Trust in Your Relationship: Commitment, Constraint, and Containment
An Excerpt from Love between Equals: Relationship as a Spiritual Path
Many people nowadays do not understand whether or why they should get married or commit themselves to a monogamous or exclusive sexual relationship. In this regard, we seem to have forgotten that what is most important to thrive in a long-term relationship is a sense of trust; without trust, a relationship cannot endure. “Trust” in intimate relationships includes confidence in both your own and your partner’s capacity to resolve conflicts with respect, while remaining engaged and interested in each other over time. This kind of trust certainly includes both people’s honesty, vulnerability, and gratitude, as expressed in the ongoing partnership. You have to believe your partner’s words, to trust what your partner says and expresses to you. And you have to speak in a trustworthy way yourself. Being seen and known by your partner is a process of dialogue and emotional mirroring (being reflected back through your partner’s words and gestures) between you that requires belief in each other’s words. As a result of mutual trust, each person comes to feel that the relationship—the “home” that contains the two of them—is stable enough to invest in and sacrifice for.
In this way, marriage or a similar commitment is a third element between you and your partner: that is, there are two individuals—plus the bond or vow that contains you as a couple. This formulation of three components (two people and a relationship) is important to hold in mind as we come to see what is required for personal love to become true love. It is the relationship itself that can and must endure through the changing circumstances of life. Trust undergirds that endurance and, as I shall maintain, monogamy typically enhances trust. Unfortunately, today’s world is often not conducive to growing trust or, indeed, to valuing monogamy. A popular, though not universal, belief is that many sexual partners are better than one or a few. However, trust in a relationship can be quickly degraded for one partner or both by practices such as, for example, having open relationships (polyamory), habitually using pornography, and attending sex parties (subcultures described in Emily Witt’s 2016 book, Future Sex). When we endorse the notion that “as long as we do what we feel is right” or that “I can do what I want as long as I don’t really hurt anyone,” then we probably believe experimentation will improve our pleasure and possibly our relationship. Sometimes this attitude can lead to eschewing any boundaries because we want primarily to “feel comfortable” and “authentic” in our desires and our bodies. We don’t want anything imposed from the outside on our own feelings and desires because we assume that having fewer restrictions means we will be happier. I have come to believe that this is a big mistake.
If we put so much emphasis on individual choice, we may find it hard to recognize that there are natural limitations on human sexuality that are biologically built in, having to do with the constraints of pair bonding. In fact, knowing and respecting those limitations usually enhances freedom and happiness. When we respect the boundaries of our human sexual bonding, and our emotional responses to it, we feel freer. How can that be? Because, under those conditions, our trust is increased and our anxiety is reduced. Pair bonding makes us naturally anxious about losing the bond, as we will see. Trust enhances our freedom because we are more open, and it enhances happiness because we relax. Yet some of us remain dubious about how built-in universal constraints require accommodation if we want to live in harmony with ourselves, human nature, and others.
Unsurprisingly, I’m often met with confusion and skepticism when I talk about this idea of built-in universal constraints (“natural laws”). We want what we want when we want it. However, our contemporary unhappiness in relationships and the failure of many people to sustain a satisfying and lively long-term commitment seem to be related, at least in part, to not understanding or factoring in the natural laws we have to navigate in our search for happiness and love.
Trust enhances our freedom because we are more open, and it enhances happiness because we relax.
To begin, we need to think about sex and love as different critters—the first builds from desire and its pleasurable release, and the second from communication, vulnerability and need, caregiving and witnessing. Pause and read this sentence again, because it might be surprising if you have come to view sex and love as the same. Of course, you might say that the experience of sex can be enhanced by communication, and that love in an intimate relationship can be deepened through sex. This is true, and yet love and sex are fundamentally different because love has to transcend sex and continue when the pleasure of sex is not available—for example, due to age, illness, or other circumstances. And love requires different skills and sensitivities than sex does. Yet some—perhaps many—people believe that you can experiment with many sexual partners and activities and eventually love will arrive in one of those encounters. Maybe, maybe not. If you are making a strong argument against what I am saying, allow yourself to suspend your judgment for a few minutes here while I make my case. We all know that you can have sex with a stranger, for instance, but you can’t really love a stranger. Love requires personal familiarity. Sexual desires also involve power and submission; you can do them to a stranger, but you do them with a partner. As soon as you impose your sexual desires or needs on another, you have shifted the relationship away from mutuality unless you have the other’s agreement. True love, as you know, requires conditions of equality, reciprocity, and mutuality, as well as negotiating conflict and maintaining harmony. These are not power-over conditions but conditions of shared power. Necessarily, then, we cannot prepare for true love just by having sex. Love requires many skills and developments that are not a part of our sexuality per se. (I hope you are getting the drift of this now, even if it was confusing at first.)
No matter how much wild sex we have for the pleasure of it, love has different requirements. And even after having a lot of sex, with one or many partners, most of us want the love of a committed partner who feels like home. Most of us want a companion who is a good friend to grow old with. What does this say about what love is? Love is the enduring context or attitude in which you carry out all your activities with your partner. In other words, love is not a feeling, but it’s a way of holding another in your heart. It is certainly not the same thing as desire or excitement or attraction or arousal. Love endures even when desire fades. As you have probably seen for yourself, there are many committed or married partners who sacrifice sex for love, and there are many uncommitted and sexually adventurous people who sacrifice love for sex. Sex and love do not just go together smoothly and naturally.
When good sex and personal love do serve each other, however, they can transform an intimate relationship into a compelling combination of mystery and familiarity with a particular human being. We can experience a letting go of both our boundaries and our grounding in sex and fall into an open and boundaryless state that seems mysterious in a spiritual way. A committed relationship acts as a container for such an open experience; it allows us to trust there will be a ground to come back to, from this transcending of boundaries. The combination of mystery and familiarity, in a sexual relationship, brings us insight, pleasure, pain, and suffering in a way that also requires us to develop, spiritually and psychologically, within the relationship and as individuals.
What helps us navigate this kind of territory inside of a love relationship? Commitment, constraint, and containment, what I call the three Cs, are the foundation for a freedom that allows you to relax into the trust of your partner and yourself, within the container of your relationship, and to experience the happiness that comes from being able to be both authentic and vulnerable. When the three Cs protect the container of the relationship, then true love can develop as part of your spiritual path. What would it mean for your relationship to be a part of your spiritual path? It means that you as an individual learn how to be authentic and openhearted even after times of hurt, painful conflict, and episodes of alienation. It means you learn about kindness even while you learn about pain and hatred. And it means that your relationship becomes the home in which you live because you can return repeatedly to its mutual witnessing and harmony that are built on resolving conflicts and allowing for each other’s individuality. In order to establish and maintain this foundation, you need to know about the constraints of sex and love in the human species, encapsulated in the three Cs. Together they comprise a lesson in good relationship health.
Commitment, constraint, and containment, what I call the three Cs, are the foundation for a freedom that allows you to relax into the trust of your partner and yourself, within the container of your relationship, and to experience the happiness that comes from being able to be both authentic and vulnerable.
Recently, I have found in my clinical practice that more and more young adults have been asking me about open relationships. This is not a new idea. Many younger people may not know about the failed 1970s experiments in open marriage, where the “openness” involved polyamory or “swinging” (as partner-swapping was called). Often the free-love arrangements of the era encouraged having sex with multiple partners while using recreational drugs, and came with permission “to do anything, as long as everyone agrees and it is not harmful.” When that experimentation ended, in the mid-eighties or so, there was something of a backlash. Many people felt a kind of disgust with the whole affair (bad pun). Over the years, I have talked with those who lost their primary relationship because of their attempt to have an open relationship—and I have not met anyone who felt they had benefited or thrived as a result of an open marriage. I have also seen their children in therapy, who found this kind of experimentation (even if parents tried to hide it, the kids figured it out) disquieting, wrong, and threatening to their feeling of family. And yet, the open relationship experiment is on again; this time, it seems to be fueled by a belief in the “anarchy” of boundless sex.
However, sex in a human relationship is not suited to anarchy. As we have discussed in previous chapters, human beings are sexually pair-bonded, even if imperfectly so. This means we are vulnerable to irritation and anxiety when we experience that our bond is threatened by a rival. Even if we believe our anxieties are irrational (or try to convince ourselves they are), we can still behave in a jealous or irrational manner when our partner is connecting to a rival, because our own biology drives our feelings.
Pair bonding is a strong affinity that develops in some species, including ours, in a male and a female pair or a same-sex pair, that potentially leads to reproduction or a lifetime bond or both. The bond in such a special pair is measurably different in both physiological (biochemical) and emotional features from general friendships or other kinds of pairings. There is a much higher degree of guarding and identification with a personal bond when it is sexual—similar to the way we have stronger and more poignant feelings about our own children, with whom we are bonded, than we have about other children. When you have sex with a specific person more than a few times (in the experiences related by my therapy clients, it seems to be after about three to six times), a pair bond begins to be created between you both. A pair bond is inherently associated with a feeling of being identified with and dependent upon the other person, feeling anxious when separated (wanting to know where the other is), and feeling anger or grief if the bond is broken. In order for pair bonding to click in, the sex has to be personal: hugging, kissing, face-to-face interaction, rocking, baby talk, and petting. Rape, sexual abuse, and prostitution—as well as other kinds of impersonal sex—do not induce pair bonding in all the ways I describe here, although they may include some aspects of pair bonding, and thus can be emotionally confusing. Pair bonding—and its human expressions of attachment, separation anxiety, and grief—is also different from simple desire, romance, or the hot lust of a one-night affair with a stranger. Pair bonding induces the sense of identification with the other person; therefore, just as sexual desire enhances the power that another has over you, pair bonding means that the other person has emotional power over you to the extent that it can be hard to walk away from that person even when the relationship has become abusive or negative.
Pair bonding can be understood as the adult revisiting of attachment bonding between the human infant and any caregivers. In our early development, we all had to bond with our caregivers in order to grow and develop through the long dependency of a human childhood. We may have bonded securely, anxiously, or chaotically, but we had to depend on and internalize others (usually it is a small group of caregivers, not just one person) in order to become fully human. Once a bond has formed, you can say that you are now “hard-wired” to feel your need for emotional security and physical safety with that person. As a result, you have also become programmed to feel anxious and watchful about that bond and jealous in protecting it.
Pair bonding is a strong affinity that develops in some species, including ours, in a male and a female pair or a same-sex pair, that potentially leads to reproduction or a lifetime bond or both.
You can, of course, come to feel such a bond with a partner who is untrustworthy and even unlikable. As the sociologist Robert Weiss pointed out in his 1975 classic Marital Separation, “Attachment gives rise to a sense that home is where the other is. It persists even in bad marriages, even when the ultimate result of going home is that [bad] things start up again.” Pair bonding is a powerful force and a good reason to reflect at length before you act on your sexual desires with a new person. For example, it can be a good idea to ask the question of yourself: Is this a person I want to be bonded with? That is, when you understand that the pair bond is a natural law or limitation, it can be helpful before you have sex to spend some effort to check on the context or fabric of that other person’s life. What is the person’s family like, what is the psychological health of the person, and how has that individual treated former spouses or partners? You don’t need a multiple-choice questionnaire, but you do need to recognize that this person is both a person and a fabric of life. When you feel pair-bonded with that other person, you will be entering into that whole fabric of their life, and they to yours.
If you look at the research on human pair-bonding, you will see that serial monogamy seems to be the typical form of our imperfect pair-bonding, not multiple simultaneous partners. Having multiple simultaneous partners usually feels too anxiety-provoking and overwhelming to be enjoyable—if the sex is personal. I am not claiming here that the natural dynamics or archetypes of pair bonding are inherently moral issues (even though moral precepts have been built around them in all major religions), but they create conditions of universal constraints or limitations on human sexual relationships. They cannot be transcended by rationality, no matter how much we believe they can. Even if you believe that being jealous of your partner’s friendships is wrong or weak, you will tend to find you feel jealous, all the same. Possessiveness is built into wanting to preserve your bond. Jealous feelings about your sexually bonded partner are a natural part of life.
From a Buddhist perspective, everything you do in life depends on, and creates, conditions and causes. This principle is called “dependent arising” (or “dependent co-origination”) and it is central for understanding how we can sustain ourselves in our lives. All “things” in this world depend on necessary conditions in order to exist. There are no independent entities. You yourself depend on a variety of sustaining factors (food, shelter, meaning, and purpose are a few of them) whose tendrils stretch out into the world. After you create a sexual bond with a partner, you have entered a particular set of conditions that undergird your connection, conditions that create anxiety and anguish (in both people) in relation to losing that bond. Sustaining that bond over time and situations means making a promise for its nurture and care.
An intimate sexual relationship is a part of you, part of the context on which your identity rests. There are two individuals and there is a relationship. The relationship has a texture or fabric woven from experiences, habits, tone, and language as you habituate to each other and live together over time under changing conditions. The degree of togetherness (whether you share a bed, a house, a marriage, children, property, a profession, or whatever it may be) will vary from couple to couple and from time to time in the span of your life together. As a general rule of thumb, it is best if the relationship has a literal home (a physical place that you share, at least part-time) and a commitment (a vow or promise) in which the two of you live and develop together. These conditions will enable the feeling of trust in your bond and allow you to relax and “go on being together,” as the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott describes it.
So, if you wonder about a commitment or marriage, remember that your commitment is to the relationship, to this third element, not specifically to the other person. Without this clarity, you may rebel when you feel that you have promised something (for example, to share your money) that your partner does not promise. I hear many people say, “It’s not fair” when they believe they have sacrificed and the partner has not. However, when you orient yourself to the relationship itself, instead of feeling that your sacrifices should be strictly on a quid pro quo basis with your partner (which is not even possible), you can begin to see that when you enrich your relationship, your own life is automatically enriched as well because you live within the fabric you are weaving. You do not control your partner and cannot demand that your partner will do as you do. But you can make improvements to the relationship without your partner doing the same exact thing, allowing for the fact that things can feel reciprocal or mutual over time and situations, but the reciprocity is not quid pro quo.
Once you are in a committed relationship, knowing the natural pull of the pair bond, it is important not to make separation threats lightly. Separation threats (threatening to leave the relationship), like affairs, will stir up separation anxiety in both people—the one who speaks and the one who responds. Separation anxiety is an instinctual emotional response to the threat of being separated from someone with whom you have a bond. It is experienced (and often expressed) as cycles of emotional protest, depression, and apathy. Apathy here, as indifference or not caring, is the state of being overwhelmed by separation anxiety and shutting down emotionally. When a committed relationship is under the threat of ending, separation anxiety cycles through all the time. Even in the case where your partner does not know about your desire to leave, you will feel the agitation and perhaps the apathy.
Consensual open relationships and the regular use of pornography can be instigators of separation anxiety, as well. It should be clear why an open relationship threatens the primary bond: another person has access to your partner and is your rival in pair bonding. But why is the use of pornography a threat? If you use pornography for masturbation on a regular or fairly regular basis (for example, daily), not only are you exhausting your own libido (your sexual energy), but you also are training your perception (your eyes, feelings, body responses, ears, nose, and mind) to feel intimate with a two-dimensional image that you manipulate through your own imagination. The more habituated you become to this highly controlled “object of desire,” the more overwhelmed you may begin to feel by the actual physical, psychological, and perceptual weight of a real human being. Your actual partner may even feel overstimulating or perhaps unattractive or disgusting to you. Your capacity to feel much sexual arousal when you are close to your partner may wane, and typically the partner will also begin to feel anxious about being undesirable. Consequently, frequent pornography use threatens the pair bond. Even if your partner does not know about your use of pornography, that use will be impacting your partner because it will increase your own anxiety about your bond, resulting in less openness and vulnerability in lovemaking.
Occasional masturbation and pornography use are, of course, different from falling into a habit of pornography with a particular story line or image. People have always used masturbation and fantasy to ease their sexual tensions when their partners were not available for whatever reason. While pornography as an addictive sexual habit will take you away from sex with your partner, the occasional use can enhance sex with your partner if it helps you feel more comfortable in your own body or it is used jointly because both people enjoy it. But even when pornography is consensual and generally supportive of a relationship, a certain jealousy or self-consciousness can develop in partners who compare themselves to the images on the screen. For these reasons, you need to be very sensitive to the ways that pornography can disrupt real-life excitement in your sexual connection with someone else’s actual body. Actual bodies are changing and mysterious, and (as you know) actual bodies age and sag, but pornography is controlled and manipulated as a two-dimensional mind game.
So, if you wonder about a commitment or marriage, remember that your commitment is to the relationship, to this third element, not specifically to the other person.
In our era many people rebel against constraints, limitations, or restrictions. Many of us may consider our sexual experiences and bodies to be sources of individual benefit that should deliver what we want or feel we need. Instead of accepting realistic limitations as part of our freedom, we might see them as impediments. For my part, I believe the embrace of limitations, in the service of engaging with life, is one of the greatest freedoms you have. Human beings are not simply slaves to their urges and drives. We can take a step back and reflect on what is happening within us and see what happens when we act and when we do not act. Other animals cannot do this; they do not have the mental freedom. On the Buddhist wheel of life and death, or samsara, human beings have greater freedom than the gods. Different from the animals and the gods, humans can reflect on themselves and see the consequences of their own actions. You have the freedom to look within yourself and decide when and whether to act on your feelings and desires.
For personal love to become true love, the commitments you make in your love relationships need to respect the archetypes of human pair-bonding—acknowledging the powerful role played by separation anxiety—or you risk feeling constantly under threat once a bond has been established. To further aid this, you also need to reflect on the fact that your ideals and desires—for a certain type of lover, or a certain kind of arousal, for instance—may be entirely self-centered and unrealistic. Ideals and fantasies are based within your own individual mind and may or may not be shared by your partner. The person of your dreams is the person of your dreams—and is not out there in the world. You need to know this well and deeply or you may try to mold your partner to become this dream person, and that will offend your partner—or worse yet, you will leave your partner and keep looking for that dream lover.
Being able to work with your own fantasies, needs, and even sexual or aggressive arousal, within a thoughtful commitment to another person, is first and foremost a spiritual practice. All religions teach the importance of becoming aware of your motivations and intentions first, and then to express and to act as you sincerely intend. This view requires breaking from the misconception that your feelings are caused by someone else; what you feel is never under the control of another person. When taking responsibility for your self is coupled with your commitment to the relationship in which you live, it will become easier to communicate your emotional and sexual needs in a way that your partner can respond to, because you will feel less shame and humiliation. When you are able to reorient yourself to your relationship this way, then commitment in the form of marriage, or the promise of monogamy, more naturally becomes your vow to develop yourself psychologically and spiritually within the constraints and dynamics of this particular relationship. This vow, to yourself and your relationship, then requires you to speak and act within certain constraints in order to go on being together.
Continue learning about the three Cs: Commitment, Constraint, and Containment in Love between Equals.
Polly Young-Eisendrath, PhD, is a Jungian analyst, psychologist, and psychotherapist in private practice. She is the clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and the founder and director of the Institute for Dialogue Therapy. Learn more.