This month, the Poly Means Many project is looking at commitment – which means this has to be another one of those ‘define your terms’ posts.
If you’re in a monogamous relationship, defining commitment is relatively easy – it’s widely understood to be how far down the track you are towards marriage-and-babies-and-lawnmowers. A couple who’ve got married are more committed than a couple who moved in together are more committed than a couple who just started dating a few months ago etc etc etc. And incidentally, this is partly why monogamous couples who don’t fit the usual model also break people’s brains a bit (‘what do you mean, you don’t want children?’ ‘why bother maintaining two separate households, is it so you can cheat?’). We have a model of how relationships progress, and however far down that track you are is equivalent in most people’s minds to how committed you are.
Which means, of course, that most people don’t much need to examine the notion of commitment. As ever, given that one of the tenets of polyamorous relationships might as well be ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, we need to look at it again.
When we say people are committed, what do we mean they’re committed to? They’re committed to each other, but perhaps more accurately they’re committed to the relationship. I’m going to look at some of the ways that commitment displays itself in all relationships, which should help us look at how it works in non-monogamous relationships.
The most obvious display of being committed to the relationship might be that, for some things, people will be willing to prioritise the needs of the relationship above their own desires. This intuitively seems to fit quite well with a sliding scale of commitment; the relative importance of the desires that are being put aside seems to fit well with the levels of commitment involved. So for example, in a very new relationship (let’s say a few good dates in), at a fairly low level of commitment, it would be totally appropriate for me to set aside my desire to flake out on plans (and spend a night on the sofa reading) in favour of spending an evening with the new person, getting to know them better. But it would be weird for me to set aside my desire to live and work in London to go and move in with them in, say, rural north Wales. If the Rake wanted that from me, on the other hand, it would be a massive change and uprooting, and I wouldn’t necessarily be happy about it, but we would talk a lot about it and he’d have good reasons; it certainly wouldn’t be unthinkable for it to happen.
To some extent, what we’re actually talking about here is making sacrifices. I don’t really like the trope that ‘relationships require sacrifice/work’; I honestly think that a happy and healthy relationship mostly just rolls along quite happily on its own, with occasional bumps requiring a lot of talking and cuddles. However, I suppose that just because I’m generally making choices that I have no objection to, doesn’t mean they’re not also sacrifices of a sort.
Living with someone, for example – even just a housemate – creates certain obligations. I can’t just decide to get rid of a piece of furniture that’s in my way if it’s only half mine; I can’t come in from work and decide to rearrange my books all over the kitchen floor if my housemate or partner has friends coming over that evening; I can’t just decide to go out drinking after work and crash on someone’s sofa without letting someone know where I am; I can’t decide to bring everyone from the pub back for an impromptu party if my housemate or partner has to be up for work in the morning.
This concept of sacrifice is I think where most people would file the expectation of sexual fidelity. Most people consider it unreasonable to ask something of your partner that you’re unwilling to do yourself, in general; ‘I couldn’t bear my partner sleeping with someone else, so therefore I will also agree not to sleep with anyone else’. It’s a sacrifice made because both people consider it to be important to the relationship. Whether this comes from ‘I don’t really have any interest in anyone else so this is hardly a big deal’ or ‘I am constantly obsessed with other sexy people; this is a huge sacrifice for me and is definitely hard work’ doesn’t really matter, as long as it’s not ‘I couldn’t bear my partner sleeping with someone else but it’s different for me because Reasons; as long as they never find out, it doesn’t matter’.
I wonder if most people see this as the most important or biggest sacrifice in a relationship? If so, that might explain why a relationship that is totally committed in all other ways, but without the expectation of sexual fidelity, can cause such confusion. After all, it’s not as if polyamorous relationships are lacking in boundaries or rules or sacrifices – you just probably don’t hear about them on the outside, because they can be so personal and intimately negotiated. Actually, perhaps that’s it – it’s not that it’s the most important, but it’s the most obvious. The general social expectation is that two adults in a romantic relationship are a) having sex with each other and b) not having sex with anyone else. They may have all kinds of other agreements and boundaries, but because those are all personally and intimately negotiated, they’re not widely known. So monogamous people who go ‘bwuh?’ at the idea of poly have perhaps temporarily forgotten about all those other compromises and agreements they’ve made together that have nothing to do with sexual fidelity.
A related idea is the extent to which you are willing to allow your lives to become entangled. This is one reason why ‘meeting the parents’ is culturally held up as a big deal; this signifies an entangling of lives and families beyond the time the couple spend in each other’s company. Similarly for meeting friends and work colleagues; making public statements with use of language (dating, girlfriend, partner, wife; all imply a certain level of commitment); practical entanglements like belongings (leaving a toothbrush and spare underwear at someone’s house is quite symbolic) shading into living together, shared financial responsibilities; and the ultimate, children.
I also think these can be divided into visible and invisible entanglements. Whether healthy or not, it would be possible to have a relationship that’s publicly almost invisible (never meeting friends or colleagues or family, never introducing each other as anything other than friends, not living together) but highly entangled privately – and in fact this is a great example of how non-primary relationships can get problematic. If both people have different expectations of those public signs of commitment and life entanglement, it can lead to heartache.
(Incidentally, there is a brilliant article currently doing the rounds about how to treat non-primary partners well. I’m going to put another link to it at the end of this post so that you can go and read it when you’ve finished reading here.)
Another commitment signpost is time, and how far into the future you’re willing to look. There is a lovely shift in a new relationship, when you find yourself able to comfortably make plans together for a week into the future, then a month, then six months, then next year… Speaking for myself, there are many people (not necessarily lovers) who I hope will be in my life for many years to come, but I am only willing to actually talk about and plan decades into the future with a very tiny handful of loved ones, including family.
It’s not infallible, of course – like so many other things, it’s possible to misread or misunderstand. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of foolishness when you’ve been planning for five years away, only to be surprisingly broken up with. And we all know the divorce statistics, but I doubt anyone gets married thinking ‘well, this probably won’t last’. But how far into the future you’re willing to look is another good indicator of your level of commitment.
I’ve managed to identify various signs of commitment (what have I missed? Let me know in the comments!):
- prioritising the relationship over one’s own desires; the scale of sacrifices made
- life entanglement, visible and otherwise
- time, and how far ahead you can plan
But I’ve left out the most important thing: commitment as a predictor of what you do when it all goes to shit. Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to – in an evenly uncommitted relationship, no-one much minds if one or the other bails when times get hard. Just how much of the bad times you’re prepared and planning to put up with is a pretty good rule of thumb for how committed the relationship is. There’s a reason that traditional marriage vows include ‘for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health’ – without thinking and planning ahead of time to stick together no matter what, the extraordinary stresses that everyone undergoes over their lifetime (money worries, illness, bereavement, career setbacks, family problems) can easily break a relationship.
And this, which seems to me to be the heart of commitment, doesn’t have anything to do with sexual or emotional fidelity. If you are committed to taking care of your partner when they need you, to allowing them to take care of you in return, to sticking with them through dark times, then how on earth can that be affected by offering that same commitment to more than one person?
Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month six bloggers – ALBJ, An Open Book, Delightfully Queer, More Than Nuclear, Rarely Wears Lipstick, and The Boy With The Inked Skin – will write about their views on one of them.
Finally, I promised that link again. Non-primary partners tell: how to treat us well.