Commitment Phobia

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One of the biggest holiday hits in the movie theatres was The Holiday, an irritating flick about two implausible women who find happiness jutting across the Atlantic and falling into bed with men they’ve just met. It’s an empty plot that pretty much epitomizes what our society considers social success.

At the other extreme, one of my favourite movies is The Notebook, which we have watched approximately eight times. I just love it. So does Keith, but for a different reason (if you’re a guy and you’ve watched it with your wife, you’ll understand). James Garner and Gena Rowland, who play the older version of the couple, are inspiring, because the love they share transcends time, illness, even memory.

That’s the kind of love most of us dream of. It’s the kind of love I saw last year in my friend Jill, as she sat with her husband as he was dying of cancer. And it’s the kind of love that only people who have committed to each other for a lifetime, and have weathered storms and fights and agony together, can know.

We live in a society that is in love with love but ambivalent about commitment. That’s too bad, because the deepest love is found when commitment is a part of it. It’s saying I’ll love you even if you look awful in the morning, if you gain thirty pounds after having that baby (or after watching me have that baby), if you lose your job, if you get sick, or even if your mind betrays you and forgets me one day. Knowing that someone loves you like that makes your relationship stronger, because you’re free to be yourself and to work on your issues. You know they’re not going anywhere.

My generation, though, and the one coming after me, isn’t as enamoured with commitment. It seems unnecessary, too difficult, and archaic. And the government agrees, treating couples the same way whether married or not. But while Revenue Canada may be able to navigate this new maze, it’s not as easy for the rest of us. When do you accept a person as a sister-in-law or brother-in-law? Is it when they move in together? When they’ve been living together for three years? When they have a child?

While the couples themselves may get rather peeved that the rest of us seem confused about this, the rest of us only want a little clarification. Giving your heart away to a brother or sister’s significant other and accepting them into the family when they have no intention of being together five years down the road isn’t a fun prospect. But even more than clarification, what I really want is for them to be truly happy, and I’m just not sure that such intimacy is as readily available when couples haven’t committed. On an individual basis, obviously, it may very well be, and anyone can be an exception to the rule. On a society-wide basis, though, such intimacy is lacking. A New Zealand study, for example, found that cohabiting couples with children break up six and a half times more frequently than married couples. And even if you think of cohabiting as a step to marriage, you may be dooming yourself to failure. American researcher Linda Waite also found that the longer you lived together before you were married, the more likely you were to divorce later.

Even in the sexual realm commitment plays a huge part. Those that are happiest with their sexual lives aren’t those who are just “young and having fun”. It’s that 45-year-old unobtrusive secretary who may pack an extra twenty-five pounds but has been married to the same man for 23 years. She knows she’s cherished, she knows she’s loved, and he knows what she likes. Commitment, then, isn’t irrelevant. Couples who are committed are healthier, happier, live longer, make more money, and have better adjusted children. And it’s all because they’ve made that promise to stick it out. That’s the key to lasting love and intimacy. Intimacy ultimately can’t be rushed and it can’t be forced. It isn’t something that people have because they’re attracted to each other, or have fun together, or even because they share an apartment. It comes because you’ve decided to share your life.

Deep inside, most of us still yearn for that. Close to nine in ten teenagers say they still desire it. But we don’t do it. And so, as I look out at my generation, I worry that too many people are going to miss out on one of the richest parts of life. I really want my James Garner when I’m 80, but who will they have? Sometimes I find it too sad to contemplate.

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