No, it’s not a surprise why commitment is such a scary term. It evokes chills, nervousness, anxiety. The term immediately brings to mind visions of trap-doors, exits, and running. If people didn’t have commitment issues, the book, The Dance of Intimacy and Struggle for Intimacy, wouldn’t be bestsellers (but they are bestsellers). Bottom line is, you’re not alone. Whoever you’re involved with is absolutely as scared as you are.
WHAT DOES COMMITMENT MEAN?
I looked up some synonyms for the word “commitment.” Some are: engaged, pledge, imprison, obligate, surrender, vow, trust, confide, expose, give, promise. (Anybody running away yet?) True, these are synonyms, they’re words like ‘commitment,’ but not equal to it. Yet, isn’t that how we think? We think “imprisonment” when we hear the word commitment. We make the worst possible translation of the word!
But, I actually like the synonym “engaged.” Engaged means active participation. “Engagement” suggests consciousness – a decision to be involved (active, not passive). Engaged means you are occupied, involved, interested, in thought, attentive, and stimulated. It means that something is holding your attention is such a way that you’re making a decision to give something your time and attention.
REASON #1: THE RUNAWAY BRIDE
“The married are those who have taken the terrible risk of intimacy and, having taken it, know life without intimacy to be impossible.”
~ Carolyn Heilbrun
You are going to try to convince yourself to leave your relationship, and have in the past, right? I have. We’re wired for it! My advice is this: agree with yourself that you will recognize and allow that part of yourself to exist, but don’t react to that voice. Stay. (Same goes for your job, and friendships – you probably hear that little voice, that hurting child in you, saying ‘let’s get out of here,’ fairly frequently.) When it’s no longer time to stay, if that moment comes, trust yourself that you will absolutely know it and that you will act accordingly.
People run from commitment. But why do children of alcoholics, in particular, run from commitment?
Two reasons. Drama is familiar. Abandonment is familiar. On many levels, we’re re-enacting a familiar drama when we run from commitment and break off yet another relationship (or friendship). Sure, it’s possible that we unconsciously pick partners we’ll leave. But, it’s not as simple as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we’re not victims. We’re not trying to hurt ourselves or others. No. What’s going on is that breakups are so, so familiar to us – we’re used to ‘good’ being short lived. We’re not used to or trained to be comfortable with perfect calm nor days upon end that are free of conflict. Human nature is to be attracted to the familiar, to what is habit, so it is, in many ways, the easiest course of action – to flee, to abandon someone, to blame them for hurting you – then hurt them back.
As you become more self-reflective, you’ll be able to notice your less obvious patterns. One emotional pattern to take notice of is, ‘poor me.’ How often do you see yourself as a victim of another person’s behavior or words? We’re used to emotionally invasive communication from our childhoods. That makes it hard for us to recognize non-violating communication or behavior (we have to teach that to ourselves). So, we tend to believe that someone actually meant to hurt our feelings when they do. We tend to become very angry, very defensive, when our feelings are hurt. It’s hard to trust our evaluations of another person’s intentions because we have so many defenses working overtime.
I’ve had to teach myself how to give others the benefit of the doubt when my feelings are hurt, which was not easy because I discovered that I wanted to be a victim. I wanted to be right. I wanted the guy to admit that he was wrong, or hurtful, or neglectful. I never got the chance to say ‘you hurt me’ to my mother, and on some level, I’m attempting to get that apology from everyone else. In reality, it’s the five-year-old girl in me trying to get reparations. But, that’s the past. When I realized I was reacting to my childhood memories, which took a lot of talking, self-reflection and faith (oh, faith!), I started to become someone who could give others the benefit of the doubt. Now I ask a person what they meant and why they did what they did, so that I can understand their actions – and not take their actions personally. If you can work on this, it’s a good skill to acquire – it sets you free just a bit more. If you stop taking everything personally, give others the benefit of the doubt, it forces you to grow up. It forces you to leave your victim self behind. It forces you, also, to take responsibility for your feelings and actions.
A hard truth: children of alcoholics allow themselves a lot of leeway for mistreating others. You wouldn’t think that someone so sensitive and someone who’s hurting inside would allow themselves to be careless with the feelings of others, but we do. We tell ourselves that we’re in so much pain and were so emotionally abused that we’re justified in the anger we throw at people we love. But we’re not justified.
It is an act of courage to treat others well when you’re hurting. It’s an act of courage to acknowledge that the void in you cannot be filled. You can come to peace with that void, you can nurture it yourself.
REASON #2: CONTROL ISSUES
“My friends tell me I have an intimacy problem. But they don’t really know me.”
~ Garry Shandling
The second reason why we have a hard time with commitment is because we’re constantly in search of control and because we’re also constantly afraid of losing control.
What better way to cure both those fears than to end relationships? That assures you that you won’t lose control and it’s a way to seize control. The question is, is that what you really want?
Knowing that you crave control and are afraid of losing it, accepting this fact, and learning to live with this fact will free you.
Are you someone who needs a lot of reassurance from your partner? Think about what percentage of that need comes from the child inside you who was abandoned either emotionally or physically. Then be careful what percentage you expect from your partner, and be fair. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment. Don’t expect your partner to fill up the void in you. It’s your job to nurture that void.
Are you someone who breaks up with a person in order to regain a sense of control over your life? If so, realize that part of being in a relationship is becoming comfortable with a feeling of little control. Becoming comfortable with feeling vulnerable, and be comfortable applying faith. Learn to trust yourself. By becoming comfortable with vulnerability, I do not mean trust someone undeserving of trust, and I don’t mean throw yourself headlong into a bad relationship. What I mean is, be kind to yourself and to your feelings of vulnerability while in a relationship that has signs of being a good one – be open to the possibility that you can handle it, and even enjoy it.
You cannot have a successful relationship without some degree of letting go.
BOUNDARIES HELP BUILD INTIMACY
“Passion is the quickest to develop, and the quickest to fade. Intimacy develops more slowly, and commitment more gradually still.”
~ Robert Sternberg
Know your boundaries. So many relationships get off to a lightning speed start because we fail to take it slow, and because we fail to respect and defend our boundaries. There is never a good reason to rush. There is every reason to take things slow, especially if you’re the child of alcoholics. If you know your boundaries, if you learn how to recognize when your boundaries are broken, and if you learn how to assert your boundaries, you will have come a long way towards greater comfort with commitment and intimacy.
Don’t expect intimacy to be easy. Be fair, be honest, and be kind to your partner. Because we’re hurting from the past, it’s easy to expect too much emotional nurturing from our partners. Get your head straight on that, and take care of yourself, don’t expect that to be done for you. Take responsibility for how you treat your loved one – don’t punish them or disrespect them because you’re mad at your alcoholic father or mother. Treating others with respect is an act of self-respect.
COMMITMENT IS NOT A CLOSED SYSTEM: IT REQUIRES OXYGEN
To say ‘I love you’ one must know first how to say the ‘I’.”
~ Ayn Rand
When you’re committed, you’re apt to start focusing on the needs and emotional reactions of your partner. You’re wired this way. Be good to yourself and make sure that you are not losing sight of yourself, that you are growing yourself and taking time to yourself independent of your relationship. You need to experience separation and reunion (on a micro level); for instance, if your partner goes to work for the day, or goes away from a weekend, realize that they didn’t leave you, and that you’re ‘with’ one another while apart. You need to allow yourself to ‘let go’ for a day, or for a weekend and trust that everything is fine. Children of alcoholics experience abandonment too often – we’re like little puppy dogs, we don’t know that the person is actually coming back. We don’t know it because we’ve seen people leave and never come back. The trick is to separate the past from the present and remember you’re in the now – in a life you’re in charge of.
Remember that your relationship is not your childhood. Your relationship needs oxygen as much as you do. You need to walk, run, and get exercise – oxygen into your blood. Your relationship is very much a living organism that needs to be oxygenated – breaking your routine and doing something new, taking a night to yourself, a weekend to yourself, or focusing on a new hobby (not on your partner’s needs). Investing time in growing yourself and your abilities will keep you happy, in or out of a relationship.
BUT WHAT IS A HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP?
“As soon as the love relationship does not lead me to me, as soon as I in a love relationship do not lead another person to himself, this love, even if it seems to be the most secure and ecstatic attachment I have ever experienced, is not true love. For real love is dedicated to continual becoming.”
~ Leo Buscaglia
If you’re going to get courageous, it would help to know that you’re probably in a good relationship, right? That’s fair. Here are some hallmarks of a healthy relationship. Trust your judgment on the rest.
In a good relationship these qualities will be present:
You enjoy your time together
You’re free to be yourself
You’re free to grow and explore new interests
You are respectful to your partner
You receive respect
You’re not criticized
You don’t criticize your partner
You accept your partner
You can agree to disagree
You’re free to your opinions
You value your partner’s opinions
You take time to yourself
You give your partner time to him or herself
You sometimes do separate activities
These are the basic rules of thumb. I’d read over the list asking yourself if you measure up first before you focus too much on whether or not your partner does.
Good luck! You’re not alone!