When I’m counseling clients with marital challenges, my orientation is to always try to save the relationship. Especially if the individuals are interested in growing, becoming more self-aware, and healing old wounds and patterns of dysfunction, there’s nothing like an intimate relationship to facilitate that process. Some of the main recurring themes of our conversations are commitment, intention, and integrity.
I don’t mean to provoke blame or shame when I point out that nearly every relationship that ends in divorce begins with two sane and sober people making lifelong promises to each other in front of a room full of loving witnesses. Whether we realize it or not, I believe the essence of what most couples are vowing is, “I’m going to do whatever it takes to make this a healthy relationship.” Over time, we may forget our promise or rationalize breaking it because we’re not happy, we and our circumstances have changed, or the other person is annoying and smelly.
Of course, many people enter such a contract without giving it much thought. They feel in love and assume that feeling is enough. They don’t sincerely consider the inevitability of change, hardship, and annoyance. If only we could impress upon engaged couples how important it is to be completely present in this act of commitment. Forever means forever.
Yes, there are times when it’s best to part ways – especially when there’s abuse or when your partner has withdrawn and has no interest in maintaining the relationship – but most of the cases I see are salvageable; the primary issue is one of attitude. If both parties can recognize and honor the commitment they made, both parties want to save and improve the relationship, and both parties are willing to work at it, the relationship will likely survive and be all the stronger. Further, both people will inevitably grow through the process.
While it may require role modifications, improving communication, prioritizing intimacy, and other outward changes, an important starting point is being real with oneself about one’s commitment. Lifelong commitment implies not entertaining the idea of leaving unless all options for achieving a healthy relationship have been exhausted. But frequently we do think about exiting the relationship when it’s not to our liking, sometimes before we’ve tried much to improve the situation, and this can be a form of sabotage. Even if our partner doesn’t know we’re doing it, when we’re thinking this way – i.e., “I could end it” – we subtly withdraw, and the relationship suffers from it. We’re no longer all-in. The degradation can easily snowball.
When even one member of a relationship is all-in, the chances of success are good. Of course, it’s not healthy or sufficient if one person is consistently all-in and the other is chronically disengaged, but if there’s a loving recognition that the other party’s ability to participate waxes and wanes as they grapple with their own “stuff,” and we don’t take it personally, periods of imbalance are easier to repair. If, on the other hand, we respond to a partner’s deficit of engagement by pulling out in equal measure, we’re acting against the health of the relationship and our own best interests.
In truth, the staying together part is only the most superficial aspect of our commitment. I’m sure you’ve seen unhealthy relationships that were clearly causing both members to suffer, but they seemed to feel there was merit in sticking it out, even if they weren’t actively working to heal it. So, what did we actually commit to? Even if you never put words to it, it’s still possible to do so retroactively.
Whether you’re married, in a committed non-married relationship, or single but interested in a deep relationship, I encourage you to think and write about what kinds of qualities you’re committed to. If you’re currently in a relationship, what kind of attitude do you aim to have toward the relationship and your partner? What conditions tend to degrade your attitude? What helps to strengthen your commitment to show up fully and positively? We’ll explore this more next week.