The question of when a relationship is committed is a source of much confusion and debate.
We live in a time when the marriage rate is going down, the co-habitation rate is going up, and the majority of first-born children are now born to unmarried parents.
In this article I hope to shed some light on this question if you struggle with wondering the status of your of relationship.
Commitment versus Promise
David Steele, author of Conscious Dating, recently had a conversation with a woman who told him that she had just broken off a “committed” relationship.
A few questions later he learned that she had been dating this person for a year, they were not living together, and the reason she broke it off is that he “cheated.”
They talked about pre-committed vs. committed relationships, and she agreed that it was a pre-committed relationship, but insisted that they had made a “commitment” to each other.
In their conversation, it occurred to David to make a distinction between a “Commitment” versus a “Promise.” The woman and her boyfriend had made a promise to each other within the context of a relationship that was not committed.
That distinction seemed to help her make more sense of things.
When he asked other relationship experts for feedback on the “commitment versus promise” distinction, most felt that it was just semantics and there is not much of a difference.
The general consensus was that when you make a promise you are making a commitment.
However, there is an important distinction:
A promise is a verbally stated future intention to perform a specific act.
“I promise to pick up your dry cleaning and not forget this time.”
“I promise to be exclusive in our relationship.”
A commitment is both a FACT demonstrated by behavior and an ATTITUDE consisting of thoughts and beliefs.
“I am committed to keeping my promises.”
“I am committed to our relationship.”
See the difference?
In short, a promise is something you say, and a commitment is something you do.
A promise is situation-specific.
A commitment is contextual.
A promise is a small commitment.
If a potential partner doesn’t keep promises, I would question their ability to keep commitments, as they are definitely related.
Confusion about Commitment
Whether or not you agree with David’s semantics, the distinction he made between a commitment and a promise was helpful for the above conversation.
The larger picture though, is that he sees a lot of confusion about the status of today’s relationships.
Some years ago when he coined the term “pre-commitment” to describe couples that were exclusive but not yet committed, it was a helpful distinction, but the question remains – “What is commitment?”
In a marriage, your commitment is, in part, demonstrated by a legal contract (marriage license) and a publicly witnessed fact (wedding with friends and family present and a witness for the marriage license).
However, sometimes in a marriage, one or both partners can have an uncommitted attitude.
In David’s research, he has talked with many unmarried people, as the woman above, who have described themselves to be in “committed relationships.”
They clearly have the attitude, but often have nothing but verbal promises (and sometimes not even that!) to demonstrate that the relationship is committed.
In my opinion, you’re not a committed relationship if:
- Your partner is not aware your relationship is committed
- You are wondering if this relationship is committed
- You and your partner have differences of opinion about the status of your relationship
- Your family and friends have different perceptions about the status of your relationship
- You and your partner have not acted to explicitly formalize your commitment in some way
- You are relying on verbal promises without a significant track record of them being kept
A commitment is explicit and unambiguous.
A high level of commitment can be a formal event of some kind between two people.
A commitment is something you DO over time.
For example, when you are committed to your health goals, you prioritize and show up for your cardio classes, you go to your doctor appointments, and you make a conscious effort to eat in ways that are aligned with your health goals. It’s the action that you take + the attitude you have.
If you say you’re committed to your health goals, but never move your body, don’t make a conscious effort to eat healthily, or choose to never go to the doctor…You’re not committed to your health goals. You’re “committed” in attitude. But not in action. And they basically cancel each other out.
Commitment is not just an attitude.
It’s the action that you take to demonstrate commitment to that which are committed to.
A high level of commitment is usually legally enforceable and there are consequences for breaking it. (As you might have experienced or heard from the divorced or divorcing man you might be dating at the moment; he might be having to pay spousal support or give his ex half of his estate or assets.)
And, for a relationship to be highly committed, in my opinion, there are no exits – mentally, emotionally, or physically. When the going gets rough, a couple in a committed relationship make it work.
But that’s not to say that commitment is ALWAYS a good thing. For example, if someone is an abusive relationship, being committed to staying together is likely not a healthy or safe choice.
The Continuum of Commitment
Commitment is not a light switch that goes from “off” to “on.”
When building a relationship with someone, the level of commitment gradually increases.
Then you have all the shades of gray…Living together, dating exclusively for more than a year, even engaged to be married, that might look and feel like commitment – but is it really?
Fact versus Attitude
Commitment in a relationship is complicated in that it takes two people, and it requires an alignment of FACT (events, actions) and ATTITUDE (thoughts, beliefs) for both partners.
For example, the guy you’re dating might be recently separated and technically committed in his relationship to his wife (e.g. “married”; committed in fact) but not in attitude (e.g. “I’m not sure this is the right relationship for me”).
In another example, sometimes couples are pre-committed in fact (e.g. dating exclusively) and committed in attitude (e.g. “This is ‘The One!’ “).
In David’s work with couples, he has found that the most important variable determining their future success is their level of commitment to the relationship.
In his experience, when couples are committed in fact, but not in attitude, their prognosis for the happiness and success of their relationship is poor.
Then, there are the pre-committed couples that generally fall into two categories:
Unconscious – typically following the “mini-marriage” model of trying the relationship out, acting without actually making the commitment. A disconnect of fact and attitude.
Conscious – aware that they are not yet committed, usually have commitment as a goal, asking themselves “Is this the right relationship for me? Should I make a commitment?” An alignment of fact and attitude.
So, When Is a Relationship Committed?
— When there is an alignment of fact and attitude.
What creates the “fact” of commitment?
David proposes these three criterion:
Criteria #1: Promises made to each other about the permanent nature of the relationship that are kept
Criteria #2: Explicit, formal, public declaration
Criteria #3: Unambiguous to partners and others
In today’s world, if all three of the above are met, I would say it is a committed relationship, whether legally married or not.
Can You Be “Committed” When You’re Dating?
The short answer, in my opinion, is no. (Depending on the stage of dating)
When you’re dating, you’re usually still in the stage of the relationship where you’re getting to know each other and gathering a lot of information to help you decide whether you even want to make a long-term commitment.
You might be seeing each other exclusively, but commitment according to David’s definitions above, is when you’re “all in” with this person both in fact and in attitude.
When you’re dating, people don’t typically have the attitude of being “all in” with no exits.
When we’re dating we’re typically in a phase where we’re trying to decide whether we want to be with him long term (and vice versa – when he’s dating you, he’s thinking the same thing “should I make a commitment here?”) – commitment is when you’ve both made the DECISION to be all in with each other and that decision is demonstrated by facts.
This, of course, is not to say that you shouldn’t get upset if he cheats or if he is really slacking off on keeping his word.
In fact, his behavior will give you VALUABLE information about his attitude toward demonstrating commitment to your relationship.
Bottom line: You may be his one and only in his heart. You may be his girlfriend. But if he hasn’t shown you through his actions (not just his attitude) that he is there for you, and is available to be there for you and your relationship, you’re not in a committed relationship.
Committment is attitude + action.
Parts of the content in this post were adapted with permission from the Relationship Coaching Institute.
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Excellent article. Thank you. I was contemplating on what commitment means, especially in the beginning/dating fase of a relationship, and the difference between promise and commitment. Your article clarified a lot for me. Thank you. X