I DO I DO! On relationships and commitment.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on February 20, 2011

What does it mean to make a commitment to another, to be in an intimate  relationship with another? Beyond the vows that we make, the intentions that we have in our heart, the passion and attachment that we may feel, what is commitment really about?

Our culture tells us that relationship and commitment are something to aspire to, and are about love, trust, communication, partnership, and companionship. Ok, so far so good, who would not want that? But as a psychoanalyst I know, that relationships, and our ability to make a commitment to another, involve more than the elements that might make for  good relations. And furthermore, that the ability to commit to another and stay committed, turns out to be a real test of character, but not in the way that you might think.

When we commit to another, we commit to knowing them deeply, from the inside. Relationships involve an ongoing, intimate exchange between two people, who come to know each other and themselves through their experience of each other within the relationship. When we are involved with another, we not only come to know them, we also come to know parts of ourselves and our character through our partners’ experience of them. And this is the dirty little secret about relationships: they put us in touch with parts of ourselves that we might otherwise never know. Most often, this surprises us; through our relating to another we may find out that we are many things we do not like about ourselves, or want to be –impatient, bossy, critical, mean, etc.- aspects of our selves that are only activated within ongoing intimacy and may seldom, if ever, make an appearance in other situations and/or less intimate relations. Features of ourselves that may be saturated with shame and kept out of awareness, but return within the dance of intimacy as parts of our early relational language. After all, our blueprint for intimacy becomes established in infancy through our interactions with our caretakers. When we enter an intimate relationship in adult life, we bring with us many early intimacies that will likely become activated in our relationship with a significant other.

When we commit to another, we commit to bearing their character and the many articulations of their very being, through our experience of it.  We commit to our processing of the particular aesthetic of the other through our experience and interaction with them. We in fact say to our partners: this is what you are like. The truth is, that we are also known and elaborated, through the others’ experience of us. It is our partners that can tell us a great deal about who we are in relationship to them. And this is what accounts for rupture in commitment: who we become to the other and what it says about us, may not be who we want to be. There is such a thing as a bad match: individual characters relating to each other and foreclosing possibilities for the recognition and elaboration of each other, playing out a version of intimacy based on the past and their history. This is also why bad relationships can wreak havoc with our sense of self: they validate our worst fears and entrap us in repetitive interactions.

There is an old Freudian saying that we tend to marry our parents. The modern version of this, is that we are drawn to what is familiar and known at some deep, intimate level. In this sense, the character of our partners (and friends) will affect which parts of us are engaged and how – celebrating and supporting our personal aesthetic or foreclosing it. Even “good” relationships are a strain to bear, because they necessarily involve us in a deep, experiential character exchange where we come to know ourselves through the other and in relationship to them, and vice-versa. The ability to stay committed to another involves a process of mutual recognition, as well as a continuous elaboration of each other, that is capable of repairing interpersonal ruptures and validating individual experience. Ultimately , it boils down to who we want to be in relation.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

D March 3, 2011 at 10:37 AM

The difficulty in sustaining a deep sexual relationship to me stems from the visceral conflict that the human being experiences between our natural instincts and our intellect. We are the only species that has a conscious sense of our past, present, and future. This ineluctable state causes a disconnect that separates us from our natural instincts although these instinctual feelings lie dormant in all of us until awakened by some “traumatic” experience i.e. fight or flight.
Love is aesthetic arrest that transfixes and suspends the consciousness in the present. Compounded with the “trauma” of sex and the “physical interpenatration”, the past and present melt away, During climax we experience a oneness and harmony with nature, touching a profound sense of the infinite. This state quietly and quickly fades from our grasp and lands us back hard into reality. For the average person this is one of the only times that they are able to abandon the restraints of human consciousness and succumb to truly living in the moment.
In my opinion, (other the bigger question of whether its natural for humans to be with only one person over an entire lifetime) reconciling this allusive state with everyday reality becomes the biggest challenge for two people to sustain over time.


TJ Coburn February 21, 2011 at 4:40 PM

Dear Velleda,

Many, many thanks for this writing. Not only is it inspiring, it calls to mind that relationships are work, but the work provides the opportunity for transformation and a deepening love of our partner and self.



Erika February 21, 2011 at 7:50 AM

Is it about intimacy or just interaction in relationships that expands our self understanding?
Why do we find intimate relationships that involve sexuality to be the most difficult to sustain at an intimate level?


Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. February 21, 2011 at 9:18 AM

It is about both: interaction in relationships can lead to self knowledge, understanding and intimacy, and intimate interaction is the most potentially transforming. With sex we add a very powerful way of communicating and connecting with another: Sex provides a physical interpenetration between people that dispels boundaries and creates the momentary illusion of oneness – with sex we are stirred deeply toward connection and all of its personal meanings to us, which require ongoing negotiation. Sexuality makes us negotiate our boundaries intimately.


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