By Jerald Young, Ph.D.
This article answers the question, “Why is a committed relationship more complicated than it looks?”
The “holy grail” for many divorced people is to find a new long-term, committed relationship. Among the losses suffered in a divorce are the familiarity and comfort of a partner in life. Finding someone new to commit to a shared life together holds the promise of “paradise re-found.” The high divorce rates of subsequent marriages suggest all too often the reality is “paradise lost – again.” Why might that be the case?
(This is the 12th article in a series of articles describing how contentment and satisfaction with life after divorce depends on being able to dissolve the very human resistance to the changes that divorce imposes on our lives.)
For a relationship to culminate in a successful long-term, committed union, a five-step relationship-building process must be acknowledged, understood, and traversed.
The Five Required Steps to a Long-Term Relationship
The path from initial introduction to a long-term committed relationship goes through five separate stages of relationship: (1) Step 1: The Transition Relationship, (2) Step 2: The Recreational Relationship, (3) Step 3: The Pre-Committed Relationship, (4) Step 4: The Committed Relationship, and (5) Step 5: The Marital Relationship. (For a discussion of recreational, pre-committed, and committed relationships, see David Steele, Conscious Dating, (Campbell, CA, RCN Press, 2008).
This article addresses the fourth step in the relationship-building process, Step 4: The Committed Relationship.
The Committed Relationship Is the Time for Both Partners to Pull Together
The previously completed recreational and pre-committed stages targeted the individual’s chemistry and logical analysis, respectively. The committed step changes the focus to the couple as a team itself in relationship with each other. No longer is the focus on “I” and “Me.” Now the focus turns to “Us,” “Our,” and “We.”
A committed relationship is one in which both partners believe their personal individual requirements can be met in the relationship. Their attention now turns to the future, and specifically how they, as a couple working together, pledge to make the relationship between them work.
Goal and the motivating question. The goal of a committed relationship is to develop ways to constructively solve problems and manage differences that arise in any relationship. The driving question that motivates this relationship is: “How can we as a couple make this work?”
The roles you and your partner play. Typically, the partners in a couple refer to each other as “my fiancé” and are very public about their relationship. Conversation focuses on making plans for their future together.
The nature of a committed relationship. The “feel” in the committed stage is one of close-knit teamwork. A sense of “we are in this together” around shared values for how each person wants to spend the rest of their lives together. This is the first time the couple, working together, is given responsibility in the developing the relationship. Up until now, the issue has been up to the individuals to do the work, separate and apart from their partner. Now the couple works together to figure out how WE can make this relationship work.
Both you and your partner are expected to be team players who are willing and able to compromise for the sake of making the relationship work. Note that, at the committed relationship stage, all the individual requirements of both partners have been settled in the previous pre-committed stage. Hence, any compromising for the sake of the team is in the area of wants, not non-negotiable requirements.
The Backdoors to a Committed Relationship
“Backdoors” are ways that allow one to “escape” from the relationship.
The backdoor to a transition, recreational, or pre-committed relationship is relatively simple, even easy. They can be ended with some version of “This is not working out for me,” and then you take your leave à la the Paul Simons song, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” I know this is oversimplifying a complex, highly emotional situation. Still, there is no legal contract to void and only a moderately strong social/psychological contract holding the couple together.
On the other hand, ending a committed relationship is more difficult. Still there are no legal contracts, but the social/psychological contract is extraordinarily strong. Time has been spent creating plans together for a future as a couple. Expectations run deep and wide. Often wedding plans are in process.
One client of mine ended a multi-year relationship two weeks before the wedding causing a rift in her family. Ten years later her siblings are still so angry and resentful that they refuse to have relationship with their sister who was only preventing a major mistake from being made by ending the relationship.
Potential Problems with a Committed Relationship
The Committed relationship requires the two partners to work together using their interpersonal skills to solve problems and manage conflict. Common potential sticky issues include where to live? Who works, doing what? When, if ever, to start a family? How many children? How and how much money to save? How much to involve in-laws in your life? The list goes on.
But what happens if they can’t, or won’t, find answers to questions like these? The relationship suffers and failure is possible.
Among the most common ways we fail at the committed step are:
(1) Taking the relationship for granted and expecting the other partner to do all the work,
(2) Trying to do all the work yourself and excluding your partner,
(3) Treating a want as a requirement,
(4) Being unwilling to compromise,
(5) Refusing to learn and use the problem-solving, conflict management skills necessary for the committed relationship to work.
So, What’s the Point?
Making a commitment to another person to live life together as an intimate couple is a serious, life-altering decision. It involves more than chemistry and confidence that the requirements of both parties can be met. In the three previous relationship stages, the major part of the relationship development lies with each individual making calculations about “What’s in it for me?”
However, in the committed relationship stage the stakes are greatly increased. Now the issue becomes can the two people, working together, make the relationship successful and last over time? Equally important, do they have the will to put in the effort and learning that is required to make the relationship successful?
Making a commitment to another person to live life with each other requires courage, determination, and the humility to admit you don’t know all the answers and are willing to learn. Your life is changing. Will you have the courage to dissolve your resistance to the changes that a committed relationship brings and make yourself vulnerable to another person so that you can co-create the relationship of your dreams?