Conscious CommitmentTue 7th June 2022
Commitment is a marker for many long-term relationships and is often something we also crave or need from others. This piece is an in-depth exploration of what commitment means and how to make long-term relationships as successful as possible.
One of the frustrations that consciously non-monogamous and polyamorous people face is that of others assuming, or even telling them, that they’re ‘less committed’ because they are seeing multiple people or are following a different relationship path. Many non-monogamous people choose to step off the usual escalator of date, sleepover, mini-break, meeting friends and family, moving in, getting engaged or married, and then possibly on to creating a wider family, whether through children and/or pet ownership. This doesn’t mean that they’re less committed, emotionally and practically, to those they are in relationship with: more does not always mean more.
This commitment-phobic/lesser feelings assumption is one of the things that makes me feel very angry: that people can say that another’s feelings are less valid because they happen to enjoy the company of other people. It’s as if we were to shame people for having more than one pet, or child, or friend.
Conscious commitment is just as intentional and considered as conscious non-monogamy, and can exist within it, too. Conscious monogamy is not objectively a better or worse life choice than polyamory. Both involve a complex holding of nuance, change and negotiation, all based on a foundation of shared values. Consciously monogamous people are those who have carefully considered, and intentionally chosen, the set of challenges that monogamous relationships bring.
There’s no one single, ‘good’ way of living and loving other than the ones that help YOU and the people you care about grow, thrive and get your needs met.
Commitment, and the degree to which people are committed to another, is a very subjective thing. It’s also easily conflated with a relationship’s longevity.
Commitment is the degree to which your life, needs and feelings, and the other person’s life, needs and feelings, are intertwined. This intertwining can be external and/or internal. Some markers of commitment that are external, as in outside of the self, and therefore more visible to others, are:
- Shared living arrangements (allowing varying degrees of formality, with some people living together some of the time, others moving between solo property, and others trialling/practising temporary sharing)
- Renting or buying property/space together
- Shared work, creative and/or business project(s)
- Children – shared care or responsibilities
- Pets – shared care or responsibilities
- Joint holiday or travel plans
- Shared finances
- Engagements, hand-fasting ceremonies, civil and religious marriage ceremonies
Which others would you add?
Conscious commitment means considering some of the following questions when it comes to external markers of commitment:
When they become money-making exercises
Many of these external symbols are also ones that have lots of money spent on them. A wedding is a classic example of an external marker which can cost a very large amount of money. This is not the place to discuss the history and evolution of the concept of marriage, but it is the place to ask ourselves to consider our reasons for doing things in a certain way, and to reflect upon them honestly and carefully.
When it stops you doing the ‘work’
Too often people see these external markers, or the achievement of these ‘goals’, as a way of reducing or stopping their practical and emotional investment in the relationship (what we might call the ‘work’ of relating). This is easily done when the demands of work, friends, children, pets, ageing or unwell family and friends or just life itself are happening. However, the need to spend time as well as energy connecting with and addressing concerns and needs in relationship don’t go away the moment a ring is on a finger, a holiday is booked, or a rental agreement is signed.
When we move very quickly through the ‘markers’
The pace of agreement and the pace with which we make these commitments to each other is also important. I read a wonderful piece about the pace of relationships by Sophie of Love Uncommon in which they suggested that we only plan as far ahead in a relationship as we have been together. So, in a six-month relationship you can make plans for six months from now; in a ten-year one, ten years ahead. While this may not always hold true, it’s a useful way to reflect upon the nature and degree of the commitments we are making to another and when. Slower is almost always better.
Or too slowly/with hesitancy…
It is also worth considering what might be holding us back from commitment. Fear of change and fear of loss as well as fear of intimacy can be powerful obstacles that appear in a form other than themselves. Reflecting on past patterns and considering our actions in the light of attachment (see: Meg-John’s work on attachment as well as Lucy Fry’s Love and Choice) can be useful exercises . More below on this type of self-honesty and awareness.
We define conscious commitment as an agreement to care for the person irrespective of the nature of your connection. This is usually based on shared values (see below) as well as mutual affection/care irrespective of feelings of romantic love or sexual intimacy (both of which may come and go, or change, over time).
Conscious commitment will likely shift over time and the nature of it needs to be considered, discussed, negotiated and agreed. It may be an internal quality, but it is something that can and should be made explicit in ongoing and evolving conversation with each other.
Commitment and values
‘Feelings of “love” ebb and flow – values don’t’
I have written and talked (TEDx talk 2019) often about values-based relating. Honesty, authenticity, respect and kindness are the core values we can use as a foundation for how we choose to act. How we feel may shift and what we need may also change, but we can always choose to act based on these core values.
Being honest about how affection ebbs and flows over time and in different circumstances, and agreeing to make commitments in terms of how we act, rather than we how we feel, is vital. As adults, we should be able to recognise that we can feel less love and still act in a loving and consistent way. This is not to say we don’t sometimes need to make decisions or choices that cause upset and disappointment, but that’s very different from deception, or the causing of deliberate harm. This is where our values come into play. They can guide us to ensure that we behave as well as we can. And if these values are too hard to act upon, then we can talk about why.
Commitment is complex
Commitment is easily conflated with ‘forever’. The brain often answers a simpler question instead of a more complex one (see Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow for more on this and other cognitive biases). And this is an example of answering a simple question (How long have you been together?) instead of a more complex one (What are the ways in which you show your commitment to each other?). No one can truly promise forever. If we can hold this complex, yet simple, fact alongside our desire/craving for the good feelings in our relationship never to end, then we’re more likely to make a success of our relationship over the long term.
Ultimately, commitment often involves a mixture of both internal and external markers. Commitment is about the extent to which we are involved with the life, feelings and needs of each other. And the degree to which we include that other in our own life, feelings and needs.
What do you think? What feels easy or more difficult about the ideas about commitment that we’ve explored so far?
Sexual fidelity and commitment
One thing missing from the discussion so far is sexual fidelity/sexual exclusivity. Sexual infidelity, sometimes even just the thought of it, is a very common reason for the end of monogamous relationships. For example: ‘I feel this way about wanting someone else and see it as a binary choice of you or them so I choose them.’ Or: ‘You were intimate with another, therefore you have to go.’
It can seem that all the promises we have made to each other, and all the other ways in which we show love and commitment, go out of the window when an (often unspoken) commitment to sexual fidelity is broken. This is often because sexual fidelity is used as ‘shorthand’ for commitment. This idea is explored more extensively here in this podcast as well as in Esther Perel’s book The State of Affairs.
That we can say ‘I will stick by you through thick and thin but if you do this one thing, I’ll walk out of the door and never look back’ is interesting. We can be so black and white on sexual fidelity. And yet, it’s often communication issues, unmet needs as well as unspoken feelings that are all playing out as the real reasons for the act or even just the thought of infidelity.
‘There are many ways to be abusive and harmful in relationships
while still having sexual fidelity.’
Why do we pin the concept of ease, as well as commitment, on this one issue of sexual fidelity? Again, this is about answering the simpler question. So, rather than reflect on complex issues such as commitment, communication and care we often ask: are they faithful?
A more nuanced approach might be that commitment means using our will to act in a way that is aligned with care and our values. This also applies to how we act in relation to ourselves, to our needs and feelings.
When it comes to sexual fidelity, some people don’t experience any challenges or difficulties. However, for others, there are desires, needs and feelings which can compromise a promise or commitment we have made to exclusivity. Talking about the complexity of this from the beginning is a hallmark of a consciously monogamous relationship, but this type of open and honest dialogue doesn’t mean that shifts in our, or the other person’s, feelings and needs are any less challenging to deal with.
It can be helpful to begin by processing how you’re feeling on your own, and then together. Then you can begin to address the intimacy needs and feelings within your relationship together, as well as discussing what other changes or conversations need to be had. If any of this is hard, consider whether some external support is needed. Pink Therapy has a great set of resources for people wishing to explore non-monogamy or wishing to have these conversations about relationships and reality in a judgement-free environment. You could consider working one-to-one with a coach such as myself who specialises in conscious relationships.
Tuning in to what our desires are telling us can be a helpful route to getting a clear picture of where we are at. Contrasting and considering the difference between desires and needs is also important – are there ways of accessing what you need without taking formal steps out of your relationship? The challenges of this need to be managed sensitively and with full self-consent.
Many non-monogamous and polyamorous people are criticised, shamed or stigmatised because of their choices to live and love in the way they do. They love no less deeply nor care less intensely. Sexual fidelity doesn’t guarantee care. NOTHING does. The only things worth basing relationships on are values such as honesty, authenticity, respect and kindness.
Commitment to the self
One thing that often gets missed in conversations about commitment is the idea of commitment to the self.
‘My commitment is to truth not consistency.’ Gandhi spoke these words and what they highlight for me is the need for radical self-honesty. Why are you flirting/cheating/avoiding an issue? Are you bored? Dissatisfied? What awareness in and of your self are you avoiding and why? Is there a fundamental schism in your relationship or is there just work to be done? Unless there is physical or emotional harm happening, these types of questions about our relationships should be asked, considered, and answered slowly and carefully.
I’ve noticed an increasing awareness of the need to not take things for granted and to keep doing the work, but one element that gets missed is that we also need to know ourselves, to be able to trust ourselves. We all need to know the difference between the times when we need to put some work in, when we need to take a break and, also, when we have done enough or when we should leave. Conscious commitment is complex and nuanced. The subtleties matter, and the values we have committed to need to be in a foundation of how we relate to ourselves first and foremost.
We need to make a commitment to be truthful with ourselves and to consider our feelings and needs and actions with compassion and also honesty. Are we really doing our best? What might we do if we were to give a little more? What can we do to take more care of ourselves? Whatever the situation, a little gentle time with the self can yield powerful answers.
As a counterpoint, and on a personal note, the internal dialogue I had about my marriage for many years only ended when I asked myself: If my child came to me and told me they felt this way, what would I say? It was only when I put them in my shoes that I could give myself permission to do the hard work of leaving. This is an example of how hard it can be to reflect and decide, and the role of others in the reflections of the self. Again, as mentioned, coaching and professional support can help you work through difficult choices and questions.
Key qualities of successful long-term relationships
In this piece on conscious commitment, we have explored how sexual fidelity as well as external markers such as shared living arrangements or family/pets are signifiers of long-term, ‘serious’ relationships. But signifiers are not the same as qualities. It seems helpful here to outline some key qualities of successful long-term relationships. These ideas are partly informed by Meg-John Barker’s The Secret to Enduring Love.
Most conversations among professionals about relationships agree that space – an agreed amount of time apart or the freedom to explore hobbies and interests separately – is vital to maintaining a long-term relationship. The amount and nature of your time apart is something to discuss, negotiate and agree upon, as well as to review on an ongoing basis.
The tendency, and desire, to become enmeshed in the other(s) is a strong one, especially in the early stages. We love to feel lost in an other because it feels good, being caught in another’s slipstream can feel good too. And yet this is the very thing that can become stifling or limiting further down the line. It can also create conflict and upset when one person needs more space than the other, or more than originally negotiated, and that feels as if the relationship is then ‘less’ than it was (read Love Uncommon on the shift from new relationship energy to existing relationship energy). But there’s another way to look at this. Keeping space between you is not about distance, so much as having enough room to be with the other and with the self. Remember: it was the fact of that very individual other (and self) that attracted you (and them) in the first place.
Space and time apart also create room for fantasy, for anticipation and, importantly, for desire. The role of the imagination in creating relationships and in helping them be successful is often overlooked. We all need space and time to imagine, to play in our minds about ourselves as well as the other in the way that we often do in the early stages but stop doing as we spend more and more time together and think we know ‘everything’. We never know ‘everything’. We also see more clearly with a little distance.
‘Let imagination flourish in your relationship
and it will be set alight from the inside’
Space and time apart allow us to appreciate and value the other as well as to tune in to what feels great and what might be done to make it even better. Differences in hobbies, tastes and opinion help remind us that everyone is different. Counter-intuitively, it is space that helps keep us connected, especially over time.
Aligned sexual dynamics
Many of us are aware of the concepts of Dominant and submissive in the BDSM world [Read more here]. Even if you’re not kinky per se, it can still be helpful to be aware of any sexual power dynamic preferences, as this can allow you to explore and enjoy your sexual intimacy more fully.
We are mammals, and mammals need touch to feel safe as well as loved. How much non-sexual touch is there in your relationship? How important is this to you, and how do you like it to be?
Not just ‘never go to bed angry’ but also: fight clean. Deal with the issue at hand, not the thing that happened last week or month; listen without interrupting; take time-outs; and avoid name-calling, stonewalling, blaming or aggression. A useful framework can be: ‘When X happens/is said, I feel Y.’ Alethya highly recommends Non-Violent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg as a good starting point for looking at how we talk and listen to each other.
Deal with things when they are small
Linked to the above is the idea that we bring up the niggles. Maybe at a weekly check-in or at another set time when you are both feeling calm and receptive. Set the stage, tune into why it is important to value your relationship, and recall your values. This all helps when dealing with the inevitable day to day challenges.
Similar life goals and plans
It can be useful to make sure that you have a similar plan, at least for now, of what the next six months, year and five years might look like. What are the big plans and the small ones? Are the paths you wish to travel connected or very different? What are the deal-breakers for you (i.e. co-habiting, pets, family)?
Conclusion: commitment and the dream of romantic love
‘All of us here are condemned to a dream of romantic love, even though no one I know loves in that way, or lives that kind of life.’ – Olga Ravn, The Employees
I love this quote so much because it so powerfully captures the truth that no one we know lives the fairy-tale happy-ever-after dream. We all know this while still, for many reasons, using it as a benchmark, and still craving that type of bond. We can consider this need through the psychoanalytic lens of attachment and or we can see connection, that kind of deep-and-meaningfulness, as a human need/a valid desire, one which can be a guiding star while we also accept that it is never going to be something we can hold in our hand.
‘Like the end of the rainbow, love may shimmer and vanish as we
approach it but that doesn’t mean it’s anything other than beautiful.
Allowing it to guide us is not foolish’
Deep connection of this kind is possible if we do the work of removing as many of the obstacles to it as possible. We do that through communication and (again!) honesty, authenticity, respect and kindness.
Irrevocable and irreconcilable changes within the commitments we make are hard to deal with. But it’s harder still to not face them and to not make the changes needed, especially when there are others, especially children, involved. What we model about adult relationships is so vital to them and, while I myself have made plenty of mistakes, the values of honesty, authenticity, respect and kindness are the ones I now strive to use as my touchstone every day in all my relationships.
We love despite the change and loss we know will come. We love and love and never stop, for, when we do that, love reveals to us what we are truly capable of.
Further reading and listening/watching
Meg-John Barker, Rewriting the Rules
Meg-John Barker and Professor Jacqui Gabb, The Secret to Enduring Love
Lucy Fry, Love and Choice
Jonathan Kent, Beyond Monogamy
Esther Perel, The State of Affairs
Marshall B. Rosenberg, Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Compassion