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KINDS OF LOVE AND THE ROLE OF COMMITMENT

By Lynne Foote MA, LPC

Robert Sternberg in his book THE TRIANGLE OF LOVE (1987) gives us an insightful taxonomy of the different kinds of Love. He bases his distinctions on the presence and/or absence of three foundational points of PASSION, INTIMACY, and COMMITMENT. Passion, which can be defined as an intense longing for union with other, is not in our conscious control. It is often the first quality to appear and the quickest to decline and cycles throughout the life of a relationship. Intimacy, with Latin roots meaning “without fear”, relates to feelings and behaviors that promote closeness, connection and a sense of bondedness. It starts with self disclosure and can be defined as the willingness to know and be known. Commitment, in the short term, consists of loving the other person, and over the long haul means maintaining that love through the hard times. Healthy commitment in a relationship is a conscious choice to become and remain steadfast in one’s dedication towards one’s partner and towards the relationship.

Here is Sternberg’s Taxonomy of the Kinds of Love:

  • Passion only: Infatuated Love

  • Intimacy only: Liking/Friendship

  • Commitment only: Empty Love

  • Passion and Intimacy (no commitment): Romantic Love

  • Passion and Commitment (no intimacy): Fatuous Love

  • Intimacy and Commitment (no passion): Companionate Love

  • Passion, Intimacy, and Commitment: Consummate Love

We tend to select our partner based on factors of attractiveness and passion, qualities that motivate and drive us early in a relationship. However these attributes differ from what matters later as a relationship matures and a couple are building a life together, raising a family, managing their finances, sharing household tasks. At this stage it takes more than feelings of longing and passion to keep the fires burning. It takes commitment. As Scott Peck in his book THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED (1978) said: “Love is not a feeling. It is a commitment.” But what is commitment? When is it healthy or not? And why is it that commitment changes a love from Romantic Love to Consummate Love?

Let’s start with some dictionary definitions. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, commitment is “the state of being bound emotionally or intellectually to a course of action or to another person(s)”. Webster’s defines the word as the “dedication to a long-term course of action, engagement, or involvement”. Wordsmyth says that it is a “pledge or obligation to fulfill an action or function”. And finally, the World Dictionary calls it an “engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action”. These definitions imply a dedicated action over a length of time to a something or someone. What does this mean for commitment within the context of a relationship?

I remember working with a man named Scott many years ago. He was contemplating marriage with a woman he had known for several years and loved dearly. But he was afraid to make a commitment to her because at that point, commitment felt like entrapment. In our therapy, we were investigating the validity of this belief. Most of all, he feared losing his freedom and beneath that layer was the fear of losing himself. We worked together over a summer doing individual and some couples therapy and he taught me something that I have never forgotten. What he came to realize as he worked through his obstacles is that that there is freedom inside the limitations of a commitment. There is infinity inside the boundaries of a marriage, and it is inside these boundaries that two people have the freedom to create a life together that is uniquely theirs.

Hugh and Gayle Prather in their book, A BOOK FOR COUPLES (1988), emphasize the fact that relationships are created, and that they are dynamic and always changing. They say that “the kind of relationship that you yearn for, and have a right to, is not the one you begin with, but the one you end up with.” To end up with a healthy, vital relationship requires commitment on several layers. First it is an ongoing commitment to your own and your partner’s spiritual growth. This means knowing who you are so that you don’t lose yourself in the marriage. It means supporting your partner’s spiritual growth even when this rocks the boat of comfort and stability. And it also means a commitment to building a life together that fosters passion and intimacy which requires a surrendering of control and an opening to the new and the unknown.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, COMMITTED: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage (2010), is the next chapter in her personal story of EAT, PRAY, LOVE and is also a study of the history and institution of marriage. She shares her own fears, and she had many, of entering a second marriage at age 37 after a nasty, painful divorce and a fierce determination never to marry again. She came to her marriage with Felipe much more conscious of the consequences of entering this legally binding (as Robert Louis Stevenson said: “Marriage is a friendship recognized by the police”) and heart-binding union. She was under pressure to marry Felipe by the US Immigration Office and Homeland Security ever since they returned to the USA from foreign travel and Felipe was denied entrance into this country on his travel visa. Felipe was born in Brazil and now had an Australian citizenship. They spent a difficult year wandering homelessly through SE Asia while gathering tons of paperwork and then waiting, waiting to get a visa for Felipe so he could enter this country where they could get married so that he could live here legally.

In COMMITTED, Gilbert shares her fears and concerns around fidelity and the issue of remaining faithful, more afraid of her own future choices, than those that Felipe would make given her history with infatuation. There is an element of grief whenever we make a commitment because as we say YES to this particular choice, we are saying NO to all of the other possibilities. We can lament the “what ifs” and “could haves” or we can work with what we have got now. We have to learn what it is that we need and then we have to learn how to bring these needs into the confines of the relationship. And when our partner is not capable of satisfying a given need, we have to learn how to go outside our relationship in ways that don’t threaten the connection. Just as it takes a Village to raise a child, we need our Village, our circle of family and friends, to help support the container of a marriage.

Gilbert talks about the importance of accepting and loving the whole package which includes all of our partner’s flaws. In trying to stack the potential for a healthy marriage in their favor, Gilbert and Felipe made a list of their own shadow traits and shared them with each other in a kind of pre-marriage opt-out disclosure. Felipe’s list included: his inability to save money; drinking too much wine; being overprotective and a bit paranoid; tendencies towards being antisocial, temperamental, and defensive, with little patience with idiots; and as a man of routine, he can be boring. For Gilbert, she is extremely opinionated and doesn’t back down easily; she requires a lot of devotional attention; she doesn’t recognize the limits of her energy and fall apart; and when she feels wronged, she tends to cut off the other person without fair warning, explanation, or another chance. Can we recognize ourselves in any of this?

Commitment also reaches a point where we have to make a leap into the unknown. I am just back from a solo ArtMaking retreat where I experienced this first hand. When I am painting, there usually comes a point where the piece is stuck. I might even be 99% finished but it just isn’t singing. What I have to do is let go of my attachment to what I have, attune to what is in calling to me from the painting, and then make a bold mark or add a new color that might put me back to 1% finished. But what I have before me is something that is very much alive. So too in the commitment of a relationship, we are called beyond the confines of the “little me” and what is familiar, to what is unknown and often treacherous turf. It is our commitment to the relationship that allows us to take that first small but vital leap, and not run away from what we hold dear in our hearts.

Commitment comes from a position or stance that has a strong enough connection to someone or something that we can make a promise into the future. It is commitment that builds the Dream that can set the course for that Future. With commitment there can be a leaning into and a resting place because it is commitment that provides a sense of security and stability that is so vital to a secure attachment which is at the heart of a healthy connection. And it is commitment that changes a Romantic Love to a Consummate Love.

Your feedback and ideas are welcome.


Contact Lynne Foote

Phone: 303-447-2987

Email: Lynne@LynneFoote.com


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