Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Fantasy of Love and Commitment Before Sex


I have been following the comments on post by Evan Marc Katz, and find myself wanting to write my own post about some of the issues coming up.

EMK's post centers around women offering clear boundaries to men who want to have sex with them. Specifically, he's saying that if you are someone who can't compartmentalize or emotionally detach around sex, then it's a damn good idea to wait until you have some kind of commitment from the other person. (Notice that I'm moving this beyond heterosexual folks, since I think it can apply regardless of sexuality.) Furthermore, it's really helpful to communicate your boundaries to the other person in a way that isn't shaming, blaming, or otherwise going to put out someone who might be a great candidate for a long term partnership or marriage. (Obviously, we're dealing with monogamy here. Some of this stuff may be useful for polyamorous folks or those interested in casual connections, but a lot of it, not so much.)

Anyway, the crux of the discussion seems to be around what the definition of "commitment" is, or whether waiting to have sex with someone is about getting a commitment or about something else, like fear or an overbearing moral system.

Here's what I think. If we are talking about a matter of weeks or a few months wait, then the only "commitment" being made is that of being sexually monogamous with the other person. That's it. You can delude yourself into believing that the other person is making a bigger leap and actually is "committed to you as a person," but the fact is they still don't know you. Odds are you haven't, as a couple, gone through any level of difficulties to assess how well you can work together or not when times are hard. You haven't spent nearly enough time to have a sense of the diversity in each others' personalities. To see the gamut of things each other is passionate about. The ways in which each other thrives, and also what all stresses each other out. Etc.

Which gets to another pivot point in the discussion over there. Love. If you have the view that you need to be in love with someone, and/or they with you before having sex, then you're going to be waiting a long time. Months. Perhaps longer. Real love doesn't comes in a matter of weeks, and anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding themselves. What a lot of people call "love" in the early stages of a relationship is lust. A hormonal rush. And a hell of a lot of projections and idealization.

In other words, you can have the story that you require someone to "commit to you," and "be in love with you," before having sex, but unless you're willing to wait several months or longer, all you're getting is a commitment for sexual monogamy and a willingness to give a relationship a try.

Neither of these guarantee anything lasting. They do not give you any real assurance that, when things get a little or lot tough, that the other person is going to stick around and try to work things out. If I had a dollar for every "couple" that committed to each other 1 month or 6 weeks after meeting, only to break up a few months later, I'd be astoundingly rich. It's happened to me more than once. That drunken haze of bliss, followed by a quick tumble down the rabbit hole of misery and "who the hell are you?" realizations, leading to a break up.

No matter what you do, there's going to be some risk. Even marrying someone provides no guarantee you'll grow old together.

Which is why I think some of these delusions about the "scale of commitment" being made before having sex (when it happens in the first few months), to be driven by fears of getting hurt. Of being rejected after you've emotionally bonded.

It's so much harder to accept the reality that the step being taken is a small one, important but still tenuous. You've probably eliminated most of the folks who just want casual sex, but that's about all you've done.

The bottom line is that we have to learn to be ok with the fact that this first stage of commitment is solely about being willing to give a relationship a try.

If you can't do that, then odds are you'll have a difficult time clearly seeing the rest of your relationship.

Clearly seeing where you're at with another person needs to begin at the beginning. Even if that clear seeing is scary. Better to face the fears as they arise, as opposed to letting them build behind a wall of fantasy.

24 comments:

  1. I think many women project too much on the "bonding hormones." It becomes a self-fulfilled prophecy. If you go into a relationship clear headed, knowing that you aren't a slave to your bodily functions you will be much more prepared for reality. So stop making excuses and take control over yourself when you are in a relationship!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I totally agree about the bonding hormones issue. It feels like the argument some men make to defend cheating, or maintaining "options" long after they need to - that of being unable to control their "desire for sexual variety." Or that we are programmed to "spread our seed." Or whatever. Which is different from agreeing upfront to have an open relationship, or that you want something casual.

      There's a lot of evolutionary biology bunk that gets subtly or not so subtly passed off as relationship advice.

      Delete
  2. Oh Nathan, terrific post. All the points you made were ones I was trying to get across on that thread. Wish I could write as well as you. (Maybe I'd be less misunderstood) :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    2. Hey Selena. Don't worry - you write just fine. I always understand your well thought out and very polite comments! :)

      Delete
    3. Aw thanks Tom. Sometimes I get frustrated over there. :)

      Delete
  3. Selena, I figured you'd be on the same page with this post.

    Some folks over there are truly deluding themselves, whatever labels they want to use.

    And I kind of wondered why Evan was pushing back so hard against what you were saying. Because I don't think it undermines his basic points.

    Perhaps he believes that the commitment being aimed for early on has more weight than you, I, and some others think it does.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Perhaps. Or perhaps he weighs 'exclusivity' more heavily. I never dated more than one person at a time. And just because I did that, didn't mean I thought I was committed to them from day one. We were just seeing how it went.

    I dunno, I think people calling themselves bf/gf within a few weeks of dating is possibly a false sense of security. Someone can say they are your bf/gf 2-5 weeks in, but they can easily change their mind a week or two later. The words don't mean much if the love isn't there yet. And if the love isn't there, what is the point of the label?

    I also agree with you & Julia about the hormone excuses. I do think there are people who like to believe they are powerless against their hormones cause it's so much easier than taking responsiblity for their own choices. Which might make them look bad.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As a former client of Evan's, I know where he is coming from and its good advice for the masses. Some of us are exceptions. I think if you believe that after 5 weeks of dating, becoming exclusive means a lifetime of commitment you are a Pollyanna. I don't think Evan advocates this kind of thinking but for many of us, we would prefer to be the only one our partner is sleepy with so waiting till exclusivity makes sense unless you want to be, potentially, one of a couple-few women a man is sleeping with.

      Personally, I can't find myself making the speech but I know how to subtly push a man back while making it clear I am into him, I also am very attune to when a man starts to pivot in the direction of wanting to just be with me so I don't think the speech or waiting to be called girlfriend is necessary. On top of that I've mostly had no problem having casual sex in my life so it isn't earth shattering if I sleep with a guy and we break up.

      Delete
    2. I think it's common for both genders to want to be the 'only one' when they start sleeping with a new partner. I don't think it's unreasonable to want to ascertain this before becomming intimate. I don't think it's unusual for people to focus on/sleep with one person at a time. It's calling such a situation a comitted relationship after a few weeks of dating that rings false to me.

      Possibly I weigh the word committment heavier than some.

      Delete
    3. Well, if you are hung up on a word, I don't believe becoming bf/gf means any real commitment except the commitment to not see anyone else and to continue to get to know each other in a more intimate way.

      Delete
    4. The problem with using words like bf/gf or commitment is that without clearly defining them, you don't really know what is being agreed to. Or spoken about.

      I get the sense that some of the readers over there have really unrealistic expectations attached to this initial commitment. Especially if they're aiming to get such a commitment in a matter of weeks, or 2-3 months. Which tend to bring about serious crash and burn experiences, regardless of whether they employ Evan's technique in the post or not.

      I'm guessing that if you went through the archives of Evan's posts, you'd find plenty of effort to bunk some of the pollyannish thinking behind these words, but taking this post on it's own, everyone seems to be plugging in different definitions of commitment and/or bf/gf and running from there.

      Delete
    5. My recent bf, of all people, wanted to wait for commitment. When we were still dating, he once invited me over for dinner, then ten minutes later, mentioned that he "couldn't do casual". So I canceled the dinner and didn't go over to his place for another few weeks, until after we decided to become exclusive. My reaction to all that was, "Eh, whatever floats his boat. I don't get any of this personally, but, because he's a nice guy, I'll play along". Oh, and I continued dating other people until we became exclusive. You know, the ones that *could* do casual. What I'm saying is that, I was kind of playing a man's role in this scenario, and it looks very much like, faced with "no sex before commitment" requirement, a man would either: 1)say the magic words to get sex and then back out of the commitment(?) a week later; 2)have sex with other people who don't have that requirement, until he feels he's ready to give his commitment to the one that does; or 3)a combination of both.

      To me, commitment is when both sides get checked for STDs and the condom comes off. And even then, just like at-will employment, the whole thing can end at any time if at least one side wants it to be over. Which is totally fair, because both sides are still in the "getting to know you" stage. So yeah, I agree that it would be a mistake to attach high expectations to a relationship during this period.

      Delete
    6. I think a lot of folks don't want to admit that they keep "seeing other people" during the first few months, even if it's only a handful of dates without sex involved. There's this illusion of "specialness" that many of us want to have, when the reality is more mixed.

      Plenty of women play some form of the juggling game. People at EMK's blog like to marginalize Karmic's position, but I'd say her general approach is becoming fairly comment for women in the internet age. My own experience is that I've never been into the juggling/energy output needed to have "lots of options." So, I mostly either dated a single person, or did the go out with two for a period of weeks until one stood out other another. Doing more than that always seemed like too much of a time and money commitment, even if we each paid our own way. When I was doing online dating, I sometimes had several conversations going in e-mail, but didn't act upon many of them right away.

      The fantasy of meeting someone and suddenly dropping all other options because this new person is outrageously special somehow seems pretty fierce, and foolish. It happens occasionally, but not nearly as much as folks would like to believe.

      If people would just be honest with themselves and admit they don't know a lot early on - even if they get the feeling that this other person is "right" for them - then maybe we'd have less misery.

      It's nice when that feeling turns out to be part of a love story, but too often, clinging to that feeling ends up bringing lots of misery when it doesn't pan out.

      Delete
    7. To be totally honest, I've never felt comfortable juggling several people at once. I started dating in the 80s when it was not done - you went out with one guy, then if you weren't feeling it a few weeks later, you'd tell that guy off, (or he'd tell you off), you start seeing the next one, and so forth. Never two or more at once. (It probably would've been hard to pull off on college campus without all candidates finding out about each other anyway, lol.) But in this day and age, that's what you've got to do. Plus it seems like too much undue pressure on one guy if I single him out as "the one", especially without him knowing or agreeing to that.

      Additionally, I am really leery of intense chemistry early on (which is what an early commitment seems to imply). It is a nice high, but it clouds your judgement, makes you pick the wrong person, then it wears off and you both are left with nothing. I started my relationship with the recent bf feeling next to nothing, and over two years, by sticking around and getting to know him better, I was able to develop a really deep feeling, that could've carried me far into the future, if he hadn't ended things. It helps when you go into a relationship without the rose-colored chemical glasses on, so you don't experience a huge disappointment later on because his ears look funny or whatever. You go in already knowing and accepting all of his flaws. He on the other hand, had intense chemistry when we got together, and look where it got him. I like my way better :) I do know that Evan also warns against being driven by chemistry; I just don't know how to reconcile it with an early commitment. How can you commit to someone after 2-3 weeks with a clear head? ;)

      Delete
    8. Yes, there does seem to be some conflicting issues with these early timelines. I was burned pretty bad by some instant chemistry a few years back. Even with all my critical horse-sense, the heat of it all swept me (and her) away for awhile. About 6 weeks to be exact. Then we spent another 6 weeks fighting and trying to keep it going in different ways. But mostly being on totally different pages. Thankfully the blinded quality disappeared quickly. However, it did make me examine this whole early commitment thing a lot more closely.

      Somehow, if you're dealing with intense chemistry right away, it seems like you have to figure out a way to step back and assess. Otherwise, it's jumping into the fire. Which maybe means taking a little longer than this 1 month/6 week time frame people seem to be pushing.

      I think it's still possible to date a single person at a time. But not as common as in the past.

      Delete
    9. I came back here to add that my 18yo, who's had a gf since spring, came to me with some dating questions yesterday, and was horrified to hear that I did the "juggling several people at a time" thing. He said that for them (high school) it was unthinkable. I guess my kids' generation dates more like we used to in the 80s - try it with one person, see if it works, move on if it doesn't... one person at a time.

      I told him that seeing several people at a time is something the old folks like myself do, lol But I'd like to try for one person at a time next time I go back to dating. Less pressure on myself this way. I always felt like I owed it to both guys I was seeing to choose one ASAP and stop wasting everybody's time.

      Delete
  5. I have nothing to add... just nodding in agreement with everyone on here. Great post, Nathan! The requirement of commitment before sex always seemed arbitrary to me, and I couldn't figure out exactly why. The answer is in your post... because, at this stage, it is still an arbitrary commitment.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Goldie: How can you commit to someone after 2-3 weeks with a clear head?

    Exactly. All I've ever known after 2-5 weeks is that I liked the guy enough to keep seeing him. In some cases I was just riding the hormonal wave Nathan described. Sometimes the wipeout would soon follow and I would pine for months. Later (when I was thinking more clearly) I would wonder "What did I ever see in him???" And sometimes literally cringe.

    And this was without any mention of the exclusivity/commitment/bf/gf stuff. I can't help but think if I believed we were a "couple" after just a few weeks the crash would have felt even worse.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "And this was without any mention of the exclusivity/commitment/bf/gf stuff. I can't help but think if I believed we were a "couple" after just a few weeks the crash would have felt even worse." This is exactly why people need to lower expectations around the initial "commitment" - especially if it's in the first couple of months. Because the emotional attachment to the story you had is worse than leaving the actual person.

      Delete
    2. Agree. It's so common for dating 'relationships' to end before the 3 mo. mark. Most people have been on both sides - the one who ended it, and the one who didn't want to it end. Believing you have a "commitment" during this getting-to-know-each-other period does seem like an attempt to create emotional attachment, to push it forward, rather than see if it develops on it's own.

      All these ideas, all these words, but at bottom? I'd rather a guy I was "seeing" fade out on me, than have my "boyfriend" dump me. For me guy I'm seeing and boyfriend are two different emotional stories.

      Delete
  7. I think there are different levels of commitment to talk about, and some people mean one sort when others mean something else. The OP talks about several months, getting to know the "full gamut" of the other person and so on, before being able to commit to that person. That is absolutely correct if commitment is taken as binding two people together as a unit. It strikes me as a "backward-looking" definition, "establish a base of knowledge and sign off on it." Not a bad approach, but also not the only one.

    The commitment that I suspect is being discussed by EMK and others is more of a "statement of intention" - it's not based on knowledge but future action. It is, if you will, the commitment to aim for the sort of shared experience that builds up the wealth of knowledge that makes the "backward-looking" commitment possible. It doesn't say that the destination will be reached, it just agrees that it's a worthwhile destination and commits to seeking a path that will get there. This looks forward to the day when the commitment in the OP is possible saying "we will build a partnership together!", while Nathan's meaning of commitment looks back at the road just travelled to say, "Yes, we built the partnership and now we can commit to maintaining it, rather than to the attempt to build it."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I wouldn't say I'm advocating one approach here. Also, I think what I'm speaking about above includes a "statement of intention." Some might see the first commitment as that. Right now I'm wondering if that is placing too much on the first commitment.

      Some might decide that they will aim together for a shared experience like a LTR. Others might simply be saying, I don't know what will come of this. Let's date. Let's not sleep around while dating. And we'll see what happens.

      I've done both the long wait - backward looking approach - as well as the short wait, more statement of intention approach with success. (Success being that an LTR developed.)

      But intention, to me, implies some sort of direction. Whereas I think a fair amount of folks make that initial commitment without a clear direction, other than we're not sleeping around or dating others anymore.

      Delete