I am a commitmaphobe. Now, don’t get me wrong—there are some things I have absolutely no problem committing to: a cell phone service provider, a certain brand of mascara, riding boot, motor oil, or restaurant. But at heart, I’m the sort of person who once they agree to do something, spends a pretty good amount of time re-thinking my decision to commit, even if it’s just spending a weekend somewhere or agreeing to meet someone in a specific place at a specific time. Christ, I can’t even commit to how I feel about Phish Food versus Chubby Hubby. I have a nearly chronic grass-may-be-greener questioning nature. As it has been pointed out by one of the people who knows me best—and I mean capital ME; not just the person I project to the world, but the devious, conniving, self-serving, helplessly human ME—I am not happy unless I have something to endlessly worry and puzzle over as I try to decide whether it’s worth it or not, and what it means for ME. Commitment, therefore, is not one of my strong suits.
This, I think, is one of the overwhelming factors in why I am a pathological One Month Girl. One month always seemed to be the perfect amount of time in which to meet someone, convince them I’m great, have them convince me they’re great, and then watch everything fall apart when both parties realize that everyone is, in fact, human. As I say, it usually only takes me one month to get sick and tired of you, or one month for you to see into all my crap and decide it’s not worth your time.
Being such a self-proclaimed commitmaphobe with enough past history, blunders, and failed relationships to substantiate that claim, I recently picked up Elizabeth Gilbert’s newly-published novel “Committed.” Gilbert, of “Eat, Pray, Love” fame (another book I absolutely adore and brought with me to Italy,) is another self-styled commitmaphobe—only in her case, it stems from a bad divorce. She also believes that most commitmaphobes suffer from the same fear of lasting-decision-making. In the second chapter of “Committed,” titled “Marriage and Expectation,” she writes,
“The problem, simply put, is that we cannot choose everything simultaneously. So we live in danger of becoming paralyzed by indecision, terrified that every choice might be the wrong choice…Equally disquieting are the times when we do make a choice, only to later feel as though we have murdered some other aspect of our being by settling on one single concrete option” (Committed, 45).
About the only thing that you could get me to be committed to without being fully thrilled about it would be a mental health facility. And then I don’t think I’d have a choice. As Gilbert writes, “It doesn’t take a great genius to recognize that when you are pushed by circumstances to do the one thing that you have always specifically loathed and feared, this can be, at the very least, an interesting growth opportunity” (Committed, 20).
So why all the resistance to committing? Why are people so loath to hitch their trudging life-pioneer’s wagon to another person’s? Because we are people, and we are fallible. Because we have so many options that the next wagon, the one going faster, with the nicer oxen (or ass) always seems like a better one to take a chance on. Because there is temptation, and laziness, and sheer bull-headed stubbornness in the desire to be a singular individual. Because trying to be with someone else is like bashing your head repeatedly against a brick wall. An attractive brick wall, but bashing your head full-force against it all the same and getting those rectangular lines stamped all over your forehead and now broken nose, nonetheless.
Differences between the genders explain the break of commitment phenomenon quite nicely. Women have a tendency to over-examine, overanalyze, and overhype situations they are in until they don’t even resemble what is going on in reality, and not on the inside of their heads. Men are also guilty of this, maybe to a lesser degree, but they seem to go about it differently, exhibiting more of a “me against the world” fantasy, in which they feel as though they have to constantly avoid being “trapped” in a situation or relationship when in most cases, no one is deliberately trying to tie them down—instead, just a little bit of reliability is being asked of them, instead. A huge imposition, right?
But maybe Gilbert substantiates this idea. She writes, “When it comes to questions of intimacy, I want many things from my man, and I want them all simultaneously” (Committed, 48). That is an almost inhuman amount to expect from someone, and yet, when I look around, it’s the norm that I see, and, in fact, the norm that I expect. The problem is that women get used to depending on something from a man—be it phone calls, someone to make the first pot of coffee in the morning, or someone who always says the right things—and when that expectation is not filled, it feels like the world crashes down around us, rendering us disoriented and moody. “Why didn’t he call? Why didn’t he leave me my two cups of coffee that he knows I need in the morning? Why did he ask me how my day was and then tell me what a dickhead my boss is for making my job a living hell?” And so on, and so on—“Why didn’t he say goodbye? Why wasn’t he on time? Why didn’t he pick up the drycleaning? And it all ends up spiraling into, OH MY GOD, WHAT’S WRONG?!”
Maybe we just shouldn’t expect so much. I know—it’s completely counter-intuitive to everything we’ve been taught, but we were also taught that going to the doctor’s isn’t going to hurt, the Easter Bunny exists, and every Disney princess has a happy ending, ever after (and look at the divorce rates in the U.S). We all know where that got us. What if we could suddenly stop being so disappointed in our partners and relationships and ourselves? What if we could stop being so afraid to commit, because that scary bar could be lowered, and we could do it ourselves?
This is not to say that we should not expect things of people. Surely, there are some things that you should be able to expect from the people in your life, nonnegotiable. You should be able to expect someone who looks out for your best interests, as well as theirs. You should be able to count on someone to treat you with respect and decency. You should be able to expect someone to be there when you say “This is important and I need you.” You should be able to feel confident and comfortable in your relationships the majority of the time.
The only further advice to not expect so much and burn yourself out that I can give you is to be sure not to sacrifice all your time and effort in the name of not expecting so much. Although you may be able to give 112% right now, if your partner is only willing to give 20, don't bend yourself in half to make up for all of their lost effort. You'll drive yourself even more crazy. They'll stop trying to work because they'll (rightly) assume that you'll do all the work for them. It'll piss you off. You'll start to resent them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a mental and emotional health time-out and just letting a relationship lie where it is if it's stalling at the moment. Both of you should still be there when you return from getting your air. And if not—who really wants to be with someone who would leave when things get a little stressed, anyway?
Pure science can prove that not expecting everything from someone is healthier in the long run. Psychologist Carl Jung believed that the first six months of any relationship is pure projection of your desires upon the other person, which explains why at about month five every. little. thing they do start to inexplicably annoy you to distraction and unhappiness. You are, in fact, finding out that they are a real, imperfect person. A person who has their own emotions and moods and problems that don’t involve you. Goethe once said, “When two people are really happy about one another, one can generally assume they are mistaken.” Why? Because we see what we want in our partners. This is not a bad thing; in fact, this is what assures that the human race continues. But perhaps we need to start seeing less of what we want, and more of what is really possible for two people.
“People always fall in love with the most perfect aspects of each other’s personalities. Who wouldn’t? Anybody can love the most wonderful parts of another person. But that’s not the clever trick. The really clever trick is this: Can you accept the flaws? Can you look at your partner’s faults honestly and say, ‘I can work around that. I can make something out of that.’? Because the good stuff is always going to be there, and it’s always going to be pretty and sparkly, but the crap underneath can ruin you” (Committed, 129-130).
How many people can say that they really know their partner after just a month or two? The longer it lasts, and the longer you stay together and learn more about each other, (which is the goal of every relationship, after all—to actually BE TOGETHER,) the greater that chances that you will have to deal with depression and disappointment and unhappiness and quarrels and disagreements and periods of time where you feel alone, even when you’re together, because you are sure—no, CONVINCED—that this is not the same person that you started out with. But it is. They’re going to make you mad, and you’re going to piss them off. After a certain amount of time, you can just see the forest from the trees now, or the flaws from the perfect smile or the charming mannerisms. The sad news is, so can they. And this is where the idea of two people committing to each other comes in, not, as some might assume, at the beginning of a relationship. No, the real commitment is when you can finally sit back, eyeball the big, hairy monsters that your former sweetheart-turned-pariah has been hiding, and say to them, “Ok, I see your self-absorption and tendency toward melancholy, and I raise you my need to be the center of attention, the way that I make everything a much bigger and more frantic deal than it needs to be, and the annoying way I mutter in my sleep. Can you handle that?” And if they say yes, and you say yes to them, then—THEN—my friend, you are in the commitment business. Not when you first get together. Not when you first decide to split time between two residences and share meals and bathrooms and life details. Not when you ask if you are in a “committed relationship.” Real commitment can only happen with time, and a firm grip on the personal reality between two people.
This form of commitment, not to an ideal or a relationship, instead focuses on commitment to a person. A commitment to on the daily accept their “most tiresome, irritating faults.” Gilbert explains, as she comes to grips with the idea of living with just one, flawed man for the rest of her life, “What I am talking about is learning to accommodate your life as generously as possible around a basically decent human being who can sometimes be an unmitigated pain in the ass” (Committed, 132). Because that is what you are doing—you’re welcoming a pain in the ass into your life. You’re telling them that you are committed to being their co-ass. That you like their ass-ish-ness. That you might even, in fact, find it endearing and lovable and value it, quirks and all. And really, once you learn not to expect the moon from someone, and instead take what they can give you, flaws and all, what more could you ask for from them? Nothing. And right about then, you can start to learn to be content. Content, and committed.
But how does this make a commitmaphobe feel better and more like committing to another person, let alone a situation, isn’t the end of the world? Commitment isn’t going to ruin your life. It doesn’t have designs on sapping all of your hopes and dreams and aspirations and tying you down in one place to one person, ‘till death please-come-quickly-and-take-one-of-you apart. Instead, it has the desire to give you a cohort in crime, who, like your parents, will love you inexplicably, no matter what you do or who you are. It gives you a solid constant when the rest of your life is changing so fast it makes your head spin. It gives you someone who always knows what you need to hear, whether it’s a “You are amazing and can totally do this,” or a “Get your ass in gear and stop fucking around.” The goal is to render you not quite so alone and afraid of what someone wants from you. And so, I close with the words that made this one commitmaphobe feel a little more lenient in dealing with the thought of letting other people into her life and dealing with the repercussions. Because sometimes, just sometimes, the only thing that you realize you’re missing to make yourself, your desires, and your life whole, is another person who can handle your shit, too.
“In the end, it seems to me that forgiveness may be the only realistic antidote we are offered in love, to combat the inescapable disappointments of intimacy” (Committed, 133). The trick is not to ask for or expect someone to be something that they're not; instead, sync up who both of your are and what you both want or need. I'm not the sort of girl who you buy Valentine’s Day flowers for. I don’t want to be the girl who you feel like you have to take out for dinners and dress up for, because I don’t really do dates without feeling massively awkward. I'm just the kind of girl you can tell when you hear a good show is coming into town. I want to be the girl who you call when you’re heading home at night. I want to be the only girl who is expected to walk out of your bedroom. Those are my expectations. I'm sure you all have your own. They're pretty pared-down. When it comes down to it, we're all pretty simple. So don't ask for too much. Do not expect too much. Don’t be too harsh, or too judgmental, or too quick to act or make up your mind about something and rule it out. The only way you are ever going to get out of any relationship alive and satisfied is if you first relax your own ideas and expectations enough to let someone else just be the “themselves” that you love, for whatever twisted reasons. And that is pretty phenomenal. More phenomenal than scary, I’d even say.