Stronger at the Broken Places

How challenges can strengthen your relationship

Commitment: Myths and Reality

Don’t believe everything that you believe about it.

If you or anyone that you know has ever experienced what is (usually mistakenly) referred to as “commitment phobia”, there might be good reason to be hesitant or downright resistant to embracing the C-word. Webster uses terms like this to characterize commitment: sacrifice, loss or freedom, submission, institutionalization, and consignment to a prison or mental. Who in their right mind would want to sign up for that??

Fortunately, there are other more positive terms that are also used to define the word such as pledge, vow, assurance, giving one’s word, empowering, investing, and entrusting. Yet it’s not the actual definition of the word that has many of us running in the opposite direction of an invitation to take on a commitment, or to make an agreement to share one’s life with another person forever. At least that is what many of us have in mind when we think about creating a committed partnership with another human being.

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Reluctance to make this kind of a binding, seemingly permanent agreement which has long term (“till death do us part”) consequences, is completely understandable in light of the stakes. In taking on a commitment, we open ourselves to literally inconceivable possibilities, for better or worse, to quote another much used wedding vow.

Dictionary definitions aside, there are, of course, other reasons to be somewhat reluctant to choose a committed partnership. For one thing, many of us have had personal experiences in relationships of all kinds, but especially close ones, going all the way back to childhood, in which there was abuse, loss, disappointment, or betrayal that has left us feeling wary of entering that territory again. After all, unless we have some good reason to trust that this time things will turn out differently, it would seem foolish to opt to put ourselves in a that position again. Until we trust that we have learned the lessons that our previous experiences have held for us and we have addressed the wounds of our past, it is likely that history will repeat itself.

While the conventional understanding of commitment does suggest something permanent and irrevocable, we would like to offer a slightly different take on the term that provides a little more breathing room without compromising the essential meaning of the word.

While the primary associations that we have with commitment have to do with time and longevity, the term really has more to do with the quality rather than the quantity of our time together. Commitments are made outside of time. The question is not so much about whether or not we stay together, no matter what, but about the kind of relationship we are both agreeing to create together. What is our shared purpose in coming together? What is our vision for the future? What experiences can we co-create that we can’t achieve by ourselves? What is it that we see in this person that makes us want to spend our life with them? And what will it take on each of our parts to bring these aspirations to fruition?

Commitment can be seen as a process of dealing with the challenges and opportunities that relationships inevitably provide. It is the container that holds our sacred pledge to fulfill what we see as the fundamental purpose of our connection; a container that can hold inconceivable possibilities for our lives and the lives of all whom we touch. Any intentions or goals that two people desire to experience can be included in this container. Those goals can be as specific and personal as intimacy and self-discovery or as universal as service to a cause, or to a shared honoring of a spiritual tradition or anything in between. We all have the authority to determine the nature of the contents of our container. When we remember that no one but ourselves has the authority to hold us to a commitment, it no longer feels so confining. True commitments cannot be assigned or prescribed by another, but must spring from within the depth of our own heart. When this is the source of the commitment that joins two people together, they will not feel forced to stay together, but will feel blessed in the gift of their partnership.

And, there will be difficult times. Even the best relationships have their moments (and longer) of hardship, suffering, and doubt. Being committed doesn’t prevent these experiences from arising, but it reminds us that our underlying shared intention is bigger than the temporary distress that we may experience from time to time. It serves to remind us that these bumps on the road are opportunities to develop practices that will strengthen the qualities that will support us in becoming more whole and loving human beings.

In the course of many relationships doubts and difficulties can cause us to question whether it’s really worth it to continue to hang in there. It’s possible to be committed and to simultaneously confront this question. After all, not every relationship is meant to be permanent. Commitment doesn’t mean that you now have to sleep in the bed that you made (so to speak) for the rest of your life, but it does mean that you both share an agreement to honor the principles of your contract, regardless of the form that your relationship takes. When the container of our relationship is sealed, the motivation and safety to do the work that is necessary to honor our shared commitment grows within both partners. And as a result, our skill and effectiveness in dealing with these challenges increases proportionately.

The real power in commitment arises out of our willingness to take responsibility for continually and repeatedly making the choice to continue to honor it. In this process we align and mobilize our energies together. Like electricity, commitment is a force field that can be used to bring about any outcome. At its essence it is neither positive nor negative.

Committed relationships call forth the best and the worst in us. From the ecstatic passion of the heat of infatuation we may step into the fire of conflicting desires or idealized projections. The breakdowns that are inherent in the process of passing through various stages of relationship provide us the means through which we can open to deeper levels of our hearts’ greatest longings. 

Unique opportunities exist in committed partnerships. When we close the exit door of our relationship other doors open; doors that allow us to heighten our experience of joy, generosity, creativity, and passion for living.

As a wise man once said, “There’s no free lunch.” Committed partnerships do not come cheaply. They require courage, responsibility, imagination, and integrity. Very few of us enter these relationships fully developed in those areas. It’s mostly on the job training. But with a vision, a spirit of adventure, a willingness to play your edge, a willing partner, and support when you need it, the possibilities are endless!

Linda Bloom, L.C.S.W., and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W., are the authors of Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truths from Real Couples About Lasting Love.

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