Elizabeth Ryan CoPotential - Counselling Relationships








Elizabeth Ryan Promises, Promises
You're everything I never knew I always wanted.
- unknown author

Making a relationship commitment is one of the most important promises we ever make because of the depth and breadth of the potential ramifications. Relationship commitment is about retaining dedication to each other despite differences, personal limitations, crises, other options, etc. Can we legitimately pledge to love, honour and cherish another person - until death us do part - when we've barely tasted adulthood? Whereas our involvement may be very intense at that time and our intentions sincere, do we know enough about ourselves and our partner to make an informed decision?

Many of us make such a commitment at a time in our development when we know little about ourselves and haven't had time to do the sort of experiential learning that's required for us to develop emotional stamina. It takes a certain level of emotional maturity and self-awareness to understand our feelings and realise why we act and react as we do. 

Whether we're older or younger, generally we make a relationship commitment when we're over the moon about each other. Instead of seeing new partners for the complex human beings they are, in this starry-eyed state we superimpose onto them a fantasy construct of our ideal partner. We venerate potential partners by ignoring their shortcomings and exaggerating their strengths. In the formation stage of a relationship, we also tend to airbrush ourselves such that we present to our partner a positive, albeit fictitious, self-image.

When we're knowledgeable and realistic about our partner and ourself we're in better shape to make a valid commitment. It's unrealistic to expect a strong union to evolve between two people whose perception of themselves and each other is largely the product of illusion. It's abundantly preferable that we wait until this temporary insanity has passed. It also behoves us to delay any preemptive decisions until we've evaluated our mutual compatibility. If we aren't compatible our premature promises can lead to broken dreams and broken hearts. 

In my early 20s, my criteria for a marriage partner were that he was handsome, ambitious, a good dancer and not too fond of alcohol. Not knowing enough about my childhood hurts to realise how my tender spots led to my unique needs, I oscillated between disowning my specific needs, and silently criticising myself for having them. To give our relationship the best chance to endure affirmatively, we need to know enough about ourselves to be able to evaluate our compatibility with another person. It takes more than good looks, ambition, fancy footwork and sobriety for love to flourish. 

Moreover, the veracity of the commitments we make at any age may be more wholesome if they were made progressively rather than in a single moment of romantic surrender before we're well informed about each other. The first of such incremental commitments is usually to sexual and emotional fidelity. At the next level, we're likely to agree to work toward developing a healthy relationship. When a firm base has been established and compatibility seems high (the elements and importance of compatibility will be discussed in a subsequent article), then it might be appropriate to consider a commitment to being together indefinitely. 
Before making successive commitments, it's advisable that couples assess what they expect from, and can contribute to, a relationship. It might be unfitting for some people to promise sexual exclusivity or to remain with one person thereafter. We might want to include an exit caveat should one partner find the relationship is limiting her/his personal or spiritual growth. When we realise we've made either an untimely or an uninformed commitment, we may find ourselves beholden to values we've outgrown, or committed to a person with whom we have little compatibility. Of course, it's never too late to communicate such concerns to our partner. Whether or not we've made life-binding undertakings early in our romantic association, we might want to renegotiate and/or reaffirm our commitments a few times along the way.

Notwithstanding the limitations of commitment and those who make it, most of us need it to feel motivated to invest wholeheartedly in a relationship. At first, it's desirable that the relationship's progress be experienced in parallel by the two potential partners, rather than one becoming heavily invested in the union before the other. According to Caryl Rusbult, an American relationship theorist, three factors determine whether or not we'll remain committed to a relationship - (a) How satisfied we are with the relationship; (b) whether we believe there are viable alternatives to the relationship; and (c) the potential loss of investments (material and otherwise) we'd experience if the relationship were terminated. Thus, we're likely to default on our commitment/s if we're unhappy in the relationship, we believe we'd be happier elsewhere, and/or the anticipated emotional and material losses involved in separating seem worthwhile.

In this society of in-built obsolescence and if-it-breaks-fling-it, we've embraced sequential monogamy, the antithesis of commitment, as a way of life. Many counsellors, including myself, advocate that significant relationship dissolutions present an opportunity for people to develop emotional health and expand their self-knowledge. However, if we really face up to ourselves when a committed alliance is troubled we have a grand opening to growth. In attachment relationships all the remnants of our childhood hurts and unmet needs come into focus. Lovingly confronting these issues without self-deception, defense, justification, rationalisation or self-condemnation could mean we avert considerable heartache. 

When our committed relationship is a greater source of pain than fulfillment, rather than deal with our own emotional challenges that impact on the relationship, most of us blame our partner, kiss her/him goodbye and start afresh, hoping to fall in love again. We're unlikely to be happy in our next relationship, though, if we haven't come to understand our unique hurts and the unconscious material that moved us to rescind our commitments. When we truly believe we cocreate our relationships we'll be more likely to take self-responsibility and question the part we played in the dynamics that could, or did, result in the downfall of the relationship. It's great to hold hope that our next relationship will be more successful than the past one/s, but sadly second marriages are generally no happier than first marriages. We can trade partners but we need to question whether in doing so we're avoiding facing the truth of our own limitations. 

First published "Free Spirited" Magazine June, 2004
Copyright Elizabeth Ryan, March, 2004 All Rights Reserved
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