

He aimed the muzzle at the surveillance camera and squeezed the trigger, pulverizing the live feed connection to the video recorder. Another shotgun blast blew the cipher lock through the teller door, leaving a large splintered cavity in the wood.

The gunman charged toward the back where several employees huddled on the floor, choking on the potent fumes permeating the enclosed space. “Stay down and face the floor,” he barked inside the mask, filtering the adulterated air through a single activated carbon canister. “Or your day is going to get a lot worse from here.” He eyed the cash in the teller drawers and stuffed handfuls of currency in a black duffel bag, moving quickly from station to station until he emptied every drawer.

Outside the building, he pulled his gas mask off and entered the delivery van from the back. “Let’s go!” he hollered at his accomplice behind the wheel.

The van lurched away from the curb.

“You’re late,” said the driver with the cobra-shaped face, who spoke with a Middle Eastern accent. He glanced over his shoulder to see the duffel bag on the floor behind him. His head swiveled back and forth between the view of the road ahead and the view from his side-view mirror, reflecting a convoy of Arlington Police vehicles weaving through traffic in the opposite direction.

“We’ve got a tail,” said the driver when an unmarked Crown Victoria broke away from the pack and pulled a U-turn across the median. He glanced at the portable GPS. One eye focused on the small screen; the other remained stationary in its socket, more mechanical than human.

The gunman braced himself against a built-in shelf inside the van with one hand clasped firmly on the checkered shotgun stock. With his footing secured and his balance on center, he swung the rear doors open and fired three times at the Crown Victoria, striking the officer behind the unmarked cruiser’s shattered windshield.

The out-of-control cruiser plowed sideways toward a crowd of pedestrians like a runaway train, the engine revving and tires screeching from the violent G-force derived from four thousand pounds of gross vehicle weight in motion. The sickening crack of broken bones immediately preceded the grotesque acrobatics of hapless spectators cartwheeling through the air at the moment of impact, smashing café tables and a storefront display outside a coffee shop.

The van continued along North Fort Myer toward Wilson Boulevard and barreled through a red light intersection, prompting a multiple-car collision in its wake.

The gunman closed the rear doors as the van sped down a one-way street, clipping a row of metal trash cans before turning toward a construction zone marked with orange cones.

A second squad car in pursuit fired at the van, shattering the passenger window before the rookie officer lost control of his vehicle and slammed into the back of a newspaper delivery truck.

The gunman pumped the shotgun, ejecting a spent shell from the smoking chamber. “Faster!”

The van accelerated along a stretch of Arlington Boulevard, dodging westbound traffic heading out of the city before it veered toward the Queen Street exit. The driver followed the programmed route to an alley and swerved to avoid a forklift backing out from a driveway entrance. The sudden redirection threw the gunman to the floor, prompting an accidental discharge and a cavernous hole in the side of the van.

The gunman scrambled to his feet and leaned the shotgun out the passenger window to fire successive volleys at the fleet of Arlington Police cars closing fast. Crouching to avoid return fire, he quickly loaded new shells and blasted the driver’s window closest to him, shredding a patrolman’s face and sending the patrol car flipping end over end in a twisted mass of crumpled steel and shattered glass.

The van continued through another intersection before skidding around a sharp turn and proceeding several blocks to a private underground garage with a seven foot clearance. The van entered the parking structure and ventured behind a row of parked cars, away from the nearest fire sprinkler and out of view from the entrance.

The driver cut the lights and killed the engine.

Police cars splintered off to search the side streets.

Inside the van, the gunman pumped the shotgun to eject the last spent shell from the chamber. Propellant residue covered his arms. A deep laceration on the back of his hand dripped blood on the metal floor. He touched his hand to his mouth and licked it.

The driver jumped out. “We’re late.”

“We’ll make it up,” the gunman stated, pulling his shirt over his head. He stripped down to his socks and underwear and tossed the blood-stained clothes in a pile.

The driver added his shirt and pants before he donned a change of clothes. He squirted lighter fluid on the pile of potential evidence and ignited the tainted garments in a ball of fire. Black smoke rose to the concrete ceiling.

The gunman unloaded equipment from the van, dropping the money bag where he could see it. He took the lighter fluid from the driver and doused the van’s interior, directing the flames from the burning clothes to the stream of flammable liquid. “I’ll take the cash with me,” the gunman insisted. “We’ll meet up in an hour.”

“That wasn’t the plan.”

“The plan has changed,” said the gunman.

“How do I know I can trust you?” the driver asked, discretely shielding himself behind a concrete pillar with a remote detonator in his hand.

Unwittingly, the gunman grabbed a duplicate money bag full of wadded paper. “You don’t,” he said, unzipping the bag to inspect the contents, an instant before a massive explosion tore through the van, engulfing him in flames.

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 1

Enemy Among Us

Special Agent Jim McLeary endures a gauntlet of double-agents,

covert operatives, and a guilty conscience to prevent an elusive

enemy from unleashing a silent weapon of mass destruction.

“I say to our enemies: We are coming. God may show you mercy. We will not.”

Senator John McCain, September 12, 2001

Chapter 1

December 1 through December 5

Special Agent Jim McLeary sat alone aboard a forty-seven foot trawler docked in a private slip near the back of a secluded Miami marina. Beside him, a tiny fan buzzed inside a slide projector at the edge of a folding table cluttered with bullets and loose change. He held a cheap flip phone in one hand and a .45 caliber Kimber with a satin silver finish in the other, staring through bloodshot eyes at the lighted image of his wife and twin sons cast through the projector lens toward a free-standing screen.

He was a month shy of fifty. His six-foot frame with broad shoulders, slender waist, and a thickset chest disguised the fragile persona hiding in refuge behind the cobalt blue eyes of a man who’d seen his life come undone in a series of bad decisions and misguided efforts to resolve them. Ravaged by the cumulative effects of an FBI career spanning more than twenty years, Jim McLeary had traveled to the dark side and back, confronting hardened criminals from all walks of life. Outside the FBI, he’d learned to cope with his share of problems, and for the most part, he’d embraced a day-to-day existence he neither loved nor loathed but had learned to accept for what it was.

He pressed the carousel projector’s slide-advance button and watched the specter of his twin sons fast-forward ten years from a preschool picnic to a summer swim tournament in a crowded Virginia suburb. Blessed with their mother’s angelic face and radiant smile, his fraternal sons had worn a badge of unstoppable determination, unyielding in their quest to win their respective heats and earn their father’s admiration.

The slide’s time stamp read 1995, a chapter in the life of Jim McLeary etched with emotional scars; a time governed by a call to duty from a belligerent unit chief—and a wife who’d abandoned him.

He rubbed the stubble on his chiseled jaw with the gun’s front serrations on the black matte slide, inhaling the odor of light machine oil impregnated in the carbon pores.

He placed the flip phone on the table and reached for the metal trash can heaped with newspaper clippings, unsolicited IRS correspondence, and a rumpled copy of the King James Bible. He pushed the Bible aside and retrieved a yellow sticky pad with a note scrawled in pen beneath an unlisted phone number for Seth and Brian McLeary. He tore the ragged square of paper and crumpled it in his hand. Then he stood up, snatched the phone, and sat down. An act of indecision he’d repeated twice before, pacing with the gun in one hand and the phone in the other.

The past was history, the present uncertain, and his future up for grabs when his stronger half convinced himself to open the mangled note and dial the stupid number.

The line rang several times before he heard a prerecorded message from a voice he likened to his own. He tried to speak, but the words sank in a trough of emotional quicksand. Despite the countless rehearsals and the steadfast determination to make a positive change in his life, he froze in his own mental torpor and hung up.

He tossed the phone on a sofa cushion and advanced the slide projector until the last photo of his sons passed across the lens, followed by a sheet of white light that blanketed the screen, depicting what remained of his life from the sequence of historic images stacked neatly inside a rotating tray.

Disillusioned, yet sober in his humble surroundings, he pinched a single bullet from the clutter of .45 caliber cartridges on the folding table. He pressed the fat, copper round in the empty chamber and closed the match-grade slide on the five-inch barrel with a left-hand twist. He held his life in his own hands, a power he both revered and feared. Despite his shortcomings, he’d done what he could for his boys, finding solace in the notion his sons would thrive without him.

Alone in his thoughts, he had a decision to make, perhaps the last decision he would ever contemplate. For what he’d failed to accomplish as a father, met with equal downfall in his marriage and career. Wracked with guilt and the ensuing doldrums from a life of solitude and lost resolve, he sought refuge the only way he knew how. In his mind, the scales of indignity and hope teetered back and forth, rising and falling with the slow, methodic rhythm of a large vessel’s wake rolling through the low-rent marina.

He squeezed his hand around the gun’s rosewood grip, his fingers pressed against the double diamond texture. He cocked the hammer and brought the loaded weapon to his head, squaring the Lasergrip sights at his temple. For the third time in two days, he crept closer to the rim of a rocky ledge, staring down at the cavernous void, prepared to take his final step from a life he would surrender in a violent discharge of expanding gas behind a two-hundred and thirty grain bullet capable of shattering his skull like a porcelain vase.

With his free hand, he slid a quarter off the table and sat upright, shoulders back, chest out—his right index finger resting on the gun’s four-pound trigger.

He flicked the quarter with his thumb, launching the coin into the air, where it wobbled in a shallow arc before clanging off the teak-wood floor by his feet, bouncing and spinning until it settled on George Washington’s head.

What Jim McLeary failed to decide on his own, fate had chosen for him.

The 4Cs of a Meaningful and Lasting Romance: Q&A and Final Thoughts

Q & A

  • What are core values, and why are they significant to a meaningful and lasting romance?

Core values represent basic morals we should strive to achieve for ourselves and our romantic relationships. I believe we should all strive for, at a minimum, the core values of trust, honesty, respect, kindness, reassurance, and humor. These values apply to our everyday lives as well as our romantic relationships and set the tone for how we interact with one another.

  • What are some fundamental needs and desires we all share in common, and why are these so important?

Maslow wrote the quintessential book on the hierarchy of human needs, but beyond our basic human needs for survival, we all share the need to feel loved, to be accepted for who we are, and to be treated with decency and respect. Either knowingly or unknowingly, we carry additional needs and desires into our romantic relationships. These needs and desires must be met for our relationship to prosper. Some fundamental interpersonal needs most of us cannot live well without include needs for intimacy, health, time, independence, hope, bliss, sex, and faith.

  • Why do some romantic relationships look so easy while others become the poster child for dysfunctional behavior?

Whether they recognize and embrace the 4Cs intentionally or not, couples who approach their romantic relationship with chemistry, communication, compromise, and commitment in mind, stand a better chance of attaining a lasting and meaningful romance.

  • Why do some romantic relationships begin with a flurry of passion and end quickly, while others start slowly and diminish over time?

The ability to sustain a romantic relationship begins with defining our needs and desires. These are easy to overlook or dismiss in the beginning of a new relationship, particularly during the infatuation stage. Red hot chemistry can launch fireworks in a new relationship by satisfying a high priority need for passion. But when other important, and often times unrealized needs go unmet, the relationship suffers. No long-term relationship has immunity from conflict, monotony, withdrawal, miscommunication, and a host of other challenges couples face. Whether your relationship begins with red hot romance or as long-time friends first, you won’t sustain the relationship without respecting, accepting, and understanding each other’s needs. Moreover, it’s not enough to assume love will sustain a romantic relationship simply because we feel love in our hearts for someone. We have to show we appreciate one another through our words and actions. Fundamentally, when our needs are met—and appreciation is a big one—everything falls into place. When our needs go unmet, however, everything falls apart.

  • Are romance and sex mutually exclusive, and what does it take to shine in both?

From a woman’s perspective, romance introduces the desire for sex. From a man’s perspective, sex drives his desire for romance, though not all men will share the same desire for romance in their relationship the same way not all women hold equal longing for sex. In some ways, romance and sex are mutually exclusive. In other ways, they intertwine themselves as complements of one another. Sex is easy. Romance takes work. When healthy romance persists in a relationship, the sex takes care of itself. Conversely, without sex, romance will wither on the vine. For both genders, sex and romance thrive when our highest priority needs are met.

  • How does new technology help and hinder our romantic relationships?

Modern technology provides tools we can use to either impede or improve our communication skills. Technology will always exist and evolve as time goes on. Our ability to effectively communicate our needs and desires will always impact the success of our romantic relationships—independent of any given technology. That said, numerous ways exist to propagate our feelings through verbal and nonverbal communication. The onus falls on each of us to use technology for the benefit of our relationships and not their detriment. We must work to use technology as a supplement, not a replacement, for face-to-face communication. Technology can bring us closer when we’re geographically apart; it can also increase our emotional distance if we allow technology to replace our basic human capacity to communicate through more traditional means. Technology will always be a transport vehicle for communication and nothing more. Technology, no matter how sophisticated or well-deployed, will never replace the critical nature of human emotion. And technology will never substitute for good character, good listening skills, empathy, acknowledgement, and the desire to better understand one another.

  • Is online dating just a digital meat market, or could our soulmates exist in cyberspace?

More than a passing fad, the concept of online dating has forever altered the dating landscape by allowing single adults the opportunity to comingle with the opposite sex from the comfort of their own home. With online dating, much of the standard dating etiquette remains the same, but lots of pros and cons abound. Though not for everyone, online dating offers a viable alternative to more traditional dating means, and by all accounts, will continue to flourish for years to come. Have people met their soulmates through online dating services? Some married couples would offer an emphatic “Yes!” Others would disagree. Like any dating forum, your success is driven largely by your attitude and the effort you’re willing to put forth.

  • How can we handle some of the most daunting compromises romantic relationships face?

For some of us, compromise is a lot like giving the cat a bath: neither party enjoys the process; we shield ourselves when the claws come out; and we’re glad to be done when it’s over. Treat compromise like a puzzle. Start by laying out the pieces so you can see them and decide together what makes the most sense to go where. Compromise can’t happen in a cone of silence. It takes a willingness of both partners to communicate, and sacrifice to some extent, for the benefit of their relationship.

  • Why do we fear commitment, and what can we do to build commitment in our romantic relationships?

Our fear of commitment derives from many issues, real and perceived, including the fear of betrayal, rejection, conflict, vulnerability, technology, loss of freedom, and more. In a general sense, our fear of commitment originates from a fear of losing our independence, of reliving past mistakes and trying to pound a square peg in a round hole by forcing ourselves to accept unrealistic expectations with a partner who fails to meet our needs. With a better understanding of our commitment fears, we can turn our attention to building commitment by spending time together, establishing boundaries, maintaining emotional and physical intimacy, and working to keep the lines of communication open.

Final Thoughts

I conclude where I began, by emphasizing the importance of acknowledging our core values and defining our most significant personal needs and desires. If we don’t know what we’re looking for, how will we know when we find it?

When I started this book, I wanted to write something profound—a revolutionary treatise on romantic relationships and what makes them tick. But after years of research and endless hours combing the dying embers of my previous relationships, I arrived at an obvious truth: the power of love, intimacy, and a meaningful and lasting romance exists not in words but in actions. In many ways, we have the power to control our thoughts, our behaviors, and our emotions. We like to think we have the power to control the forces that shape our lives, but in reality, the process of finding true love invokes more trial and error than divine intervention. Only when we learn to accept ourselves for who we are, to identify our own needs and desires, can we begin to build the foundation for a meaningful and lasting romance.

At one time or another, most of us have experienced meaningful, yet short-lived, relationships as well as lasting relationships we deemed woefully insufficient to meet our needs. Fundamentally, a meaningful and lasting romance involves less of what we want and don’t have, and is more about recognizing what we have while we discover the things we never knew we wanted in the first place.

As an accomplished engineer, I’ve tried to project logic and reasoning onto the notion of love. But logic rarely applies to love. For love, like chemistry, either exists or not. Love defines faith, compassion, and understanding. Love is wider than the grand canyon and more powerful than a tsunami. Romantic relationships represent complex systems, but unlike a machine’s finite capacity to function, humans maintain a limitless capacity to love.

I’ve done my best to present a variety of relevant concepts as accurately and indiscriminately as I can from both gender perspectives. I’ve also approached the topic of romantic relationships without regard to race, ethnicity, or cultural differences. No doubt, variables exist across geographic and ancestral boundaries, subtleties in the way different cultures view romantic relations. With this in mind, I resigned myself to make some educated generalizations based on my belief about the indiscriminant nature of love. Chemistry, communication, compromise, and commitment will always be intrinsic properties of a meaningful and lasting romance regardless of race, ethnicity, and cultural norms.

The 4Cs as I’ve described them in this book are both simple and complex in terms of how they relate to human nature and gender differences. The 4Cs are not a recipe for finding true love or a quick fix to a bad relationship. Instead, they represent the pillars of a meaningful and lasting romance supported by our foundation of core values. And when outside influences beyond our control threaten our romantic relationships, the aggregate power of chemistry, communication, compromise, and commitment helps us avoid the rocky shoals. The 4Cs are not absolute, but rather, a quartet of commonsense guidelines most people are familiar with—yet often fail to act upon. Just as no one grows up dreaming about divorce, few grow up eager to learn what it takes to make a meaningful and lasting romance work—or how to understand and appreciate the differences between our respective gender needs. Perhaps they should.

So where does this leave you? That depends on where you are in your romantic relationship and where you’re trying to go. Our lives are governed by our past experiences, which influence our state of physical and emotional health as well as our relationships with our children, former spouses, friends, and family. Each of us brings certain fears, doubts, and insecurities to our romantic relationships. Timing, geography, and logistics also add to the mix, as romantic relationships remain dynamic, evolving, and seldom propelled by logic or reason. If you remember nothing else, remember to keep smiling and maintain a positive attitude about life in general. Studies show that smiling, even when we don’t feel like it, directly influences other people’s attitudes and how they respond to us. Look inward and decide for yourself the things most important to you. Our lives are what we make of them. The same can be said for a meaningful and lasting romance.

Better to be who you are, faults and all, than pretend to be someone you’re not. You can’t expect to have a good love life if you don’t have a good life to begin with. Or, in Doctor Phil’s words, “In relationships, just as in every other aspect of life, the spirit and attitude with which you do things is at least as important as your actual actions. Embrace and incorporate these powerful values, and you will start living with more integrity, honesty, compassion and enthusiasm. This, in turn, will breathe new life into your relationship.”

A romantic relationship embodies a living, breathing union fueled by love and affection—and not immune to complacency, boredom, or a latent desire to want what we can’t have. Like all complex systems, romantic relationships require periodic maintenance, which in turn requires the necessary tools to achieve said maintenance. Let the 4Cs be your tools to heighten your romantic relationship.

I assure you, happily-ever-after does exist, but don’t spend your life chasing perfection. Love yourself. Love your partner. Make a priority of understanding each other’s needs and desires. Be flexible. Be persistent. And most of all, be open to new ideas. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re looking for until we lay our eyes and our hearts upon it. If you’re still single and actively searching for “the one,” don’t make the mistake of becoming self-absorbed or indoctrinated in your own beliefs of what a romantic relationship should be. Challenge yourself to break the mold and take a chance on something new with someone not your type. Make your relationship a high priority need. Let go of preconceived notions of how a romantic relationship should progress. No two people are alike and no two relationships are alike. Trust your instincts. If something isn’t working, then follow your intuition. A meaningful romance should be fun and effortless in the beginning, not a burden. According to authors Hendrix and LaKelly, a healthy romantic relationship evolves when “two people gradually transition from moving within a single orbit to moving in two separate, but overlapping orbits. They are able to have their own friends, their own interests, their own schedules, their own opinions, feelings, and thoughts, while still enjoying and preferring each other’s company.”

Achievements toward a healthy relationship require the sum of small efforts. Commit to one another. Use active listening skills. Engage one another. Respect one other. Work to resolve conflicts constructively. Be less judgmental and more open and honest. Don’t rely on someone else to make you happy. Strive to see things from the other person’s perspective.

Within this book, I’ve used words to characterize the 4Cs of chemistry, communication, compromise, and commitment as I see them. These requisite elements of a meaningful and lasting romance do not simply live on paper. They live and thrive within our hearts. For therein lies our passion for acceptance, companionship, and love. Whether you agree with my philosophy or not, I challenge you to examine your past and present romantic relationships to discover if chemistry, communication, compromise, and commitment persist. In the words of the late American mythologist, writer, and lecturer Joseph Campbell, “Love is friendship set to music.” Let the 4Cs become the lyrics upon which your own love song is built.

The 4Cs embody an amalgam of physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual attributes. To explore these qualities in totality—to understand precisely how and why we persist in romantic relationships with one another would require a lifelong endeavor and fill a skyscraper with paper. Just as no individual is privy to all mysteries of the universe, no one book can possess all the answers. Nonetheless, I sincerely hope The 4Cs of a Meaningful and Lasting Romance has not only opened your mind to new ideas, but opened your heart as well. For the answers we seek to the subtle complexities of human nature and romantic relationships exist not within the pages of endless study, but within ourselves. The epitome of a meaningful and lasting romance isn’t governed by mathematical axioms, the laws of physics, or psychological supposition. Our capacity to love and be loved remains as vast and mysterious as the cosmos itself—an endless expanse of unfathomable grandeur waiting to be explored. Or as Mark Twain wrote, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Ultimately, the path to a meaningful and lasting romance involves a journey of two souls. I encourage you to use the principles I’ve outlined within these pages and define your own journey together. If you’re single, don’t settle for someone you can live with. Look for someone you can’t live without! For whatever path life takes you on, be passionate about your pursuits. Appreciate every moment you enjoy alone or share together because life doesn’t come with an extended warranty. Or as someone once said, “Life isn’t about finding shelter in the storm. It’s learning to dance in the rain.”

The 4Cs of a Meaningful and Lasting Romance: Chapter 6.4: The Act of Commitment

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.

Establish Boundaries

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.”

Continuing Education

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.

The 4Cs of a Meaningful and Lasting Romance: Chapter 6.3: The Act of Commitment

Marriage: The Ultimate Commitment?

Despite decades of research and popular opinion endorsing marriage as the ultimate commitment, I find this belief somewhat paradoxical. How can marriage be the ultimate commitment and the U.S. divorce rate continue to be the highest of any developed nation? Marriage implies the ultimate consummation of romantic love, but marriage itself does not create or sustain romantic love. Furthermore, lots of married couples are strongly committed to one another but not necessarily satisfied with their relationship. As Dr. Nathaniel Branden, a pioneer author in self-esteem, personal transformation, and male/female relationships wrote, “Many Americans are so committed to the ideal of happiness in marriage, that they are willing to resign themselves to a life of suffering.”

Perhaps more importantly than defining what commitment means to marriage, we should focus on what commitment means to each other and our relationship as we define it through the institution of marriage. For some couples, this might imply a more traditional commitment between husband and wife where both remain physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually committed to their marriage. Other couples, who define their long term relationship or marriage through what I call “polygamous commitment,” may choose to remain emotionally committed to one another but physically available to multiple partners. I’m not advocating one form of commitment over another. I’m simply stating that couples in a healthy marriage should define what commitment means for them and the lifestyle they’ve chosen.

I was married in 1998 in a small church in Maryland surrounded by family and friends on both sides of myself and my bride. At that time, I vowed to love, honor, and cherish per the script I recited with the reverend who presided over our marriage ceremony. I took my vows with sincerity in my heart, but honestly, at twenty-eight, I lacked appreciation for the significance of marital vows. I understood them intellectually, but not so much emotionally or spiritually. More than fifteen years later, I look back and wish I’d read a Marriage for Dummies book. One that went beyond a marriage preparation course and offered a more modern version of “marriage training” to tackle contemporary as well as traditional issues couples inevitably encounter; one that encourages couples to discuss their feelings on romance and sex, the five love languages, and of course, the importance of defining needs and desires. For many couples, this type of information might be intuitive; for others, not so much. Couples who decide to marry should discuss common issues likely to arise in marriage and when these issues are likely to surface along a couple’s journey together. Difficulties with work-related stress, parenthood, differences in religious beliefs, balancing commitments outside of marriage, and so forth. To address certain topics requires knowledge we have not yet found and wisdom we have yet to gain when we’re young and in love. Marriage encompasses more than social survival and a safe harbor from dating roulette. It represents a time-honored commitment to one another anchored by our vows to love, honor, and cherish one another. Perhaps this all sounds too quixotic. Few people wish to talk about the tough compromises before the issues evolve into larger problems and add undue stress to the relationship. Why examine things today when we can push them off until tomorrow? Why see things for what they are when we can pretend they’re something else?

We all have options in our lives. We can follow the same beaten path, blindly stumbling into familiar obstacles we tell ourselves to avoid with alarming regularity. Or, we can go with door number two and heed some honest advice to help improve our situation, or at the very least, minimize the emotional damage we might inflict on ourselves. That, or keep the status quo and watch the divorce rate climb skyward.

In 2005, the National Fatherhood Initiative, a non-sectarian, non-partisan, non-profit organization, published their results from a national survey on marriage in America. Touted as one of the largest and most comprehensive surveys conducted on Americans’ attitudes toward marriage, their report cited lack of commitment as the number one reason given by ex-husbands and ex-wives for divorce—followed by too much conflict, arguing, and infidelity.

And according to a 2007 study published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, infidelity and money problems remain the two leading causes of divorce. Other research also attributes America’s high rate of divorce to low levels of commitment between spouses. Statistics indicate that after just two years of marriage, spouses convey only half as much affection for each other as they did when they were newlyweds. In addition, divorces occur more frequently in the fourth year of marriage than at any other time.

Today, more than ever, both husbands and wives find it easy to leave the relationship when things get dicey. According to recent studies, more than one million U.S. couples divorce every year. And for those who remarry, roughly sixty percent end up divorced a second time, pegging the rate of divorce for second marriages higher than the rate for the first.

If these statistics hold, and there’s a mountain of evidence to suggest they do, then how happy and healthy are those fifty percent who are “happily married” in their first marriage—and are they truly happy and not secretly contemplating divorce?

According to Dr. Patricia Love, author of Hot Monogamy: Essential Steps to More Passionate Intimate Lovemaking, “Eighty percent of couples who divorce say they still love each other, which indicates that love is not enough.” According to Dr. Love, married couples must find ways to continually re-connect with each other throughout the day. And it’s the little things that matter most, such as how we greet our partner in the morning and when we come home, as well as how often we engage in meaningful conversation and receptive listening. Marriage represents a complex machine with lots of moving parts. It requires special abilities to consistently meet the needs of the opposite sex and should not be entered into lightly. Too often people seek marriage as a way to make themselves happy. In reality, we must first learn to find happiness within ourselves before we seek happiness in a relationship with someone else.

Despite the gloomy statistics on marriage, empirical evidence suggests married couples tend to be healthier, live longer, and enjoy more satisfying sexual relationships than single or cohabitating individuals. In addition to married life being linked to better physical health, studies indicate married couples exhibit superior mental health. Compared to married couples, single men and women have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and other forms of psychological distress. Research suggests multiple explanations for this, including selection hypothesis, which asserts that people with better psychological and physical health may be more likely to get married and thus account for the increased psychological and physiological benefits of marriage. Other authors promote a social support philosophy, implying marriage provides partners with emotional satisfaction and helps shield them from day to day stress. Behavioral regulation offers a third explanation, where studies indicate married couples engage in more risk-prevention behaviors such as safer driving, lower alcohol consumption, and better eating habits.

For married couples, age plays a crucial factor in predicting divorce. Recent findings from the National Center for Health Statistics found that nearly half of all marriages in which the bride is eighteen or younger end in separation or divorce within ten years. Other studies cite similar statistics. The figures might vary slightly from year to year or source to source, but overall, the data reflects how individuals who marry later in life have a better chance of succeeding in marriage. I attribute this to couples who are able to align their personal goals and objectives for the benefit of their relationship—a difficult task when we’re young and still trying to find ourselves.

Generally speaking, as women get older, they tend to align themselves more toward a family-oriented life with children in the picture. Men don’t always share this objective at the same stage of life because they aren’t contending with a biological clock signaling the end of their prime child bearing years.

In his article, About Love and Romantic Love, clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Grayson Conner, describes the two general types of marriage. The first refers to utilitarian marriage, defined by “an absence of mutual involvement or passion.” He describes this type of marriage as one that exists for financial, social, or family considerations—with long separations, community involvements, and infidelity to make the utilitarian marriage bearable. This partly explains why some marriages—specifically, those defined by utilitarian standards—come unraveled despite the apparent physical, emotional, and psychological benefits of marriage. I view utilitarian marriages as those held together with what I call negative commitment.

Dr. Conner describes the second type of marriage as intrinsic, where the relationship itself is most fulfilling and life experiences are shared with “passionate emotional and sexual involvement.” For these types of marriages, factors such as sacrifice, monogamy, and overall relationship satisfaction collectively contribute to a positive commitment.

Studies have associated greater commitment with a willingness to sacrifice. Other research supports the notion of both monogamous and sexually non-monogamous—but emotionally exclusive—relationships promoting higher levels of commitment. Studies also indicate women value sexual and emotional monogamy more than men, whereas men view monogamy as more of a sacrifice. In terms of satisfaction, research strongly correlates high levels of martial satisfaction with high levels of commitment.

In her book, Marriage from the Heart, author Lois Kellerman presents the following eight commitments to help promote a spiritually healthy marriage:

  1. First Commitment: Centering

I will create a warm, loving home and place my marriage at its center.

  • Second Commitment: Choosing

I will cultivate the discipline of choosing wisely.

  • Third Commitment: Honoring

I will have reverence for my partner and myself.

  • Fourth Commitment: Caring

I will be a source of loving care for my partner, setting my heart upon what matters most.

  • Fifth Commitment: Abiding

I will have faith, patiently persisting through life’s many changes.

  • Sixth Commitment: Repairing

I will work to mend what is broken in my partner and myself.

  • Seventh Commitment: Listening

I will stay open to new insight, however unlikely the source.

  • Eighth Commitment: Celebrating

I will celebrate spiritual values with my partner and others.

Whether you agree with Kellerman’s eight spiritual commitments or not, marriage defines commitment at all levels—physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. Your specific commitments, however you define them for your marriage or your long-term romantic relationship, should include mutual respect, kindness, understanding, and a willingness to compromise. These are commitments, after all, and not commandments. Your words and actions should help guide your relationship—not govern it. In reality, the ultimate commitment to one another derives not from formal proceedings, but from the need to love, honor, cherish, respect, confide, nurture, hug, kiss, make love to, and otherwise share yourself in mind, body, and spirit in the presence or absence of legal sanction.

The 4Cs of a Meaningful and Lasting Romance: Chapter 6.2: The Act of Commitment

What are We Afraid of?

The proverbial notion that men fear commitment can be said about women as well. Despite our gender differences, men and women share common concerns about commitment. As you read this segment on commitment fears, recognize these concerns are not unique to either gender or to one particular personality type, but span the gamut of available romantic partners. Though not exhaustive, the following list highlights several universal commitment issues we all struggle with at one time or another in our romantic relationships:

  • Higher Priorities
  • Betrayal
  • Right Time, Wrong Person
  • Right Person, Wrong Time
  • Loss of Freedom
  • Conflict
  • Rejection
  • Loss of Independence
  • Comparison
  • Vulnerability
  • Compromise
  • Technology
  • Rotten Apples
  • Mutual Commitment

Higher Priorities

Some people have a hard time making their relationship needs a priority in their life. Single parenthood, demanding jobs, school, church, hobbies, and life’s surprises often dictate how we prioritize events in our lives. Sometimes higher priority issues simply overburden us. In other instances, our goals and ambitions consume the lion’s share of our personal time. If more important or more time-consuming priorities fill our life, then commitment might not be in the cards for us. This ties directly to the importance of defining our needs and desires. If we don’t make our romantic relationship a high priority need, then other, seemingly more pressing needs, will always overcome it.

Betrayal

A fear of betrayal remains a legitimate concern for anyone who’s ever been deceived in a previous relationship. Fear of betrayal often cuts to the bone of our core values, specifically honesty, trust, and integrity. Some people find it difficult or even impossible to overcome an exposure to infidelity, and unfortunately, romantic relationships don’t come with guarantees. If someone cheated on you once before, it doesn’t mean your next partner will be unfaithful. Then again, it doesn’t guarantee they won’t. A certain element of risk exists with any romantic relationship. And some individuals possess a higher tolerance for risk than others. Some of us are also more forgiving than others or more emotionally equipped to let go of the past and overcome an emotional or psychological obstacle to commitment in a new relationship. When in doubt, go slow in a new relationship and use time to build trust with your new partner.

Right Time, Wrong Person

In certain situations, the desire for commitment exists, but we know in our heart we’re with the wrong person, perhaps someone we’re close friends with but without the romantic chemistry required to sustain an intimate relationship. Maybe the chemistry exists, but our partner’s needs don’t align with our own, and we find ourselves along for the ride without any real interest in sustaining the relationship over time. On other occasions, we select the wrong partner because we don’t know ourselves well enough or haven’t completely defined our needs and desires or the confidence to express them openly.

Right Person, Wrong Time

Sometimes we meet Mr. or Ms. Wonderful and believe we’re ready for a long-term relationship. For a while, everything clicks, and all is well. Then later we discover, for whatever reason, the right circumstances don’t exist. Chalk it up to a rough patch in our career, health issues, age of life, unfulfilled needs, higher priorities, or all of the above. The tired cliché, timing is everything, came about for a reason. A word of caution from my own past experience: don’t give up too soon on someone you share a strong connection with. There’s always a chance the timing issues will resolve themselves. An overly optimistic viewpoint? Perhaps. Then again, sometimes we deceive ourselves into thinking the timing isn’t right, when in reality, the timing couldn’t be any better.

Loss of Freedom

When we’re single and unattached, we often covet our freedom to spend time on our personal interests without compromising on where to go, what to eat, when to sleep, or how we live our lives in general. The thought of melding our little world with someone else’s means relinquishing control of our autonomy to come and go as we please. Some of us have a harder time relinquishing our personal time than others. Again, it all goes back to how we define and prioritize our needs and desires.

Conflict

Conflict is normal, and inevitable, in any relationship. Even in the most loving and respectful romantic relationships, conflict can demand our attention. Some couples fear conflict because they perceive conflict as something negative, an impediment as opposed to a momentary detour in their relationship. To paraphrase author Steve Carter, the road to commitment begins not when you meet the right person, get engaged, or decide to marry—but when you stop running away from your own conflicts. Too often we focus on the conflict itself and not how best to address the real issue at hand. To argue for the sake of arguing adds no value. Save your breath. Be constructive, not mean. To vent frustration is one thing, but to constantly direct your wrath at a partner entrenched in their position will accomplish nothing.

Sometimes we can only agree to disagree. But more often than not, common ground can be found if two people look for it within the guidelines of open, honest, and constructive communication. Whenever possible, we should always discuss our issues face-to-face at a time when both parties are mentally and emotionally available. Turn off the phone, the TV, the radio, or any other unwelcome distraction like your cell phone or pager. Conflict resolution works best with a give and take philosophy. We each covet our preferred conflict management style, and at times, our styles clash. Explain your position but be willing to make concessions where needed. There’s a difference between concessions and caving. The former implying a willingness to compromise. The latter implying a desire to simply follow the path of least resistance. Don’t let conflict be a crutch to deter commitment in your relationship. Take the time to actively listen, and make your own position clear without serving ultimatums or drowning in an undertow of negative emotions.

Rejection

No one likes to feel rejected, and this fear usually manifests in the first stage of a relationship. Even as our romantic relationships evolve, the fear of rejection persists for some. The more attached to an individual we become, the greater the emotional impact we stand to suffer from rejection. Somehow we let this fear of losing someone promote our inability to commit ourselves to them. Too often, this fear compels us to do or say almost anything to avoid rejection, even at the cost of ignoring our own core values or dismissing our highest priority needs and desires. Rejection should not be something we fear. I look back on my own life and smile at those who rejected me because I realize how much richer and more fulfilling my life has become without them, and most likely vice versa. I’m not intending to make light of what can be a very painful experience at times. I’m simply trying to point out that a fear of rejection should not dictate our lives or stymie our ability to commit. Think of rejection as part of a natural selection process to weed out those we’re better off without, and who may well be better off without us.

Loss of Independence

The more time we spend alone, the more we grow accustomed to our independence. Relationships threaten this independence by forcing us to shift our individual mindset toward a team approach. And although a team approach isn’t necessarily a bad thing, we sometimes feel like we’re robbed of our personal time and the daily routines we’ve grown accustomed to enjoy.

Sometimes we become dependent on our independence and discard our need for social interaction. Our relationship with ourselves, our work, and our personal interests often takes priority above all else, and when this inner relationship is threatened, we recoil from commitment. Independence constitutes an important core value; one that empowers us to achieve great things in the face of adversity. We attribute our independence to our sense of pride and achievement. A loss of independence can threaten this core value to the point where we would rather pull away from our romantic relationship than risk losing our sense of self and the freedoms we’ve come to expect.

Comparison

We often compare ourselves to other people. That’s part of human nature. It’s when we begin to doubt ourselves and invoke our fear of a partner comparing us unfavorably to someone else, that we reject commitment. Or as Dr. John Gray wrote, “We reject each other not because we have found that a person is wrong for us, but because we think—mistakenly—there is something wrong with that person.”

In a healthy romantic relationship defined by trust, honesty, and other important core values, our fear of comparison remains unfounded. Your partner enjoys your company because they admire you for who you are. Still, for many of us, the fear of being compared to a former lover, can cause us to pull away. No one likes to play second fiddle to someone we perceive to be cuter, smarter, or in any way better than ourselves. Don’t drive yourself crazy comparing your mind, body, and personal philosophy on life to those who came before you. Chances are, if your partner’s ex was so wonderful, your partner would still be with him or her.

Vulnerability

As defined by our courage to reveal our most inner thoughts and emotions with another person, vulnerability means exposing ourselves to mockery or rejection. We all feel vulnerable at one time or another, but when we let our fear of vulnerability consume us, we internalize our doubts and reservations without openly communicating them to our partner. When we purposefully disrupt these lines of communication, we build our relationship on quicksand and watch it sink.

Vulnerability should not be something we fear, for it represents a key to intimacy. With emotional vulnerability, we open ourselves up to one another through verbal and nonverbal communications. Through the sharing of our deepest emotions, we express our needs and desires, which in turn helps create stronger physical and emotional intimacy. And when we express our vulnerability, we learn to relinquish control physically and intellectually. I’m not proposing we get so out of control we forgo all common sense and safety. I’m saying we should be willing to trust our partners to take the reins so to speak on the giving and receiving of sexual pleasure. In Daniel Beaver’s, More than Just Sex, he writes, “In order to experience intimacy, you need to be able to trust your partner, to give up control of your actions and feelings, and to go with what gives you pleasure without hesitation.” Beaver describes this as being sexually uninhibited. When we fear the act of vulnerability, we lessen our commitment, and therefore our trust in our partner and our romantic relationship.

Compromise

Compromise and commitment go hand in hand since one can’t exist without the other. When we fear compromise, we tug at the thread of our relationship until the fabric comes unraveled. Fear of compromise touches on other fears like loss of freedom and independence, fear of conflict, and fear of vulnerability. We fear compromise because we fear the unknown. Often we fear a negative outcome on our part through something we believe we have to sacrifice in order to sustain our romantic relationship. In many cases, these fears are unfounded and traceable to a lack of conflict management skills. But we don’t have to become shrewd negotiators to effect a positive compromise. As Chapter V demonstrated, we can best achieve compromise through open, honest communication, which involves active listening and an effort to see things from our partner’s perspective. For some of us, a fear of compromise extends to a fear of confrontation, and ultimately, to our fear of commitment. By learning to compromise, we learn to commit. If compromise is something you struggle with, start small and address the less significant issues with your partner like where to eat or what movie to watch. But know that eventually, you’ll have to venture in the deep end as bigger issues come along.

Technology

If all else fails, we can always pin our fear of commitment on technology. I say this tongue in cheek, but sadly the statement garners a certain truth. As I described in Chapter IV on Communication, modern technology both helps and hinders our romantic relationships. If you’re struggling with your own communication skills, the overuse of text and email makes it easy to maintain a relationship on a superficial level. In the absence of sufficient face-to-face communication, technology impedes our ability to build trust and connect with someone on a deeper level. Add the impact of social media or online dating to our everyday lives, and perpetual temptation abounds. Suddenly, the grass looks greener everywhere you turn because there’s always another face to fall in love with.

In some ways, technology can become a commitment phobe’s solution for dodging any semblance of commitment. The Internet was down, and I couldn’t see your email. My cell phone battery died. I had my ringer on vibrate and never heard your call come in. I forgot my cell phone at home when I left for work. I couldn’t get a good signal. I have lousy coverage where I live. And so on and so forth. Technology can offer a powerful tool for positive communication when used judiciously; it can also lower the bar and perpetuate a fear of commitment when used irresponsibly.

Rotten Apples

The world is full of positive, outgoing, respectful people who have nothing but the best intentions at heart. Unfortunately, there are also rotten apples in the mix. Sometimes we call these “players” or people—usually men, although I’ve come across many women who fit this persona as well—looking to score without any real desire for a relationship. Pairing up with one of these individuals gives a legitimate excuse to avoid commitment. Sometimes individuals from either gender can be depressing, aloof, mean, inconsiderate, immature, dangerous, unlawful, or just simply a bad person. If any of these traits describe your current partner, then commitment is the least of your relationship issues. Run, don’t walk to the nearest exit, and find someone worthy of your time and attention.

Mutual Commitment

Commitment from one partner does not guarantee commitment from the other. When one person goes all in and the other stays racked with indecision, the relationship becomes unbalanced. A relationship implies a union. Without mutual commitment to this union, a pervasive fear lingers like a fog.

Will he leave me if I demand a commitment?

If I commit to her, will she remain in this relationship or stray toward someone else?

Questions like these are founded and at times unanswered. Mutual commitment requires faith from both partners and a willingness to trust in the strength of their relationship. Mutual commitment takes time to develop and occurs in overlapping stages where both partners acquiesce to a primary level of commitment before engaging in a deeper, long-term commitment. Often our commitment fears are grounded in how we perceive things to be rather how they really are in our relationship. Communication is key. You won’t know the answer if you don’t ask the question, which leads us to the next segment in this chapter.

What Are We Committed To?

I graduated from Chantilly High School in 1988. At that time, I was obligated to find gainful employment sufficient to cover my small car payment and other living expenses I sustained when I set out to make my mark on the world. For more than two years, my obligation to work odd jobs continued, but I lacked the commitment to further my education. Uninspired by the lackluster path my life was taking, I woke up one day and made a pact with myself to earn a four year degree. Despite many setbacks along the way, my commitment to higher education led me on a five year journey of seemingly endless twists and turns before I finally achieved my goal and earned a B.S. in math.

In 2001, my commitment to fatherhood matured when I first met my wife’s OB/GYN—a well-respected, domineering physician of Lincoln stature with hands the size of grizzly paws and a propensity for awkward humor. A surgeon who specialized in multiple birth deliveries, he once quipped, “Twins are what happens when you have sex two times in one night.” The serial logic of which struck the fear of God in me as I thought, you better check the film again.

Despite a demanding work schedule, which included frequent business travel, a book I was hungry to publish and another I was determined to write, I maintained a commitment to my family, as well as my graduate studies at night. I also remained committed to scratching the outline for what would eventually become my masterful espionage thriller, Enemy Among Us.

Why am I sharing this with you? To emphasize a connection between commitments and needs. My commitments to family, work, school, and writing were tied directly to my highest priority needs, which not surprisingly had a one-to-one correlation with my previously stated commitments. If you recall in Chapter II, I described the importance of conducting your own needs assessment to help you recognize the most important elements in your life. In The Seven Levels of Intimacy, Mathew Kelly writes, “Without a clear understanding of our purpose, it is all but impossible to commit to anything and follow through on that commitment.” As individuals and partners in our relationships, we find our purpose rooted in our core values that describe our fundamental beliefs. We also find our purpose rooted in our needs built upon our core values. Together, our core values and needs support our commitments. If the need is absent, the commitment will fail. We can’t commit to a romantic relationship without a need to support it. We might have a need to be in a relationship, but if we find higher priority needs driving higher priority commitments, our romantic relationship will suffer.

When I think of extraordinary commitments, I think of Dana Reeve, wife of the famous actor, Christopher Reeve, who suffered a life-changing injury when an accident during an equestrian competition in Virginia left him a quadriplegic. In an instant, the athletic, vivacious husband, father, and A-list actor had his life turned upside down with the sudden loss of physical mobility and independence. Despite the tragedy of his condition, his wife Dana remained by his side throughout the physical, emotional, and psychological ordeal. In the words of author, Kristyn Crow, “Dana Reeve was a true example of love and devotion. She stood beside her husband during this frightening reality, with one of the bravest faces I have ever seen.”

In 2008, The Last Lecture told the heartfelt story about Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch. Diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, the award-winning computer science professor, husband, and father of three young children faced a dire predicament with grace and dignity. With only months to live, he made a commitment to teach his children what he would have taught them over the next twenty years by doing what he did best, delivering a lecture entitled, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” In what would be his final lecture, he spoke about honesty, integrity, and gratitude with a vision to “help others find a path to following their own dreams.” In Randy’s words, his lecture was not about dying, but about living. While many people would have crumbled from the pressure of a terminal diagnosis, Randy Pausch made a commitment to himself and to his family to keep his spirit in check and deliver a presentation of a lifetime—one his children would look back on and remember long after his time on earth expired.

More recently, I read about thirty-two-year-old Iram Leon, a man diagnosed with Grade 2 diffuse astrocytoma brain cancer in November 2010. His prognosis: terminal. His outlook: inspiring. Despite the brain cancer, which has already robbed him of his ability to drive, work, or play contact sports, he continues to run. But his commitment to pound the pavement in spite of his medical condition extends far beyond himself, to his four-year-old daughter, Kiana, whom he pushes in a stroller when he jogs. Since Iram’s diagnosis, he and his daughter Kiana have competed in several 10K races and half marathons, culminating in a Texas marathon—which he—or technically, they—won with a time of 3:07:35.

No doubt there are other examples of amazing commitment and loyalty to demonstrate the powerful impact love and dedication can have on different relationships. If you’re currently engaged in a meaningful and lasting romance grounded by the pillars of chemistry, communication, compromise, and commitment, then I congratulate you. If not, or if your existing relationship lacks commitment, I encourage you to ask yourself, “What am I truly committed to?”

A recent study published by UCLA psychologists in 2012 examined a hundred and seventy-two married couples over the first eleven years of their marriage and posed the question, “What does being committed to your marriage really mean?” From the study results, psychologists learned that relationship commitment can mean one of two things. “I like this relationship and I’m committed to it,” or “I’m committed to doing what it takes to make this relationship work.” This latter statement, psychologists reported, provides a better predictor of lower divorce rates and fewer marital problems. Furthermore, the study found that couples who were willing to make sacrifices within their relationships were more effective in solving their problems and significantly more likely to have lasting and happy marriages. Granted, this study derived from a small sample population, but it’s reasonable to extrapolate the results to a larger population of committed couples and to non-married couples in healthy, long-term relationships. Committing to doing what it takes to make the relationship work as opposed to tagging along for the ride, makes logical sense once you recognize and actively promote the need for commitment in your life.

The 4Cs of a Meaningful and Lasting Romance: Chapter 6.1: The Act of Commitment

Physical, Intellectual, Emotional, and Spiritual Commitment

As we move through the five stages of the relationship cycle, we gradually evolve toward a deeper level of commitment; one associated with our ability to think and reason as well as feel from within. In the previous section on the various dimensions of relationship commitment, we touched on the physical, intellectual, emotional, and to a small extent, spiritual elements of commitment. This segment takes a deeper look at each of these four elements and how they relate to our level of romantic commitment.

Physical Commitment

Though we might be physically committed to exclusive sexual relations with our monogamous partner, our emotional commitment will suffer if we find ourselves pining for something, or someone else to help us fulfill our needs and desires. Physical commitment implies affection through touch. This may involve kissing our partner, hugging them, rubbing their back or any comfortable gesture that shows we care. Physical commitment also defines how we present ourselves to our partners. Most women don’t yearn for affection from a sweaty guy in frumpy clothes and with a ripe body odor. The same goes for men who don’t aspire to a long-term commitment with a woman who makes little effort to keep up her appearance or thinks it’s cool to belch and fart with the guys. Some men might pretend to like women who act like one of the guys, but in my experience, that’s a small exception and not the rule. I’m not saying both partners have to look like super models to embrace a physical commitment and avoid the temptation to check out other members of the opposite sex—men will always do this to some extent no matter what—but it does communicate a measure of respect when both partners make an effort to look their best for one another. On the surface, good sex helps build a physical commitment. In this instance, I define good sex as sufficient time devoted to intimacy. The frequency and duration of intimate liaisons will vary for different couples, but their individual sexual needs should be fulfilled to help maintain a physical commitment.

Intellectual Commitment

Intellectual commitment implies two people share the same playing field intellectually. This does not necessarily mean both partners share the same level of formal education, informal education gleaned from self-study, or street smarts. Rather, this form of commitment involves a willingness to listen and appreciate one another’s opinion on matters important to him or her without arrogance or condescension. Intellectual commitment also implies a willingness from both partners to learn from one another and make an honest effort to work through conflicts constructively; to think objectively about disagreements and strive for a mutually beneficial solution without letting raw emotions get in the way.

Emotional Commitment

Emotional commitment stems from strong verbal and nonverbal communication. When you whisper I love you to someone, you’re expressing an emotional commitment to them. Aside from verbal communication, romantic gestures convey an emotional commitment to our partner as well. We also build emotional commitment through good listening skills. This means taking time away from other distractions in our lives to give our partners the undivided attention they deserve.

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Remember guys, women like to express their feelings more openly than men do. Women aren’t looking for solutions to a problem. They want to know we care about them and the things important to them. Giving time and attention to the special woman in your life demonstrates emotional commitment to her. You might not always express your feelings as openly as your wife or girlfriend does, but by making an emotional commitment to her, you will strengthen her commitment to you.

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Spiritual Commitment

In the spiritual plane, couples may or may not share the same commitment toward God or a particular religious belief. Such is the case when one partner maintains a desire to attend religious services on a regular basis while the other partner remains content to limit their participation to special holidays. In other instances, one partner might align themselves with a certain denomination like Catholicism or Lutheranism while the other partner might have family history with a Jewish or Buddhist faith. In some cases, one partner maintains a strong faith toward God while the other remains agnostic. Fortunately, different approaches to religious beliefs don’t preclude us from maintaining a spiritual commitment. Many couples share different faiths or no religious faith at all.

Spiritual commitment exists beyond any obligation to a particular religious denomination. A broader definition of spiritual faith implies devotion, dedication, and devout beliefs in one another. In this sense, a spiritual commitment implies a shared philosophy on life, parenting, future endeavors, hopes, dreams, goals, or ambitions of mutual importance. In this context, partners benefit from a spiritual bond used to strengthen their physical and emotional connection to one another. In an ideal world, we hope to achieve commitment in the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual realms. In reality, our reach often exceeds our grasp as commitment fears infiltrate our conscious thoughts and apply the brakes on our romantic relationships. I’ll touch on the issue of commitment fears in a moment, but first, let’s look at some personality types associated with a fear of commitment.

Noncommittal Personality Types

Researchers have identified certain personality or “attachment types” that encourage or dissuade our ability to commit. These personality traits form during our childhood and remain consistent through adulthood. According to Phillip Shaver, a psychologist at the University of California, fifty-five percent of Americans fall into the “secure” type. These individuals feel comfortable with emotions. They enjoy getting close to people and develop trusting relations. They also view themselves as worthy of another person’s attention, care, and concern. In addition, they view others as approachable, dependable, and with only the best intentions at heart. If everyone fit the definition of secure, I’d put a period at the end of this section and call it done. But according to Shaver, the remaining forty-five percent of Americans fall into one of two broad categories described as “anxious”—roughly twenty percent of Americans—and “avoidant”—roughly twenty-five percent of Americans. Within these two general categories of anxious and avoidant, other researchers distill a larger subset of personality types associated with significant commitment issues, namely:

  • The Clingy
  • The Skittish
  • The Fickle
  • The Casual
  • The Uninterested

The Clingy

Clingy individuals display an anxious propensity and have a hard time coping with independence. They require a great deal of closeness and are prone to idealizing their romantic partners. Researchers generally find the clingy to have low self-esteem and obsessive behavior toward their partner’s feelings. They tend to be addicted to relationships and quick to criticize their partner’s lack of commitment. They also tend to be naïve about their partner’s feelings and needs. Their dependence on relationships and unquenchable desire to always do everything together has a negative affect on their relationship, prompting their partner to bale out before a mutual emotional attachment takes hold. In general, the clingy overcommit to relationships too early in the relationship cycle, before sufficient time has passed for both partners to know one another well enough to engage in a longer term commitment.

The Skittish

The under-committed, or skittish personalities, describe the polar opposite of clingy and fall under the larger category of avoidant. Unlike the clingy, the skittish require a great deal of independence. The skittish avoid romantic intimacy or emotional confrontations and tend to hold a negative attitude toward love. They fear attachment and prefer to suppress their own emotions. If forced to get too close in a relationship, they feel overwhelmed and bolt. The skittish covet their private life and prefer uncommitted sexual relationships. They find it hard to trust their partner or share their feelings. Romantic relationships that consist of both skittish or clingy partners tend to be high maintenance with frequent quarrels.

The Fickle

The fickle exist somewhere in between the clingy and skittish. They feel uncomfortable with both intimacy and independence. Researchers label fickle people as ambivalent. They tend to want what they don’t have and often fall in love with people who are not interested in them. They frequently experience fear, depression, and anger in their romantic encounters.

The Casual

The casual see relationships as trouble-free. They live in a utopian bubble without any real desire for commitment and express a “take it or leave it attitude.”

The Uninterested

I think of the uninterested as the completely uncommitted. These types of people have little or no interest in pursuing a romantic relationship with anyone. Content to live within themselves, the uninterested express no desire for emotional, or even physical, intimacy.

At various times in past romantic relationships, most of us have either witnessed or experienced these noncommittal behaviors ourselves. When we meet someone we’re head-over-heels for and the sparks are flying like steel on a grinding wheel, it’s easy to cling. When we meet someone we feel more comfortable with as friends, we take a more casual attitude. Or if we meet someone who turns out to be the polar opposite of what we’re looking for, we come across as uninterested. This goes back to the previous discussion on gender differences and how the concept of perspective dictates our views and personal beliefs.

This segment on noncommittal personality types is not meant to label certain partners as good or bad, but to open our eyes to another dimension of commitment issues. Anyone who’s dated long enough develops an intuitive radar to readily identify avoidant or anxious personality types. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to discern an individual’s personality type. But it does take an open heart and an open mind to recognize that in the right circumstances, even the most secure individuals can demonstrate anxious and avoidant behaviors at times. Regardless of our central personality type, we all bring certain commitment issues to our relationships, which brings us to the next topic of discussion.

Open Kimono

In the book, Getting to Commitment, authors Steven Carter and Julia Sokol coined the phrase commitment phobia to describe people with a “claustrophobic response to intimacy.” The authors go on to describe the way many people indulge their fantasies more than the real life, flesh and blood partners they meet, as well as how the commitment phobic maintain an irrational fear of commitment. Other behavioral therapists insist a person’s fear of commitment is a misnomer; that their commitment anxieties derive from their inability to engage in a relationship, partly influenced by their self-centered nature or their fear of failure. Weiner describes self-centered individuals as those who believe something better awaits around the corner. Self-centered partners move from one superficial relationship to another, motivated more by their interest in a “trophy mate” rather than a long-term relationship. Those afraid of failure, associate their inability to commit with a lack of trust and a fear of getting hurt. This history of emotional ruin sticks with them like a bad cold. They train themselves to avoid commitment rather than risk getting hurt again. Yet the urge for intimacy and desire to bond with others in a relationship perpetuates a constant battle of “go-away-come-closer.”

From another perspective, Lasting Love authors, Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks, point out how one or both partners in a long-term relationship fail to make a full commitment to the relationship itself. When one person remains more deeply committed to the relationship than their partner, conflict arises where one partner tries harder to resolve an issue while the other partner becomes withdrawn. The authors also describe how people commit to “outcomes” instead of “process.” Despite best intentions, a commitment to outcomes beyond our control leads to commitments unfulfilled. In contrast, a commitment to the process of how we deal with our feelings affords us the ability to control how we choose to ignore or address our feelings.

I’ll go open kimono for a minute and admit I’ve often struggled with a self-centered approach to relationships as well as a fear of relationship failure. I realize I’m not alone here. I live in central Florida, where beautiful women are indigenous to the population the way palm trees and ocean-front real estate persist. I find it easy to take the attitude, there’s always someone else. Someone younger. More vivacious. More intelligent. More outgoing.

For me, this self-centered fear of commitment originates less from ego and more from the need to avoid the turmoil of yet another doomed relationship. I’m splitting hairs between the fear of disappointment when a new romantic relationship fails to live up to my expectations, and a fear of getting hurt, which I’ll explore in a moment.

Sometimes, self-centered fear stems less from the disappointment of rejection and more from our need to manage our time and energy. For myself, time and energy exist in scarce supply. When I find free time as a single parent, I use it wisely. If I pursue a woman who holds a questionable interest in me, I don’t have time to play games and give chase, hoping to eventually win her over. My demanding schedule simply doesn’t allow for this to happen. Instead of consuming what little free time I have to pursue a maybe, I tell myself, no worries, there’s always someone else. Someone more overtly receptive to a conversation with me or an invitation to dinner. I’ve said it before: time is our most precious resource. Self-centered or not, a primary commitment won’t happen unless I feel the right synergy, open communication, and a reasonable expectation that my needs for trust, respect, and honesty will be met.

In certain situations, I’ve also expressed a fear of relationship failure, based in part on a fear of getting hurt, but more deeply rooted in a lack of trust. For as many times as I’ve heard women say, “Men can’t be trusted,” the same applies to the opposite sex as well. In some ways, this contention will always persist between genders. John cheated on Susie and now all men are untrustworthy. Susie cheated on John, and now all women are evil. These sweeping generalizations on lack of trust don’t help either sex overcome their fear of getting hurt. The core value of trust will make or break a romantic relationship. A lack of trust drives the “go-away-come-closer” attitude by constantly challenging our perception of our partner based on preconceived impressions we inherit from past relationships.

Intellectually, we grow up with the mindset, if something hurts when we touch it, then don’t touch it. In previous relationships where we’ve been hurt, we apply this same philosophy on a more emotional level.

Often, partners reach the commitment stage in their relationship with a positive attitude and a bright outlook on the future of their relationship. Then, for one reason or another, the commitment weakens. Insufficient communication skills play a role as well as a lack of understanding about each partner’s needs and desires. An inability to compromise can also hinder commitment. The ability to communicate and compromise are skills we develop over time, not special powers bestowed upon us at birth. And although these skills are integral in helping us maintain our relationship commitment, additional and often long-standing resentments or doubts also develop over time and carry forward. Sometimes these doubts appear subtle; sometimes they morph into overarching fears. Many of us share a certain hesitation or cautious optimism about commitment. But regardless of where we stand on our feelings toward commitment, we should recognize our own concerns and not let them hinder our present romantic relationship.

The 4Cs of a Meaningful and Lasting Romance: Chapter 6: The Act of Commitment

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:

  • Personal/Attraction
  • Moral Obligation
  • Constraint/Structural
  • 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

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.

The 4Cs of a Meaningful and Lasting Romance: Chapter 5.5: The Promise in Compromise

Family Obligations

Family obligations can be defined any number of ways, such as parents and children sharing dinner together at home, chauffeuring kids to school or extracurricular activities, helping with homework assignments, taking care of a live-in grandparent, visiting in-laws, or anything involving a time commitment to family. For the purpose of this discussion, I focus on family obligations defined by parents or childless adult couples interacting with in-laws or adult relatives. Within this context, family responsibilities can run the gamut from minimal to overwhelming. Some couples view family commitments as less of a burden and more of an opportunity to introduce or facilitate an existing relationship between one partner and another partner’s relatives.

When I think of family obligations, I picture Chevy Chase and his Griswold clan enduring one disastrous holiday event after another with the kids in tow. I suspect the seemingly endless, and hysterical confrontations between all parties involved hits close to home for a lot of American families. All kidding aside, this Hollywood portrayal pokes fun at a serious issue couples often face.

Consider the many variables in the family equation: Are both partners equally committed to family in terms of regular involvement? What are their individual expectations toward family commitments in terms of who visits whom and how often and by what means? Do the in-laws come to us, or do we go to them? Are we committing to major holidays or every other month? If we choose to visit relatives, do we pack up the car and spend days on the road or fly instead? What type of relationship, good or bad, do we have with our parents or extended family? Is the requirement for family involvement a deal breaker in our relationship? At what point is it acceptable to beg for mercy from the mother or father-in-law who’s driving you crazy?

I was fortunate in my marriage to have wonderful in-laws who brought nothing but support and love to my former wife and I. My father-in-law was always willing to listen and share his thoughts. And I owe a debt of gratitude to my mother-in-law who assisted for several months after my twin boys were born. Little did my infant sons know what a Godsend the extra help would be for brand new parents juggling twin babies without a user manual.

I’m not a child psychologist nor do I pretend to understand all the intricacies involved with how our childhood shapes our lives as adults. I do believe, however, the first step toward compromising on family obligations should involve an honest dialogue between partners regarding their family upbringings and beliefs. Secondly, I feel both partners should engage in frank discussion about things like cultural differences and expectations, where one culture might require or encourage significantly more extended family interaction than another. Financial considerations bring out another issue with the price of gasoline and airfares always rising. There’s also the cost of time to consider, as one partner may have more difficulty leaving work for extended periods of time. Most people only accrue a limited number of vacation days, allocated across the calendar to cover everything from actual vacations to sick days or child emergencies. If family obligations involve relatives visiting your home for extended periods of time, discuss an emergency exit strategy—or at least an agreed upon length of stay. A nice hotel can spread comfort for everyone involved, particularly if your guest accommodations involve a pull out sofa with busted springs and nocturnal pets running wild throughout the night.

If family obligations involve taking care of an elderly parent or permanently sharing your home with a relative, talk it over with each other. If you’re married, hopefully these discussions occurred before you took your marital vows. If not, you could be in for a bumpy ride both financially and emotionally. If, on the other hand, your relationship is relatively new, you should consider whether or not your partner’s predilection toward family obligations parallels or conflicts with your own. As with many compromises, family obligations can be tough to agree to disagree on.

Personal Goals and Ambitions

Oprah Winfrey said, “Alone time is when I distance myself from the voices of the world so I can hear my own.”

Whether or not your personal goals require time apart from your partner to pursue your own aspirations, a balance exists—and for some, a very delicate one, between too much independence and spending too much time together.

Too much time together? Is there such a thing? Of course there is. Most healthy couples don’t spend every minute of every day joined at the hip. We all crave personal time now and then. And some people enjoy more time alone than others.

Ask yourself: Does the time and energy required to achieve your personal goals interfere with your relationship? Or does your relationship impede your ability to achieve your dreams? If you answered yes to the former, you have an opportunity to compromise on some personal issues for the benefit of your relationship; however, if you answered yes to the latter, then you might reconsider your romantic relationship. Sound harsh? Perhaps. But it goes back to defining your needs and desires. If your romantic relationship blocks your need to attain your personal goals in life, then maybe you’re better off going solo for a while. To ignore your inner conflict and press on with the relationship will likely cause more personal strife and incur a rift in your ability to compromise. I believe this partly explains why so many “Hollywood marriages” end in total disaster, some in a matter of months, weeks, or even days. Any time two people in a committed relationship go full bore to achieve their personal goals—with their romantic relationship a constant obstacle—the relationship will always suffer. In a perfect world, both partners share common personal goals and objectives. But few people share exactly the same goals or how to go about achieving them.

Whatever personal goals and ambitions keep you fired up all day or awake at night, spend some time to reflect on their significance to you. This might involve asking some tough questions about your needs and your relationship, the honest answers to which might surprise you. Moreover, you may find you can compromise on your work or hobbies to spend more time with your partner without significantly impacting your personal goals and objectives. So it takes you a little longer to finish your project or plan your dream trip around the world. You might discover your relationship is more important. In the end, the best way to approach a compromise on personal goals and ambitions involves balancing the time you spend doing things alone with the time you spend doing things together.

Parenting

When it comes to parenting and compromise, various parenting styles exist. We all have opinions on parents we perceive to be too strict, too lenient, or indifferent altogether, but well-known research conducted at Berkeley by developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind in the 1960s has been used for decades to categorize Western parents into one of three parenting styles: Authoritarian, Authoritative, or Permissive. Baumrind’s research involved the study of middle class preschool children and their parents. Subsequent studies have upheld Baumrind’s conclusions on parenting styles, and as Western society has evolved since the 60’s era, two additional parenting styles have been documented: Over-Parenting and Neglectful/Uninvolved.

In the following paragraphs, a cursory explanation of each Baumrind style helps identify our own parenting approaches and casts the spotlight on some pros and cons of each. This short discussion on parenting styles presents a broad-brush perspective on a topic largely beyond the scope of this book. Nonetheless, I feel it’s important to understand the definitions of these parenting styles before we attempt to compare our own style to our partner’s in an effort to compromise on our parenting approaches.

As you read these short descriptions on various parenting styles, it’s likely you’ll discover your own parenting methods constitute more than one of these styles—and how your particular approach to parenting can be subject to change, slightly, based on household dynamics, the age of your children, lack of sleep, temporary loss of sanity, momentary bouts of dain bramage, afull moon, or any number of existential influences real or imagined.

Baumrind’s Authoritarian Parenting

The authoritarian parent observes a restrictive parenting style. These parents impose lots of rules with little or no explanations and expect their child to abide by the rules without question. Violation of the rules results in harsh punishment. Baumrind found that authoritarian parenting produced children who were “fearful, apprehensive, moody, unhappy, easily annoyed, passively hostile, vulnerable to stress, aimless, sulky, and unfriendly.” Moreover, Baumrind noticed children raised by authoritarian parents were likely to comply with parents’ expectations when the parents were present, but act out behind their backs.

Baumrind’s Authoritative Parenting

The authoritative parenting style offers a less restrictive and more flexible approach to the authoritarian style but still imposes rules. Authoritative parents set expectations for appropriate behaviors and provide reasons for their expectations. These parents listen to their child’s point of view. According to Baumrind’s research, the authoritative parenting style helped parents raise children who were “self-reliant, self-controlled, cheerful and friendly, coped well with stress, cooperative with adults, curious, purposive, and achievement oriented.” In Baumrind’s conclusion, children raised by authoritative parents succeeded well in life, with the fewest instances of substance abuse, superior grades, and eventually better jobs. In more recent times, Dr. Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University, points to studies on authoritative parenting that correlate authoritative parenting with stronger psychosocial development and mental health across all cultures, regardless of ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

Baumrind’s Permissive Parenting

The permissive parenting style, or “indulgent parenting style” as some describe it, represents warmth and nurturing but with few expectations for the child. Children have free rein over their own behavior with minimal parental supervision. Parents with this style rarely discipline their children and often assume the role of a friend more than a parent. According to Baumrind, permissive parents tend to be more responsive than demanding and often avoid confrontation. Their children grow up to be more rebellious, impulsive, and low in achievement.

Baumrind’s Over-Parenting

The over-parenting style, or “helicopter mom” as some describe it, places the needs of the child first. Parents who exhibit this style believe children must be protected from unpleasant or sad experiences in order for children to be happy and secure. This style of parenting takes away the child’s sense of autonomy, where the parent makes decisions for their child and attempts to solve their child’s problems. Over-protected children typically lack confidence, have a low self-image, and remain averse to taking risks or confronting new situations. Parents who conform to this style do their child a disservice, despite good intentions, by treating their child like a “bubble boy” without allowing the child to handle life’s challenges. In my opinion, children who fail to learn how to cope with life’s up and downs eventually grow up to become adults who have difficulty handling stressful situations, including conflict resolution. Of course, most good parents probably over-parent their children to some extent, on occasion—myself included.

Baumrind’s Neglectful / Uninvolved Parenting

The neglectful or uninvolved parenting style applies to parents who fulfill their children’s physical needs but remain emotionally distant, isolated, and detached. This parenting style places few demands on the child with limited communication and low responsiveness to the child’s needs. Children of neglectful parents grow up with low self-esteem and poor social competence. These children suffer to various degrees on physical, emotional, and psychological fronts.

Beyond the Baumrind Styles

New research from a three-year study concluded in 2012 by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, describes parenting as an outgrowth of who we are rather than a system we consciously choose. Over the course of the study, researchers examined three thousand parents who participated in an online survey and interviews. This study of school-aged children across the United States examined the origins of American parenting styles across the country and classified American families into the following four groups:

  • The Faithful
  • Engaged Progressives
  • The Detached (or Laissez-Faire)
  • American Dreamers

The Faithful

According to the University of Virginia study, the Faithful comprise twenty percent of America’s total parent population, and place heavy emphasis on morality with religion at the center of their world. When faced with a morally unclear circumstance, eighty-eight percent of the Faithful would decide what to do based upon what God or scripture tells them is right. Roughly seventy-five percent believe “faith is more important than their children’s eventual happiness and positive feelings about themselves.” The Faithful pray daily and look to pastors or spiritual counselors for parenting advice. They feel secure as parents and have control over their children. Nearly eighty-eight percent are married with average education and larger than average family sizes. Their ethnic group includes sixty-seven percent Caucasian, sixteen percent Hispanic, eleven percent Black, and six percent other.

Engaged Progressives

The Engaged Progressives comprise twenty-one percent of America’s total parent population and place heavy emphasis on personal freedom. They view tolerance more than faith in their moral code. Over half believe that as long as they don’t hurt anyone else, they should live however they want. Engaged Progressives tend to emphasize honesty and generally maintain an optimistic view of the world. They prepare children to be “responsible choosers” and believe in the motto of “doing what would be the best for everyone involved.” Engaged Progressives maintain higher than average education with smaller than average family sizes. About eighty percent are married within an ethnic group, including seventy-one percent Caucasian, seventeen percent Hispanic, two percent Black, and ten percent other.

The Detached (or Laissez-Faire)

The Detached comprise nineteen percent of America’s total parent population and place heavy emphasis on “freedom of retreat.”They feel “marginalized, reticent, and unsure of themselves and their place in society.” The majority of detached parents consider practical skills as important as book learning. The Detached hold less than average education and most have only one child. Their philosophy on parenting is to “let kids be kids and let the cards fall where they may.” Roughly two-thirds are married and about half spend less than two hours a day talking or spending time with their children. Their ethnic group includes sixty-seven percent Caucasian, seventeen percent Hispanic, ten percent Black, and six percent other.

American Dreamers

The American Dreamers comprise twenty-seven percent of America’s total parent population. These parents share the low economic and education levels of the Detached but have much higher aspirations for their children. Most hold less than average education, and one in four live below the poverty line. American Dreamers invest heavily in their children to give them a competitive advantage in later life. Roughly two-thirds are married and remain optimistic about their children’s opportunities and schooling. Their ethnic group consists of forty-six percent Caucasian, twenty-six percent Hispanic, twenty-two percent Black, and six percent other.

Coping with Different Parenting Styles

According to Barbara Frazier, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist, our parenting styles derive from the first-hand experience of the parenting styles our parents or parent displayed. From our childhood, we subconsciously internalize our parents’ style, which helps lay the groundwork for the development of our own parenting style as we enter parenthood. This parallels the work of researchers at Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture who describe parenting as an outgrowth of who we are rather than a system we consciously choose.

So how do you compromise between different parenting styles? The same way you kiss a porcupine—very carefully. Experts believe parenting conflicts are normal. They also emphasize the importance of striving for conflict resolution versus ongoing disputes of who’s right or wrong. Different partners bring their own unique perspective on child rearing based on their own childhood experiences. Working through parenting conflicts benefits the children but also the marriage as well. Once we recognize how different parenting styles can emphasize cooperation over conflict, we can begin the process of compromising on our parenting styles. With this goal in mind, Barbara Frazier offers the following advice:

  • Engage in cooperative parenting compromise only when your child’s best interests are the primary consideration.
  • Define values and parenting strategies by listing the primary values you wish to impart to your child and what you hope to accomplish in the years they will be living with you. Next, list major categories of parenting strategies and the specific activities or practices you will use.
  • Identify conflicts and compromise areas by listing the areas of disagreement.

Dr. Connor Walters, a Certified Family Life Educator at Illinois State University also recommends the following approach to dealing with different parenting styles:

  • Keep communication open to address small issues as they arise, rather than waiting for the issues to get worse.
  • Discuss differences based on specific behaviors not individual personalities.
  • Settle problems one at a time by coming to an agreement on the most important issues first.
  • Stay in the present and don’t rehash old conflicts.
  • When disagreements arise, don’t wait for days on end to discuss them.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions. Allow each parent to express their own views.
  • Speak respectfully to one another and control your nonverbal communication—i.e., don’t send mixed signals by nodding an enthusiastic “Yes!” while you’re rolling your eyes to express your disapproval.

Compromise in Summary

This chapter covered a lot of ground on a topic many people find hard to discuss. Instead of hiding from compromise in your romantic relationship, I hope the information I’ve provided will encourage you to look at compromise from a different perspective across a variety of issues. Compromise involves empathy for your partner’s needs and desires with the objective of settling differences through mutual concessions to reach agreements through reciprocal modification of demands. Compromise derives from equality and respect, and not power and control. Positive compromises keep your relationship in balance. Negative compromises do more harm than good. Only you can decide where to draw the line between negative compromise—unhealthy compromise that prompts you to sacrifice your core values—and positive compromise—healthy compromise that keeps your relationship on track.

Not everyone shares the same ability or the same desire to compromise. As we grow older, some of us become more set in our own ways and less willing to change for the benefit of our relationship. This can lead to conflict, which is a normal part of any healthy relationship as long as both partners can keep their emotions in check and focus on the issue at hand. Try not to overanalyze things, but do set guidelines and follow them. Listen to each other. Maintain eye contact. Be flexible where you can. A stiff branch breaks; a soft one bends.

Whether you are in a new relationship or involved with a long-term partner, consider making a hierarchical list of all the things important to you, starting with the most essential. Then compare this to your partner’s list. Hopefully most of your priorities coincide. If not, you now have a way to help identify areas of concern. When broaching a specific compromise, consider asking yourself the following questions:

1. Will this compromise make me happy?

Many compromises involve relatively minor changes in our lives or our daily routines and have little impact on our overall satisfaction. In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff.

2. Will this compromise change who I am fundamentally?

Ask yourself if this compromise will have an adverse effect on your core values, your beliefs, or your personal goals and objectives. It’s one thing to try and work through an impasse with your partner through mutual concessions you can both live with. But it’s never a good idea to try and change someone or ask them to become someone they’re not.

3. Is my partner also compromising or am I simply giving in?

Compromise goes both ways. Compromise isn’t always fifty-fifty, but if you find the scales constantly tip in your partner’s favor, it might be time to renegotiate your position.

4. Am I really willing to make this compromise?

Be honest with yourself and decide if you’re willing to live with the compromise. If you’re not willing to make the compromise, then don’t offer it.

5. Is this compromise for the benefit of our relationship?

Are you compromising exclusively for your partner’s sake to make their life more convenient or enjoyable for them? Or will this compromise be beneficial for the overall health of your relationship?

6. Am I ready to be in this relationship?

If there are high priority issues causing too much conflict in your relationship, and you or your partner are not willing to compromise on any of them, then it might be time to reevaluate the long term viability of your relationship. Better to be happy and single—even lonely and single—than stuck in a miserable relationship.

A strong romantic relationship thrives on our ability to compromise on the smallest of issues as well as those that loom large in our own minds. If two people truly love each other, and truly accept each other for who they are as individuals with important needs and desires, then compromise for the benefit of the relationship should be something to espouse. Meaningful and lasting don’t have to imply mutually exclusive descriptors for romance to thrive. We aren’t bound by the notion of meaningful or lasting when we love someone. We are bound by our desire to give and take in equal measure, to seek balance in our lives together without sacrificing our own core values and beliefs.

If you’ve made it thus far in the book, you should have a better understanding of the first three ‘Cs’ and how the art of compromise involves the use of many skills, including communication, conflict management, and sacrifice. The fourth and final ‘C’ describes something many people shy away from, but if you’re willing to keep an open mind, you’ll find there’s nothing to fear with commitment.