Phyllis, a divorced woman in her forties, thought her relationship was going quite well. However, her boyfriend of one year, Alan, felt it “lacked commitment.” “Well, he thinks we should buy a house together. He feels we need a commitment of some type.” Alan also urged her to open a joint bank account and to cut back their work hours so they could spend more time together. Her doing these things would, in his words, “Prove her commitment to him.”
Financial and legal entanglements are very different from an emotional promise or vow. The difference can elude us as we look for ways to “insure” the continuation of a relationship. For example, a woman may get pregnant by her boyfriend with hopes that the child will solidify the commitment.
The entanglements of legal and financial issues, and even children, do not necessarily insure commitment. Those obligations are the manifestations of the commitment and should not be mistaken for the commitment itself. Going through a divorce, you have experienced first-hand how those obligations have nothing to do with emotional commitment. Emotional commitment involves loyalty, trust, respect, and dedication. When these things are in place between two people, they begin to build their life together.
Obligation before commitment will not help foster closeness or commitment. In some ways, it may deter you from reaching that goal. Obligations can evolve into resentments fairly quickly. Joys of homeownership and children can quickly become issues of conflict to a couple with large obligations and minimal commitment. The stronger the commitment you have, the less likely those obligatory pieces of life will stress and destroy the relationship.
Fortunately, Phyllis had learned some valuable lessons from her divorce. She was able to see that Alan was trying to “ensnare” her through obligation. Alan claimed he didn’t “need” marriage, yet he was searching for some reassurance that she would not leave him. He was having trouble accepting that her love was her commitment. He wanted a guarantee that she was “In it for the long haul.” While Phyllis loves him, she is concerned about confusing the two issues. Her plan is to discuss with Alan their definitions of commitment. Ultimately, she hopes he will begin to accept and trust her commitment without merging finances or buying a house.
In marriage, the boundaries between commitment and obligation may blur over time. Certainly, they can even overlap. But many who find themselves in unhappy situations ask, “Was the obligation stronger than the commitment?”