Creating a "committed" relationship

| 0 Comments | 0 TrackBacks

One frequent rough place in the development of an intimate relationship occurs when one party to the relationship wants to confirm that they have a "commitment" to each other or that they are truly "in a relationship." This is tough for a couple of really good reasons.

One reason is that this may be the first time that have actually talked about the relationship itself. It is one thing to be in relationship with another; it is another to make the relationship itself the focus of shared attention.

When I was in graduate school I became close friends with a guy who lived across the hall in my dorm. His name was George. I went home to see my folks one weekend and as I was driving back to school I became aware that I was looking forward to seeing George. As I walked down the hall towards my room, George came out of his room and called out, "Hey, Mark! Good to see you. I missed you." We had never before spoken about our friendship and so as we acknowledged missing each other we were moving to a new level of interaction.

In primary intimate relationships this transition is especially fraught with danger. Not only are we now talking about our relationship, we are using language that may not mean the same things to each other. Are we dating, going steady, hooking up, hanging out, going together...what? I had a teenage client mention to me that he was "going with" one girl but really wanted to "go with" another. I asked him what it meant to be going with someone. He didn't understand the question. They didn't actually do anything; it was just an understanding that their relationship was special and different.

Adults who are exploring an intimate relationship have this problem as well. Even if they say they are committed, what are they committed to? Relationships work much more smoothly when these expectations and agreements are very clear. But coming to this clarity can be very difficult.

Typically one party to the relationship is urgent that the understanding be clear and the other is less excited about having this conversation. In my experience, women tend to be more anxious about establishing clear expectations than are men, but I have certainly known couples where it was the man who was pressing for sharp boundaries.

Having the talk about what we mean to each other is hard because it is talking about the relationship instead of just being in it. Additionally, we each need some clarity about what we want from and for the relationship. Coming to this clarity involves a series of steps. At each one we can get hung up.

1) "This relationship is not so important to me that I am going to put energy into figuring out what I want it to be like. Whatever is fine with me."

Not all relationships are so important that I am going to be willing to figure out what I want it to be like. This clarity takes time and attention and I am just not willing to do that work when the relationship is with someone I know from work, for example. Just talking about our relationship makes it seem like more than it is for me.

2) "I care about this relationship and want it to be clear and strong, but I'm not sure what that would be like."

Even when I can say that this relationship is special in some way, and that it is more important to me than just a routine relationship with anyone, that doesn't mean I actually know what I want it to be like.

3) "I know what I want it to be like but I don't have the words to describe it clearly enough."

Even when I can be clear about what I want, I may not trust that I have the words to describe what I want. I have been clear in prior relationships only to find that what my words meant to the other something was different from what they meant to me. I can't trust that my words will convey my meaning.

4) "I think I can say what I want the relationship to be like but I am afraid that if I do my statement will be a source of conflict."

Even when I know what I want and trust that I can communicate my wishes clearly there are still potential problems.

a) "When I say what I want but what I want is not what my partner wants it will become something we will fight about."

It may be that my definition for the relationship is so different from what my partner wants that she or he will be angry and perhaps even choose to leave the relationship.

b) "When I say what I want and I am not always able to follow through on how I want to be it will be a reason to confront me."

Even if we are both clear about what we want and we are pretty close in how we want things to be between us, I know that I don't always act as I have intended. If I say how I want things to be, and then don't do what I need to do to create what I said I wanted, I will be subject to criticism. A part of me wants to protect me by simply being vague.

For these reasons it can be very difficult for a couple to talk about what they want the relationship to be like. So let me offer a suggestion about a couple of topics the couple can address in trying to navigate these potentially treacherous waters.

1) Is this relationship sufficiently important to each of you that you want it to be special? Do you want this to be different from any other relationship you currently have?

2) If it is special for both of you, what are your concerns about being clear about how you want it to be different from any other relationship?

Be aware that as you have this conversation you are not going to name the same things. This is not a problem. It would probably be a bigger cause for concern if you only had the same concerns. You are different people. If you were totally alike it would be really hard for you to get along.

Be aware also that what you each want the relationship to be like is certain to change as you get to know each other better. If what you each want isn't changing, you probably are not in a relationship with each other. Instead you are each in a relationship with who you want the other to be, not who the other actually is.

If you have trouble with this, you may want to review Discipline #10.

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL:

Leave a comment


Recent Entries

Great commentary on Vulnerability and Feelings
This is a TED talk from Brene Brown that poignantly speaks to issues of transformation.  Highly recommended. …
New Group for Clergy
This past winter I led a Training Group for Clergy using the tools of Creative Conflict Resolution.  The experience was…
Is the RW for couples?
I just heard this question about the audience for the Reconciliation Workshop and want to make the answer more widely…