What is it about discussions of commitment that brings up so many thorny interpretations? When we talk about commitment, more often than not it is in the context of relationships, marriage and children, though of course, the word also applies to other contexts – commitment to work, to a cause or ideal, for example. In the former sense, commitment is usually characterised as something women seek and which men are either reluctant or unwilling to engage in. There is a long established narrative in which adult males are pilloried for a variety of reasons – immaturity, promiscuity, insincerity, instability, fear of the loss of freedom, inability to love unconditionally – it’s a long list that leaves them seeming like anything other than adult males in the wash up.
When women hold off from marrying men, we call it independence. When men hold off from marrying women, we call it fear of commitment.
– Warren Farrell
Commitment is, of course, a complex matter and has a wide variety of conditions and consequences for everyone, and fortunately, the situation has changed dramatically for men and women in recent decades, especially so far as individual freedom of choice and acceptance of alternative situations is concerned. Yet whilst reality might reflect far more variables than the predominant narratives, those narratives still persist in the oppressive and obsessive promotion of partnering up for life – as though not doing so makes one’s life meaningless and empty. It also seems part and parcel of what I consider a wholly mistaken premise about the way people are expected to be – that men or women should act in a way that satisfies the expectations, desires and goals of the opposite sex. Why do something that is so contrary to one’s nature? As Steve Jobs famously said:
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
In a recent article in the Guardian, Chris Mandle writes:
the problem with having women tell us (men) how to be men is the implication that we should be doing these things for the benefit of women. That if we make ourselves into better men, women will like us. Naturally, this isn’t an aspiration all men will strive towards…
The same applies for women, far too many of whom spend their time trying to accommodate men. But why, why do we bother trying so hard? Mandle’s argument, quite rightly, points out that what is most important is to be a considerate and decent human being, but anything beyond that is a choice. If you feel you have to compromise so much for the sake of commitment, then don’t commit. It’s as simple as that, and, similarly, if we expect people to change to suit our expectations, then we are being entirely insensitive to the other person’s nature. Is that not the ultimate selfishness? To try to have things the way we want them, even though the other person’s inclination is not the same? Why should men feel guilty about not wanting to have children at the same time as their partner? This does not make them villains. They are, after all, different people with different desires. Of course, accepting another person’s agenda is precisely what compromise is, but too many people accept unworkable compromises because they think it is the right thing to do. Well, you don’t need me to tell you that it isn’t always the right thing to do.
A quick search on the net under the topic of commitment brought up some rather ludicrous soundbites, many of which are designed to make us feel that commitment is something to strive for and achieve, a worthwhile life goal, but which actually make it sound like a terrible chore. Having spent some time recently musing on the idea and entertaining myself by reading some of the nonsense that people write about commitment, it’s fair to say that there is an almost unfathomable amount of rubbish written on this topic, some of which I would now like to shred. Here’s a few samples.
The American writer, Madeleine L’Engle wrote that:
If we commit ourselves to one person for life, this is not, as many people think, a rejection of freedom; rather, it demands the courage to move into all the risks of freedom, and the risk of love which is permanent; into that love which is not possession but participation.
Which seems at best confused, and at worst, illogical. Firstly, the idea that “if we commit ourselves to one person for life, this is not… a rejection of freedom” rests largely on the attitude into which people enter a commitment. In most cases they choose to do so, and in most cases their motive is unlikely to be a desire to “reject freedom”, but this does not mean that they haven’t actually rejected freedom, for, let’s face it, they have denied themselves the freedom to have sexual relations with other people, to engage in romantic adventures, and to do as they please without checking in with another person’s agenda. As to the rest of this rather garbled statement, exactly what she means by “the courage to move into all the risks of freedom” is not entirely clear, unless one accepts that somehow, illogically, commitment is one of the risks of freedom. It strikes me only as a “risk” of freedom, should one accidentally, for example, become committed to someone in the process of enjoying one’s freedom – an unexpected pregnancy and a partner unwilling to terminate, for example, or a prison sentence incurred in the pursuit of pleasure. As to “love which is not possession but participation”, this is purely semantic trickery. What is, after all, more possessive than an expectation of permanent commitment? And how is a non-committal relationship characterised more by possession than participation? One does not own one’s fuck-buddy after all, and nor is there a legal document to say otherwise.
Here’s another cracker by Criss Jami, lead singer of the band Venus in Arms and a published poet:
To say that one waits a lifetime for his soulmate to come around is a paradox. People eventually get sick of waiting, take a chance on someone, and by the art of commitment become soulmates, which takes a lifetime to perfect.
Another load of bollocks. “By the art of commitment become soulmates?” pull the other one. You are either soulmates (not that I believe in the existence of the soul, that too is bollocks) or you’re not. What he’s actually saying here is that ultimately everyone accepts a compromise, ends up with someone who isn’t their ideal choice, and then, with all the phlegmatic zeal of a defeatist, learns to put up with them over a period of decades. Clearly I’m not sold on this one either – it’s about creating a comfort zone, not a thrilling, happy life or something to be truly excited about, but what psychologists call, behaviourally, mood reinforcement. It’s a kind of habit-based sedative that is, we are told, better than continuing the quest for perfection, or an engaged and committed loneliness. Not the most convincing quote, I have to say.
We have to recognise that there cannot be relationships unless there is commitment, unless there is loyalty, unless there is love, patience, persistence.
This quote comes from Cornel West, a man who has written important work on race, gender and class in America. If it appears here out of context, then that is because I found it presented to the world out of context on a site brimming with these nonsense quotes about commitment. Reading this, one can’t help but ask: Really? What kind of relationships are we talking about here? What actually is a relationship? Can you not have a perfectly good relationship with your fuck buddy? Does the absence of “commitment” and “persistence” (god that sounds dreary) invalidate every human connection?
Define loyalty. The only loyalty I understand is to the set of conditions that govern a relationship, and that might include the freedom to sleep with other people. In that case, loyalty is wearing a condom when you fuck around. Patience, sure, is important, but there is a limit. If someone pisses you off too much, why bother with them any longer? And as for love, what is wrong with a basic, decent level of mutual respect? Love is really going too far for most human relationships, and no one seems to be able to define it adequately anyway. Is it an idea, a fantasy, an overdose of oxytocin leading to an irrationally high level of trust and empathy? This quote sounds rather exclusive to me, and not especially helpful in understanding the range and complexity of relationships that exist for people in the real-o-sphere.
Marriage is those two thousand indistinguishable conversations, chatted over two thousand indistuinguishable breakfasts, where intimacy turns like a slow wheel. How do you measure the worth of becoming that familiar to somebody—so utterly well known and so thoroughly ever-present that you become an almost invisible necessity, like air?
– Elizabeth Gilbert, Committed: A skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage
Wow, talk about a wet blanket. Is this some kind of nightmare she is describing – a recurring dream or groundhog day? The slow wheel of intimacy sounds more akin to the wheel of pain featured in the original film version of Conan the Barbarian. If the conversations are indistinguishable what is the point of having them? Is there any value in a situation entirely devoid of stimulation and excitement, a little unpredictability? Does anyone want to be so familiar to someone as to be reduced to an “an invisible necessity”? Not that I like surprises in the morning, but two thousand indistinguishable conversations sounds a hell of a lot like another fine example of mood reinforcement. Give me the comfort zone, or give me death. And nothing is more disquietingly smothering than the comfort zone. Looks to me like making peace with marriage had the same effect as a life-time prescription for Prozac.
Real love has little to do with falling. It’s a climb up the rocky face of a mountain, hard work, and most people are too selfish or too scared to bother. Very few reach the critical point in their relationship that summons the attention of the light and the dark, that place where they will make a commitment to love no matter what obstacles-or temptations- appear in their path.
Stacey Jay, Juliet Immortal
Oh lord, this one’s a cracker. At least, however, it acknowledges an important truth, that “most people are too selfish or too scared to bother.” Or how about, too sensible, too smart, too aware of their own requirements and what actually makes them happy to commit to something that is bound to fail and make them hugely miserable? What, after all, is wrong with selfishness? Why do we frown on it so much? Of course, I don’t mean the kind of selfishness where we fail to care about the suffering of others in the world, don’t give to charity and vote for self-interest ahead of the greater good. But that’s not the kind of selfishness this vapid quote is referring to. She means the kind where we don’t sacrifice ourselves for someone else’s happiness in the vain hope that somehow we might get something “meaningful” out of it.
If it takes that much effort to “summon the attention of the light and dark” (lol) then maybe, just maybe, it’s not worth going there. And why are people scared? Because commitment through thick and thin is neither necessarily pleasurable or satisfying and does not by any means always produce a positive outcome. They have every right to be scared of being trapped, of stagnation, of claustrophobia, of a future of thousands of indistinguishable breakfasts all compressed into a nightmare of samey dullness… I pity my mother who has hung around with my father, hoping, for the last twenty years, that things might prove worthwhile, yet all she’s had is misery and disappointment to the point of disgust. Don’t climb that mountain unless you really want to. Be selfish – it’s your happiness that matters, not someone else’s.
Now, on a more positive note, I found a quote from Paulo Coelho which I rather liked, surprisingly, considering the mild contempt with which I regard his well-meaning light-on philosophising:
Freedom is not the absence of commitments, but the ability to choose – and commit myself to – what is best for me.
– Paulo Coelho, The Zahir
Hear hear. At last, someone talking some common sense. And what is best for you is what really matters, surely. Not what other people need or think or believe to be right, but what actually makes you happy. That commitment might be to anything – to hiking, exercise, reading, work, writing, self-education, computer games, drugs, casual sex, television… or all of the above. It only makes sense to commit to things that give you pleasure or make you happy in the long run. Of course, this is often classified as “self-indulgence”, but that is just a bullshit term applied by people who aren’t comfortable with devoting their lives to pleasure instead of some idiotic idea that we should be working all the time and producing “results”, whilst humming the industrial age’s “work, consume, obey, die” mantra – a minor improvement on the medieval “slave, worship, die,” singalong.
I sincerely hope that the future will be very, very different. Of course, we’re going to fuck up the entire planet and nothing can stop that now, but it would be nice if the human race could go down unburdened by an antiquated sense of “commitment.” The assumption that the ideal human state is one of monogamy, that deviations from this are in some way a problem, that we should feel sorry for people who are “alone,” is so past its use-by date that it looks more akin to something one might find in an Anglo-Saxon burial mound. Humans are now so complex and sophisticated that they can freely choose to engage in whatever level of relationship and commitment they desire. We are also, to my knowledge, the only species in the history of evolution which can overcome its biological imperative to breed. Sure, some species avoid having offspring during times of environmental stress, but humans can reject this desire any time and remain perfectly happy, occupying themselves with all manner of hobbies and pastimes. The desire to pass on genes, once rationalised, becomes a lifestyle choice – especially as this burden might easily taken on by close kin, and for me, genetically, near enough is good enough.
The human brain is, to our knowledge, the most sophisticated thing in the universe, why waste its capability on tiresome chores and obligations, social or otherwise, when it could be employed solving far more interesting and engaging puzzles, or merely indulging its innate curiosity? Why endure years of commitment to an unsatisfying job or relationship out of a sense of necessity or obligation? Why put up with people who make us unhappy, or feel like hard work, when we have absolutely no need to do so?
In a nutshell, commitment is a form of suicide. We murder one part of ourselves in the hope that another might thrive, yet it does not always work out. If you get married, you are killing the person who was free to sleep around, free to pack up and move to another country without having to discuss it with someone else. If have a child, you are killing the person who was free to sleep whenever they wished, or work as little as they liked for they had no dependents. That person is gone – replaced by someone from whom the law can demand money, time and effort, or punish for neglect. Only the wealthy can truly afford to avoid such commitment by walking away and paying whatever is necessary to cover the costs.
Fortunately, the nature of human relationships is rapidly evolving and many people are voting with their feet and avoiding the pitfalls of commitment, or its antiquated models. The relative freedom in the developed world to partner up with whomever one wishes is something to be celebrated, as is the freedom not to partner up. I recently read a piece by a bi-sexual woman discussing the fact that bisexuals occupied a difficult place between heterosexuality and homosexuality. Straight people tended to see them as promiscuous, while gay people distrusted them for a lack of commitment to homosexuality – as though they were flirting with something and not taking it seriously enough. These surprisingly negative attitudes are derived from the oppressive history of enforced commitment in society – the meta-narratological mantra that uniting with someone or something for life is in someway better than not doing so. With the degree to which bi-sexual people now feel free to inhabit their sexuality comfortably (in most of the developed world, that is) – a quick glance at OK Cupid will indicate just how many bi-sexuals there seem to be! – I’d like to think that we are progressing towards a society where this old idea that commitment to anything or anyone is a) normal and b) desirable is going out the window.
The old model of the family has been changing dramatically in recent decades and children are growing up in a wider variety of circumstances – some have two mums, some have two dads, many have unmarried parents or just a single parent, and many experience the divorce of their parents during their childhood. None of these situations is necessarily deleterious to the child’s upbringing or well-being. If the situation is highly acrimonious, abusive or neglectful, then yes, naturally, it will have a negative impact – but as someone scarred by the failure of my parents to divorce, and instead put me through years of ugly arguments and bitter acrimony – I place no higher value on the ongoing commitment between a mother and father than any other situation. In truth, I’m far more worried about children forced to endure a religious upbringing – their minds filled with bigotry, exclusivity and intolerance and made to feel guilty about pleasure, which is classified as sin. The only sin worth going to hell for is that of condemning people to a life plagued by guilt and hang-ups about their sexual activity or sexuality. Oh, and creationism. That shit is toxic. Evolution is a fact, read a book.
Humans are highly adaptable and continually evolving, if the standard model of the family ultimately breaks down, then no doubt humans will adjust and ultimately accommodate to new circumstances. Since we first emerged from Africa as hunter gather groups, we have completely transformed our diet, environment, habits, lifespan, living conditions etc. Why do we think we can’t handle changes in group relations? There is an age-old concern that children will have difficulty forming permanent, committed relationships in the future should they come from a “broken home”, or an “unconventional” parental relationship, but why do we assume that they need to do this anyway? Why do we want to limit humans to an expectation of monogamous life-long commitment? If people wish to do it, then that’s wonderful, I wish them all the best, but to pressure people into thinking that it’s the only acceptable normal is not only grotesquely wrong, it’s dangerous. Who is to say that in the future we won’t do away with family-based child-rearing, that it won’t evolve into something more communal? Human evolution is occurring at a rapid pace as international connections stir the gene pool more vigorously than ever before and cultural differences and new technologies encourage us to consider alternative lifestyles. I don’t know where it will all lead, but to try to stamp the future with the models of the past is anachronistic. Valentine’s Day has much to answer for in its commodification of human relationships.
The way we read statistics is telling. Whilst divorce occurs eventually in just under 50% of marriages in Australia (the length of time before this happens varies considerably) unmarried couples are more than twice as likely to break up than married ones. This has been identified as a negative statistic, and used by those pushing for marriage as an example of why people should get married. But is it actually being married that changes things, or just the types of personality attracted to marriage in the first place? Did the unmarried couples choose not to marry because of a lack of commitment or because they think, as many do, that marriage is antiquated and unnecessary? Or was it simply that they were unsure about their capacity to endure each other for the rest of their lives and they got out once the negatives outweighed the positives? This seems very sensible to me, and in no way makes them bad parents, if, indeed, they were parents. It just makes them complex human beings like all of us, whose own needs might outweigh those of their child (yes, that is actually a reasonable proposition) and anyway, staying together might have been far worse for the child’s wellbeing in the long run. It takes courage to walk away, it’s not necessarily cowardice.
On a slightly different tangent, yet still on topic, is that response that is so often made by people who think a match has little likelihood of enduring. How often have we heard the expression “that’ll never last” or, “as if that’s going to work?” Well, let me tell you, if they’re having fun now and enjoying each other’s company, then it is working and that’s all that matters. If it doesn’t endure forever – who gives a crap? Honestly, does it really matter? The law of diminishing returns dictates that any situation is going to diminish in its pleasure-giving capacity – perhaps the relationships that “will never work” are ultimately more satisfying, precisely because they won’t live beyond a reasonable use-by date. Get in and get out while you can.
In this same light, casual sexual encounters are often trivialised as meaningless, as though their brevity robs them of any truth or significance. What could be more glorious than two people getting together for a night of pleasure? In those moments, when they are breathless with sexual excitement, exploring each other’s bodies for the first time – something most people not burdened by ludicrous levels of guilt, shame, inhibition or low self opinion find thrilling – there is a connection worth celebrating. If you come away from such a situation feeling remorse, then perhaps you shouldn’t have gone there in the first place. Guilt, after all, is a wasted emotion mostly derived from bad decision making. People talk of the “walk of shame” – heading home the following morning in last night’s clothes. Why is this not a glorious walk of proud success? Punching the air with a visceral love of life and the pleasures it can offer? Or perhaps it’s just the hangover. But seriously, what makes this connection any less “meaningful”, and why are we so obsessed with “meaningfulness” in a world functioning according to the laws of physics, which, whilst not entirely random on account of those laws, is, in effect, as random as anything can be?
It is also common for people to describe relationships as a waste of time, which seems oddly incongruous. They must have seen something in it to have been there in the first place, and if that wasn’t sustained and not giving them what they thought it ought to be giving them, then why, why, why, did they hang around waiting for a “result?” I accept that people find themselves in dangerous or abusive situations, where trying to leave is a serious risk, but it’s not those that I’m talking about. Why, without any pressure or necessity, stay in a relationship that isn’t working? Understandably, the relationship might go through a rocky patch and people will wait and hope for some improvement, yet surely it would have to be absolutely awful to constitute a waste of time, in which case, why stick around? And does the unhappy end to the situation immediately invalidate all the happiness and pleasure that were present at the beginning? Can we not just accept that most relationships have a use-by date? Does the rather plotless third season of Girls make season 1 total crap? Of course not.
The reason for this, of course, is that there is pressure – societal pressure, familial pressure, peer pressure – that relationships must produce “results”. Without a marriage or children, they’re too often considered a waste of time. Thankfully, judging by the wondrous promiscuity of young people these days, this kind of oppressive stupidity will not persist into the future.
As to commitment, take it or leave it, it’s your call. I’m not by any means against it, neither philosophically nor in practice, yet I am against pressuring people to value it above other levels of connection. Considering the range of sentiments genuinely available to humans and the freedom they have in many cases to pursue them, then commitment must only be considered a lifestyle choice. There are many, many people who would benefit from unshackling themselves from the pettiness of undesirable but constant contact with others. There must be millions, considerable millions of people in this world who would thrive if only they could be alone and commit themselves to their true interests. Just let it go, and do whatever the hell you want.