Individually and as a society our relationships and marriages are imbedded with a variety of beliefs and expectations about what it means to be committed to another. For some of us being in a partnership equates with security, monogamy and eternal companionship. For others it’s a duty, natural next step or a requirement to have children.
Sometimes we’re aware of the reasons we commit, but more often then not we enter into a relationship with the assumption that our partner is on the same page, and with strong beliefs about what it means to be in a committed relationship.
I work extensively with divorce and it saddens me when I see the deep despair that comes with learning that the fantasy of what was to be is shattered by the reality of what is. One of the first exercises I do with a broken-hearted client working on ending their relational dreams is to list their beliefs about commitment to another person.
Here are some of the responses I get:
– Marriage means forever.
– Monogamy is assumed.
– Lying is about distrust.
– Betrayal equates with divorce.
The commitments we make to another when we are ready to give ourselves over are what Elizabeth Nelson, Ph.D. calls “shadow vows”. She says, “these are the invisible promises we make that bind us to the other as tenaciously as the vows we speak out loud.”
Of course we make promises, both conscious and unconscious because it’s these very words that ground us in a sense of safety, and security in our relationships. Without these unconscious and conscious beliefs about relational life we could never enter into something so daring and courageous. The vows we make are the very foundation on which we build a life of love and dedication to one another.
These vows also give us a sense of control and understanding about what we’re supposed to expect or demand from our lovers, but there is one major flaw in our system. These self-imposed rules leave us feeling disappointed most of the time because human beings are imperfect, and highly unpredictable when it comes to behavior…particularly around love.
When you’re dealing with good intention and convoluting it with human behavior you have to be ready to make some adjustments and accommodations. So what is one to do about all of this? How do we enter into relationships consciously knowing that we can get hurt, have our hearts broken or feel betrayed at any time? These are great questions with some very simple answers.
Living in reality is not something we humans do easily. We like to create fantasies and fictitious stories that feed our minds with the ideas that allow us to feel safe. However, being honest with yourself about the risk that comes with love will not only make your relationship more exciting, it will deepen the appreciation you have for your devoted lover. In her book Mating in Captivity Esther Perel makes the claim that the greatest passion in a relationship comes from knowing you can lose your partner at any time.
Speak from the shadows
No matter what type of relationship you’re in it’s essential to have spoken vows and commitments. Having a sense of shared relationship values strengthens everything and it offers a starting point from which to build a healthy dynamic. Have the tough discussions about infidelity, dissatisfaction, annoying habits and any fears that are lurking beneath the pretty, polished fantasy in advance so when they surface (and they will) you have a clarity and a place to come back to.
Check your perfectionism at the door
In most relationships each person holds the same standards for their partner as they do for themselves. This is fine as long as your standards are realistic. If you have really high expectations and feel you need to be perfect than you’ll expect the same from your lover. Each person on this earth is flawed in some way because human beings are simply not perfect creatures. Get comfortable with your own fallibility and you’ll have a much easier go at the relationship.
It’s true that love is blind, but that doesn’t mean we have to walk off of a cliff. Instead of denial think about acceptance, and replace expectation with honesty. There is never a good reason in life to pretend that something is real when it’s not, and this is particularly true when it comes to love and relating.