The Commitment Trap

I once proposed an intriguing offer to a guy I was dating exclusively for several years. He was also, at the time, my first long-term relationship:

“What would you say if I suggested one or two times a year we go out separately for a weekend and ‘cheat without cheating?’ We could do whatever we wanted with other people, and there would be only one rule: if we had sex, we had to let each other know.”

His reply:

“I would tell you to go f*ck yourself.”

To be honest, I assumed that he—that any guy—would have loved having that kind of freedom. So I was surprised at his response, at the anger my suggestion provoked in him. But I wasn’t just surprised, I was relieved, as though my question to him was some kind of subconscious attempt to test his true desires. And in between all of that, I was frustrated. Frustrated that I felt he wasn’t being honest with me, frustrated that he assumed I was the one who wanted the freedom, frustrated that I actually did, though, for entirely different reasons that at the time I couldn’t quite articulate.

In retrospect, I was questioning his thoughts on having an open relationship, which truthfully, wasn’t something I wanted or even knew much about. Yet, the idea of unattainable freedom remained, sulking like a child in the corner of my mind.

Surfacing the turbulence of surprise, relief, frustration, and that relentless pouting brat, I discovered a trap. A noose that narrowed with the deepening of our commitment; a shackle that would be present in almost every relationship after it.

It is also because of the trap that I’ve watched my confidence plummet and tumble like a stone while in committed relationships—the longer they last, the farther my confidence descends into oblivion.

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So, what is the trap? What is the snare within relationships that constricts the blood of fidelity? And exactly how does someone actually manage to lose confidence through a relationship that is otherwise healthy?

By now, you may be guessing the trap has something to do with monogamy. You are right, but only partially. Monogamy is the skeleton, but expectation is the flesh—it conceals and distorts and corrupts. Following expectation-laden relationships down the rabbit hole almost always leads to their own medieval demise. And at the end you will find empty potion bottles and half-eaten cake littered around a bewildered Alice: caught in the flux trying to be 

What is she trying to be? Somebody’s everything. The entrapping expectation of commitment is an idea, a belief that within the confines of monogamy the person we are devoted to holds the responsibility to be our world. And in return, we bear the same burden to be theirs. The societal promise of monogamy posits that we are to receive all the nourishment we require from another solitary human, and this is especially true of sex.

I want to stress though, I’m suggesting this is an underpinning belief, not one that we go around preaching cognizantly. We have other relationships with other people from different social circles for the very reason of fulfilling the dynamic needs we have. We know this without having to consciously act on it—it occurs organically.

When we enter into a committed relationship with another person (at least healthy relationships) we are not expected to stop relating with other people…and yet we have that very expectation with sex. It is an irony that cannot be easily amended. Moreover, the reasons why this notion exists is far too complex and is embedded far too deeply inside our societal relationship norms to delve into here.

Regardless, this expectation is part of the trap I’ve recognised. At some point within my relationships, I have the sickening realisation that I have to keep the man I’m with sexually satisfied, and he has to do the same for me. And it’s not just about sex, but it’s the excitement of novelty that can wane with every passing day until you find yourself stuck in a relationship that is marred with indifference.

Am I saying this is the destiny of all exclusive relationships? Not at all. But the lethal potential is all too real. I find the idea of being someone’s ball and chain, someone’s obligation to love and f*ck repugnant. Yet, in order to fit into the box of society’s ideal conceptual “relationship,” I feel I must agree to those rigid and dismal terms.

Furthermore, in addition to societal expectations, there are the expectations we place on ourselves. This expectation masks itself as insecurity, the insecurity that emerges when we suddenly feel like we must compete with that guy who’s several inches taller, or that girl with the amazing breasts.

We can’t help but compare ourselves to them, to other people outside of our relationship. And all the while we wonder and worry if the person we’re with is thinking of someone else. The reality? They likely have, even if only briefly, but so have you—it’s human nature. We know that being physically and emotionally attracted to more than one person is almost inevitable. But therein lies the issue: the damaging expectations that shroud monogamy leave us unhappily trapped in a relationship that is riddled with doubt. This is the noose that chokes my confidence.

Obviously there is the alternative of open relationships, but having never experienced it myself, I can only guess it still carries with it an entirely different set of frustrations and expectancies. It’s not something I’ve closed myself off to, but it’s also not an idea I’ve become totally comfortable with. I think, though, the key is not to discard it altogether just because it’s not a commonly accepted form of human bonding.

Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that monogamy is a path to dissatisfaction—only that we need to reconsider the way we allow unfounded assurances to dictate how relationships should be forged and maintained. So how do we do that? I think it starts with bringing freedom back into the equation.

I do believe that monogamy is possible and can be very fulfilling, it’s proven within my current relationship, with the love that grows through time. That being said, we have accepted that human relation and desire is complex, and as such, we have discussed the alternatives and possibilities of where we can take our union. For now though, we are in a place that is right for both of us. Open dialogue has helped remove the shackle of expectation that cloaks the essence of commitment. This is the first step to reintroducing freedom.

By redefining what monogamy is supposed to mean, by acknowledging that issues are present in monogamy, and by understanding that exclusivity is a choice, not an obligation, it allows freedom to break the chains of expectation. What’s more, the trap I speak of has more to do with perceptions than reality. Nevertheless, if we lose our inclination that monogamy is the “morally correct” and most acceptable form of relationship we become open to openness, and by leaving space for honest discussion we can transform commitment from contractual obligation to preference without pressure—that’s how freedom can exist within monogamy.

Let’s not suffocate our relationships with unyielding expectations. Let’s guide Alice out of the rabbit hole and allow some fresh air to revitalize the way we think about commitment.


Photo Credit: Alice in Wonderland (2007) by Maggie Taylor (cea+ via Flickr)


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