What Is Commitment in Relationships?

by David Steele

The question of when a relationship is committed is a source
of much confusion and debate. We live in a time when the
marriage rate is going down, the co-habitation rate is going
up, and the majority of first-born children are now born to
unmarried parents.

In this article I hope to shed some light on this question
to facilitate your work with couples and individuals
challenged by different perceptions of the status of their


I recently had a conversation with a woman who told me she
had just broken off a “committed” relationship. A few
questions later I learned that she had been dating this
person for a year, they were not living together, and the
reason she broke it off is that he “cheated.”

We talked about pre-committed vs. committed relationships,
and she agreed that it was a pre-committed relationship, but
insisted that they had made a “commitment” to each other.

OK, things are getting clearer. On the one hand is the
status of the relationship- pre-committed vs. committed, and
on the other hand are commitments made within the
relationship. Macro vs. micro. Two different things, right?

In our conversation, it occurred to me to make a distinction
between a “Commitment” vs. a “Promise.” They made a promise
to each other within the context of a relationship that was
not committed. That distinction seemed to help her make more
sense of things.

When I asked the RCI coaches for feedback on the “commitment
vs. promise” distinction, most felt that it was just semantics and there
is not much of a difference. The general consensus was that when you make a
promise you are making a commitment.

Well, I agree that it is a question of semantics, and here
is my definition of terms:

PROMISE: Verbally stated future intention to perform a
specific act.

– I promise to pick up your dry cleaning and not forget this time
– I promise to be exclusive in our relationship

COMMITMENT: Both a FACT demonstrated by behavior, and an
ATTITUDE consisting of thoughts and beliefs.

– I am committed to keeping my promises
– I am committed to our relationship

In short, a promise is something you say, and a commitment
is something you do. A promise is situation-specific. A
commitment is contextual.

A promise is a small commitment. If a potential partner
doesn’t keep promises, I would question their ability to
keep commitments, as they are definitely related.


Whether or not you agree with my semantics, the distinction
I made between a commitment and a promise was helpful for
the above conversation.

The larger picture though, is that I see a lot of confusion
about the status of today’s relationships. Some years ago
when I coined the term “pre-commitment” to describe couples
that were exclusive but not yet committed, it was a helpful
distinction, but the question remains- “What is commitment?”

When you are married, it is clear you are in a committed
relationship. Your commitment is a legal contract and a publicly
witnessed FACT. However, it is common for couples in trouble
for one or both partners to have an uncommitted ATTITUDE.

I have talked with many unmarried people, as the woman
above, who have described themselves in “committed
relationships.” They clearly have the attitude, but often
have nothing but verbal promises (and sometimes not even
that!) to demonstrate that the relationship is committed.


1. Your partner is not aware your relationship is committed

2. You are wondering if this relationship is committed

3. You and your partner have differences of opinion about
the status of your relationship

4. Your family and friends have different perceptions about
the status of your relationship

5. You and your partner have not acted to explicitly
formalize your commitment in some way

6. You are relying on verbal promises without a significant
track record of them being kept

A commitment is explicit and unambiguous. A commitment is a
formal event of some kind between two people. A commitment
is something you DO over time. A real commitment is usually
legally enforceable and there are consequences for breaking it.

And, for a relationship to be truly committed, there are no
exits- mentally, emotionally, or physically. When the going
gets rough, you make it work.


Commitment is not a light switch that goes from “off” to
“on.” When building a relationship with someone, the level
of commitment gradually increases.

Then you have all the shades of gray. living together,
dating exclusively for more than a year, even engaged to be
married, that might look and feel like commitment, but is it


Commitment in a relationship is complicated in that it takes
two people, and it requires an alignment of FACT (events,
actions) and ATTITUDE (thoughts, beliefs) for both of them.

It is common to be committed in fact (e.g. “married”) but
not in attitude (e.g. “I’m not sure this is the right
relationship for me”).

It is also common to be pre-committed in fact (e.g. dating
exclusively) and committed in attitude (e.g. “This is ‘The
One!’ “).

In my work with couples I have found that the most important
variable determining their future success is their level of
commitment to the relationship.

In my experience, when couples are committed in fact, but
not in attitude, their prognosis is poor.

Then, there are the pre-committed couples that generally
fall into two categories-

UNCONSCIOUS– typically following the “mini-marriage” model
of trying the relationship out, acting committed without
actually making the commitment. A disconnect of fact and

CONSCIOUS– aware that they are not yet committed, usually
have commitment as a goal, asking themselves “Is this the
right relationship for me? Should I make a commitment?” An
alignment of fact and attitude.


So, when is a relationship committed?

— When there is an alignment of fact and attitude.

What creates the “fact” of commitment?

I propose these three criterion:

CRITERIA #1: Promises made to each other about the permanent
nature of the relationship that are kept

CRITERIA #2: Explicit, formal, public declaration

CRITERIA #3: Unambiguous to partners and others

In today’s world, if all three of the above are met, I would
say it is a committed relationship, whether legally married
or not.

I sincerely hope this article helps address the common
questions about commitment that arise in relationship
coaching. There are no pat answers or prescriptions, but it
is my hope that these ideas and concepts will help you have
productive conversations with your clients that are caught
in the gray areas to support them to make effective
relationship choices.

©2005 by David Steele