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If trust is something that you feel, commitment is something that you do. It’s taking your partner with you wherever you go.

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I met with a pre-married couple today. Let’s call them “Oliver” and “Alison.” Oliver and Alison are working through a handful of issues as they approach their wedding in September. Today the issue was “Veronica.” (These are all fake names, of course, and I’m listening to Elvis Costello at the moment.)

Oliver and Veronica first met in junior high. They were both pretty wild. They “went together” for a while. They got into trouble together and fooled around more than a little. After they broke up, Oliver met Alison. They started dating during senior year of high school and have been together ever since — nearly ten years. They’ve weathered a lot of ups and downs, but they have continually affirmed one of the most important aspects of a sound relationship: Commitment.

On this day, however, they’re evaluating that commitment through the idea of Veronica. Veronica is still a troublemaker. She parties a lot and doesn’t seem to be a very good decision maker. Oliver and Alison are deeply committed to one another, but Veronica is a problem. See, Alison and Veronica just graduated from nursing school together. While they were there, they became good friends. Veronica provides a little bit of a social outlet for Alison. Alison provides as sense of stability and calm for Veronica.

Still, Oliver is worried. He doesn’t want them hanging out together. He’s worried that Alison will somehow become enamored of the “wild” life and go down a path that is detrimental to their relationship. We wandered around in this a bit this afternoon. Ultimately, we learned that Oliver also had a male friend quite similar to Veronica. (Though Elvis Costello doesn’t sing about men much.) In any case, what does this have to do with commitment?

My friend and mentor Lisa Lund, a Certified Gottman Therapist, once defined commitment saying, “it’s taking your partner with you wherever you go.” I love that definition. It removes the notion that commitment is governed by some kind of obligation or legal contract. It’s governed by a sense of partnership on the journey.

It would be ridiculous to assume that commitment meant you were somehow physically inseparable. The metaphor of taking your partner wherever you go, however, is powerfully applicable. Imagine what it would be like to intentionally take your partner with you — if only subconsciously — wherever you went. Would you go to the grocery store or the gym differently? Would you go to a bar differently? Would you relate to your friends differently? Would you relate to your co-workers differently? Would you relate to Veronica differently?

I asked Oliver, “What if you knew that Alison took you with her when she went to hang out with Veronica? Would that mitigate your concern at all?” You can guess his answer. It’s important to recognize that commitment is a mindset, not an act of discipline.

Recently, at a conference attended by other Certified Gottman Therapists, several of us got into a lively conversation about the difference between trust and commitment. Initially we were asking, “Is there a difference?” We all decided there was. Trust seems to be something that you feel. Commitment is something that you do.

I asked Oliver, “Do you trust Alison?” He said, “Yes, no question.” But that “feeling” hadn’t translated into “doing.” NOTE: I originally typed “evolved” instead of “translated” but I couldn’t commit to the word. It makes me wonder, does trust precede commitment or vice versa?

In any case, as you begin to build your Sound Relationship House, you must navigate a certain degree of choice. Consider for just a moment the idea of the vows at your wedding. Your vows are often your expression of commitment, at least formally. What do you know about better, worse, richer, poorer, sickness, health, and all the rest? Minimally, you know you have a choice.

For Oliver and Alison, they had a choice to take one another with them wherever they went, and to believe the best about the other when they were gone. We talked for a while about whether or not “Veronica” was the issue. She wasn’t. The issue was the confusion about what it meant for Oliver and Alison to move through life together.

In the end, if trust is about attunement, then commitment is about choice. And it’s not just choosing your partner. It’s about choosing the relationship, day after day.

P.S. My book “The Relationship Alphabet” is out on Amazon this Friday. If you order it, I’ll send you a free 90-minute streaming video lecture of Dr. John Gottman. Click here to learn more. 

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Zach Brittle is a Certified Gottman Therapist, best selling author of The Relationship Alphabet, and host of the highly-rated podcast Marriage Therapy Radio. He has a private practice in Seattle, WA and offers online coaching to couples across the country. He he has been happily married to his wife for 20 of 21 years. Together they have two daughters, a minivan, and most of the silverware they received at their wedding.

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