“He’s just afraid to commit“
How many times have you heard that kind of proclamation over your lifetime? If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard it hundreds of times, and believed it for at least the first hundred. I’ve also heard much about the “hook up culture” and with so many options, some people never want to have any commitment, such as written in the blog post “This is How We Date Now”.
I’ve committed in a relationship (to monogamy and time) many times, most of the time because it just felt like ‘this is just how it’s done”. This has been labelled the relationship escalator, where you unthinkingly take what you think is the natural next step. I had little idea at the time of what makes a real, supportive, long lasting connection that involved deep intimacy, and so I just followed what I thought was the model that led to it (commitment), at least until I felt something wasn’t working. Then I would often blame myself, thinking I was doing something wrong, trying to behave ‘better’ and trying to work with my emotions and act in a loving manner. Needless to say, that didn’t work, and resentment inevitably built because of all the suppression I ended up doing.
Looking back, I didn’t really know or specify what I was committing to. It usually worked out to: monogamy, spending my free time with my partner as a high priority, not acting (or feeling) other attractions, planning a future with them, vulnerability, unconditional trust, always valuing their thoughts and impulses, and behaving like they fulfilled all my needs.
Some of those commitments, of course were completely out of my control. No one has complete control over what they feel. Trust can be built, but committing to vulnerability no matter what is more of a set up to hurt – and possibly abuse. Planning a future sounds great, but it only works out great if there is a common purpose agreed on and a continually developing connection. And like I wrote describing how my current relationship developed, sometimes intimacy is developed by being honest about ‘negative’ things such as distrust and what we don’t appreciate, at least in a confessional, non-accusatory manner. We’re human and we share the full human experience in a relationship.
What commitment often strives for – and paradoxically masks when forced – is the desire for that deep, uncompromising interconnection that we wouldn’t want to cut away. When we have a real family, it lasts through thick and thin. It doesn’t matter when there are highs or lows, appreciation or angers, pain or joy – there’s an inner knowingness that the connection is solid. I call this bonding.
Commitment vs. Bonding
Humans are naturally bonding animals. We live in a social network and require it. Left in complete isolation with nothing to form relationships to, as some prisoners are subjected to, humans can go insane. Stable connections are absolutely necessary for our emotional regulation and well-being. We bond to family, to friends, to pets, and even at times (sad, I know!) to our computers and cell phones. It’s an organic process that can’t be rushed, because inside our brains it is a bottom-up process. Our conscious, logical mind doesn’t say “hey, it’s time to commit to my mother” when we’re growing up. It’s a fundamental process that is pre-conscious and instinctive. Our adult needs for attachments aren’t precisely the same as a child’s, but they’re still there and almost as important.
Bonding is that slow, unrushed process of building trust and getting attached, so that person becomes not just a part of your life, but a part of your being. It is there or it isn’t; you can’t consciously decide it. Forcing it blocks it or makes it slower. When you have a strong bond, you know it. Your body relaxes in their presence, no matter what is going on. You feel more and are more yourself, not less, because it’s a dynamic of trust and space, not a kind of relationship agreement with subtle rewards and punishments. If they stop being in your life, you grieve profusely. They are a part of you and you are a part of them.
Trying to commit before a solid bond exist is often a recipe for disaster. It creates a fantasy bond instead of a real one. I’ve done this a couple of times, mostly because I had no idea what a real bond was. Our movies don’t know it and my family didn’t give any healthy examples. I thought I was afraid to commit and thought that I should dive into it instead of running away. Needless to say, this involved some lying to myself and hurt feelings when I couldn’t pretend anymore.
From Attachment Theory in psychology we know that there are many people in this society that are also in this boat, who didn’t have a reliable supportive bond in childhood. Even those that did often had conditions attached, such as to “behave” and not get too angry. Families make their own rules of taboo topics and emotions to keep stability, and this impacts our ability to make bonds, because a deep bond includes every bit of one’s self. When we hide parts of ourselves away, we also say to the other “if you bring out that part of you, I may not stick around”. Feelings cannot be felt selectively – it’s all or nothing. Similarly, when you love and bond and wish it to be deep, it has to be all-inclusive.
How do I recognize a bond or one growing?
A healthy bond helps all involved. It is the antithesis of a power relationship, where good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished. In fact, reward and punishment dynamics are one sign of an unhealthy connection, because they are a sign of pervasive distrust. Bonding is all about trust.
So here are some qualities I’ve learned to watch for.
- Relaxation and Comfort. This is again, a bottom-up relaxation, where it’s your body itself communicating that being near your partner makes the world safer. Sitting around doing nothing with your partner feels comfortable.
- Freedom of Impulses: I’m using “impulses” as a generalized term for expression and action. In other words, you feel free to allow any impulse of speech to just come out without controlling it much first. Suddenly jumping into weird interpretive dance moves might be strange, but fine. Expressing raw anger is also safe, because it’s not like shooting ammo. There’s consideration and curiosity. In other words, there’s a sense of play in the relationship. Relaxation naturally flows into curiosity, exploration and expression.
- Feeling more, not less: Being alive – fully alive and brimming with vitality – requires a good connection with the body and all its signals. This is where emotional intelligence comes from. A healthy bond creates more resources to be comfortable with a more varied emotional life, with greater tolerance of overall arousal in the body/mind system. This can mean greater ease in dealing with the results of external challenges, such as entrepreneurship, but it can also mean the stability to look into unresolved past issues or traumas. Thus a bond doesn’t always mean feeling good, but it does mean heading in an overall good direction. This is particularly applicable to those with insecure styles of attachment.
- A Stronger Core Sense of Self: A good bond will always help you over time become more you. Not the you that you think you ‘should’ be, but someone living authentically, with your inner world and outer persona in harmony. This arises because when there is trust, freedom, and connection, a sense of spiritual curiosity arises too, akin to Maslow’s concept of self-actualization. There is no limit to the discoveries of who your partner is or who you are. When there’s mutual curiosity in exploring the connection and a willingness to go together into anxieties and past influences, self awareness is the result.
- Play: Ok, this really is saying “free impulses” again. But it’s so damn important it’s worth mentioning again. If you can’t have playful interactions on a regular basis, then something likely doesn’t feel safe. Play is part of how we learn, how we connect, and what makes us happy. The particulars of what play looks like is different for everyone, but it damn well better be there if you want a happy, intimate, stable relationship that lets you grow together.
It shouldn’t be surprising that all these signs are also signs of a healthy child. After all, if you can never act like a child within a relationship, you’re watching yourself all the time. What fun is that?
Cultivating qualities like the above I’ve always found grows incrementally, in little steps. It’s also paired with the freedom to be honest about not being there yet. After three years, I’m far from living the above ideals all the time. I might say “My body isn’t yet totally relaxed around you” or “I’m cautious about showing pain around you now”. Pain and anger are often tough to develop trust and listening around, which for me is the sense that neither venting nor taking it personally will occur on either side. I might suggest going to an Improv class together if there’s not enough silliness. But the open discussions in a non-blaming way around what qualities are not present is of absolute importance in developing free communication. How can you completely relax in someone’s arms if you can’t trust them to listen when you tell them to piss off with a gentle smile?
Wait for bonding before committing
Sometimes bonding takes time. Years – especially in our stressed society with little unplanned meetings and play. Mistakes need to be made and repaired. There can be a great deal of social pressure to make commitments before a real bond is formed. Even the introducing someone to a boyfriend or girlfriend has certain commitments implied. It takes courage to be honest about wanting to be sure and admitting what the actual bond is like instead of pretending a Hollywood story.
But commitment isn’t always the big “C” Commitment. There are many small commitments that can build trust, respect, and set the stage for real bonding to grow. Gentle honesty about all emotions can be a good one. Consciously not trying to pressure the other into any decision, and apologizing if it happens unconsciously, can be another. These kind of commitments can be soft, not hard. In other words, they’re a statement of intention and not an excuse to jump into distrust, incrimination and feelings of betrayal when someone doesn’t live up to the ideal. Little commitments grow into bigger ones as the foundation of trust they’ve built becomes solid.
Here are some of the commitments I’ve made with my partner:
- I will be open with you about everything in my life that affects you significantly, while maintaining some healthy privacy.
- I will do my best to never repress anything in myself to smooth things over or tell white lies to you. [Note: this includes not repressing honestly felt attraction to others or when feel frustration or distrust]
- If one of us notices that some habits could be arising from fear (e.g., the terror of losing the other), we’ll bring it up instead of starting any walking-on-eggshell behavior. Regular time speaking in a meditative, unrushed fashion helps.
- I will always try to consider what the effect of my actions will be on you and have that affect, but not control, my decision.
- If I notice habits of interaction growing between us, like a rut that could remove spice in our relationship, I will do something strange to shake things up a bit while doing my best to be kind.
- I will actively be curious about you, listen to verbal and non-verbal signals, and try and give space for you to be more you. But I will also be clear when I’m unable to do that in a moment. Nothing should be forced.
- I will make sure there is a good amount of quality, unrushed time with you each week, while making sure I’m also getting enough alone time. I want to spend time with you because I want to spend time with you, not because it’s a habit or an obligation.
This list grew over time, with introspection, and with little overt pressure from either side. Bonding and trust grew incrementally, not magically, and took years. Little commitments like these are more support for a real bond and a recognition of the bond that has grown. The bond has grown precisely because I have been honest and not repressed any major part of myself to fit in the relationship, even the parts of myself that hate being tied down. I would not have had this level of bonding without the freedom to explore that most standard commitments imply.
No relationship ever looks the same, but I believe for everyone that trust and bonding is built over time, organically, and every time it is forced it starts to die in that moment. The human spirit is ever desirous of deep connections, but also loathes cages of any kind. Too often we think to have a deep connection we need the cage, and thus our society’s version of early commitment was born. It takes a trust in human nature, including one’s own, to go beyond this. The desire for freedom, expressing truth, and non-suppression is not anathema to a long soul connection, it is fuel for it. For how can you bond deeply with another without bringing every last bit of your soul, even the parts that fly free?