The Commitment Chasm

Why New Relationships are Hard

“You always have two choices: your commitment versus your fear.”

-Sammy Davis Jr

My married friends say that I will know real love when it’s easy. Like most advice, this is both true and unhelpful.

I think it’s the language that is failing us here. “Love”. “Real”. “Real Love”. The terms are too vague.

The Greeks had many names for love. There was a name for love between parent and child. There were words for love of friends, brotherly love, and the love of God. There was also a word for sexual love. This last love, the love of bodies was called Eros.

In every movie, soap opera and teen vampire drama this type of love is never easy. So which love are my friends talking about? Which love is “real”?

My guess is that this talk of “real love” is referring to what the Greeks called Philia. Aristotle described it as “wanting for someone what one thinks good, for his sake and not for one’s own”.

That is, loving someone enough to work selflessly for their happiness. Philia is what most of us aspire to in ourselves and in a partner. As this love grows, so too should our own happiness

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The trick with getting older is that you don’t have much time to develop this kind of love any more. Work, taxes, laundry, commuting, and all the demands of daily life mean that there is precious little space for new philia to grow. As Drake put it, no new friends.

That leaves us with Eros.

Eros is great, even as we get older. Instead of the confusing jumble of emotions that we felt as teenagers, we can experience lust and passion with some healthy distance. We can enjoy getting to know someone without lying in bed and thinking about them all night. Even in its diminished, older form, Eros comes on fast and sharp.

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I think my married friends got lucky. They fell in love, or into Eros, when they were still quite young. They transitioned from the high mountains of lust into the steady plains of friendship. For the rest of us, it isn’t so easy. We can’t become friends and lovers at the same time. This leaves a gap.

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Now, well into our adulthood, we can see the heady highs of Eros for what they are, a scary precipice. Sure, on the other side of that cliff we can see the sunshine lands of philia, of commitment and partnership. But getting there isn’t easy. Having seen breakups, or divorce, or having any experience at all really, it makes us take a second to look before we leap. We stop and think.

Is this person that I am jumping to the right one for me? Are they reliable? Am I ready to sacrifice the adult freedom that I have enjoyed for so long? Does this mean that we have to move in together? Do we open a joint checking account? How many pillows are appropriate for the bed that I have to sleep in for the rest of my life?

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It’s easy to get paralyzed up there on that commitment chasm. But it’s never going to get any less daunting. At some point, you just have to jump

Written by

Engineer in San Francisco. Interested in words, networks, and human abstractions. Opinions expressed are solely my own.

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