It suddenly occurs to me (though it should have sooner) that the big dividing line in the commitment/no-commitment game that so many couples play (it is, after all, one of our most cherished tropes) has to do with how people value relationships in the first place.
The pro-commitment group sees a life-long relationship, at the end of the day, as “worth it.” So worth it that it’s worth almost any sacrifice; one of the biggest/best, if not the biggest/best thing a person can have in life. Not any character of relationship in particular, but a committed relationship in general. It is the fact of the lifelong relationship itself that is “worth it.” It is “I am willing to rearrange my life in almost any way to have and keep a committed relationship forever, because a forever-relationship is worth more than anything else I’ve got or am likely to have.”
The not-sure-about-commitment group sees relationships, at the end of the day, as good, but less intrinsically valuable. Much more of the worth is tied up in the content of the relationship. Relationships are good, but they may not place the same high value on the lifelong relationship itself. That is to say that their position is, “a lifelong relationship would be great, under certain circumstances, but it’s not so great in itself as a thing that it’s worth risking many other things for; those other things are at least as valuable.”
I’m in the former camp. A lifelong relationship is the single highest, most valuable thing I could ever hope to have in my life as a living, breathing person. I’d give up two legs, my sight, and my last decade of life if I knew I was trading them for a lifelong relationship. So it has a higher priority for me than anything else.
The complicating factor is that you generally can’t know which relationships are “lifelong” and which aren’t in advance. I would emphatically not give up any of those things for a relationship that I knew would be over in a decade. A non-lifelong relationship is worth far, far, far less to me. I don’t want to be dramatic, but I’d say that a non-lifelong relationship is worth something more like a new car (depending on the car) or a really great luxury wristwatch. Supercool, but compromise myself for it? Forget it. There are many other things in my life that would be more important than a non-lifelong relationship.
But of course you can’t know. So how to set your priorities? That’s where the “commitment” discussion comes in.
Commitment, if someone like me believes in it, enables the pro-commitment person to give things their all—which is exactly what they want to do. For someone that values lifelong relationships less highly than various other things, however, this can all seem a bit suspect. Why would you value a relationship in-itself so highly? Doesn’t it matter whether the relationship is good or bad? Aren’t there other parts of your life that rank at least as highly, if not more highly, on the importance scale? And if not, is that really healthy?
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So the two groups view each other with suspicion.
The pro-commitment group is wary because the not-sure-about-commitment group may not be committed, and if they’re not actually committed, then their investment calculation is substantially different. What the pro-commitment group is after is a lifelong relationship, because that is the Best Thing No Matter What. But they don’t want to give so many things up for a relationship that may be over someday. It’s just not the same. It’s not worth as much.
The not-sure-about-commitment group is wary because it seems to them that the pro-commitment group puts too much value in relationships themselves, which makes them feel boxed in. It’s just not true that a lifelong relationship is the most important thing for them, not as such. It depends on how the relationship serves other things in their life. And so being involved with someone that is pro-commitment seems to call on them to make sacrifices that they don’t want to make. Sure they’d like to preserve their relationship as long as possible, but there’s a lot that they’re not willing to give up for it, no matter how committed it is. And in fact, it bothers them that anyone would even ask for a “committed no matter f**king what” of them. Who does the other person think they are? No matter what? Get real! And if they are pressured too hard for this, it means that the relationship is not the right one any longer. Will this other person actually expect me to give that much? Well I don’t want to commit to that. I’m just not interested in that. It matters to me how the relationship serves me. If they want too much, I’d better go. And I’d better not promise too much at the outset. Yes, I’m “committed,” but not so much that it affects these other things in my life. I’m “committed” to being with them and only them until we’re not together anymore. That’s all.
Two different kinds of commitment. Commitment-to-the-death and commitment-to-exclusivity-until-end-of-contract. Each secretly needs the other to be on the same page to feel comfortable, and for their own commitment to really work.
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Put these two together and the results are unpredictable.
One person is at “I will do anything—anything—for you, so long as I continue to believe we’ll be together forever, and I expect you to do the same. That’s what enables me to believe it.”
The other person is at “I will be faithful and loyal to you, and only you, and do my best to maintain this relationship until or unless it becomes clear that it is no longer the right relationship. At that point, my commitment to be faithful and loyal to you and only you ends.”
That’s the source of the difficulty. They’ve committed to different things.
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The million dollar question is… can it work? In some cases, does this fly for both? Or is it inherently unstable?