Relationships Information

Defining Relationship Commitment for Todays Couples


The question of when a relationship is committed is a sourceof much confusion and debate. We live in a time when themarriage rate is going down, the co-habitation rate is goingup, and the majority of first-born children are now born tounmarried parents.

In this article I hope to shed some light on this questionto facilitate your work with couples and individualschallenged by different perceptions of the status of theirrelationships.


I recently had a conversation with a woman who told me shehad just broken off a "committed" relationship. A fewquestions later I learned that she had been dating thisperson for a year, they were not living together, and thereason she broke it off is that he "cheated."

We talked about pre-committed vs. committed relationships,and she agreed that it was a pre-committed relationship, butinsisted that they had made a "commitment" to each other.

OK, things are getting clearer. On the one hand is thestatus of the relationship- pre-committed vs. committed, andon the other hand are commitments made within therelationship. Macro vs. micro. Two different things, right?

In our conversation, it occurred to me to make a distinctionbetween a "Commitment" vs. a "Promise." They made a promiseto each other within the context of a relationship that wasnot committed. That distinction seemed to help her make moresense of things.

When I asked the RCI coaches for feedback on the "commitmentvs. 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.

Well, I agree that it is a question of semantics, and hereis my definition of terms:

PROMISE: 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


Both a FACT demonstrated by behavior, and anATTITUDE consisting of thoughts and beliefs.

- I am committed to keeping my promises

- I am committed to our relationship

In short, a promise is something you say, and a commitmentis something you do. A promise is situation-specific. Acommitment is contextual.

A promise is a small commitment. If a potential partnerdoesn't keep promises, I would question their ability tokeep commitments, as they are definitely related.


Whether or not you agree with my semantics, the distinctionI made between a commitment and a promise was helpful forthe above conversation.

The larger picture though, is that I see a lot of confusionabout the status of today's relationships. Some years agowhen I coined the term "pre-commitment" to describe couplesthat were exclusive but not yet committed, it was a helpfuldistinction, but the question remains- "What is commitment?"

When you are married, it is clear you are in a committedrelationship. Your commitment is a legal contract and a publicly witnessed FACT. However, it is common for couples in trouble for one or both partners to have an uncommitted ATTITUDE.

I have talked with many unmarried people, as the womanabove, who have described themselves in "committedrelationships." They clearly have the attitude, but oftenhave nothing but verbal promises (and sometimes not eventhat!) to demonstrate that the relationship is committed.


  • 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 commitment is aformal event of some kind between two people. A commitmentis something you DO over time. A real commitment is usually legally enforceable and there are consequences for breaking it.

    And, for a relationship to be truly committed, there are noexits- mentally, emotionally, or physically. When the goinggets rough, you make it work.


    Commitment is not a light switch that goes from "off" to"on." When building a relationship with someone, the levelof commitment gradually increases.

    Then you have all the shades of gray. living together,dating exclusively for more than a year, even engaged to bemarried, that might look and feel like commitment, but is itreally?


    Commitment in a relationship is complicated in that it takestwo people, and it requires an alignment of FACT (events,actions) and ATTITUDE (thoughts, beliefs) for both of them.

    It is common to be committed in fact (e.g. "married") butnot in attitude (e.g. "I'm not sure this is the rightrelationship for me").

    It is also common to be pre-committed in fact (e.g. datingexclusively) and committed in attitude (e.g. "This is 'TheOne!' ").

    In my work with couples I have found that the most importantvariable determining their future success is their level ofcommitment to the relationship.

    In my experience, when couples are committed in fact, butnot in attitude, their prognosis is poor.

    Then, there are the pre-committed couples that generallyfall into two categories-

    UNCONSCIOUS- typically following the "mini-marriage" modelof trying the relationship out, acting committed withoutactually making the commitment. A disconnect of fact andattitude.

    CONSCIOUS- aware that they are not yet committed, usuallyhave commitment as a goal, asking themselves "Is this theright relationship for me? Should I make a commitment?" Analignment 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?

    I propose 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 wouldsay it is a committed relationship, whether legally marriedor not.

    I sincerely hope this article helps address the commonquestions about commitment that arise in relationshipcoaching. There are no pat answers or prescriptions, but itis my hope that these ideas and concepts will help you haveproductive conversations with your clients that are caughtin the gray areas to support them to make effectiverelationship choices.

    2005 by Relationship Coaching Institute / All rightsreserved

    David Steele is a California-based Marriage and Family Therapist and Relationship Coach, founder and CEO of Relationship Coaching Institute. He is the author of "Conscious Dating: Finding the Love of Your Life in Today's World" and innovative relationship coaching programs for singles and couples, as well as practice development programs and books for private practice professionals.

    For more information about David and his programs please visit

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