Dancing with the Dark Side of Commitment
I recently found myself not wanting to honor my husband's request to support him while doing a professional program and he told me he couldn’t make time for daily special, check in time because he was too busy and stressed with his program. Yet everyone who knows us says we have an extraordinarily inspiring relationship.
Ok, some context first. We were having a particularly stressful money conversation, and after an hour of discussion he turned down my offer to help him financially, and days later he warmed up to my idea of cooking together once a week to save money and spend time together. So how did we go from me telling him I was reluctant to help support his dream career and him being that ever so stereotypical “emotionally unavailable” guy? Well, it’s a long story, and it is not about treating each other as equals, or giving in to our reactive feelings.
I’m a 34 year old in a 16 year relationship amid a sea of independent cosmopolitan millennials who will never experienced what it is like to have a relationship that spans your entire adulthood.
Today I would like to discuss how I maintain my commitment to my husband amid my continuous fear we will fall into the habits of so many unhappy couples from our past and present lives.
"I'd like to to demystify the paralyzing fear so many young people have when it comes to commitment."
I'd like to to demystify the paralyzing fear so many young people have when it comes to commitment. When people say they fear getting stuck in a relationship with a person who no longer cares about their well-being, or later meeting someone they find infinitely more attractive, I tell them their fears are grounded in reality. Humans, especially ones living in individualistic, choice driven societies are very likely to change as they grow and realize they can get more pleasure, more sex, more stability or more attention from people they meet after making a commitment to be married. That is precisely what makes a commitment meaningful.
Let’s get it out in the open. Some commitments hurt, and breaking them benefits one or more parties in the relationship. Therapists, coaches, grandparents, spiritual scholars and friends can offer us their observations, but there is no universal way of making the decision about whether or not you should break a commitment. If you live in a society that scorns divorce and de-empasizes individual freedom, you will likely be less burdened by the choice of whether or not to break a relationship commitment, because the consequences of doing so will be more grave than if you lived in a society where divorce and dating are more common.
Take an older couple I know from South East Asia. Due to trauma, the wife was very disinterested in sex, while her
When we make a commitment to another person we are making a commitment to ourselves. We are committing to being patient, creative, indefinitely bored or temporarily stuck, and still continuing to choose each other. This might seem terrifying, although there is so much we can do to ready ourselves to be the commitment makers worthy of a wonderful partner.
- Clarify your values
A value is different from a taste or preference. Tall guys, blonde girls, and witty banter are all preferences that can make life more fun and engaging but are rarely the reason anyone points to for why their multi-decade relationship endured an unexpected layoff or care for a chronically ill child. Learn to seek values that mirror your own in partners, and find ways of innocently enjoying your preferences. Still ogling ripped guys with tattoos in the 3rd year of your relationship to a man skinny on muscle and heavy on good character? Let your eyes roam, and if you and your partner are open enough, consider how limited flirtation or even sexual contact with such guys is really natural and completely irrelevant to the depth of your love for your partner. Anthropology and biology are on your side. But really, start with the fantasy. Block out times to fantasize about such people. Feel how alive and energetic and inspired you are, and share that energy with your partner and let that energy bleed into the rest of your life.
- Calm Down
Most likely you and your partner will become emotionally unavailable to one another at some point in your life. There is no way to predict how someone will react to the death of their parent, the birth of a child, or a near death experience. There might be times when your partner is so overwhelmed with their own experience that they are incapable of taking care of you. Know this and plan for it in your daily practice. Mediation, inspiring books and audio, yoga or exercise, and journaling are all ways to mitigate the pain from being partnered to someone who is temporarily unable to reciprocate care and enjoyable companionship to you.
- Use curiosity in the face of conflict
Your mind works better when you bring a sense of play and curiosity to your problems. When you find yourself obsessing about how embarrassingly off putting your partner is or how stuck they are in their problems, treat your conflict like a quest. Think “I wonder what would happen I apologized first?” or “I wonder if connecting with other friends or family would break up the tension I feel in my current relationship”
- Expand your community
So many lovers contract into the intimate world of their own relationship and allow once vibrant friendships and family ties to wither. This does work for some couples, although it places a lot of responsibility on each partner. Many societies maintain closer ties to extended family than they do in North America and Western Europe, so don’t feel like there is a long history to support successful nuclear families thriving with just two adults. Is your partner the most receptive audience for updates about your fantasy football league? Does your partner need to accompany you to events that only you enjoy? Can he handle hearing about your stress right now? Chances are your family, friends, a therapist, spiritual guide or life coach might be better suited for some of these needs than your life partner.
- Cultivate resilience through challenging experiences
Rewarding relationships have their challenges. If sustaining a great relationship has been a struggle for you, take an inventory of other challenges you have surmounted, and look for opportunities to overcome challenges on a regular basis. Did you work through an office conflict gracefully? What would happen if you told your self absorbed friend that you noticed he didn’t ask you any questions about why you stopped seeing your latest sweetie? Did you keep going to yoga class even when you felt unattractive and inflexible? Did you say yes to enjoying a wedding even though the guy you have been dating for a few months claimed to be too busy to accompany you to your friend’s wedding? These are all challenges that prepare you for persevering through the joyful challenges of loving someone long enough to come to a stalemate with them.
Yes, commitment is scary, yet beautiful and nourishing. It is true that some of your worst fears might come true, but with mindfulness, resilience and resourcefulness you can make sustainable choices in creating a partnership and continuously becoming a stronger person who can relish in the joys and challenges that commitment brings.