“You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.” – Thích Nhất Hạnh
Someone once posted this quote in a polyamory related group and someone commented “Love in such a way that YOU feel free”.
This came right after I had been in another discussion in which I had been commenting on conflating commitment with control. It’s one of the most common misconceptions about ethical non-monogamy that being polyamorous means being chronically unable to commit. While that’s not widely true in my experience, there are clearly some individuals for whom that is the case. They strongly connect the idea of commitment to loss of freedom.
This got me to thinking about the dichotomy of how I’m one of the most doggedly committed people you’ll ever meet in terms of honoring my relationship agreements, yet I have never felt anything other than completely free in my relationships. This has remained true no matter how many partners I have any given time. Just because I never agree to complete sexual or romantic exclusivity in my relationships doesn’t mean it’s not important to me to honor the agreements I do make.
A lot of that, I know, has to do with my propensity for being very clear in negotiating relationship terms. What would you like to be able to expect from me? What can I expect from you? I try not to leave anything to assumptions when making the transition from friend to committed relationship. Therefore, I avoid most of the bullshit that many relationships step into just because the people involved had a different idea of what being in a relationship meant.
I think more importantly, though, is that I have a strong sense of who I am and who I want to be, and a central part of my self-identity is loyalty. So, to me resisting temptation is an act of strength, not weakness. Because I see it as staying true to the choices that I made. Like when someone decides they are morally opposed to the meat industry, even though they really love bacon. They don’t see the limitation of their diet as something to be shameful of. If anything, vegans are infamous for often developing an obnoxious sense of pride about their dietary limitations. I could be fairly accused of having an equally obnoxious sense of pride about the fact that unlike many people I am not so controlled by desire that I’m willing to compromise my values just to get my dick wet.
The one time I did was when I was 18 and I cheated on my fiancé. As appealing as it might have been at the time to justify the cheating, I knew it to be an act of weakness even as I did it. My only act of strength had been to recognize it and do the best I could to set it right by immediately telling my fiancé and taking full responsibility for my actions. There was no “I wouldn’t have been so sexually frustrated if you’d have sex before marriage…it’s not like you’re a virgin. I was having sex non-stop with my last partner. What did you expect?” It was more along the lines “I know you trusted me not to do this and I failed you. I’ve wronged you, and you have every right to be angry with me. I can’t change what I did, but I am deeply sorry for it. I hope you’ll forgive me, but I’ll understand if you don’t.”
I believe because I accepted that responsibility…because I was appropriately ashamed of my choice…that it made it easy to resist subsequent temptation, and that is strength, not weakness. Part of being strong is doing what’s right (in terms of your own value system) even when it’s not the most immediately satisfying thing to do. We don’t call someone who has been going to Alcoholics Anonymous because they’re trying to stop drinking empowered when they accept a beer someone offers them because they’re really craving that drink. No, we regard them as free when they are able to stand by their choice not to drink, despite how much part of them may really want it.
Being free is choosing your own values and having the strength to stick to them even when it’s not immediately rewarding. Choosing for yourself is meaningless if you cannot consistently stand by your choices. Otherwise, your path is controlled for you by the series of temptations that present themselves to you.
That’s not to say that anyone should stay in a situation that’s miserable for them. Nobody is perfect. Some choices just don’t work out. While we should consider our exit strategies while making those choices and factor them in, it’s normal in one’s enthusiasm to not consider all possibilities. There’s no power in not being able to admit when you’ve made a mistake or even that things have changed in a way that couldn’t be foreseen. Taking ownership of our failures instead of denying them or avoiding responsibility for them is one of the important parts of getting better at making choices.
To me, commitment isn’t a matter of giving control to someone else. It’s having control over myself and being true to the obligations I choose in the name of reaching my own goals and staying true to my own values. Nobody else owns me. I own my decisions and can (almost always with rare exceptions) be proud of them. What is more liberating than that?
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