“I Do!” Not Fear Commitment

Last weekend I attended, and participated in a beautiful and meaningful wedding ceremony for two of my beloved friends.  On the heels of this extraordinary union, I find myself thinking about commitment, a term that is most frequently paired with the words “Fear” and “Of“.  How has something that is so honored and uplifted by our culture become so associated with fear?

First off, where do we learn about commitment, and what are we afraid of?

We learn about commitment from places like…

  • family (i’m sure not repeating what mom and dad did!)
  • community (everyone else is signing up for commitment, so I guess I should, too)
  • school (the definition of commitment is a pledge or promise; obligation)
  • media (you meet someone at the wrong time, then you get over it after about a week, and you live happily ever after)
  • religion (commitment = forever and ever and ever and ever and ever, etc)
  • peers (all girls want is commitment and all boys want is sex without commitment)
  • personal experiences (i got hurt once, i don’t want to get hurt again)
  • celebrities (average length of a committed relationship = 2 months)

From these sources we learn to be afraid of failure, of not living up to expectations, of letting someone down, of being let down, of wasting time, of losing interest, and so on.  Sifting through all of the messages coming in from all directions, both explicit and implicit, can be challenging and confusing at best.  How are we supposed to embrace something that we really don’t understand?  Enter, structured learning environment!  However, sometimes the teachers could be driving the fear-wagon itself.

How could educators be contributing to the fear of commitment?

Some educators (or individuals in an educational role, such as parents) could be exacerbating the fear of commitment by…

  • Emphasizing committed relationships as the only suitable context for sexual activity.
  • Glorifying a committed relationship as a life-goal for everyone.
  • Perpetuating gender role assumptions such as girls all want a big wedding and boys don’t really ever want to get married (check out Amy Schalet’s op-Ed in the NY Times, Caring, Romantic American Boys).
  • Focusing on relationship status as a measure of success.
  • Defining the goal of all relationships as marriage/lifelong commitment.

All of the above place pressure on an individual to conform to certain ideals or stereotypes, which can contribute all those fears associated with commitment.  And they happen on a regular basis from all those sources, building up on each other.  Rarely do we get the message, ‘you can figure commitment out for yourself, rather than be afraid of it’.  (Although, I hear it’s a very common theme in therapy sessions!)

And, how many people actually had an opportunity to REALLY ‘learn’ about commitment, besides what they have gleaned from their parental units?  When lacking a structured learning experience about relationship concepts, people are left to their own devices to figure out the ‘unknown’…and what’s scarier than the formidable ‘unknown’? A lot of commitment is about willing to face the unknown with a person, and do it no matter what.  It makes sense that the concept of commitment be a part of a learning experience, at any and every age.  So maybe all this fear is because it’s missing from the curriculum.

If it’s missing, what should the commitment lesson cover?

  • Self-exploration.  Understanding and thinking about what commitment means to an individual is key- the meaning behind the term will vary from person to person.  Encourage participants to come up with their own definition.
  • Communication.  Talking about commitment is one of the things that people are afraid of doing.  Maybe it’s because they don’t know how!  Have participants practice relationship conversations, either individually or through role plays.
  • Values-clarification.  Commitment is incredibly values-laden, and a structured learning environment can help individuals explore their personal values, when they might otherwise be ignored or overlooked.
  • Decision-making.  Deciding to commit to someone is HUGE!  Ask participants what their deciding factors are and encourage them to even write them down!
  • Growth and flexibility.  Ideas about commitment will certainly change over time, in a relationship, with age, with experience, with new partners and after old partners.  Have participants develop a timeline of how someone’s commitment may change over time.

In theory, these lessons of commitment, when delivered with validation and respect for individuality, can help someone feel empowered to be committed, rather than afraid.  Or at least willing to face their fears!

My friends made a commitment to each other, in the presence of their friends and family who will support them throughout their lives.  Their relationship strength comes from their acceptance of participating in each others’ lives, even if they are afraid.  The minister performing their ceremony even congratulated them on a job well done and gave a message of ‘keep it up’, instead of the traditional wedding advice.  I think that what made their wedding so extraordinary was the clear demonstration of their willingness to face the unknown together.   As educators, we should help foster that readiness and help prepare individuals to commit (or not), rather than be afraid.

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