Commitment means different things to different people – and the meaning will vary according to what stage in life you’re at and where you are in your relationship. So you want a commitment? You’ve been dating for a good few weeks, you’re having great sex, feel the ‘love buzz’, really, really, really like each other – and generally feel it’s time to take things further, to begin a relationship and become a couple. What do you say?
Levels of commitment
The one thing you really don’t say at this stage is: ‘I want a commitment.’ That’s way too much too soon – at least as far as your date-cum-possible-partner might hear it – and you’d hardly be finessing the tone.
Work out what you do want, in terms of commitment. This is probably no more than to define yourselves as ‘together’ and to agree not to have sex with other people. Then find your moment to broach the subject.
Keep it casual. Try: ‘I really like being with you.’ Check the response and, if it’s promising, go for it: ‘Does this mean we’re boyfriend and girlfriend? It would be cool if we were one-on-one and not seeing other people.’
If they say ‘yes’: bingo. If it’s ‘no’ – or ‘I really like you too but I don’t want that commitment right now’ – then you’d better believe them. You could ask when they might be ready for commitment or just mentally drop that ‘right now’ and accept they don’t want it with you – in which case, it’s your call: stick around and have fun or show them the door.
Saying: ‘I love you’
When? Absolutely not for the first three months – and if you’re being really sensible you’ll hang out longer. Love at first sight is a cute idea, but the chances are it’s lust you’re enjoying right now. You’re high on your body’s love chemicals. The phenylethylamine (PEA) is getting you giddy; the oxytocin is making you huggy… Enjoy! But give love a chance to grow – as you spend more time with each other, learn to like each other more and more, understand and know each other – so when that ‘I love you’ does drift from your lips you’re, a, reasonably sure you’ll get the right response (and that’s ‘I love you too’) and, b, have a pretty good sense of who it is you’re loving.
Choose your moment. In the throws of great sex is a bad idea. Again, keep it casual. You’re doing the washing or huddled up together on the sofa with a (preferably romantic) film – smile, kiss and try it: ‘I love you.’ If you don’t get the right response – if you get, say, ‘I’m totally into you too’ – prepare to gulp and try to salvage your dignity.
Kinds of commitment
Sexual: The agreement to be monogamous isn’t only, or even mostly, to do with avoiding exposure to Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), though this has certainly found itself higher on the agenda in recent years. It is because, rightly or wrongly, we tend to want our sexual partner all to ourselves. Sex isn’t just something we do, like going to the gym or sharing a beer with mates; it is when we are at our most intimate and fully emotionally exposed with other people. A part of us becomes theirs for the keeping – and we don’t want that feeling soiled by their giving it away. While some people can handle open relationships, most can’t.
Emotional: More broadly, and at a more advanced stage of your relationship, emotional commitment means that you guarantee to support and value your partner – to accept, share and support their emotional needs – and ultimately to feel that they are the most important person in your life. Emotional commitment grows with time. Indeed, it should continue to grow throughout the whole of the relationship. In the initial stages of a relationship, the first kernels of that commitment should be there – as you learn more about each other’s feelings and like what you find.
Intellectual: This means understanding and valuing your partner’s ideas. It means you listen and respect what your partner is saying. There should be much intellectual common ground, but where there are differences in opinions and outlook you don’t lock up and dismiss your partner as wrong.
Social: We’ve all seen those couples who support one another in public – and those who don’t. Social commitment means you take care of one another in social situations – and also that you share the decisions as to what those shared situations will be. In short, when you’re out together, you are together. That doesn’t mean you’re hanging on each other’s arm all night or forcing all present to endure your delirious outbreaks of PDA. It means you’re watchful – to make sure the other’s alright – and that you absolutely do not ever put each other down.
Why do you want commitment?
‘Commitment’ is one of those things we can tend automatically to assume is good per se. Can it ever be that our desire for commitment is wrong, or ill-founded, even detrimental to our need for relationship happiness?
Well, yes. There are those whose desire for commitment stems not from their love and affection for their partner, and their desire to make the relationship stronger, but from ideas about themselves and their lifestyle, or life-program, into which they want to slot someone – their partner will just have to fit the bill.
Do you feel it’s time to stop playing the field? To settle down, fulfill your parents’ and friends’ – and your own – expectations, get the mortgage and get the kids? If that’s your life plan you’re in serious danger of inflicting your goals on an unwilling partner – and, if this succeeds, landing yourself and your partner in a formalised and rather old-fashioned relationship, which isn’t based strongly enough on who you both are as people and so won’t satisfy you as people.
Take a step back from such big ideas about how (married) life should be and build your relationship on the rather more solid backbone of who you both, individually, really are.
There’s a difference between having cold feet and commitment phobia. If you ask for a level of commitment and your partner seems hesitant, this may be for good, sensible reasons. There might be career or financial considerations. It might be that something important is happening right now, a family crisis, for instance, which they need to get out of the way before moving on. It might be that your partner thinks you haven’t been together long enough yet – if the commitment you’re asking for is moving in or marriage. The divorce rates are soaring, relationships frequently and hurtfully come to an end. With more time, they might feel they’ll be able to commit with greater confidence.
It’s worth asking what does need to happen before their position on commitment can change. If there’s something clear in the future, hang in there. If there’s no particular reason for not committing, you stand warned.
Look at your partner’s lifestyle, their past and the ways in which they commit outside the relationship. Have they had a serious relationship in the past? If so, they can do it again, though they might be more cautious about getting hurt. Do they have a steady job? Have they lived in the same place for some time? Do they have a pet, or even a plant, they care for? These are good signs that they can stick with something into the long term.
On the other hand, do they have another commitment which outweighs you? Perhaps there’s an aging relative they care for. Perhaps the career is so important and demanding that there isn’t enough room in their life for you. Or is it that they do not commit in life ever – that they want to be free?
It’s the last of these who are the commitment-phobes. You can wait for as long as you want: it ain’t happening. If your bottom line is that, ultimately, and this should be years hence, you want marriage, you are almost certainly not going to get it here.