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August 11, 2014

Myths and Facts About Commitment

The idea of commitment may bring up any of a variety of reactions in you: maybe you have it, and are concerned about keeping it; maybe it hasn’t been so great for you in the past.

Perhaps you’ve been yearning for a committed relationship, and are fed up with not being able to get it.  Or maybe you’ve already stopped reading and are running for the hills!

Any way you look at it, commitment can be a complex animal, and there are a number of tools you need to tame it.

In this article, I’ll lay out some myths about commitment, then some facts, and give you some ways to boost your chances for healthy, awesome commitment.

First, some myths about commitment.

1- Committing means giving up, or giving in.

Many people think settling down means settling, period, or completely sacrificing your own wants and needs.  Not true.  You don’t have to give up on your hopes and dreams in attempt to gain stability, and you certainly don’t have to give up on yourself.

Think about it: is giving up on who you are and all you dream of really worth having a “committed” relationship?  Besides, how committed do you think someone will stay if you don’t even know who you are?

How much would you yearn to be with someone who is willing to give up on themselves at the drop of a hat, and then be confused, hurt, sad, or mad all the time because they gave up on themselves?

It is important to know what you want, and know how to find out what a partner wants.  This does not mean demand a partner give you everything you want, either.

Sustainable commitment requires a balance, between you, me, and “we”.  The bottom line?  Hold fast to your hopes and dreams, know who you are, and don’t give up on that for the sake of an illusion of commitment.

2- Women are better at committing than men.

Guys get a bad rap in this department, for a number of reasons.  First, women are socialized and taught from an early age to get married, have kids, and have a family, so the pressure’s on, starting around, say, age 5.  Want to play house?

Second, research shows that when men do fall in love, they fall harder, and are more negatively affected when love ends than women.  This is why men show better health outcomes when in long term relationships than women do.

And these don’t just go for straight people, either.  We live in a society were there are certain pressures that are often gender and hetero specific, regardless of your identity or orientation.

If you’re not bound to these, then there is a whole other dimension contributing to these pressures, and sadly not a lot of good public relationship examples to go by.

The bottom line?  Gender difference tendencies do exist, AND, they’re often not what you think.

3- Commitment kills love.

Wrong again!  A study by Daniel O’Leary showed that feelings of being “very intensely in love” went up in couples that were together for more than 20 years.

Another study by Helen Fisher showed brain scans of couples who claimed to be madly in love after more than 17 years together.  Guess what?

Their brains lit up in the areas associated with reward, stress control, empathy, and motivation, the same as people who had recently fallen in love.  The bottom line?

Brain studies show that romantic love absolutely can be sustained with long-term commitment.

4- You can make someone commit to you if you just try hard enough.

The bad news?  You can’t make someone want to be with you long term.  They have to want that.  The good news?  There are things you can do to be more desirable, and signs to look for that a relationship is worth committing to.

Picture a stable relationship as a triangle.  According to psychologist Robert Sternberg, there are three points to this triangle, and without any of the three, the triangle would not exist.  They are intimacy, passion, and commitment.

Intimacy is the ability to be vulnerable with someone, have them receive your vulnerability, and show their own in return, at different points in the relationship.

Basically, intimacy means I can show you my tender underbelly without you attacking, you can show me yours as well, and we’ll be closer because of it.  Intimacy fosters bonding and attachment, which are essential to our survival as people and partners.

Passion is the vitality and aliveness we feel when together.  It can be erotic or otherwise, and is the thrill of being alive.  I’m sure we can all recall having fiery passion, with no intimacy or commitment.

This can be exhilarating, and awesome in its own right, but passion alone does not make for a stable, committed relationship.  Passion also is not just about sex.

It’s about a drive to thrive, not just survive.  If you’ve lost this drive in your life, you need to seek situations that will get it back.  Learning, loving, and creating are some ways to do this.

Commitment is the stability to choose to stay together in the short term, and the shared accomplishments and life goals in the long term.  It’s about sharing hopes and dreams, encouraging each other’s, and actively choosing to be together through thick and thin.  If one doesn’t want this, it won’t survive.

So you see, commitment is just one of three important aspects of an awesome relationship.  You can have any one or two without the others, and these partial combinations lead to friendships, infatuations, romance, or empty love, but not the solid connection that comes from having all three.

So why do some so desperately want commitment, or others try so hard to avoid it?  The answer is fairly simple.

We want it because we need connection, and desire companionship; we avoid it because we are afraid of being hurt or have been disillusioned by partial commitments in the past.  It’s okay.

Some of us are just at different places in the journey, and recognizing someone’s desperation to either seek or avoid commitment isn’t personal: it may have little to do with you, and everything to with where they are in that journey.

So, how do I get solid commitment, anyway?

1- Know yourself.

Know who you are, what you want from life, and what you want from a relationship.  If you don’t intimately know these things about yourself—the good, the bad, and the ugly—then how the heck do you know what to look for?

2- Be flexible.

A partner’s hopes and dreams may not be exactly the same as your own.  As long as they don’t dramatically conflict with each other (examples: one wants kids, the other does not; one wants monogamy, the other does not), being different is not wrong and does not have to be a threat.

Encourage passion, and be open to new things.  Of course, don’t be afraid to set boundaries and stand up for yourself, either.  Knowing when to do what will hugely depend on #1- Know yourself.

3- Look for signs of the triangle.

Is there a sense of vitality or aliveness that comes from being together?  Can you be intimately close (emotionally, not just sexually), without being terrified, dismissive, or careless?

Do you seek long-term companionship from each other?  These are the three parts of the triangle, and are the signs to look for.  Be patient: these things take time to discover, and all three are crucial.

Take your time: this discovery is a beautiful process and shouldn’t be rushed.

4- Don’t be afraid to let go.

If it isn’t right, move on.  This won’t be your last chance!  Don’t give up on yourself by clinging to a lifeless possibility.  You’ve given it your all, now it’s time to know when to move on.

The bottom line of commitment?  It is complex, takes time, patience, and flexibility, and requires knowing how to identify what exactly you’re looking for.

It requires being open to a partner, and encouraging their own uniqueness as well.  Commitment can be so rewarding when you find it, so don’t give up!

Be willing to take chances, and learn to know when to move on.  Of course, this all can only happen if you really want it.  Don’t rush yourself—you’ll know when you’re there.

About the author

Nicole Van Ness

Nicole Van Ness is a registered intern of marriage and family therapy in San Diego, California (IMF#62392).  Her approach as an intimacy-based therapist is a unique blend of pragmatic-experiential, affective neuroscience, and mindfulness-based approaches. 

She works with couples and individuals on relationships and sexuality, under supervision of Aimee Zakrewski Clark (MFC43736) and Dr. Karen Gless (MFC21432).  She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Marriage and Family Therapy at Alliant International University.

Learn more or read her blog at