There is freedom in that commitment that we are all so afraid of: the freedom to love and be loved in return and the freedom to choose that, again and again.
With Valentine’s Day ads popping up all over the place, I noticed a few contradictions that just called for a blog post. We are either being called to arms to make this year’s Valentine’s Day the most perfect, stereotypically romantic event ever to showcase our love and the worth we bring to the relationship, or it is perfectly fine, desirable even, to be single, enjoy your life without constraints and get a table for one and the Valentine’s singles’ special. Women should treat ourselves to something nice like silk lingerie, a new vibrator and red lipstick, because we are enough by ourselves and don’t need no man – but if we do have one, we should buy him a beard care kit. Men should buy their partners precisely the same things and a fancy dinner to boot, even though romance is an overcommercialised idea for soppy losers, because real men get a sneezing fit if they come within close proximity of a heart-shaped chocolate éclair or happen to hear a tender word… The confusion of these mixed signals is exhausting, to say the least.
When it comes to committed relationships, younger generations like mine do not have the best track record and the advertisers have had to adjust in rather surprising ways. Looking back a bit further, it is a whole confusing mix of perspectives that we have been raised with: on the one hand, the old ball-and-chain perception of being trapped in a marriage is slowly dying out for men and being replaced by the idea that two people who choose to spend their lives together can in fact be happily in love instead of constantly looking for a way out, while on the other hand women have been taught to expect a Bridget Jones-ish perfect match who will love them for who they are and just as they are, without any effort for the relationship on their part. Unfortunately, relationships don’t ‘just happen’ and, contrary to romantic comedies and fairytales where everything tends to work out right at the last possible moment, preferably in an airport, they take a lot of work. On the third hand (impossible, I know, but so is making sense of all of this), the stigma of staying single and childless has been mostly broken, at least in the West. An interesting consequence is that an increasing number of women are simply happier by themselves than with immature male partners, while an increasing number of men are unsatisfied because they feel entitled to female companionship in their lives (also known as incels in the extreme cases). In trivial and very generalized terms, both had been raised to be somehow entitled to a perfect partner who will simply appear one day, accept them for who they are and never expect them to make a single compromise, and both have a lot of personal growth to do.
To be clear here, I applaud the people who are fully satisfied by themselves and choose to stay single for the right reasons, but this post is mainly geared towards the view of relationships as something simply fated that will happen without commitment on our part and can be taken for granted forever after. We expect love to be as simple as a cup of instant noodles – you meet your soulmate at the grocery store, look deeply into their eyes, add some hot water and BAM! – married with children in a big fancy house where the floor is always clean and the two of you never fight (or not married and living the high life in Bali with 2 dogs, smoking hot bodies and nights full of passionate tantric sex). Either way, the love is instant, all-encompassing and enduring without much effort, communication or difficult decisions on anyone’s part. And well, if it doesn’t work out, it simply wasn’t meant to be and we get to try again, because there are plenty of other fish in the sea and we are all valid and good enough the way we are and deserve to be accepted as such.
Well, of course we do. It is a wonderful thing to find an equal partner who loves and accepts you for yourself, but a meaningful relationship does not come without work or compromise and it certainly isn’t a ‘no matter what’ situation. All of us have boundaries we won’t cross and things we aren’t prepared to live with, so once the initial butterflies run out, the emotional work starts and it’s pure honest labor. True love isn’t all moonlit dates, magic and heart-shaped chocolates, it’s also picking up their dirty socks, stupid arguments and constantly evolving compromises. And it only works when it is a compromise for both sides, not when one side is continously overbalanced, because an overbalanced scale eventually tips over and the balance is irreparably shattered. People don’t just wake up one day and decide to leave or cheat on their partner, those are (un)conscious decisions that take time to accumulate and each little unintentional unfairness, emotional neglect or act of selfishness tips the scale a little further. The only real way to correct the balance before it shatters is to have open and honest communication with your partner, which always goes both ways. If you want a good partner, you need to become one. No amount of Valentine’s Day extravaganza or happy social media selfies can replace accountability for your actions, the willingness to change and say the words “I was wrong” and “I am sorry” and really mean them without feeling humiliated or vindictive. Creating such a safe, healthy environment is not easy or obvious and requires facing some harsh truths about yourself in the process, so that’s where a lot of the fear of commitment tends to come from.
Often the simplest thing to do is to give up and leave, and if things really do not and cannot work out, that is the right thing to do. Divorce and break ups are also no longer stigmatized and everyone deserves a second chance at love, because if we don’t nurture it, it dies and can be impossible to revive. But I believe that it is not a matter of two people being unable to work things out, but rather a matter of timing. Long relationships require a lot of adjustment over time and if the partners evolve separately along their own paths instead of together on a common path, it’s impossible to salvage that love, because the two people who fell in love no longer exist. Rather these entirely new persons can fall in love again, if they so choose and if that is still possible. I believe that you simply cannot force love, but you can and need to work for it every single day. Staying on a common path without losing yourself in the process seems to be one of harder challenges in life and it doesn’t help to be burdened by ridiculous societal expectations and family pressures while we do it.
So, is it any wonder that us younger generations have commitment issues? Having a partner is no longer a necessity in life, but rather a privilege that is supposed to enrich your life, not something to be suffered through. At the same time we are so open and fluid about our sexuality that commitment has taken a back seat behind lust and immediate satisfaction, which can be fun for a time, but is rather empty in the long run. Even if we no longer judge promiscuity, it doesn’t lend itself as a stable and fulfilling lifestyle for most people. So why then are we so afraid to commit? Most of us easily commit to an education and a career – fervently even, pursuing our personal goals beyond all distractions and morphing ourselves into the optimal person for the job we want. Why then are we unwilling to do the same for the person we claim to love and the relationship we want to nurture?
Some would say that it’s due to a crisis of values, but I disagree. Failure and rejection hurt and they are always a possibility when you invest yourself in a relationship. When you are pursuing a career, even if you fail to get your dream job, your efforts were not wasted but count as experience you can put into the CV while you regroup and find another one. But all the effort you invest into a relationship is personal capital that you can never get back, because you are always starting fresh with a new person. New adjustments, new compromises, new dirty socks and a very painful heartbreak on top of it. It is therefore easy to see why committing to one person is simply a poor investment in the modern world and how it’s easier to keep your options open for as long as possible, even if that renders the relationship superficial and potentially prevents you from reaching the end goal – a love that stands the test of time and actually makes you happy every morning when you wake up. I won’t even try to pretend to be a relationship expert as I am only 8 years in, but the two of us have been through quite a lot by now and without solid communication we would have already eaten our hearts out (see for example, home renovation). Instead, we are still going strong and cosying up in bed against him in the evening is the happiest part of my day (but not his, because my feet are always cold).
Sounds soppy, I know. But it’s only soppy, because we have been raised to roll our eyes at overt expressions of love and solid partnership makes us uncomfortable, because it is not as easy or as instant and glamorous as we expect it to be. We have wrapped our “soppy” into perfect romances with unrealistic expectations of how our soulmate will know exactly what we need and want even when we don’t tell them and how their goals and boundaries will always be magically aligned with ours. Most people still don’t talk about their feelings openly or at all, because it makes them feel naked and simply too vulnerable. That’s also why we feel the need to put up a performance during the dating phase, where we are always perfectly groomed, perfectly eloquent and perfectly interested in everything the other person likes, because they might not like us if we are too much and too different. Perhaps that’s more of a female burden, but if we never lose this pressure to perform, we will lose ourselves instead and will never be able to forge a common path with our chosen partner. The relationship will eventually begin to feel like a cage, but by then we will have invested too much of ourselves to leave, so we’ll just keep going through the motions until one day it all comes crashing down or the bitterness eats us alive. I have seen it happen in so many ways around me and there is absolutely no reason that we couldn’t learn from the mistakes of others and get familiar with the concept of sunken cost fallacy before it’s too late. Sunken cost fallacy is also a very useful concept when it comes to career change decisions, by the way.
Commitment should really not be a self-supporting cage, but rather a choice that we are free to make every day. If we do it consciously and continously, then forging a common path together is something to enjoy and appreciate. If we neglect it, it can be very difficult to pick up where we left off with our partner, even if it is the 14th of February. Losing weight is always more difficult than not gaining it in the first place and getting started with a habit is infinitely harder than keeping the momentum going. Much like routines and self discipline actually make life easier than being a constant mess, there is freedom in that commitment that we are all so afraid of: the freedom to love and be loved in return and the freedom to choose that, again and again. Every single day.
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing themselves.”L. Tolstoy
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