Commitment is a topic that brings a lot of couples into therapy. The word has a single definition, but it holds infinite meanings. For many people, commitment includes an emotional acknowledgment of a we, in that we are with each other and choose to be part of a couple. And on a practical level, it means the possibility of planning for a future—even if it’s just the weekend—and a sense of continuity.
For others, commitment is about living together or getting married and sharing a home life. And for still others, a child expresses the commitment desired. But wherever we fall on the spectrum, when our partner cannot provide the commitment we want and need, we are left to live in a difficult limbo: There’s something we want, that we want more of and more from, and yet we don’t know if we’ll ever get it.
How do we know when to stay or leave this type of relationship?
There are no hard fast rules, ever. Each time we make the choice to stay or go is unique, and sometimes we make it again and again within the same relationship.
At the most concrete level, we can always ask our partner if and when he or she will be willing to meet us at the level of commitment we desire. Sometimes the answer we get is comforting and gives us the sense that we are heading in the direction we want. But more often the answer is unsatisfying and leaves us not knowing if what we want in the relationship will ever happen, usually because our partner doesn’t know. Living with such uncertainty can cause pain and anxiety, and lead to insecurity and resentment.
What’s most important is that we own our truth, which is our desire for more commitment.
We must stop judging and blaming ourselves for needing what we desire. For years I have heard women condemn themselves for being too demanding or not being able to figure out how to be OK without what they fundamentally want. I have heard every possible rationalization for why it makes sense to do without something we fundamentally want. In the context of a relationship, there is nothing “Buddhist” about not being able to make plans for the future, or with someone who is not sure about us. Even if everything is impermanent in the absolute sense, we still need to create places of security in our lives, where the ground is solid—or at least, as solid as it can be.
We get certain things in relationships and give up others. When we’re not getting the commitment we want, we must ask ourselves if the balance is workable, that is: Am I receiving enough to give up what I’m giving up?
We can only answer this one moment at a time, and the answer changes over time. We know we must leave when we can no longer tolerate or bear the situation we are in, when the equation shifts and it’s too painful to do without what we really want. We leave when the unrealized desire for commitment becomes resentment, and we can no longer enjoy or appreciate what our partner offers.
No one can answer the question of whether to stay or leave for us. But when we stop judging ourselves for wanting what we want, and dive deep into our own truth, we will find the answer we’re looking for.