Since getting back from Utopia, I've had a lot of people reaching out with relationship questions spanning a huge variety of topics. Suffice it to say, I have enough advice column material to last for decades. This email stood out to me in particular, as it broaches an aspect of polyamory that many people are puzzled over: commitment. Some parts of the message have been redacted to protect the identity of the sender, at his request.
In my line of work, I speak a lot about covenant and covenant relationships. I believe that covenant is something that is renewed daily if not more frequently. Is there covenant in polyamory?... A good friend of mine was in what he called an "open" relationship. He had one wife, and two "girlfriends." quotations used because that is how he referred to them. He was shocked that I didn't judge the relationship(s) or immediately ask about his/their sex life. My only question was about if their was any commitment and if there could be commitment without lines drawn. He informed me that they were all free to come and go as they please. Do what they wanted. It just turned out that the three of them all loved him romantically and loved each other like "sisters". Once again, his term...
...Is there covenant in polyamorous relationships, and if so, does it exist without lines drawn?
After some correspondence with the sender, he revealed to me that he was a Christian minister. The notion of a "covenant" is a recurring theme in the Bible, typically referring to agreements made between God and a particular person or group of people. The implications of such a deep spiritual promise are frequently applied to interpersonal relationships, usually marriage. In short, the typically religious usage of the word "covenant" can be easily compared to the secular usage of the word "commitment."
Our culture tends to focus on wedding vows, contracts, or sexual exclusivity as the building blocks of commitment within a relationship, but it goes so much deeper than that. I reached out to the Internet with a challenge: define "commitment" within a relationship, WITHOUT mentioning sexual exclusivity. I got many amazing responses, but here is just a small sampling:
- Commitment means sticking though the tough times without throwing in the towel. It means that you become vulnerable by opening yourself up to someone because you trust each other enough to be "all in" emotionally
- I would say that it is the choice to appreciate and affirm another person, unconditionally. accepting their nature as the reason you want to be around them.
- The only commitment you need in a relationship...open or closed or somewhere in between...is a commitment to communicate.
- Knowing you could tell your partner literally anything, and have no fear of reprisal. Also, have no doubt they would love and support you regardless of their feeling toward the matter
- Promise me your whole life, just don't tell me what that looks like
Many people are surprised when they hear that I consider myself to be in many "committed" relationships. My definition of commitment extends beyond the traditional definition, and falls in line with many of the responses above. I am committed to being there, being present, collaborating with my partner to create the best possible connection and a relationship that serves everyone's needs and desires. I'm committed to not running away when the going gets tough, and to learning to love someone even when they are imperfect.
This kind of commitment means employing communication to determine boundaries and agreements within each relationship. The "lines" may be present or they may be absent, but most importantly, they must serve the needs and desires of the people involved in that particular relationship. Some people do choose to practice something known as "poly fidelity" wherein you agree to practice sexual exclusivity with multiple people within a group. Any sexual or romantic contact outside of that group is considered cheating. I do not choose to practice this way, and my partners are free to pursue other relationships, provided everyone is honest, open, and communicating as best as possible.
At the end of the day, if you are creating a relationship or multiple relationships with intention, communication, and respect, you will find what it means to be "committed" within those relationships.
P.S. -- What is yourdefinition of commitment?