Is Your Relationship a Committed One or Not?

by Barb Elgin, MSW, LCSW-C

“There is nothing equal to the health, economic, emotional and social benefits one enjoys when he or she is part of a committed, thriving and socially supported life partnership”

I was talking with a client recently regarding her definition of commitment. She, like many of us, is sincerely confused when it comes to the concept. Given the lack of education most of us have accumulated on the topic, along with society’s current laissez faire (or at best mixed) attitude on the subject, this lack of clarity is not surprising.

Bleeding Heart

Our discussion made me wonder: Why don’t we receive education regarding that 4th ’R’, relationships, like we do the other three R’s? Oh yeah, that’s right, with George W. Bush’s national marriage initiative, this education is coming to a school near you soon, but you can bet the needs of GLBT youth will be ignored by these programs (this is a separate issue beyond the scope of this article!). I digress…

While many in the straight world are also confused about the ’C’ word, it seems gays and lesbians are even more confused. This too isn’t surprising, as gays and lesbians have most likely received even less socialization, education or support regarding their relationship skills.

For example, in many relationships, gay and straight, individuals have very different definitions of commitment and, worst of all, often the issue hasn’t been brought out into the open and discussed, before an individual decides whether or not to deepen their involvement with another person.

What happens when individuals neglect to clarify their requirements regarding commitment?

In this article I am going to share with you just one definition of commitment. It’s a perspective most likely you’ve never heard of before. It’s an intriguing one that is proving helpful to many singles and couples who are creating long term, deeply satisfying relationships.

The perspective on commitment I’m about to share with you is very clear and one I recommend each person strongly consider referring to while deciding whether to spend your life with another person. The guidelines I’m about to share can help you keep your wits about you when it comes to matters of the heart.

But before I share the guidelines with you, I’d like to illustrate the danger of not getting clear about your definition of commitment and ensuring your partner feels the same by telling you more about my client’s story:

To my client, the fact she had been living with her partner for over a dozen years was her ’litmus test’. She felt very committed to her partner and, while she had been attracted to a couple of other women in the course of their time together due to unresolved issues between her and her partner, she didn’t act on those feelings and she remained sexually monogamous in the relationship.

Lesbians, in particular, are vulnerable to expecting too little or, ’settling’, in their relationships like my client was doing with her partner. That’s because sexual orientation and sex role socialization are two different issues. Many lesbians are psychologically female, that is, we’ve learned all-too-well the ’nice girl’, passive role.

My client had convinced herself she and her partner were in a committed relationship just because they lived together, they had a monogamous physical relationship, exchanged rings, were seen by friends and family as a couple, slept in the same bed, etc.

However, the reality was much starker: my client’s partner never truly, fully ’committed to’ my client. This was evidenced in many telling ways that WEREN’T okay with my client, such as:

  • Assuming and/or demanding that she should make all the big life decisions that effected both of them despite my client’s requests that they share power in the relationship;
  • Denying and/or refusing to talk about recurrent problem issues in their relationship;
  • Controlling my client’s finances even though the controlling partner never wanted to share hers;
  • Avoiding my client’s pleas to get counseling to help them resolve problems they never seemed to get beyond.

In the end, my client hung in there unhappily (after all, isn’t that what ’nice girls’ are supposed to do?). In fact, my client had tried to leave her partner several times, without success, due to her own anxieties about starting over. Then, my client experienced a ’final straw’ - her partner started lying to her and had an affair with another woman, without remorse, while expecting my client to continue to stay and live with her, be her companion (including fully contributing to the household) and act like nothing had changed.

Now my client is paying the consequences for her ’short sighted’ relationship choice - she has to ’start over’ as a single person, after many years invested - emotionally, financially, socially, etc. - in an ultimately unfaithful partner who didn’t have the maturity to get through the ’power struggle’ stage of an adult relationship. In leaving, my client forfeited even more than the average married straight person does because she can’t divorce her partner and receive alimony, half the rent payments she’d made to her client who owned their home, etc. However, the self-respect she is now gradually learning is priceless.

On top of all of the above, my client is suffering severe feelings of ’separation anxiety’ or ’relationship withdrawal’ because she had so focused her feelings and energies on this former partner and their life together. After all, anyone separating or divorcing after a decade living a certain way would need to grieve, no? Add to that the fact that she, like so many women, is so trained to define herself through others. My client isn’t ’out of the woods’ yet. She’ll need to be supportable and get lots of support to be a successful single and choose better the next time around.

Before you can ask for commitment from someone else, don’t you need to commit to yourself?

As I thought about my client’s predicament, it occurred to me that the even greater commitment my client neglected to make (the one that would have helped her leave that relationship much sooner or avoid getting involved with a person with so many problems in the first place!) is to herself!

Certainly in the gay and lesbian community, and, more than ever in the straight community, living together without a formal commitment is common. Perhaps we’ve become so ’relaxed’ as a society because, before, individuals felt forced, as if they had no other choice, but to marry and ’live happily ever after’. Up until now, there has been a lack of romantic ’options’ for adults.

Some ’co-habitative’ relationships have survived happily, over the long haul. But many, many others haven’t. Many studies show that the rate of breakups in non-marital, live-in relationships is even higher than the 60+% rate for marriages. I think I know why.

I’ll go out on a limb here and offer some ’tough love’: People don’t grasp the huge significance of commitment and, they don’t know how to use it to guide their behavior in intimate relationships. It seems some see commitment when it’s not really there, some aren’t being truthful with their partner about the type(s) of commitment they desire and some take it all too lightly. Many others neglect to nurture the commitment aspect of their relationship.

Commitment: More of what it’s not…

Many of us get caught up in gray areas (NOT commitment) and put ourselves at risk, i.e.: make commitment choices that lead to great pain and loss in the long run, like my client above. Many of us, like my client, fall into the ’virtual reality’ trap - that is, the belief that ’some day’, her partner will change and give her what she wants - or settle for verbal promises of some future intention to perform a particular act. But is either of these evidence of commitment? Perhaps a commitment to insanity! What do we call it when the other person has shown, pretty consistently, that they can’t even keep a promise! I say it’s ’get the hell out of Dodge!’

So, let’s get out of the gray and into black and white about this term commitment. Just what does it mean to ’commit to’ another person or relationship?

According to my mentor and relationship expert David Steele, commitment is occurring when there is both:

Facts demonstrated by behavior AND attitudes consisting of certain thoughts and feelings.

A promise is something you say; a commitment is something you do. And, a promise is usually limited to a particular situation; a commitment is broader, involving behaviors and attitudes that we can generalize, that is, occur consistently/across the board. The committed person has shown behaviors consistent with commitment in the past, is doing so today and evidences commitment to the future as well.

So, according to Steele, here are some signs YOU are in a committed relationship:

A. There is an ’alignment’ of fact and attitude - the fact of commitment includes three criterion:

  1. Promises are made to each other about the permanent nature of the relationship, that are kept (there is a track record of a partner keeping his or her promises!)
  2. An explicit, formal, public declaration is made (legal marriage or other) and
  3. Your commitment in the eyes of your partner and others is unambiguous

B. Your partner is aware your relationship is committed, you don’t question whether the relationship is committed, and you and your partner agree on the status of your relationship.

As Steele says: “A commitment is explicit and unambiguous. A commitment is a formal event of some kind between two people. A commitment is something you DO over time. A real commitment is usually legally enforceable and there are consequences for breaking it. And, for a relationship to be truly committed, there are no exits - mentally, emotionally or physically. When the going gets rough, you make it work.”

Now, neither Steele nor I is advocating that people stay in abusive situations or that a marriage certificate is like a magic wand that hermetically seals and protects a relationship forever! Some of us have all the legal t’s crossed and i’s dotted but have our attitudes out of joint (such as when a married person questions, AFTER HE OR SHE MARRIES SOMEONE, ’is this the person for me?” Steele calls this being married but having a premarital attitude.) Not a pretty picture…

The types of ’no exits’ and legalities I am suggesting here aren’t something one feels ’coerced’ into. Instead, these are decisions one willingly makes, because he or she has committed oneself to do so. Try this next time when the going gets tough (instead of withdrawing or directing anger at your partner) and watch your attraction for your partner grow! In fact, I’ve observed (in fact have experienced it myself) that when someone puts energy into the commitment aspect of a relationship, often the other two major relationship aspects, chemistry and compatibility, are energized as well!

Evaluating your (and your partners) level of commitment…

So, if what Steele is suggesting is true, if you and/or your partner can’t (or won’t) take the actions he suggests of formalizing your relationship legally and/or publicly, then I’d be concerned about the long-term viability of your relationship as well as each of your motives.

Or, if you and your partner don’t openly discuss these matters early in your relationship, I’d beware. If your partner won’t make an effort to explore the issue with you or you don’t want to make such a commitment, I’d be wary of intermingling your lives, especially as far as creating any legally enforceable ties between you and the other person (such as co-owning property, co-mingling finances, etc.).

Some of us truly are in a place right now (or always) where we want relationships without the type of complete ’marital-like’ commitment I am referring to here, which is fine, as long as this is out on the table, both partners are truly okay with that and no one is being misled or deceived.

Because marriage is no longer the preferred option for all couples (and it isn’t an option for most gay couples), society is getting more creative in designing alternative public and legal arrangements such as Relationship Agreements, which are similar to pre-nuptial agreements.

If children are involved, you need to make whatever legal arrangements you can to foster a good working relationship between each of you AND create a plan for what would happen IF either of you decided to end the relationship.

Now, I know most of us aren’t used to talking so openly and honestly about a ’sensitive’ relationship issue like commitment. It just doesn’t seem too sexy. But when we avoid doing so, we do so at our own peril! Deal with it now or deal with it later - your choice! There is no free lunch!

Commitment, with a Twist

You can also see, if you are gay or lesbian, that there are some additional ’wrinkles’ and/or challenges you face in securing a genuine commitment with another individual.

Unless you live in a state or country which allows same sex civil unions or marriage, you will need to find other formal, public, legal ways to make a genuine, ’no exits’ commitment to one another. Even the use of the term ’significant other’, so popular for so long in our community, indicates the ’second class or lesser importance’ we (and others) tend to place on our relationships as compared to the respect we bestow upon the term ’married’.

In fact, there are many studies showing the overall higher quality of life married people enjoy (if the marriage is good). Many studies show that married people are healthier - physically, socially, emotionally, financially, etc. - and, on average live longer than single people. Keep in mind that we don’t yet have studies looking at the health of married gay couples, or gay couples in general. However, Herdt and Kertzner, in their article “I Do But I Can’t: The Impact of Marriage Denial on the Mental Health and Sexual Citizenship of Lesbians and Gay Men in the United States” reports that the:

“Lack of legally recognized marriage has contributed to significant common problems faced by many same-sex couples in areas such as defining the boundaries and nature of their relationships, eliciting social and family support for the couple, and valuing relationships as legitimate expressions of love, commitment, and intimate sexual citizenship.”

And, now we know where our ’ambivalent’ attitudes towards commitment originated. According to Herdt and Kertzner, gay and lesbian couples who attend couples counseling tended to…

“Present with a sense of ambiguous commitment consisting of uncertainty about when relationships started; the extent of mutual obligations; the recognition of the partnership by family, friends, coworkers, and other important figures; and when relationships are over. According to Green and Mitchell, this commitment ambiguity results from decisions that were not preceded by an extended courtship or engagement phase, demarcated by a commitment ceremony, governed by statutes for legal marriage, approved by the partners’ respective families of origin, or solidified by becoming co-parents to children. Green and Mitchell (2002) also noted that discrimination and fear of discovery can undermine relationships if the partners do not have internal ways of countering the social stigma of homosexuality and do not have a social support system to buffer the stress associated with discrimination.”

It’s also common for gay and lesbian individuals to experience a lack of support when going through relationship difficulties and during periods of separation, or partner’s sickness and/or death, unlike their heterosexual peers, who tend to receive much more in terms of family and societal support. Often, family members are quietly happy when the gay family member is having relationship problems or is now single, because that plays into their desire to deny their family member’s sexuality.

In addition to all of the above, most gays and lesbians lack positive gay relationship role models. And, when I hear right-wing social scientists try to compare gays to straights in terms of desire to marry, it’s like comparing apples to oranges. I know their zealous generalizations are specious because…

  • Gays are only starting, in a few places, to gain the right to marry
  • In most places, gay marriage still doesn’t offer the same benefits straight marriage does
  • Most gays are in the closet, thus, they would be unlikely to make a public statement of love for another person of the same sex, even if they’d like to
  • There hasn’t yet been a generation of gays, from young to older adulthood, who marry that we can study
  • The reason many heterosexuals get married (pressure from family, friends, etc.), doesn’t exist for most gay people

So, what can you do to overcome your own ambivalence about commitment if you are affected by some of the above issues? The answer depends on whether you are married or not. If you are married, you should feel secure in the knowledge that you are just like any other married couple and acknowledge all you have to gain by practicing commitment together and towards your partner.

If you aren’t married, but you are a couple, and you desire that to continue, increase your commitment in any way you can. If you are straight or gay and living in a state that allows marriage or civil union, seriously consider making such a public and legal declaration of your commitment for one another. If it makes sense, why not?

If you are single, you now have an excellent opportunity to make the concept of commitment work for you, especially as you date, meet different people and consider becoming exclusive with another person.

No matter what your current relationship status is, and no matter what the naysayers say, there is always a lot you can do to enhance your engagement in and enjoyment of life by increasing your commitment to whatever it is that you want, need and value.

Barb Elgin, MSW, LCSW-C (Coach Sappho), is an expert in the area of couples coaching, gay dating, online dating help and tips, and lesbian relationships in individual and group settings. For an initial, complimentary consult, please contact her at: 866-396-2272 or Coach Sappho

© Barb Elgin, All Rights Reserved

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