These are the most common barriers to commitment I see in couples…
I’m not I’m ready to “settle down”
Sometimes relationships just start and, before you know it, you’re being asked to move in or your partner, or their mum, is talking more and more about marriage and kids (and not it that order!). The pressure is on and you are getting more and more uncomfortable. BUT, this isn’t really the core of the problem. The BIG dilemma is being caught between two imagined futures – yours, and theirs. In yours you are working, saving, travelling, and partying. In theirs, as you see it, life as you know it is over and you have become a slave to the machine of work, mortgages and parenting.
BUT, even this is not yet the core of the problem. Because, if you could just talk about it with your partner then maybe you could figure something out. But you are afraid to. You are afraid that if your partner knows that you don’t want to live their dream, then they will leave. And, while you don’t want to succumb to someone else’s future, you are not ready to let them go and risk being on your own again either.
Many people go on like this for years. Some even get married, have children and play along, knowing deep down that this is not what they really want.
At least in part, the big issue here is damage control. By raising the issue as soon as possible, up-front with your partner you give both of you the opportunity to confront reality as it is. Sound relationships are based on trust. Trust is based on truth. Without it your relationship will be built on very rocky foundations, destined to fall down at some later date, perhaps in the distant future. The difference between confronting the issue now, and putting it off until “later”, is the level of emotional damage that is done to all concerned.
Working with individuals and couples in counseling and coaching I have found that the outcome can go either way. Some decide to commit, get married and have children, while others decide to go their separate ways. Either way both parties feel a whole lot better about the outcome, about themselves and about one another.
I don’t want to give up my freedom
One of the great dilemmas of human existence is the tension between the desire to be free to choose one’s one path in life and the desire to be connected to other people. If I am free, without having to worry about other people, then I am alone. If I am always thinking about what other people want then I feel trapped and suffocated by them.
Freedom to be one’s self and responsibility for the impact of one’s actions upon other people are deeply intertwined. The way that you choose to live your life can be understood as walking a tightrope balanced between these two tensions, this being your unique sense of authenticity.
As with so much about relationships, the trick here is communication and negotiation. Whilst you keep your concerns to yourself, you are neither free, nor connected. When you share your concerns, risking the anger, sadness or withdrawal of the other person, you are also being free and attempting to connect.
As with the other aspects of committing to a relationship you will be taking a risk. But it is a responsible risk, in which the other person gets to make their own choices, fully informed, and is the most fruitful course for the long-term success of the relationship; whichever way it goes.
Your place or mine – wrestling for control?
Much about intimate relationships is about power and control, and one of the classic early appearances of the dance of power is the “your place or mine” question. While this does play out during the early stages of dating and getting to know each other, here we are concerned with the question of whose place to move into. You have realised that you spend more nights than not at one house (or flat) or the other and that there are considerable savings to be made in the form of money, time and energy in living together.
BUT, you like your place just the way it is, where it is, and they like theirs. Hers is too “girlie”, his is just a “boyz pad”. So, what to do?
Sometimes we think, feel and say to ourselves, and to the other person, “this should be so much easier; this shouldn’t be so hard!” But keep in mind that this, and other big decisions, that you need to make about how you share your life together represent a template, or blueprint, for how you can expect all similar negotiations to go between you in the future. Until, that is, the one of you who has a tendency to “just give in to keep the peace”… says “I can’t take it any more”. And trust me, it’s only a matter of time.
I n short, this is IT! This is the stuff that relationships are made of. It is not the decision itself that is important, but the way that the two of you go about making decisions that will form the essence of what your relationship is all about.
Give it time and space. Spend weeks deciding if you have to. Don’t rush one another or allow yourselves to be pressured by outside forces. Don’t fear time apart, as this can do wonders for relationships. Try and give more time to listening to your partner’s needs and concerns, to asserting and arguing for your own.
If you get stuck, then a relationship coach or counsellor can help you get unstuck.
What if you’re not “the one” for me?
This is a big one. People I see with this as their “presenting issue” tend to be in a committed relationship with someone that they think is “just wonderful”. But something just doesn’t feel right and so they wonder if there must be something more, if there is someone else who might be slightly better suited to them, a slightly better match. There are a few observations I’d like to make about this.
The first relates to the myth of “the one”. As discussed elsewhere, this myth, beloved of storytellers and moviemakers, is the source of a great deal of disappointment and misery in modern relationships. Don’t believe the myth, but do learn to trust in yourself. Easier said than done right? There are two parts to this, one is how you feel about yourself and the other is how you feel about your partner.
It is just one of those realities of life that we all collect emotional baggage throughout our childhoods, adolescence and adult life. Lots of it! Many people even believe that these feelings can linger from pre-birth or even from past lives! These ‘feelings from the past’ or often unrelated to our present circumstances, or, at least, intrusive enough to make our true feelings about our current relationship difficult to discern. Journaling, heart-to-hearts with close friends and with your partner, or the assistance of a counselor or coach can help to sort through a body full of collected feelings from the past leaving a clean-slate to truly know what is really happening for you right here, right now.
So how do you really feel about your partner? The first step is clearing out your own emotional cobwebs so you can be confident that your feelings are really present and future (and not past) focused. When you are feeling and thinking with clarity, then you are in a much better position to explore your feelings towards your partner. And note here that this really is about YOUR feelings towards them, the way they feel about you is entirely up to them. Before taking any drastic action (like breaking up), you want to be sure that you have covered all bases in your relationship. Often time goes by between lovers and partners and lots of little things remain unsaid. Often we feel “petty” if we bring up little things that “bug” us about our partner, so we don’t. Lots of little things can build up to one BIG thing that can feel too big to overcome. But think of it this way: if the relationship is headed for a dead-end anyway, then there’s no harm in trying. Trying means, “talking”. Take the time to be up-front with your partner and put every little demon you can think of into the table. It can help to make a list of “all the things I don’t like about this relationship” (try not to make it about the other person, though that might be how you see it. Make sure that you make another list too “all the things I like about this relationship”.
Focus with your partner, on just one item of each list at a time. Encourage each other to be practical and pragmatic, rather than emotional. For the “like” list, see if you can work out how you can do “more of” each item on the list. For the “don’t like” list see if you can find ways of ensuring there is “less of” each item on the list.
This process will change the course of your relationship and get it moving in the right direction. It reflects the reality that relationships are not about so much about “magic”, as they are about hard work by both partners and constant fine-tuning of what works, and what doesn’t, in the relationship.
This is exactly the sort of work that you can expect to do with your relationship coach or counsellor.
It just doesn’t feel right, I’m sorry
There is a nice, simple philosophy in life that goes something like this: if you do things that feel good, you will feel good; if you do things that feel right to you, then your life will feel right to you. So feeling that “this is right” is pretty important.
A consistent theme for couples is the back and forth tension between the importance of thoughts, and what is logical, and feelings, what is intuitive. You might also be picking up that this tends to be a gendered debate: logical thinking man vs intuitive feeling woman. While this is common, there are plenty of intuitive feeling men and logical thinking women who find themselves locked in this struggle. And, significantly, this is a tension we all have within ourselves.
How can a partner and a relationship look so good “on paper”, but you then be left feeling “not quite right”? How can your heart be telling you to make it work, but your brain be telling you to run, run, run!
The real problem is not so much the tension between what you (and others) think and feel, that exists to a greater or lesser extent in all relationships, but the action paralysis that can result. We can have a tendency to ignore niggling thoughts or background feelings because it is easier to just keep progressing through life one day at a time without rocking the boat, without shaking things up, and without looking at things that a) may not even be there; and b) are likely to cause a great deal of (temporary) pain and hurt both to yourself and to a person that you love – a proverbial can of worms.
The reality is, however, that the longer this goes on the harder it is to leave the relationship if, ultimately, you decide that things aren’t quite right. Many couples, in the midst of ignoring this background uncertainty and tension, suddenly find themselves pregnant and, in some cases, married (often in that order). Now things are that much more complicated.
Of all the situations you might find yourself in in relationships, this is the one that I feel could most warrant outside help. The consequences of action or inaction are life changing and the bottom line is your most rare and valuable resource – time. What’s more, the factors involved can be complicated and really take some sorting through. Maybe it just isn’t “right”, but maybe this is about your past – a legacy of inadequacy or dissatisfaction, or just bad relationship habits, passed down through your family, sometimes across generations. Or maybe it isn’t so much about incompatibility as it is about communication and a few basic skills that you and your partner can learn to deepen your understanding of one another.
So, if you are in a long-term relationship and feeling unsure then talk to someone about it and sort your head from your heart with a view to committing, one way or the other.