A committed relationship’s most important quality is its uniqueness! The bond between two different people is the beating heart of the relationship: what makes it a living, breathing, exciting entity unlike any other.
However, there are standard, tried and true components that go into the formation of a committed relationship and allow the differences of two people to remain connected through time.
Like every square has four sides, the “frame” of a committed relationship is the boundary within which the creativity and dynamism of the relationship can occur. Without the frame, the relationship could not exist over time, because it would not have any shape or form. The heart of the relationship would simply bleed out into a dysfunctional non-shape!
I’ll share with you a parallel frame to give you a working sense of how practical and productive this is. As a psychoanalyst, the “frame” of the work with my patients is the boundaries of the relationship that we both agree to.
These are the firm, static structures that allow the heart of the relationship to unfold in absolutely unique ways.
The frame is relatively the same in every analytic relationship, whereas the heart of the relationship is free to be whatever is true in any given moment or period of time.
The frame includes the agreement about fee exchange (the amount, method of payment, method of billing, etc), the time we agree to meet at, and the cancellation policy. It also includes confidentiality, the legal limits of confidentiality, and the agreement to exclude any sexual relationship. It includes the idea that the patient’s goal and permission is to speak freely about anything on their mind, and that the focus of the attention is always in the service of the growth of the patient.
You can see that some of the frame is concrete and external, and some of the frame is an attitude.
This is important because the attitude part of the frame is less concrete and must be monitored subjectively by both people. In a truly productive therapeutic relationship, both people build an alliance in which they can track the functioning of this frame. They both want to be sure the frame is mutually understood and that it is serving the heart of the relationship.
I love this definition of the frame because it guides my clinical work in the most tried and true ways.
I have found over the years that attention to the frame is also the tried and true foundation for any mutually satisfying relationship.
This reference point never fails to guide any relationship. In fact any toxic relationship can be shown to have failed to develop or abide by the frame.
So what does the frame of a committed romantic relationship look like!
Here’s the bottom line: Anything is fair that two people agree to. Commitment, therefore, is what the two of you explicitly agree to.
A committed relationship typically is defined by monogamy, and this is one of your sides of the square. However, monogamy needs to be defined by the two people: what do you both define as monogamy? Is it a sexual monogamy? How about “emotional affairs”? how about friendships of the opposite sex, texting, phone calls, porn, time alone with your ex? The more clearly you define monogamy the more clearly the side of your square is defined and the stronger it will hold together.
There are people for whom polyamory is a commitment because they have defined this line of their square as such. What is challenging about this definition is that it can so easily become ambiguous. There are more places for misunderstanding based on different assumptions. Don’t skimp on the details; the details are what allows this to work for some people.
Don’t forget that what is agreed upon can and usually is evolved and clarified over time; what must remain static is that both people are fully dedicated to clarifying a mutually agreeable definition.
A committed romantic relationship allows for a secure bond, which is a bond in which both people feel known, understood, protected and safe. In order for this to function fully, the second side of your square should be an attitude and an action that clearly indicates that the relationship comes first in your life.
Both people tend to the relationship first and foremost, because they understand that the benefits of this bleed out onto every single area of their life, and that all other areas of their life are nourished and fed when the relationship is tended to. (Conversely, they understand that if the relationship is not tended to then all other areas of life will suffer).
This means that your relationship is like the core of your social circle. It is the safe place that both of you can go back to for safety, understanding, rejuvenation, problem solving, planning, and decision making.
In order for this safe place to be available, you each need to behave in a way that makes it clear that the relationship is of primary importance in your life. This means that you make all important decisions and plans together, and that there is an ongoing coordination and tracking of the relationship.
The third side of your square frame is both an attitude and an action. The attitude is one of mutual empathy. You both actively make an attempt to put yourself in the other’s shoes.
This is built on a foundation of trust: you trust that you are both well intended people and are doing your best based on your experience of the situation at hand.
This translates into a few truisms: a committed relationship looks like neither person is “right”. There is very little emphasis on “right” and a lot of emphasis on problem solving.
A committed relationship looks like a lack of power struggle. Neither person is interested in being “in charge” or holding power or dominance or control over the other.
This side of the square translates into people who fight fairly. Fighting fairly is always towards the intention of making sense of the two different perspectives, keeping each other in a zone of moderate emotional stimulation (not overstimulated or in fight or flight), and always moving towards potential solutions.
Sound simple? It’s not! If you’d like a guided primer on what it looks like to fight fairly, I invite you to join my online Marriage and Commitment Course! This is a hard earned skill that we aren’t born with, and one that reaps more rewards than any other skill I can think of!
The final side of your square is honesty. Honesty is the basis upon which trust is built, and trust is the foundation upon which all of the other sides of the square depend.
Honesty is the space in which we can feel understood and known for who we really are. And it is the space in which people can fight fairly.
Honesty is the absence of secrets, hiding and avoidance of parts of reality.
The outcome of safety is that the inside of your frame is a place of safety, security and exciting growth.
Honesty obviously means that you tell the truth. Among other things, it means that you do what you say and say what you do. It means that you do share your feelings openly, and you also understand the difference between honesty and being brutal, hurtful or sarcastic.
If you find that you are in a relationship with someone who will not or cannot form a frame with you and abide by it, you might be in a relationship with someone who has a personality disorder. Personality disorders, unlike mood disorders, are problematic formations of the personality, which is the person’s essential approach to the world.
A person with a personality disorder can “commit” in the basic sense of the word, i.e. they may ask you to be their partner or spouse, but they will not be able to form a healthy, committed relationship that functions as a secure bond.
When your relationship is defined by these four sides, you will have not just a committed relationship, you will have what you actually want: a happy, committed relationship that you both want to remain in at all costs.
My experience is that lots of people can have a simply “committed relationship”. But what we all want and deserve is a committed, happy relationship! Make and maintain these 4 sides of your frame, and you will not only understand and appreciate the feeling of commitment, but you will enjoy the many rewards of a healthy bond.
If you are not sure if your bond is working well, or want to learn how to participate in a secure bond, enroll in my Marriage and Commitment Course! This all-online video course walks you through the building blocks of a secure, healthy relationship so that you know exactly what it takes, and what behaviors or qualities will most certainly undo the chances. Learn to fight fairly, appreciate your differences, and lock down the codes of a secure, happy commitment.
I am a psychologist, psychoanalyst, author and teacher who helps clients get to the root of and heal their relational difficulties. Download my free eBook "How to Be an Extraordinary Partner" or enroll in my online course the Marriage and Commitment Course.
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