In the past, women were the gender most likely to ask me how to get their male partners to commit to a long-term relationship. My male patients more often asked for advice as to how they could better "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 glorified in the musical production, "My Fair Lady,' where Eliza's drunken father, on the night before his reluctant wedding, sings, "Get me to the Church on Time."
As women have begun coming into their own, they have options for sexual and financial freedom they've never enjoyed before. With those new choices, many are becoming more like their male counterparts, 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 veritable time clock is closer, they aren't panicking the way they once may have. Having options that they have never had before, they can put that concern off well into their thirties, giving them more time to develop careers, to date multiple men, and to observe how and why relationships succeed or fail.
In addition, many men and women now must wonder if the people they are dating are really who they say they are. Often pairing up in rapid intimate liaisons with literal strangers, today's daters are often awash in strange waters with no map or manual. Partners who appear to be authentic and real can instantly disappear without a trace, "ghosting" a prior 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. Previous versions of both people's dating history can be fabricated, embellished, or exaggerated, with no way for a new partner to know what is true and what is not.
This situation has produced a totally new way to not only look at what commitment means, but to wonder if its staying power should even be trusted. How does anyone know what he or she will want ten years from now, or whether or not a current commitment will morph into a lasting one? Whether a present partner will turn out to be a long-term prospect is not as clear as it might once have been. 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 a hundred thousand intimate hours with patients over the last four decades, I believe there are still some solid criteria to help both genders decide between long-term partnering or short-term sequential explorations. Those qualifications are neither mysterious nor difficult to understand, but may have become buried by media hype and unrealistic expectations. Here is what I've seen:
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 begin to want deeper and longer histories with one person, rather than the novelty of sequential "newness." Or, they've had a couple of great, long-term relationships but weren't ready to commit at the time, and now are. They start looking for characteristics in partners they that wear well over time, rather than those that deliver 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, willing to face 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 their prior disappointments into new relationships. They have previous partners who are still hanging on; 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 their support, other kinds of unfinished business, or personality characteristics that have consistently doomed prior relationships. They might still harbor triggers from previous traumas that can erupt inappropriately with new partners. Or, too often, they try to make a new relationship stand trial for all those that have failed, putting more pressure on the new partner to walk on egg shells to avoid being seen as a symbolic past person.
Both partners in new relationships can't start anew if they haven't dealt with those ghosts from the past. Some prior losses will, of course, carry into the present, and a new partner has the right to know what is coming down the pike before wading in those waters. Bad past experiences are not the problem. Not learning from them, is.
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 usually reserved for small children.
As those expectations are replaced with more mature relationship behaviors, most lovers 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 filled with behaviors that coalesced with the other partner's, and those that might have disappointed were suppressed. When the full authenticity of each person emerges, many couples are caught unaware and 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. That privilege is never taken lightly nor used as a threat, but 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 will need to be revisited and reclaimed. They also simultaneously continue to reinvent their future together based on what they are learning and experiencing as they go along. That interweaving of past and future can only happen in the moment, but are necessary and vital pieces 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 their ever-changing relationship. They continually help each other to exorcise any emotional demons and to welcome the joy of their capacity to create a better life together than they could without each other.
To help put all this together, I have created ten simple questions you can ask yourself and a potential partner, to see if both of you are ready to make a commitment 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?
- Have you 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 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?
The 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 those 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 most often equalize out with 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 I know who have successfully made that happen tell me that they could not consider living any other way.
Dr. Randi's free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you'll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded "honeymoon is over" phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring. www.heroiclove.com