On kinds of commitment

CommitmentCommitment. It is a weighty word. It looks long when I write it. It sounds long when I say it; rolling and repetitive. It also seems unfinished, as if there is an unspoken, “to,” somehow hidden, frightened, and scared to be acknowledged.

I think in many ways, these being my own pet theories, that we often want the idea of a thing, like the idea of commitment, of stability, of love, whatnot, to be one thing and one thing alone. We want our things, especially our ideas, to be firm. Fixed. Defined. Absolute. Ontological.

Following this, conversations about the relative nature of our ideas, of our words and ways of being, lend themselves to a flirtatious sense of what could be, and for many people this is deeply unsettling. They aren’t interested in what could be. They want to know what it is. They want answers. They want to know; period. The same holds true for commitment: we want to know what commitment is, for certain, so that we can be certain that we have it.

Jokingly, I think a lot of people are super committed to their idea of commitment and what commitment should be.

To not be committed to one definition of commitment, to embrace a bit of the relative nature of the things we so tightly hold onto, is an act of getting to know, of wanting to understand, of exploring, that is integral to knowing. As an aside, uncertainty is much more than a point to move beyond, and this aspect of uncertainty is easy to forget. I think it is especially easy, that is, to dismiss uncertainty and want one definition, when we are thinking about relationships and something as emotionally charged as commitment.

I’ve seen many different kinds of commitment in my life. By kinds, I am not thinking of kinds as the strength/quality/ranking of a thing: strong commitments, weak commitments, better commitments. Relationally speaking, I think of kinds of commitment as what grounds and what sustains one’s commitment in a relationship.

With my eye, I’d like to describe five that I see quite frequently.

Committed commitment is perhaps the most common kind that I see. It is also a cyclical kind of commitment. The ground of this commitment is simply being committed; remembering that one is committed therefore sustains the commitment. When, “we’re in a committed relationship,” is the point or counterpoint in arguments, when, “we’re in a committed relationship,” is the answer to any relationship question, and even when, “we’re in a committed relationship,” is the primary descriptor used to define a relationship, it all somehow rests on the meaning of commitment as this thing that simply is and needs no further explanation or examination. This kind of commitment, this more unexamined of commitments, seems groundless to me, for one is in a committed relationship because it is a committed relationship. With this, either you are or you are not in a committed relationship, and this vague yet definitive understanding is sustaining. It appears to be enough for many people.

There is also a commitment to the fantasy. My opinion of idealized notions of relationships, that marriage is a happily ever after, that love will keep us together, that picking the right person means the relationship will work, are all rooted in this revered Disneyish tale of true love, the one, and perfect endings. Life events that are less than idyllic can destroy these commitments: mistakes, unemployment, moving, evictions, affairs, sexual difficulties, breakdowns, miscarriages, bankruptcies, hospitalizations, deaths. The very vicissitudes of life seem stacked against any truly couple when this is the anchor of their commitment. With this commitment, it can really feel like it is, “us against the world,” because the world, and the living of life, rather than either party in the relationship, will be the breaker of the commitment. In an ideal world this idyllic commitment would be enough, and what sustains this commitment is a sense of predestination: if it is meant to be, it will be, and if not, it was never really meant to be. This kind of commitment perhaps has the deepest roots in our psyche and it provides hope for things to work, and comfort when things do not.

Committing to a person, rather than to the idea of comment or an ideal, is in some ways the most external of commitments that I can see, because the commitment is entirely weighted on the very being of the other person. What sustains a relationship, then, is the other person being who they were at the beginning and remaining the same throughout the relationship. If you are committed to a person, and they grow, change, or evolve, then their growth itself is a betrayal of the relationship and to the commitment; by changing themselves they are changing the relationship. If committing to a person is to be sustained, then the other person’s character and identity needs to be constant for the relationship to survive. This kind of commitment can give a person an experience of deep trust and surrender. It is a committing and relating through the eyes of their partner; which feeds the other party and theoretically nourishes the one making this commitment.

There is also a commitment to time, and making vows of forever. A relationship with this commitment is sustained with the simply passing of days and not wanting to be alone in those days. With time together, at worst it can feel like serving time under contract, and at best it can feel like sharing one’s life, big and small moments, all of it all, together. The committing to time, to going the long haul, can feel like a real relationship because time somehow acts to legitimize a commitment. It is sustained through no act of the persons involved, but by the simply making it through to another day. In this idea, time itself does the grounding and sustaining work, and the relationship, with the parties involved, is simply along for the ride.

Then there is a rarely seen commitment to choice and the act of relating. This is an altogether different kind of commitment because I see it as one not rooted in something external, but in an internal place of will and the realization that the choosing to be committed, in its own kind of way, grounds and sustains itself. To be in a relationship and, in each moment, to choose to relate to another person is so very difficult because it requires a vast strength of will. Commitment is anchored, then, not in external dynamics of time, of ideals, of your partner’s actions, or in a definition of commitment, but in your own agency and willingness to relate. This commitment isn’t sustained by a fantasy, because it is self sustained in the taking responsibility for one’s self while consciously staying in relation. It is not a commitment hedged in dependent stances, powerlessness, or other’s happiness being your source of happiness, but in an ability to stand on one’s own feet and in one’s own integrity. In this kind of committed relationship, then, the relationship is continuously consented to and carefully tended by your own self.

These are various kinds of commitment, five kinds, really, that I can see at the time of writing this, and each of them has their risks and rewards. Over time I have come to see and experience many kinds of commitment in relationships and the question of, “what grounds and sustains your commitment in your relationships?” has given me more answers than I thought possible. Then, perhaps the question itself, if posed to others, to you, will also give an opportunity to examine commitment and what grounds and sustains it.

To simply think of commitment as an all or nothing thing, that you have it or don’t, and to dismiss the evolving, struggling, renewing, redefined, and rerooted aspects of commitment is to miss out on examining your ideas of relationships and your ideas of love. To examine, to question, and discover how you are committed, and how it does and doesn’t work for you, isn’t a sign of not being committed. This is the furthest possible interpretation. To engage in the process of commitment is, in a way, an opportunity to look at what strengthens, sabotages, or supports your relationships, and in doing so, it increases your ability to commit.

If you are committed to one kind of commitment, then your sense of commitment cannot grow or evolve over time. Commitment can change, and how you are committed can change, which is beautiful. In my eyes there are no right kinds or wrong kinds of commitment, and what works or is right for you may not be what works or is right for other people or other relationships. Overall, there are simply multiple ways of being sustained in a relationship, and that, in my heart, is thinking of commitment kindly.

About the Author


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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

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