Dear Kiki: WTF is commitment, anyway?

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Dear Kiki

Dear Kiki,

I don’t know what to do with the idea of “commitment.” What if I don’t think I want a longterm relationship, in general, but I do want one with the specific person I’m dating? (It feels like an important distinction, somehow.) What if I don’t care about marriage, but I crave some kind of manifestation of commitment anyhow? What is “commitment” anyway, if I know there is no such thing, in love, as a guarantee? It’s hard for me to articulate what I want to my partner when I can’t answer these questions.

Signed, Commitment-Probe

Hi Darling,

I’ve been thinking a lot about “projection” in relationships lately. What I mean by projection is taking a feeling inside of you, bundling it up in a thought process and believing it comes from someone else. If you think, “She’s perfect,” and that determines how she “should” feel about you (positive or negative, depending on your self-esteem), that’s a projection. Her being perfect is not a fact, it’s a thought that you have because of the way you feel about her. (To quote Rodgers & Hammerstein, “Do I want you because you’re wonderful, or are you wonderful because I want you?”) I’m going into this because I think there are few things that occasion projections like commitment.

You’re working through your thoughts about commitment arising from feelings of love and attachment you feel for your partner—and that’s a good thing! I think that feeling comfortable verbalizing these thoughts, to me, to friends and confidants, perhaps to your partner, is going to be a valuable experience as you come to your own personal answers. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting marriage but wanting signs of commitment; you could say that you wanting a LTR with your partner is inconsistent with your values, but you could also say it’s romantic.

I do think, however, that there’s going to be a lot of subtle to very unsubtle pressure in your airspace telling you there is something wrong with what you want. Marriage is institutional for a reason: It can act as a control to our projections. Two people may fundamentally disagree about what commitment looks like, but if they both invest meaning in marriage, they can use that vow as a way to hide from what they really want. They can use marriage to create an outside authority that determines the shape of their relationship. Being honest about what you want, including your ambivalence, is a threat to people who don’t want to think too deeply about what they’re doing and feeling.

Closer to home, you may face rejection. Not because what you want is wrong or impractical, but because your partner might not want what you want. And, sometimes, people can hear “I don’t want xyz” and project “I don’t love you” onto you. You’ll have to face your own expectations and the attitudes you’re projecting on your partner and see if they can stand on real feet. — Good luck! xoxo, Kiki

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