Since turning 25, I’ve felt a renewed sense of empowerment. Something about being right smack dab in the middle of 20 and 30 has made me feel like somehow I have a better handle on this whole life thing. In the spirit of my newfound maturity and confidence, I did something a little crazy recently, and asked a guy out that I had just met at a bar. Now before you get too impressed, he had approached me, introduced himself, struck up a conversation, asked for my number, and texted me first, so on the whole, not that big of a leap, I know. And what did I have to lose? So I asked if he wanted to get a drink. Two hours later I got some lame vague excuse about work (on a Saturday?) and realized I’d never hear from this guy again-I’ve read he’s just not that into you. Which is totally fine, but left me wondering why he bothered texting me in the first place. Was asking to go for a drink that much of a reach? Did he just want to text indefinitely? I didn’t dwell on it too much. Hey, I’ll take the initial confidence boost and a chance to cross something off a bucket list, right? Anyway, this little tale and several other things recently have made me think about dating and commitment in our modern world. It’s an interesting time to be single, my friends. And while I’m not necessarily looking for a relationship right this second, I’m worried by the way our culture increasingly writes off committed relationships.
Take, for example, this lovely little anecdote in my Instagram feed of a conversation “overheard in LA”:
Photo: @overheardla Instagram (This account is sometimes entertaining, but more often a slightly depressing commentary on where we’re headed. )
Not “catching feelings” has been the hot topic of discussion lately, judging by all the open letter articles that get shared on Facebook, like this one. We’re the generation that doesn’t want relationships and talks about feelings and Zika in the same breath of contagious disdain. Where’s the booster for the cootie shot I got on the playground in 2nd grade? Wouldn’t want to be infected by the dreaded plague of emotions.
Why are we so afraid of becoming attached to another human? How are we at a place where living with someone is less scary than admitting emotional vulnerability? What is it about commitment that freaks us out?
A committed relationship seems increasingly counter-culture in the unlimited options, swipe left, FOMO, instaclick, double-tap world in which we find ourselves. Why pick one person with the possibility that there could be someone better out there? Someone that dresses better, is a little taller, that could understand us a little more, or make us happier? Perhaps we’re scared because saying yes to one person means we’re suddenly ruling out everyone else out there. We’re paralyzed by the semblance of infinite choices.
Or we’re scared that somehow we lose our freedom to do what we want once we commit. How often do we talk about people in relationships as “tied down?” I think we’ve fooled ourselves into naively associating commitment with enslavement.
But as with many other things, the reality of it is far more complex and nuanced, even paradoxical. We know that commitment in other aspects of life is often freeing, in that it frees us to do what we truly want to do, to achieve a larger purpose. We admire the commitment of a world-class athlete that is dedicated to a diet, rigorous training schedule, and lifestyle that allows her to be the best she can be. We find such commitment in people that are at the top of their field, be it artists, novelists, CEOs, researchers, Silicon Valley tech gurus, etc. It would be odd to call these people enslaved, although their life probably looks a whole lot more regimented and orderly than mine does.
To do difficult things that we know are worthwhile, we often impose restrictions on ourselves. We block the distracting website, or find an accountability partner, or hide the junk food, or set reminders on our phones, or make ourselves a strict routine to follow. These self-imposed rules aren’t diminishing our freedom; they are the opposite- tools for eliminating ensnaring distractions, allowing ourselves to pursue the true goal we have in mind. Why is it different then, when it comes to our romantic interests?
Amidst all of the articles bemoaning the current state of affairs, there’s this guy who makes the case for finding freedom in a committed relationship. And I’ll be the first to admit that I read this with a skeptical eye. Is there really freedom to be found in closing some doors while choosing to spend a significant portion of your life with one person?
And is it that we fear losing our freedom? Or that we don’t value what a committed relationship offers deeply enough to override this fear? A sort of cost-benefit analysis in which “feelings” are losing? Aside from stability and companionship, a genuine connection with another human being in any relationship, a friendship, within a family, in a mentoring relationship, or a romantic one is one of the most valuable parts of our existence. The emotional intimacy that we find from the vulnerability of those close relationships doesn’t just satisfy us. It makes us better humans.
It’s in these close encounters with another individual who has their own world of thoughts, opinions, emotions, personality quirks, bad habits, and worldviews that we practice how to communicate from a place of empathy and a desire for true understanding. It’s in these relationships that we may be forced to confront our deepest flaws, unseen without the mirrored image of how it affects someone we love. Maybe it’s not heartbreak we fear but a more honest reflection of our true selves.
After all, if we aren’t accountable to anyone, or forced to deal with personal conflicts, like those that arise in these intimate settings, we can carry on believing that we are pretty great people. In essence, we end up trapped by the illusion of our own splendor in the absence of another to ground our experience of ourselves. It’s hard to imagine how we would grow personally without relationships with people who know us deeply.
I think we’re starting to see some signs of us not valuing these deep connections and, as a result, not getting the practice we need in communicating with empathy. We talk past each other and play the blame game and point fingers and shout if someone is different from us-just look to any recent Facebook political conversation for an example.
There’s hope. Psychologists tell us we don’t actually want this. When surveyed, more college students still said they preferred a relationship to a hookup, so maybe we’re all just putting on this air of ambivalence. Still, seeking an authentic relationship shouldn’t make us feel ashamed or clingy.
Why should we run from the chance to know ourselves better through the lens of another person? We’re braver than that. I think we’re selling ourselves short. Because the people who love us most are able to see things we cannot see ourselves, the good and the bad. As one of the men in the article above said, commitment, “ opens the door to me being loved for who I really am and also for who I am not,” and as the master C. S. Lewis eloquently writes,
This is one of the miracles of love: It gives a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.
To be known and loved, loved in spite of the knowledge of our imperfections, as we can only be in a relationship, might be the most empowering aspect of commitment.
As TImothy Keller, an author on the subject of the complexity of commitment writes, “To be known and loved… is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficultly life can throw at us.”
Catching feelings may be just the challenge we need to push ourselves beyond our own perspective, to lay aside the false image we try to portray, to open ourselves up to a rich source of strength, to deepen our sensitivity to those around us, to reflect on our shortcomings, to practice service and sacrifice for another, to become greater than ourselves.
If these are the symptoms, imagine a world in which feelings are an epidemic.
Be brave. Let someone in. It might just set you free.