Poly Question 1.6
How do I define commitment? Is it possible for me to commit to more than one person at a time, and if so, what would those commitments look like?
“There is no such thing as a lover’s oath.”
From “Worse is Better and Better, Worse”
I walked a mile in the bitter cold to get him DayQuil while he was buried up to his neck in covers, damp and shivering under the down comforter.
I gave him a neuro exam when the derailleur broke on his bike and his shades smashed into his temples. Extraocular movements intact. No diplopia. Oriented to time, place, and person. We limped home together. I helped him dig gravel out of his wounds, cleaned the blood off the edge of the tub.
I held him in the dark and let him hold me even when it hurt to be loved, when it felt selfish and wrong to be treated so well. When he’s benevolent, there’s nothing like it. It is so wonderful that it’s like torture, kindness so intense that it practically tickles. I can’t bear it. It’s worse than abuse because at least that I know how to deal with.
For four years, I resisted the urge to run away, despite feeling the entire time that he could do better than me, that he deserved better than me, more than what I had to offer. Sometimes I hid from him. But not well. He reads my face better than anyone.
Commitment is many things. I’ll be the first to say that I’m afraid of commitment.
How can this be? I’m a person who once had 3 primaries, who has been married (twice), even committed monogamously to a partner for 8 years (before we intentionally and mutually opened). How can I, of all people be afraid of commitment?
Simple. It’s because I take such things very seriously.
I don’t make promises lightly because it destroys me to break them.
That said, there seem to be 2 discrete buckets that commitments fall into:
1) Future commitment
2) Present commitment
Future commitment is typically what we default to talking a lot about in relationships. The Commitment to the Relationship. Big C, big R. Big deal, yeah? These things are the future-directed promises, “I’ll never leave you,” “as long as you both shall live,” etc. Essentially, you’re going down with the ship.
Except not always. I swore to my first husband that I’d never leave him. And yet it happened.
Over the 6 years of my former marriage (preceded by 4 years of dating one another), I watched friends go through their own divorces, and though I had nothing but kind words and support for them, secretly inside I judged them for it, thought they were giving up, felt superior to them because I thought I possessed a sense of commitment they did not.
And then my own marriage started to come apart, and I learned how different a failing marriage can appear from the inside, how impossible some things are to fix, how easy it is for people to grow apart, and how it takes two people to fix things to the point where life is worth living together and not only that but they have to agree on what that fix should be and cooperate at a time when trust is so fractured that their connection is tenuous at best.
I was wrong about divorce. Just as we are free to marry one another, we are free to sever that bond should it become necessary for our survival, emotional, physical, or otherwise.
And while I’m sure there are some who were judgmental and thought I gave up too soon (which is fair since I was judgmental myself before going through it), it really does take two people fully on board and working in sync to save a failing marriage. As my old therapist Sue used to say, “You are 100% responsible… for your 50%.”
And frankly? The way my first marriage had become, I was choosing between a commitment to my marriage or a commitment to myself. Rather than self-destruct, I chose myself.
Still, Seth and I split up 5 years ago, and I still feel guilty over breaking my promise to never leave him. That’s because it’s not only a promise I made to him but one I made to myself.
It should come as no surprise then that I take future commitment very, very seriously.
I did get married again, and that, too, has proven to be a really good decision. But even this second marriage has been a different sort of proposition to me. I can’t naively promise forever, an unchanging promise in a sea of future uncertainty.
But what I can and have promised to my husband? My absolute best try, my hardest effort, and my care and concern for him. Indeed, Husband 2.0 knew me and was involved with me while I was divorcing my ex (as you know, separation and divorce can take some time), and he saw precisely how hard I worked, how much I agonized over the decision, and exactly how I treated the man I loved but was disentangling myself from.
He saw all of this, and he still married me. Eagerly.
So my future commitment sense? It’s informed by a sense of knowing I can’t control everything and that much that lies ahead is hidden to us.
And then there’s present commitment. This has to do with how much you are investing in one another in a relationship – time/attention, domestic/financial resources, and loyalties. This is not an exhaustive list, but here are some examples of ways this can all play out:
Do you have a standing agreement to see each other (once a week, once a month, once a year, etc), come rain or shine?
Do you have a specific night of the week that’s your date night?
Do you live together? Who do you sleep next to?
Are your bank accounts entangled?
Do you share a car?
Do you drop what you’re doing and make time for them when they’re having a personal crisis?
Do you give them the benefit of the doubt when you don’t have all the information?
Do you trust their sexual risk assessment enough to fluid bond with them?
This is where it all gets a bit complicated. It is absolutely possible to be committed to multiple people, but the interesting thing is that you may not end up committed to everyone in precisely the same way, and the degree of harmony and personal sanity balancing all those commitments depends greatly on the personalities of all of those in your web.
You may have a long-distance lover that you spend a fabulous week with every year. You may have people you live with that you aren’t sexually compatible with but love and cherish and are committed to managing a life with. There may be people who come in and out of your life as circumstances change that mean the world to you. It could look like all sorts of things, really, when you get down to it.
Issues of loyalty can become particularly sticky in a hurry. If one of your lovers is always having a crisis, and you consistently cancel time carved out for other lovers in order to come in and save their day, you might find your love life thinning out rather precipitously. This happens a lot when primaries pull rank, and secondaries tend to suffer.
These days I proceed with hope but with caution. I find that commitments unfold naturally when they’re sustainable and mutually beneficial to all parties. I’ve never found any good in forcing things. While it’s fairly common for new partners to request a standing time commitment, I’m reluctant to formalize one and like to instead see what works with our schedules, other responsibilities, and mutual chemistry and go from there.
Promising a once a week date to someone when you naturally want to see them every other week doesn’t work any better in actual practice than limiting a relationship that naturally wants 2 dates a week to 1 date a month would.
Again though, it’s essentially that I’m okay with the investment but leery of forecasting things too far ahead.
This post is part of a series in which I answer each of the chapter-end questions in More than Two with an essay. For the entire list of questions & answers, please see this indexed list.