I want marriage but he does not

-- Question for John --

My boyfriend and I have been living together for 4 years and it is a truly great relationship. I would like the commitment of marriage, but he does not. This difference of opinion has raised the question of what really is a committed relationship? I believe that he and I both have different expectations of what makes up a true commitment.

From what he has told me, he feels that just living together and being loving and faithful is a real commitment. I believe it goes further. He and I do not share finances, just split the bills, which works for us. Also, he owns the house and I pay rent, which also works.

But I see commitment as carrying a certain amount of risk, such as purchasing furniture together, making decisions together, setting up a life that two people would think a lot about before just walking away from it.

I don’t know, maybe I am just trying to achieve the state of marriage without really being in it, sort of like faking myself out! I don’t believe that either one of us is wrong. I think I just need a validity check on my feelings. Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks!

-- Answer from John --

The relationship between commitment and marriage is a complex issue and when I work with couples on it, I like to gather a lot of personal information on each side in order to get the full and deeper picture.

But given what you say above, you feel like you are in a stuck point, ready to go to some next level of commitment — while he is perfectly comfortable with things exactly as they are.

You can debate what “true commitment” means in terms of financial structure and risk taking on that level. Apparently, to you it means something, and to him, not.

I usually want to get below the surface issue — finances — to the deeper emotional roots of the dilemma. This may come down to certain fears or personal styles that differentiate the two of you. When you start to explore the deeper issues, you can at least come to better understand each other — and more importantly, yourselves. This deeper understanding, if you keep going in that direction, usually becomes a pathway to discover a mutual solution.

To go down that pathway does require each person to keep opening their hearts to simply understanding the other person. Because we can each only open ourselves in the presence of someone who is open-heartedly receptive to us, and accepting of what we discover in ourselves.

But the usual thing is to argue or debate over an issue — sort of like you two are doing. This technique of discussion — which pretends to look for an answer, but really is just a power struggle in disguise — does not let people be open-heartedly compassionate. Hence each person, instead of opening more to a process of co-discovery, will close down tightly around their own point of view.

The debate style can be done on any level — from a shouting match with emotional drama, to the most subtle and courteous elegant communication. But even the latter still is about defending one’s own point of view. What you have to do is to make the shift over, to the more open framework of exploration together — where you are both open and courageous to discover whatever you find beneath the surface, so that you can truly understand each other’s full emotional framework around the issue.

Although this is typically what a counselor or coach is good at facilitating, the two of you can learn to do this kind of mutual exploration by yourselves, if you are both motivated and willing.