The Relationship Between Love and Commitment

May 6, 2010

“I don’t quite know

How to say

How I feel

Those three words

Are said too much

They’re not enough”

Snow Patrol, Chasing Cars

In my life six men have said those three words to me. I’ve always believed that three of them were full of crap and three were the real deal, which reflected my belief that love and commitment were inseparable. Specifically, love happens first, which naturally leads to a shared desire for commitment. Certainly this does happen, it’s the backbone of every romantic story ever told. But the longer I think and write about relationships, and the contexts in which they occur, the more I realize there are many permutations of that brew of sexual attraction, intimacy, lust, friendship, love, respect and commitment. When we say we want it all, this is what we’re talking about. We want the fireworks of undying passion, but also the loyalty of an old hound. And we want it now! Looking back, I can see that each of those men felt something different for me, but love was the word each of them used to describe it.

Very few of us have it all. Even in happy marriages, feelings surge and ebb. Passion goes out the window when a child is born. We may lose respect for our mate when they get fired or screw up in some way. Some periods feel more like friendship. Then, surprisingly, it can feel like dating again. Or you look at your partner sleeping one morning and realize how grateful you are to be tethered to this person. Those are the good marriages, those are the lucky people.

For most of us, getting to that kind of partnership is a journey that includes several stops along the way before we reach our final destination, and none of those relationships will look the same. The only ones who understand the nature of a relationship are the two people in it, and even then there’s often confusion. You can never look at another couple and make assumptions about their level of love and commitment. Heck, that’s true even if they’re standing at the altar. Recall my recent post where a young woman was being pursued by a handsome young guy whose Facebook pic was of his January wedding!

Although relationships are scarce on college campuses, they do exist. You can go to any campus and see a few couples holding hands as they walk around. Often these women are the envy of their frustrated female classmates. In truth, though, I hear from quite a few women in those relationships, and I’ve realized that many of them have commitment but not love. This calls into question the meaning or validity of any commitment that’s been negotiated. More often than not, it’s a relationship of convenience.

Trying to put some structure around all the components of love and commitment, I discovered the work of psychologist Robert Sternberg. He developed the Triangular Theory of Love (sorry guys, it’s not a threesome). The three sides of the triangle are Intimacy, Passion and Commitment:

As a managment consultant, I got paid the big bucks to come up with slides like this to puzzle CEOs with, but I find the following chart to be easier to comprehend:

Looking at this chart, I realize that of the six relationships where men told me they loved me, two were Infatuation, one was Empty Love, one was Fatuous Love, and two were Romantic Love (the other real deals). Only my husband and I had Consummate Love.  Viewing love and relationships through this framework has helped me sort out not only my own history, but the enormous complexity of relationships. The biggest mistake that most people make is thinking they’ve got Romantic Love, or even Consummate Love, when in fact they have something considerably less meaningful.

Empty Love

If you have gotten someone to agree to be exclusive with you, perhaps reluctantly, what you have is Empty Love. It’s a contract with absolutely no intimacy or real passion as collateral to back it up. In the past, when women found it necessary to marry a provider, there were many marriages of this nature. Arranged marriages fit this description in the beginning, but may change dramatically over time.

When you see a Player who has a girlfriend, this is almost always the nature of the relationship. Many girls will knowingly accept this deal happily for the social validation they feel in having flipped a cad. However, for her own physical and emotional health, she should be on high alert for cheating. And if it’s long distance with a Player? Fuggedaboutit.


A very common error is mistaking intimacy for love, when in reality it is Friendship. Friends with Benefits relationships fall into this category, at least at the beginning. Occasionally, they can produce passion, which may ignite Romantic Love. Of course, if only one person is feeling it, you’ve basically got a ruined Friendship.

Guys often fall into the trap of mistaking intimacy for attraction. Because guys generally don’t invest great energy in platonic friendships with women (not straight guys, anyway), they fail to understand that girls absolutely love having a male BFF. The guy falls for her, finds a way to let her know, and he gets knocked back on his heels with the dreaded “Let’s Just Be Friends.”


Infatuation, or limerence, is defined as a strong feeling of attraction and preoccupation with another person. It’s a crush, and it’s a heady feeling, because all things are possible at this stage. It’s pure passion, and if intimacy develops, Romantic Love is achieved. If not, you’ve got a dead shark.

Hooking up will fall into this category if you’re lucky. That is, if you’re pursued by someone who likes you, instead of being viewed through beer goggles at closing time and dragged off for crappy drunken sex. It’s very common for the woman to nurture the intimacy, and for the guy to prevent her from succeeding. If you watch a college party closely, you will often observe a fair amount of girls and guys ignoring one another. That usually means they hooked up and it didn’t end well.

Fatuous Love

A relationship that starts off with great passion and intensity sometimes leads to a commitment, even though the stability of real emotional intimacy was never introduced. Most drama-filled relationships with crazies fall under this heading. This kind of relationship can be addictive, because it has all the excitement with none of the hard work. Of course, there’s hell to pay afterwards, but most people who go for this kind of relationship experience keep repeating the same mistakes. This is where the bad boys and psycho chicks can be found. There are no functioning LTRs in this category.

Most of us hope for a Romantic Love that grows into a Consummate Love. That’s a precious thing, and not uncommon despite all the bumps and heartache along the way. It requires great patience, and you must find someone to meet you halfway. The nature of relationships means that you’ve only got what the least invested person wants, so it pays to be honest with yourself about what kind of relationship you’re in, and what kind you want.

This leads us to the rather obvious conclusion that not all commitments are created equal. Most often, women feel ready for commitment before men do (shocker, I know). You can’t rush commitment, or wrangle it from a reluctant partner, and still have integrity in a relationship. Most women will need to seek men who are commitment-friendly. This can be determined early and easily by looking at a guy’s history and behavior, as I’ve detailed here.

If you’ve fallen for someone, and they’re commitment phobic, Rich Santos, blogger at Marie Claire, may be able to tell you why:

I can tell you that I do fear commitment. Commitment means that I’ve decided that the woman I’m settling down with is perfect and there is no one else out there for me. Commitment means I’ve found my soul mate, that I am completely secure with myself, and that there should be no going back. I don’t know about you, but all of that is pretty heavy. I think the old adage “Girls mature faster than boys” comes into play here. Commitment is a sign of maturity, and it just takes some of us longer.

11 Reasons Guys are Afraid to Commit:

1. He Still Wants To Play The Field

Once a guy commits, he will lose the right to date other women. Most guys try to hold on to this right as long as they can, especially when they are not sure what they are looking for.

2. Girls Grow Up Faster Than Boys

“Committing” means “growing up” to some guys. And a lot of us guys don’t want to grow up, or we want to delay the process of growing up as long as possible. Commitment is a sign of maturity, and some guys are simply too immature to commit.

3. There’s Someone Else

It’s hard for a guy to commit to one woman if he’s got others on his mind– imagine trying to commit if you had a couple of guys on your mind.

4. He’s Got Other Priorities

In life, it’s tough to balance love, family, work, etc. If there are things in his life that demand more attention than his love life, he’ll commit to the other stuff and deal with love when he can.

5. He’s Got Baggage/Afraid of Intimacy

We all know my head is messed up from my crazy family, my terrible experiences, and all of my mental downfalls. Maybe he’s had a bad experience with a past girlfriend, or he’s a child of divorce. Unresolved pain in his past can prevent him from committing.

6. He’s Afraid It Won’t Work Out

Committing involves risk. You are essentially taking a plunge, and investing energy in the relationship. Some people feel that it’s not worth a try unless it’s 100% certain it will work out. But, you can never really be that sure of things, and that unknown keeps some people from committing.

7. None Of His Friends Have Committed

If you are able to get the first guy of his group of friends to commit, I commend you. Most of us guys want to commit eventually, but we don’t want to be the first one, and there is respect among guys for the last single guy in the group.

8. He’s Only In It For The Sex

Sadly, some guys are just out to conquer women. Keep a close eye on things so you’re not a victim. Usually, if you have a gut feeling that this is the case, you are right.

9. He’s Still “Selfish”

Committed relationships are acts of selflessness. We are giving ourselves and our time and energy to one another. I know that I’m still in a selfish period in my life: I’d rather wake up at 10 AM on Sunday and read about The Sex Pistols and Maryland History on Wikipedia instead of waking up at 9 AM and going to brunch with a girlfriend. Someday we all get less selfish with our time, but when that occurs differs for everyone.

10. He’s Not Into You Enough To Commit

Most of the reasons a guy won’t commit have to do with the guy. But he may see you as a fun person to date, but never thought of you as someone he’d commit to in the end. It’s tough to swallow when this is the situation, but sometimes it’s easier to resolve it in your mind this way and move on.

11. You’re Pressuring Him Too Much To Commit

If he’s going to commit, let him come to that moment on his own. If you continue to bring it up, he may become bitter and annoyed at the whole thought of it. You’d rather him come to the decision to commit naturally on his own, and not because he was pressured to do so anyway.

Let’s face it, none of these reasons are mutually exclusive. The fewer of these that resonate for you, the better your chances. Often it’s better to move on.

Do you recognize your relationship in one of these combinations?

Guys: What can women do to make you want to commit? Do men want Consummate Love as much as women do, and is it all about timing?