The Challenge of Committing to Others and Making Promises to Yourself

commitment

The other day I was listening to a recent episode of On Being, where Krista Tippett was interviewing the folk singer Joe Henry.  They were discussing how important his marriage was to him, how he saw being married to his wife as natural to who he was…it is part of his identity as a person and foundational to his human-ness.

The podcast episode, in general, was fantastic, but it caused me to stop and think for a while about the idea of commitment to others…both in romantic partnerships as well as committing to do life with specific people.  I actually sat down immediately and emotional verbiage vomited out an entire blog post, which I promptly lost because it didn’t autosave and I forgot to hit the update button. Honestly, that was probably the universe’s way of telling me that all ya’ll didn’t need to read that messy, unedited Julie-overload. This redo post is still me heavily processing ideas, and could still be a bit on the mental barf spectrum.

For whatever reason, this episode made me suddenly stop and decide to rethink marriage.  The truth is, I have been very grumpy about the institution of marriage for a very long time.  It took me years to be brave and leave my own marriage, so when people ask me about getting married again sometime in the future it’s almost all I can do to either not smirk or respond with a “Why the hell would I do THAT?!”

Of course, I’m always impressed when I meet couples who have braved the odds or have been married for decades.  I’m usually never against other people getting married. But, it left a really bad taste in my own mouth.  I’ve said so often in the last few years that I never again want to be legally tied to someone, that I never want my finances to be intermingled with another person’s, that I never want to be dependent on a man again. And until this last week, I thought all of my spouting off came from a place of self-awareness.  I have since been questioning this and thinking that maybe my “self-aware” attitude was really just my undealt-with fear attempting to appear enlightened.

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I definitely grew up with some deep-seated notions of what marriage was supposed to be about. (What I’m about to say is what I believed mixed with a healthy dose of sarcasm and generalization, just so you’re warned). What I internalized was that women, thanks to being created second and thanks to Eve’s colossal screwup in the garden, relegated us to second-class citizenship in the eyes of God. We were to submit ourselves to our husbands and help them succeed, being all that God had intended for them.  Seriously, I can’t believe I ever believed any of this, and these days the words “helpmeet” or “helpmate” make me throw up a little in my mouth. I used to believe that the man was supposed to be the spiritual leader of the house, and make the final decisions, and a whole lot of other ridiculousness….like how wives should be available for sex pretty much any time the husband wanted.  I’m eye-rolling so hard right now.

My rebellion against marriage is not just a pushing back against my own less-than-great 11-year experience, but a HARD push back against the belief system that I grew up with. I have associated marriage with a really icky feeling – suffocation mixed with feeling less than and the perception of not being able to make it through life as a complete and thriving person without a man to steer the ship.

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Byron Katie is one of my favorite spiritual teachers because she teaches me to question everything, and not assume that what I perceive as reality is always true. She is an amazing person who has this uncanny ability to not attach to outcomes, and as a result, she is free from suffering when things don’t turn out the way she would have expected or hoped for.

Katie is married to Stephen Mitchell, a well-known writer and translator of sacred Eastern spiritual texts. She has told a story several times about how her relationship with Stephen works.  Basically, when they got married, they did not promise to love each other until one of them died.  Instead, she promised to love Stephen until she didn’t love him. And he vowed the same to her.

I have always found this amazing because it implies that both parties have absolute freedom to stay or leave; they are not in the relationship out of manipulation or obligation, but simply because they love the other person and want to stay.  Why would anyone want a traditional marriage when they could have this kind of understanding….the kind that says “I love you and want you to stay, but if you want to leave I love you enough that I will help you pack your bags.”

It’s a shocking, scandalous kind of love, isn’t it? I want to be able to love others that way.

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As I was pondering this question of whether or not the idea of marriage could ever not be an icky topic for me, I began to think of the other people I have committed to in my life, and why I’ve committed to them.  Some of my best friends live states away from me.  A few friends and I have chased each other all over the country in the last couple of decades, but we stick out our friendship even when it’s hard.  We make a point to keep talking, to keep connecting, and to travel to see each other because we value this thing we hold between us.

But why? Why do I do this with some people, but not want to do it with others?

As I was thinking about this last week, a friend had a movie going on in the background, that caught my attention with a line one character asked another.  Granted, I later found out the movie was Midsommar, a dark and creepy movie whose ending totally weirded me out.  But the line stuck with me.

“Does he feel like home to you?”

And, yes!  This is why I stick with certain people, even when the logistics don’t make sense, even when there are ridiculous hurdles to keep crossing to maintain a relationship, even when we might go weeks without connecting.  I commit to these friends because they feel like home to me. They are the ones who make me feel like I am safe in the world and belong, even if they aren’t physically next to me.

I’m a very “feely’ person.  Being an XNFJ on the Myers-Briggs, I do so much of my life based on how it feels.  I buy houses based on feel, I choose towns to live in based on feel, I make impulsive decisions based on feel,  I, unfortunately, eat too much comfort food based on how it makes me feel, …. and…I choose people to commit to and do life with based on how they make me feel.

I didn’t always do this.  For much of my life, I based my relationship commitments on obligation, duty, and, a little selfishly, on those I thought might help make things a little easier, bring me more respect, or ensure me more security.  I’m glad I’ve learned to change that because now my relationships seem much more authentic. Nowadays, I want to be in relationship with people who feel like “home” to me, and where I, reciprocally, feel like “home” to them.

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I’ve known people who have intentionally committed to “do life” with other people beyond the scope of marriage or family.  This has varied in how it looked; some have lived next to each other on the same property with a communal money pot and shared business endeavors.  Others simply promised each other that they would intentionally stay living within certain geographical boundaries so that they could regularly meet with each other, encourage each other in goals, and hold each other accountable to whatever principles and values were important to them.

This kind of commitment seems really cool to me, but it takes some serious sacrifice. It’s about people choosing to accept the personalities and quirks of others in close proximity physically and/or emotionally, in the pursuit of some common goal.  It also accepts the fact that there may be struggle involved, and maybe the whole relationship structure will fail at some point. What makes people do things like this? And,  what are they getting out of it?  Is living in intentional, committed community with people a good thing all the time?  Is it always better than being able to freely move about without expectations from others? These are questions I think about alot.

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I should point out that I recognize that the Western world has a unique understanding of marriage, and that it has not always been about falling in love.  I get that in history marriage was frequently a way to create allies, and forge bonds between families and people groups to help secure peace. I also know that in so many places arranged marriages were the deal for years, where matchmakers or parents picked who someone was going to marry.

I have adopted parents (C and L) in West Africa who had an arranged marriage.  They have been married for decades and I’ve always marveled at how well partnered and suited for each other they seem to be.  I asked C once what he thought about his marriage.  He told me that when he was young, L had been pointed out to him as a potential mate, and after taking a good look at her, he was good with the deal. (He had a big grin on his face when he told me this). Though the marriage was arranged, they forged a friendship and bond that worked very well, raising great kids, and they have always seemed really happy and content with each other.

The idea of an arranged marriage feels freaking scary to me; I think you REALLY have to trust your parents in that area when the partner picking is happening. And I can see, in situations like that, you need a solid, formal commitment by both parties to be the glue that will hold the relationship together. There has to be some real sense of obligation, I think, to make an arranged marriage successful.

But, we don’t have that kind of society anymore. So, do we really need the formal commitments and legal boundaries of traditional marriage?  Getting into formal marriage is some ways, in my opinion, WAY too easy, when it is so freaking hard, stressful, and expensive to get out of those marriages.  I kind of think that if the State is going to be involved, then they need to make it harder for people to get married on the front end so maybe we’ll all stop and think a little harder before signing on the dotted line.

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I discussed this topic with a friend of mine after I completely lost the blog post that I had furiously typed out and then lost in a matter of seconds.  This person made a couple of good points.  When I said that I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of being tied so tightly to someone I was romantically involved with, and didn’t want the mess and stress of limiting myself legally and financially, they reframed it for me, saying “If you’re intentionally leaving yourself all of these strategic exits and backdoor escape routes in a relationship, then how committed are you really to the relationship in the first place?  And is that even really a legitimate, authentic relationship?”

That one stung a bit, to be honest.  If I want to be loosely tied enough to a person that I can escape when I start getting uncomfortable, is that really much of a relationship worth being in?

This person then made a second point that I think is noteworthy.  Why is it that we think the marriage ceremony is where, BAM!, all the commitment happens?  Isn’t it better to progress slowly in relationship with someone to the point to where we one day wake up and realize that we that we have worked ourselves into solid commitment with each other, and THEN have the marriage ceremony simply to acknowledge that recognized commitment?  It’s a subtle, but I think, important, difference in the way to view marriage.

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This week I had an epiphany while I was driving to work.  I was thinking about my own marriage ceremony and the vows that my ex-husband and I made to each other all those years ago.  Vows that didn’t keep.

It occurred to me that during that ceremony, I was making vows to another person, but I wasn’t making vows to MYSELF.  I was repeating the words that are expected in traditional marriage ceremonies, words that I thought were the magic and glue to make commitment suddenly appear and stick.  And then, I realized that making vows to other people will never work…not forever at least….because in making vows only to the other person, you’re forgetting an integral piece of the relationship….YOU.

If we can’t make promises to ourselves….if we can’t commit to ourselves….then how the heck do we think we can commit to some other person for who knows how many years? But don’t we do this all the time in marriage ceremonies?!  We promise to love our future spouse until we die, when we don’t really even know how to love ourselves.  We promise to stick with them through good times and bad, when we so frequently, we fail ourselves, judge ourselves, limit ourselves.  We promise to cherish each other, when so often, we can hardly stand ourselves, much less cherish ourselves.

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I think there are two main reasons I squirm around the idea of marriage these days.  The first is because for so long marriage was wrapped up in how God viewed me, and my identity, worth, and status were bound up in this institution. Marriage was very much a place of feeling trapped and controlled for me; it never felt like a place where certain freedoms were set aside for the sake of pursuing something greater. I felt worse about myself when I was married than when I wasn’t.  (I should point out this is not an ex-husband bashing post…I’m alluding to the unfortunate dynamics that were present in my marriage, not throwing all the blame on the other person).  But I really think now that part of the reason the whole thing was a failure was that I had never made vows to myself – I had never promised to treasure myself, I had never promised to hang tight with myself through whatever life brought me. Instead, I believed that I had to give someone else all the things that I had never yet learned to give myself.

The other reason I squirm about marriage is that I’m not sure we are always, absolutely meant to meet someone and stay with them FOREVER.  I think it’s fantastic when this happens, but….what do you do when you and the person you are married to completely outgrow each other?  When you suddenly have NOTHING in common, when even your value systems are polar opposite? The stigma of divorce here is so damaging to people who are just trying to be their authentic selves, and we shame them for being true to themselves and pursuing the things that are life-giving to them.  I think it’s a really bad idea to try and put one-size fits all templates of marriage on everyone and assume that we all know what is going on behind closed doors, and I really, really think its a horrible idea to bring God into the equation and start telling people that God wants their marriage to look like this or that.  I can personally attest to trauma received by people doing that to me in some terribly hurtful ways.

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So, what am I trying to say in all of the rambling of this post?

First, my ego has been knocked down a tad bit because I realized that my repugnance towards marriage again was not enlightenment and amazing self-awareness, but rather, me pretending that I don’t still have hurts and fears to process and work through.

Second, I don’t want to be the person that avoids real, loyal love because I need to keep backdoors open when I start feeling the heat and getting uncomfortable. Isn’t doing so exactly what I blog all the time about trying to avoid?  Don’t avoid pain and suffering, I always write!  Embrace the hard things!  This is where the growth and the real stuff of life is!  I’m spoonfeeding my own words back to myself right now.

Third, maybe marriage for me just needs to be completely reframed.  It definitely can have some legal and financial perks to it, to be sure.  But instead of viewing it as a static moment in time where people suddenly commit to each other, maybe it should be viewed as the culmination of commitment that been building over a long time….maybe it should be more of a celebration of that commitment rather than the sudden shaky start of commitment that hasn’t gotten it’s sea legs yet.

And fourth, what would it look like if we became more serious about making vows to ourselves WAY before we made these crazy, impossible-to-promise vows to another person?  What if marriage could be a fluid state where we were entirely committed for that period in time, but then we’re free and blessed to leave if our vows to the other person started causing us to break our vows to ourselves?  I know I don’t want to be with anyone who feels like they have to be with me out of obligation. I want someone to be with me because they feel like they can be their best self when they’re with me. And, I want to want to love people so much that they know they can come and go and they will always still be loved.  This is super hard to do in practice, but a worthy goal, I think.

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When I began questioning all the theological beliefs I grew up with, I had to undergo a deconstruction.  For a couple of years I was MAD at Christianity, MAD at the Church, and MAD at myself for believing things that helped keep trauma firmly embedded within myself and kept me pinned down in a trapped, small life. But over time, the anger faded, I was able to reframe my perspectives about my life and past, and I reconstructed a faith that is still deeply rooted in Christianity, that feels authentic and real to me.

As I’ve written this post, I’m thinking that the same is going to have to happen for me regarding the idea of marriage and long term commitments to anyone.  Maybe I needed to be really angry for a while, separate myself completely from the idea of committing hardcore to someone, and allow myself time to reframe my understanding of relationships, while gradually reconstructing a new paradigm for how I want future relationships to look.

Marriage doesn’t have to be BAD or a means of trapping myself or another person into staying. Committing to other people doesn’t mean that I have to lose myself or suddenly become subservient in different aspects of my life.

I’ve said this before in posts regarding spirituality…..as Ken Wilbur and others have talked about, I want to “transcend and include.”  I don’t want to throw out things in my life completely just because they were hard or didn’t well. I want to be able to take the good things with me, and use them to construct new ways of thinking and being. I think maybe I’m making small steps in that direction now as I’m finally willing to take another look at long term commitment and relationship with others.

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Challenge of Committing to Others and Making Promises to Yourself

  1. What I understand from your blog is: you want to have a marriage relationship but you want to be with a person whose best self when they’re with you. No obligations should be there..fine . I understand when woman marries, she has to work for husband or for welfare of husband. I do not suggest any thing, but I wanted to know why you feel there be a backdoor entry or escape route to come out of any problem..what makes you think that way?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, I know I don’t want a marriage like the one I had. So, in the effort to protect myself from that it seemed the only option would be to have an escape route. I think my thinking is wrong there, though….I need to reimagine what marriage could look like in the first place, so I won’t feel the need to keep escape routes open.

      Like

  2. I feel when you have marriage thought , in the beginning only it prevents it by doubting you will have escape route. Escape route is always there I feel but what should be focussed is how best we can strengthen relationship. That You have lot of readings and thinking also in many angles is commendable

    Like

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