In the past, my female clients were more likely to ask me how to get male partners to commit to a long-term relationship, while men more often asked for advice as to how they could “score” with a desired woman and rarely asked me how or when they should commit to a long-term involvement. Their early dating experiences took an easy second place to their career development. Until maturity, career status, and peer pressure coalesced, they were often reluctant to give up the freedom that single status provided. A perfect example was portrayed in the musical My Fair Lady, when Eliza’s drunken father, on the night before his reluctant wedding, sings, “Get me to the church on time.”
Today, however, women have more sexual and financial freedom, and with those expanded options, many are becoming more like their male counterparts once were, weighing whether it’s to their benefit to commit to one partner forever (and certainly not until they have finished exploring all possibilities). Even when their "time" is closer, they don't panic the way they once may have, as they can put that concern off well into their thirties. This gives them more time to develop careers, date multiple men, and observe how and why relationships succeed or fail.
In addition, many men and women today must wonder if the people they date are really who they say they are. Often pairing up in rapid liaisons with literal strangers met online, today’s daters can find themselves awash in strange waters with no map or manual. Partners who appear authentic and real can disappear without a trace, “ghosting” a partner as if he or she never existed. Too often, new partners withhold the truth about where they come from or who they really are until a relationship is already in full swing.
This situation has produced a totally new way to not only look at what commitment means but to wonder if we should even trust its staying power. How does anyone know what he or she will want 10 years from now, or whether a current commitment will morph into a lasting one? Of course, total security has always been an illusion, yet there must be some way to know when a potential relationship is worth the investment.
Having spent over 100,000 intimate hours with clients over the last four decades, I believe there are still some solid criteria to help men and women decide between long-term partnering or short-term exploration. The qualifications are neither mysterious nor difficult to understand, but may have become buried by media hype and unrealistic expectations:
There is no one-size-fits-all formula here, but most people can tell when their search experiences begin to produce reliable results. They’ve looked around a lot, had both good and bad relationships, and begun to want deeper and longer histories with one person, rather than sequential novelty.
Or they’ve had a couple of great, long-term relationships, weren’t ready to commit at the time, but now they are. They start looking for characteristics in partners that wear well over time, rather than those that deliver only short-term excitement.
They’ve hopefully paid attention to what they have to offer and what they need in a relationship in order to continually thrive. And, facing reality, they aren’t hiding their own deficits. They realize that good relationships need continuous investments of devotion, and they’re not fooling themselves that forever happens automatically.
Too many people bring prior disappointments into new relationships. They have previous partners who are still hanging on or exes who aren’t finished punishing. They may also have developed pre-defeated attitudes or impossible expectations.
Others have financial disasters, family members who need support, other kinds of unfinished business, or personality characteristics that have consistently doomed relationships. They might still harbor triggers from previous traumas that can erupt inappropriately with new partners.
Or, they try to make a new relationship stand trial for all those that have failed. They pressure a new partner to walk on eggshells to avoid being seen as a symbolic past person. No one can start anew if they haven’t dealt with the ghosts of the past. Some prior losses, of course, carry into the present, and a new partner has the right to know what is coming before wading into those waters. Bad past experiences are not the problem—not learning from them is.
3. Understanding What Commitment Entails
Many people choose to commit too early, while they are in the throes of new lust and passion. New romance is most often a symbolic parent-child crisscross of two people searching for unconditional acceptance and safety, combined with the excitement of adult, magical attraction. That’s why they call each other by the pet names we usually reserve for small children.
As couples replace those expectations with more mature relationship behaviors, most hit that “honeymoon is over” fear that their love might have been an illusion. As romantic lust subsides, so does the unwavering desire to be those perfect pseudo-parents to each other. The early moments of the relationship were full of behaviors that coalesced with the other partner’s, and both suppressed those that might have disappointed. The full authenticity of each person catches many couples unaware and they have not developed the resiliency and tools they need to resolve unexpected ruptures.
The hope that a long-term commitment is possible always begins with open and honest authenticity. It means that a couple vows to be real, up-front, open and vulnerable from the get-go. They teach each other about who they really are in every phase of their lives. And they know what they need, who they are, where and with whom they’ve been, and why their prior relationships didn’t work. They can share their dreams, how they have faced challenges, what they can and can’t consistently offer, and how they’ve dealt with losses in the past.
They also know who they want to become and the kind of partner they need to accompany them on their journey. They know that commitment and maturity go hand in hand and that welching on deals is not part of a great relationship. And, they fully realize that life can deal unexpected and sometimes wrenching blows, but that people who love and cherish each other want to work together to become a better team through that process.
They also know that obligation and martyrdom are the enemies of consistent and regenerating intimacy. Both know that the other would never hold them prisoner in a relationship that no longer fulfills them. Each never takes that privilege lightly nor uses it as a threat. Rather, they use it as the absolute desire for each to find their most productive life, with or without the other. Interestingly, when there is no need or desire to possess, the desire to stay often grows stronger.
Couples who make successful long-term commitments live in the richness of their moments but also realize that the past will emerge from time to time and that they will need to revisit and reclaim it. They also simultaneously continue to reinvent their future together based on what they learn and experience as they go along.
That interweaving of past and future can only happen in the moment, but is a necessary and vital piece of an ever-enriching puzzle each couple creates together. Each new experience emerges from the past and envisions the future. Each partner brings to the relationship a different awareness and consciousness of how memories of the past and visions of the future create an ever-changing relationship. They continually help each other exorcise emotional demons and welcome the joy of their capacity to create a better life together than they could without each other.
10 Readiness Questions
You can ask yourself and a potential partner these 10 simple questions to see if you're both ready to commit to a long-term relationship. You can also ask these questions in retrospect of friends who have been successful in staying together, or those who are still seeking that possibility.
- Have you resolved your major relationship dilemmas from the past?
- Do you know your emotional triggers and how to calm your reactivity?
- Do you have the ability to present who you are and want to become clearly and honestly?
- Are you ready to give up the freedom of continuing to experience other relationships?
- Are you able to accept your own limitations and share them openly?
- Do you think you can stay the course even if there are unexpected challenges?
- Do you understand that love and commitment need constant reinvestment of time, energy, and love?
- Can you view a committed relationship as an ever-transforming entity?
- Are you ready to be a permanent team, sharing and blending resources?
- Do you still believe that great long-term relationships are possible?
Partners in successful long-term relationships don’t always feel the same about each other every minute of every day. They know that love waxes and wanes and they weather the separations with courage and faith. They also know that, from time to time, one may go ahead while the other stays behind, but those differences typically equalize over time.
While they willingly adjust their individual paths for the relationship to thrive, they also would never hold the other person in a partnership that could not fulfill them. It is not easy to devote one’s heart, mind, and soul to another, but the couples who successfully make it happen tell me that they could not consider living any other way.