I’ve been thinking about commitment a lot recently. What it is, what it means, and how I can ethically incorporate it into my life in a way that aligns with my needs, my values, and my partners’ needs and values.
As a polyamorous person and an ethical slut, commitment matters a lot to me. Does that surprise you? Many people assume that true commitment is impossible in a non-monogamous context. Of course, I don’t agree.
What is commitment, anyway?
Oxford Languages suggests the definition of commitment as “the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity, etc”. I think this is actually a pretty okay definition.
We all think we know what commitment means in a relationship, especially as it relates to mononormative culture. People often equate commitment with things like getting married, living together, and raising children together. Our society also strongly equates commitment with exclusivity. (Hands up every polyamorous person who has been asked “when are you going to commit to one person?”)
As a non-monogamous person, I suggest we look at commitment a different way. Instead of asking “what does society tell me a committed relationship looks like?”, ask yourself “what does commitment mean to me?”
Here are five things commitment means to me.
- Commitment means I will prioritise you highly. This does not necessarily mean I will always put you first, and I will not necessarily prioritise you to the detriment of other important things in my life. But I will always consider you and strive to behave in ways that honour our connection.
- Commitment means I will attempt to work through problems that arise in our relationship, engaging in good faith and seeking solutions that work for everyone involved.
- Commitment means that I honour the ways in which you, I, and our relationship will grow and change. I want to grow along with you, not away from you.
- Commitment means I want you to be in my life for as long as it is a happy and healthy choice for both of us. Ideally that means “for life,” but I accept things change. If our relationship is no longer good for one or both of us, I will let you go.
- Commitment means that your happiness matters to me. To the best of my ability, and to the extent it doesn’t harm me or anyone else to do so, I will behave in ways that faciliate your happiness.
Your answers may be different. But I encourage you to think about what commitment is to you and maybe write down a “commitment manifesto” like the one I’ve shared above.
What is entanglement?
When I talk about entanglement in a relationship, I’m broadly referring to what is often known within polyamorous communities as “the relationship escalator.” Coined by writer Amy Gahran, the relationship escalator is described thus:
“The default set of societal expectations for intimate relationships. Partners follow a progressive set of steps, each with visible markers, toward a clear goal.
The goal at the top of the Escalator is to achieve a permanently monogamous (sexually and romantically exclusive between two people), cohabitating marriage — legally sanctioned if possible. In many cases, buying a house and having kids is also part of the goal. Partners are expected to remain together at the top of the Escalator until death.
The Escalator is the standard by which most people gauge whether a developing intimate relationship is significant, “serious,” good, healthy, committed or worth pursuing or continuing.”
The relationship escalator isn’t inherently bad, if it’s something you genuinely want (as opposed to something you’re following because of social, cultural, or familial pressure). But holding up the escalator model as the pinnacle of relationship achievement is deeply damaging to many people.
On or off the escalator?
Even though I strongly identify as non-monogamous, I’ve always valued having a core, deeply entangled relationship in my life. This is what Mr CK and I have. We live together, we share bills and cats and household chores, we are at least somewhat financially entangled. We’re each other’s next of kin at the hospital. We make big decisions together, and we hope to be together for life.
I also do not want all my relationships – or indeed any others – to be this entangled. The beauty of non-monogamy is that relationships don’t have to be all or nothing. If you have great sex but don’t have romantic feelings for one another, you can have a great friends-with-benefits arrangement. If you love each other but don’t want to live together, you can enjoy the connection for what it is without pushing for it to be more. When you have a need one partner can’t or won’t meet, you can get it fulfilled elsewhere.
This means you get to choose whether each relationship is on or off the escalator. It means you get to choose what level of commitment you want, and what that means for you and your partner(s).
You can even decide to take certain steps on the escalator but skip others, if you want to. For example, “we want to live together but no kids,” or “we want to get married, but monogamy isn’t part of our arrangement.”
Commitment without entanglement
When you try to define commitment without the trappings of heteronormative, mononormative, escalator-driven relationships, it gets complicated fast. It also gets really, really diverse.
Here are five things I’ve learned about how to do commitment without entanglement.
Create milestones that matter to you
Every serious relationship has meaningful milestones. What these look like and what they mean to you both/all will be different in each relationship. A few common milestones that don’t necessarily imply entanglement include the first kiss, the first time you say “I love you,” the first time you have sex, and the first night you spend together.
Unromantic milestones matter, too. In my relationship with The Artist, I remember feeling like our relationship had turned a corner the first time we navigated a (non-relational) crisis together. It wasn’t fun at the time, but in the long run it cemented our bond even further. I felt similarly after the first time they saw me in the middle of a major mental health crisis and didn’t run away.
What relationship milestones feel significant to you and your partner(s)? Think about both things you’ve already done (“the first overnight we spent together felt really significant to me”) and things you’d like to do someday (“I really want to introduce you to my best friends.”)
Have each other’s backs
For me, one of the biggest signs of commitment is when someone is by my side through difficult times. I enjoy the sex-with-no-expectations brand of relationship with some people. But I want to know that my inner circle people are there for me.
If you’re around when you want a hot shag but then disappear when I’m sobbing on the sofa because my depression is so bad, I won’t see the relationship as a committed one and will adjust my expectations accordingly.
Having each other’s backs isn’t the same as expecting the other person to drop everything to care for you in every crisis. But it does mean stepping up when you can, being there for the bad times as well as the good, and going out of your way for the other person at least some of the time.
Ask, don’t assume
When was the last time you asked your partner what love and commitment means to them? It’s easy to assume other people define these things in the same ways that we do. But assumptions are the fast-track to hurt feelings and miscommunications.
If you’re not sure what your partner needs or wants, ask them! If you’re not sure how they’re feeling, don’t try to guess. Just talk about it.
Learning each other’s love languages can be useful here. People often make the mistake of assuming that everyone gives and receives love the way they do. The love language framework isn’t perfect. But it gives you a way to explore and communicate your needs to your partner and to understand theirs.
Asking isn’t unromantic! Asking someone what they need or want is actually a huge sign of love and respect. Mononormative culture holds that we should be able to read our partner’s mind. This is bullshit. Don’t try. Seriously, I cannot emphasise this enough – just fucking ask.
Stand up for the relationship
When I was with my ex, one of the things that stopped me ever feeling safe was the fact that his wife had veto power. Even after years together, she could have told him to dump me at any time and he would have complied. Even though it was only ever hypothetical, we talked about the possibility at length. One of the things that really hurt was the knowledge that, if push came to shove, he would not stand up for our relationship.
I won’t date anyone with a veto arrangement any more. I believe that longer-term and more entangled partners should absolutely get a say and be able to voice concerns. But I cannot be in a situation where my relationship could be unilaterally ended by someone who isn’t even in it.
If you want to show commitment to your non-entangled partner, that means being willing to stand up for your relationship if you ever need to. This might mean telling your spouse or nesting partner that no, they don’t get to slam a veto down. It might mean speaking up when your friends or family (if you’re out to them) dismiss your non-entangled relationship as not real, not serious, or not important.
Keep the promises you make (and don’t make ones you can’t keep)
To my ex, promises made to me were always breakable if anything better came up (or his wife just had a bad day). This prevented me from ever feeling truly important to him.
In general, if you make a promise or commit to a plan with your partner, you should do everything you can to honour it. Emergencies happen, of course. Part of being in a long-term relationship means being flexible enough to roll with the punches when crises arise. But breaking promises or cancelling plans for minor reasons impedes building a true sense of commitment in a relationship, in my opinion.
The other piece of this is not making promises you can’t keep. My ex used to tell me that we – me, him, and his wife – would all live together and I’d be an equal co-primary someday. I eventually realised this was never going to actually happen. If I’d known that earlier, I could have adjusted my expectations accordingly. Instead, by promising something he never intended to actually follow through on, he deprived me of the ability to make an informed and consensual choice about how much I wanted to commit to that relationship.
If your non-entangled partner is asking for something, it can seem kinder to say “yes, someday” then just keep pushing it off into the distance. But if the real answer is “no, never” or “probably not,” it’s actually much better to tell them that. Hearing “no” to something you want is never fun. But it’s much better than being strung out on a false promise and then being let down again and again.
What does commitment without entanglement mean to you?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments. I’m so curious how other non-monogamous people handle this.