“Commitment” is one of those staple words in relationship lingo, right up there with “love” and “compatibility.” But have you ever given much thought to the question, “What is commitment?” And do you know why committing to your partner and the relationship is such a big deal?
Once, commitment was easy…
If you’re in a long-term, committed relationship (there’s the word again!), then at some point you and your partner made the decision to take your relationship from casual to committed. Among other things, this meant that you wouldn’t see any other people, that you would prioritize each other as among the most important (if not the most important) facets of your lives, and that you each would put the time and effort in to making the relationship work. Also, the assumption (whether it was overtly stated or implied) was that you two would ensure that this relationship was ongoing. (Relationships aren’t like apartment leases…you don’t enter into them with an end-date in mind.)
Commitment, in short, means that you and your partner decided to make your intimate relationship the most central feature of your lives, around which other features flow. And when your love was new, committing probably felt easy.
Committed relationship basics: what happens to commitment as time goes by?
For many of us, the clarity of commitment tends to slide into the taking-it-for-granted mindset of complacency. This is not a bad thing (so it doesn’t mean something’s amiss with your relationship or with you as a partner!), it’s often a natural thing. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to shore your relationship up and guard against the commitment-slide.
When things are going well for we humans, the things that are working tend to retreat to the background of our consciousness. For instance, say you’ve been audited by the IRS and were dismayed because your receipts were a mess. Fear of facing a penalty may have forced you to become more organized so that if you were to face another audit in the future, you could back up all your deductions with proof. But if a few more years go by without the hint of an audit, you might slide into complacency again. You might once again have coffee-stained receipts scattered around your car, your office, your garage, the bottom of your purse, while blithely telling yourself you’d get around to organizing at another point. The fear of audit has faded and you’ve slid back to the very human urge to find the path of least resistance.
Intense emotions tend to make us see things in a different way. In the above IRS example, the emotion was fear. In the beginning of your relationship, it was the heady feeling of being in love (and that’s when commitment felt easy, natural, a no-brainer!). Your love for your partner hasn’t gone away, it has changed in how it is manifested, from a white-hot heat to a slow simmer…this is not only natural, but useful—think back to the early months of your relationship. You probably couldn’t focus on anything else, quite literally. Which made it hard to attend to other important areas of your life…
Re-committing to your committed relationship: 3 reasons why you should
Keep in mind that you may be just as committed to your partner now as you were in the beginning—perhaps even more so. So it’s not that your commitment is waning—holding your commitment in your consciousness may be waning (due to that complacency-slide we discussed). But you can consciously commit again, and it will do you and your relationship a world of good. Here are 3 reasons why you should.
1) Relationship and marital conflict happens
No matter how compatible you and your partner may be, and no matter how in sync your worldviews may be, you will argue. It’s inevitable and inescapable. Therefore, it’s something to be recognized rather than bemoaned. Two people sharing their lives is a beautiful thing, and it’s a recipe for mistakes and missteps. Life is messy, and no matter how much of a cohesive unit the two of you are, you’re still two individuals who, at times, will bump heads.
Re-committing to commitment (saying, “Yes, I want to be with you, and I will continue to work at this”) puts those inevitable arguments in a different light than if your commitment felt hazy. If you two aren’t sure about the level of your commitment anymore, and if you have a really big fight, that fight may have the potential to hobble your relationship in a way it wouldn’t if commitment were the umbrella sheltering you both.
2) Temptations arise
To repeat a point stated earlier, you are human. (This may feel like an obvious point, but you wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve worked with who are punishing themselves for having human urges and experiencing human foibles…often people are much quicker to forgive others than they are themselves.) Therefore, because of your humanness, there will be times when you’re surprised by noticing or admiring or even feeling attracted to someone other than your partner. As with the point about conflict above, this is inevitable.
This only becomes a problem if you act on those attractions, if you turn those temptations into reality and, in the process, betray your partner. If you feel fully committed to your partner, it’s less likely you will succumb to temptations outside the relationship. Your relationship will be your touchstone. You will want to protect the union you’ve so fully committed to. And therefore attractions will be seen for what they are (superficial twinges that come and go, and ones that hold no meaning and can’t even compare to what you and your partner share and have built together).
3) Intimacy is calling
Whether you’re at the early stages of your committed relationship or at the point where you’d like to re-commit and avoid taking the commitment for granted, setting the intention to commit deepens intimacy. Intimacy is all about each of you sharing your deepest, most vulnerable self with the other. It’s all about the kind of emotional closeness you won’t get in any other facet of your life. And it’s hard (or impossible) to be deeply vulnerable and reveal the most hidden parts of yourself to someone you’re not committed to.
So commitment isn’t some run-of-the-mill concept that may or may not impact your union—it’s tied up in all the workings of your relationship. It’s part of the foundation supporting your relationship, and therefore deserves to be nurtured.
So how do I set the intention to commit (or re-commit)?
Keep commitment in the forefront of your mind, instead of letting it slip to the background as you deal with all the attention-hogging curveballs that life throws you. Remind yourself of all the things you love about your partner (and don’t keep this to yourself—share it with him/her as well).
Nurturing this mindset is simple, but it’s not necessarily easy, especially when life clamors for your attention and presents you with non-relationship issues to solve. And especially when your partner does something particularly trying (like driving into the garage door…true story, and yes, I have my wife’s permission to share it here). But not only are those the times when it’s hardest to keep your thoughts steadily on commitment, those are the times when it’s most important to (revisit point #1 above).
“Simple” doesn’t mean “easy,” but you can do it!
Simple and easy are sometimes two different things. Many of the most meaningful things are simple (uncomplicated and straightforward), but they’re not easy to do because life is so complicated at times that the simple things tend to get lost or put on hold. (And often a healthy dash of gratitude for what’s already working in your relationship is just the thing to keep you centered on your intention.) Being gentle with yourself as you practice making a conscious decision toward commitment is well worth every bit of effort!
Here’s to ramping up the commitment in your relationship!
Dr. Rich Nicastro