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.
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 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 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.
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.
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
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 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 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 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.”
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.
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.