Saturday, December 26, 2009

On commitment

I've had a lot of programming around believing that a really mature intimate relationship is of course something that is monogamously exclusive and committed. Making this kind of promises, however, goes against what comes naturally to me. And so voices come up in my head accusing me of being irresponsible, immature and inconsiderate. So today I would like to make a case for how this can be seen from another perspective. I am probably not going to be able to see all sides of the situation, and my bias will come through, and I just want to say I’m aware of that and welcome input on whatever I may be blind to.
Let me look at commitment first. What are we actually talking about? The voice that comes up strong is the one saying "you're afraid of commitment". It’s the trump card, calling 'chicken’. The person calling ‘chicken' is assuming that making a commitment to “being with” someone for the foreseeable future is a value shared by all. This person views commitment as something desirable, though difficult to attain and maintain, since it possibly goes against one’s assumed fickle and treacherous nature, and so someone willing to make the ‘sacrifice’ of committing, is seen as valiant, strong and noble. The value of "commitment" upholds consistency as something to be desired, as in: I made a choice to be with this one person, and now I should stick to it, because this is how I continue to know that the decision I made in the first place was a good and right decision. If I were to move on from this one person, it might mean to me that I made a wrong decision in the past, and that would be distressing (usually in proportion to the length of the relationship). Or, if I were to move on, it would mean I am weak and unable to deal with problems that arise in any relationship, it would mean I am a failure. Or, I feel such love for this person, ergo it means we should keep trying to “be together” as a couple. People say things like, “I want this relationship to succeed”, and they mean they want an agreement of me+you=couple to be permanent, stable and safe. In fact now that I put it that way, I’m seeing a deeply Christian morality behind the idea of commitment. There’s a lot of implicit belief in human nature as being essentially sinful and wrong, and to remedy that, we must “do the right thing” (as opposed to the “wrong” thing) and make relationship contracts that will override our “destructive” natural impulses, and abide by those contracts to ensure everlasting correctness and righteousness.
From my perspective, I am not afraid of commitment any more than I am afraid of smoking cigarettes. It just has no appeal to me. It’s not that it’s only fear of getting cancer that’s keeping me from smoking - it's that I have never felt a desire to light a cigarette in the first place. And, trying to be a consistent person is not a value that I share. Even more, the idea of “committing” to someone just makes absolutely no sense to me. I promise to “be with” you? What does that even mean? Oh, I know what it means on a most basic operational level – I will not have sex with any other person. That is foreign to me in so many ways. First, I don’t know what it means to be “with” someone, so all the issues around entering relationships and ending them are bizarre to me. My internal experience is that my close relationships with people may change in intensity over time, but they don't end, nor do I enter them. There are no defining moments of “getting together” or "breaking up”. It’s as if the whole society is taking very seriously some rules that are permanently confusing to me. I’ve found that I can have sex and yet feel no attachment to that particular person, no sense of “being with”. I’ve also found that I can feel deeply intimate and one with someone, and yet there is no sex or desire for sex involved. Sex is irrelevant to me, whereas to others it seems to be pivotal in how they construe that relationship.
My best understanding of what it means to “be with” someone, is this. A person wanting to have an agreement of commitment and exclusivity, really wants to experience mutual trust, total intimacy, closeness and love. Those are wonderful things to experience. And for some reason, the way they are able to completely trust and open to somebody, is if they can have a guarantee that they are their partner’s most important person, valued above anyone else, and will continue to be so in the future. In a sense, they want a reassurance of a kind of unconditional love and acceptance, in order to give the same back. So I guess exclusive relationship contracts really work, when both people need that, and give those unspoken promises to each other simultaneously and call it “getting together”. It’s exhilarating to feel that you are free to exchange this complete trust and openness and love, and it also explains the corresponding drama and grief over loss of such reassurances – it’s as if unconditional love has been lost to them. That is tragic.
As for myself, I first thought that I was entirely incompatible with the idea of commitment. How could I possibly make promises about how I was going to feel about someone later on, when the mere thought of fixating some kind of safety for my future like that, in terms of “what should be”, is terribly deadening, and I can just feel it draining aliveness and spontaneity and delight out of the flow of a relationship in the present moment. Then it occurred to me that there is something I want to commit to – no, something that I don’t even have to try to commit to, because I am already committed to it through and through. I can’t commit to “being with” a person. But I am committed to, and always respond and am attracted to, a person’s willingness to be open, transparent, intimate, real. I am committed to being the same way. I am committed to truth and to addressing any issues, difficulties or incompatibilities as soon as they arise, rather than sweeping them under the carpet or hiding anything unpleasant in the interest of trying to “stay together”. I would much rather have full disclosure regardless of where that leads, than to try to make myself look acceptable so that I can have the safety of being “with” someone. I am committed to doing whatever with another free agent on a purely voluntary basis, from delight in each other, rather than trying to “make” a committed relationship work. Now does this mean that because I have made no contract of commitment, I am going to turn on a dime, and after consistently being close and intimate with someone, simply abandon them one day without warning? I am open to that risk – but I think it’s highly unlikely, and I believe that kind of situation is actually more likely in relationships where the goal is to stay committed to each other regardless of what’s going on for you, rather than in relationships where you are open to acknowledging and discussing any changes and developments as they arise. I can’t imagine ever just “dropping out” of the life of anyone I have been close with, if they are still willing to continue opening and growing with me. Whether this involves sex at some point or not, whether we are currently close or far apart, doesn’t matter much to me. There are people who have touched my life deeply, and I never stop loving them.


  1. Beautifully written, intelligent points made about the sentimentalities that are futile to some but completely embellished by others. I agree with everything here and wish that some others would be open to admit they do, or wish, they feel the same. I agree mostly with the idea that it is not immaturity that keeps one from committing, rather, a maturity about the reality of life.
    Thank You for sharing!
    (status is Anonymous for now till I sign up)

  2. Interesting theory, though I think that you're not accounting for the harsh realities of time negotiation. If I'm friends with someone I see them once a week, sometimes more. We can maintain a deep and intimate relationship, but we have a lot of flexibility to do our own thing. In romantic relationships the time gets dialed WAY up, 4 or more nights a week for many people, and that means keeping a lot of other priorities at bay. "Commitment," in a practical sense often means "commitment to prioritize my partner over my community," which is a hard thing to do for a lot of people (hence the fear.) Many people are only willing to spend 4 nights a week like that if the relationship is going to pay off in the long run in the way that a community presumably won't, and commitments are a way of ensuring that payoff. Take away the commitment and you've got loving relationships that don't isolate themselves from their surrounding communities to the extent that romantic relationships often do.

  3. A(wo)men. Thank you for sharing this, love.