Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Relationship Stalls Because Of Lack Of Commitment

February 19, 2007

"What is wrong? Our relationship that was so promising seems on the verge of coming apart. We've dated and dated but can't seem to get past the issue of commitment. What is going on?"

These are questions couples who are serious about finding a marriage partner ask themselves when their relationships seem stuck.

Too much conflict. One of the main tasks of courtship is to see whether you can negotiate and solve problems together. Conflict in casual dating and serious dating is good. A minimal level of conflict plays a key role in a progression toward mutuality and interdependence. Conflict tells you important information about your ability as a couple to negotiate differences, work out roles and norms, and is a test of your mutual compatibility.

Once a couple figures out they can work together, conflict usually levels off or subsides. Love isn't related to conflict as long as the relationship is progressing toward commitment.

If you, as a couple, have a history of fighting and arguing too much, beware. Couples who fight a lot during courtship have even more tumultuous marriages. A lot of breakups occur when one partner is dissatisfied with the amount of unresolved conflict between them.

Which comes first, a decrease in love that causes increased conflict or persistent high levels of conflict that cause a decrease in love? Whatever the cause, instead of conflict drawing couples closer together, it drives them further apart.

Ambivalence causes conflict. Let's introduce a new element into the mix of love and conflict - ambivalence about commitment. What is ambivalence? It is the confusion a person experiences within him or herself about the future of the relationship. Ambivalence may signal legitimate problems in the relationship or it may be an indication of that person's struggle with commitment itself.

Commitment is a green light for the relationship to go forward and progress to deeper levels of intimacy. The uncertainty or decreasing commitment is coupled with a sharp rise of conflict in the relationship. The more ambivalent a person is about the future of the relationship, the more likely it may be an underlying cause of conflict and a decrease in love.

Male ambivalence causes problems. Research has shown that when male commitment is high, both partners are more accurate in their predictions of how his or her partner thinks and feels. Men do not fully engage emotionally in a relationship until their commitment is high. If it is high, then they put forth more effort and initiative, share more personal information, and work constructively for agreements. They also act less destructively during conflict resolution.

On the other hand, regardless of whether their commitment is low or high, women work harder and act constructively to resolve relationship problems. This may be due to their greater socialization and skill in dealing with relationships. They do not link their willingness to communicate effectively to their commitment level. In long term courtships, male ambivalence by itself can cause a downward turn in the relationship. The relationship is no longer progressing toward commitment and his dating partner senses it. Even if she diplomatically and tactfully raises the issue of commitment, it may even increase his ambivalence and begin a downward spiral of increased conflict and decreased love.

What should a woman do? My advice is to confront the issue and withdraw from the relationship until he can make up his mind to be fully committed. The lack of her presence in his life and the threat of losing her may be just enough to help him overcome his ambivalence. It works. A prolonged "drip by drip" bleeding of the relationship in the struggle over commitment over a long period may spoil a relationship that otherwise might have a chance.

What if the female is ambivalent about commitment? Women have subtle ways of discouraging their suitors without directly damaging their egos - such things as not being available, not being as warm and responsive, and not reciprocating affection or attention. Men may more easily understand a direct answer than being let down slowly.

And men, pushing harder only makes you less attractive at this point. Back off and respectfully give her space. Your ability to do that may just overcome her ambivalence.

When should the issue of commitment be raised? Don't ask the question until you know the answer. Let the relationship progress until you are satisfied on a behavioral level that what you have between you is good. Then resolving the issue of commitment is necessary for the relationship to move to new levels of closeness.

I counsel dating couples and couples in marriage counseling, "Don't take the temperature of the relationship during a time of weak commitment." Talking about your future as a couple while there are big problems or ambivalence only makes it worse. Do all the good things you need to do to make the relationship work and then ask. The fact your partner is trying is a sign of commitment. Don't be too quick to discuss commitment unless no effort is being made.

On the other hand, when the lack of commitment is the problem, then asking the question and creating a crisis around the issue may be the only solution. Individuals seeking long-term relationships don't need to be wasting their time in relationships that are headed nowhere.