On Monday, the 7th of December, we held a Relationship Cookbook about commitments.
What is a relationship cookbook?
At the moment, I call it “an experiment in participatory wisdom“, and the current incarnation of something I started 8 years ago to collect practical advice and experiences about how to make relationships (and life in general) work. Or sharing how hard it is, and how often we fail, then try again.
It is semi-structured, but open in content. Consider it a bit like an unconference in a 90 minutes box. The whole point is to share “how do we do this thing called life” the way we would share recipes: “I tried this, here is what worked, what didn’t”, and other people can decide if it would fit them.
Not big philosophical questions, no preaching, no telling other people they are wrong or what they do is wrong (no matter how hard you want to say it). At most “I tried that, and it didn’t work, and I have never seen it working: could you help me understand how you do it?”.
As usual, the topic came from conversations with friends: friends breaking up, friends redefining their relationships, going deeper, changing their mind, realizing that while someone was going deeper, the other was resenting it and actually pushing the opposite way.
Please note: if you want to join next events, please follow the Cookbook on Facebook[I]yes, yes, we will move away from Facebook one day or another, join the group, and/or sign up for the newsletter (that at the moment is non-existent, sorry)
This was the introduction on the event page:
Commitment, and lack of it, is a big and recurring topic when dealing with relationships.
Let’s talk about it.Prompts to prime the thinking pump:What do we mean when we talk about commitment?
What does it mean to commit?
To something. To a person. To a relationship.
Can we commit alone?
When are we committed? Is it a process? It is a decision? Is it a discovery?
How do we realize we are not committed? Are we taking it back, or were we not committed from the start?
What happens when the situation, the person, the relationship changes?
How do we commit together with other people?
How do we find out WHAT are we committing to, what is the other person committing to?
How do we deal in differences in commitment?
When dealing with ethical and consensual non-monogamy: what is commitment? Are we committing more, or less? Are we on the same page?We will of course answer all of this, and more, and solve all problems of humanity.
(I may be overselling this)
Again, I think I oversold it a bit, but it was a wonderful ride, we got some clarity, we clarified some confusions, and shared some interesting practical tools. It’s a start.
I am still experimenting with having a write up after each cookbook, personal, biased, covering what I understood and what clicked for me. Let me know if this is helpful, and if I should continue.
If you have never been to a Cookbook: we propose the topics during the event, after the warm up, we present them, and we vote on which ones to actually cover. I would generally want to discuss them all, but we generally have time for three to four topics.
The topics ended up being:
As a warm up[II]these are the topics I propose at the start, we started with
What is commitment for me
Commitment disagreements: how to find out if someone is more or less committed, and how to work with that
The most voted proposed topics where:
Finding compromise? Negotiating commitments, together with How to renegotiate commitments compassionately? [III]it is possible to join 2 topics so that they get voted together
Commitment and FOMO together with Blurry lines between commitments and obligations – how do you tell the difference / draw the line?
Relationship anarchy and commitment
Some general notes
First of all, I realized only after the event[IV]actually, this was pointed out to me, and then, when I thought about it, I realized it was true that the discussion ended up being very one sided: the “commitment is good” people were very vocal, and we were somehow trying to discuss how to find how committed are “the others”, and how to deal with it. The people struggling with commitment, the ones facing fears, disappointments, past hurts, the ones that are now sure if they want and can, stayed silent, and I did not make it easier for them.
I am generally careful about opening doors to the more vulnerable in a conversation, but I ended up being pretty blind in this case. It was a missed opportunity for people feeling that they are not alone in having fears and doubts, that we all do, in different moments, and that there is not one size fits all.
As a note to self: it is harder to come out with “not knowing” and being perceived as the weaker side, and that needs to be supported. I have a couple of ideas for the future, and I am a bit sad I did not think about it before. Thank you to everyone that gave me feedback about this.
Secondly, I have the impression we kept confusing commitments, agreements, and boundaries. There is for sure a strong overlap, and they depend on each other, but I feel there are differences. I am just not that clear about which ones, and I will need to explore it further. In my experience, a Cookbook is great to surface the ambiguities of language, less so to resolve them. It was very clear when we had one about Trust, when I had the impression we were talking about at least 4 different concepts, that we all called Trust.
“What’s commitment for me”
This was the warm-up, introductory round. It is less of a dialogue, more of trying to put out where we are, what we think, and collect possible ideas for going deeper, and noticing ambiguities and disagreements. I find it beautiful when someone joins the conversation thinking “I don’t know what I think about it”, then realizing, hearing others that they agree/disagree/want to build on something that has been shared.
“I knew this but I did not know I knew”.
I personally restated what I wrote some days ago: for me, commitment means finding something that is good for us, good enough right now, and then stopping searching, and starting building. It gives the freedom of not having to worry about other options, at least for a while: it is always good to check every now and then “is this still worth it”, because the sunken cost fallacy is a thing. This is true for relationships too: when a relationship started well, and got better for long enough, just stay and stop looking for the next best thing.
We had a range of positions:
A commitment is a commitment to do something. In this case, to do the relationship, the work, the process, to stay engaged, grow and problem solve together.
On a similar note, commitment as willingness: to feel and own our own desires, wants, and needs. The willingness to go forward. This resonated with several of us, and was beautifully phrased, something I somehow lost in taking notes. Also the willingness to discover the other person, like we would discover a different planet.
Commitment as loyalty and belonging. As the intention to stay involved with each other, to invest in the relationship, to be there for each other. To stay when it is hard, and try to work things through. “Intimacy is born out of conflict”.
Some positions were more about our own state: commitment as being emotionally connected, vulnerable, allowing the other to really see us, and doing our best to really see the other.
Taking the other person in consideration in our own decisions and life. Willingness to ask “were you taking me in consideration when you did that? Did you have my best interest at heart?”, and also accepting that, sometime, no, they didn’t, it happens.
Commitment can be trust, agreements, feeling the other person, caring and feeling cared for.
Commitment as giving up, for a while, the fear of missing out on something better: for this span of time, may it be 10 minutes or 10 years, I am really here. Not “I am here unless something better comes along”, but “I am here”.
Commitment can only be there if it can be revoked: it is like consent, we can always realize that we changed our mind, that things changed, that this is not anymore what we want. Checking again and again, “are we still committed? Do we still want to commit?”.
Saying “right now, I commit (to X)“.
An imagine that resonated for several was more about being present to what is happening right now: things change, we cannot commit “for ever”, so commitment can be seen as giving a good weather forecast, informing when things change, keeping an eye on the actual weather, and being open to listen the other person’s weather forecast and take in their weather condition.
The image was refined several times during the Cookbook, we will come back to it.
Differences in commitment
How do we find out if we are not committed at the same level? If we are not committed to the same thing? If we think we are committed, but really are not when actually having to choose? How to we navigate that?
We did not come out with many solutions, and this was one of the moment where it felt very one sided: I think everyone speaking had some bad experiences of realizing they were more committed than the other person, and we were talking from a place of hurt. No one that had been in a “less committed than the other person” place spoke up, and it is a pity: we have all been there, I for sure have been there. It is also uncomfortable. Maybe I should have asked “commitment is scary because…”, but I didn’t.
Still, some good things came out of this. We started from needing to trust the other person to be able to find out what they want. If they cannot, it is pretty difficult to meet on a shared ground. Once they figure it out, we can see what happens.
Someone pointed out the struggle of trying to commit with people suffering from personality disorders, specifically narcissism, how it can feel like a game of smoke and mirrors, how agreements get interpreted differently, how our perceptions end up twisted and we end up doubting ourselves, being gaslighted, feeling like they do not even understand how something can affect you, what you said and meant. If you have not been there, it is difficult to understand, and I would not recommend trying. If you have been there, you probably know what I am talking about. Feel yourself hugged.
We did not really go deep there, and I really have no idea if there are solutions, apart from realizing what’s happening and limiting the damage by getting out.
We will probably have a Cookbook on the topic: it will be fun and totally not depressing.
We discussed how to tackle situations when we are not sure what our commitments; I feel this applies more specifically to agreements, and of course to boundaries, but I as I noted above, the concepts seem to overlap a great deal.
I find the idea of the “precautionary principle” appropriate: when in doubt, I will postpone/not do something, and ask my partner(s). Yes, it can mean missing out on something, but also missing out on disappointment and hurt.
As I sometime have to repeat myself: if something is really worth it, it will be very probably worth it in a month (or a day, or few hours, if checking in is that easy).
Someone pointed out that they have a very bad[V]the word used was different memory, and they need to write down agreements and commitments. I think it is a good idea in any case, then going over them with the other people involved, checking if we agree, and mean the same thing, and still mean the same thing.
Regarding this, the concept of relationship meetings was offered: a biweekly meeting about upcoming topics, looking back, disambiguating, re-negotiating and re-committing. See Tools.
When in doubt, be generous, assume your partner has your best interest at heart, and ask: “Did you have my best interests at heart?”.
People are different.
(I personally also like asking “did you think about me at all when doing that?”. Sometime people don’t, and if they did, things would be different)
“To each according to their needs, from each according to their possibilities” is also a good idea for commitment: people are different, they need different levels [insert what], and are comfortable offering different levels. It is not a one size fits all, we can be in a consensual and ethical relationship and still not be the same.
On the other hand, we noticed that “being committed to different things” is not the same as “not being fully committed”. We were exploring a bit the territory when applied to ethical and consensual non-monogamy: I feel we barely scratched the surface, and I will think about it more.
How can we both[VI]or more be fully committed, and still offer and need different things? I feel it is possible, necessary, but, as usual, requires lots of communication, and trial and errors.
Finding compromise? Negotiating commitments
This discussion was really interesting, even if, again, it mostly surfaced struggles and differences. It is good to know when dealing with the territory.
We explored the possibility of not seeing commitment as a yes/no, but as an open question: “what are you willing to commit to?”, exploring, discussing, re-negotiating. Again, it seems to apply strongly to boundaries and agreements.
For some people, just thinking about commitment, what it means, how to do it felt overwhelming, and exploring the territory step by step, diving it in smaller bits, “do I want to commit to this part here” helped. A good tool for this is the circle of comfort, see Tools.
And someone noted that we could prepare two lists, two circles: what we want and need, and what we are willing to give. Again, I feel this is more about boundaries (needs) and desires (wants), but I am not sure.
For me, it made sense what someone proposed: commitment is binary, we either fully commit to the relationship with the other person, or we don’t. Once we do, we can find out the details of agreements, boundaries, and priorities.
A big flash of insight for me was the idea of “I fully commit, but I prioritize my commitments”. More on this later. I like this idea: we are either fully committed (hell, yeah!) or not.
On the relationship between boundaries and commitment, I found this beautiful: “I commit to your boundaries, your boundaries are a commitment for me”.
Hell yes. This.
And then sometime we need to renegotiate commitments, because we want less, or more.
The first thing to notice is that it is something that CAN break a relationship, and that for sure will change it. If we do not accept that possibility, we cannot really be authentic in our needs and desires, because they will end up conditioned by “is the other person accepting them?”. It does not mean arriving with a list set in stone, but knowing what is negotiable for us, and what is not.
The weather forecast came back for this: the weather can change, I can inform about it, be informed, notice it. And I can be OK with it, or not. There is a certain range of temperatures and precipitation I am OK going for a picnic. I can be fine staying in a relationship until the weather reaches -10ºC, but if it stays at -20ºC, I could want out.
And inform the other person: maybe something can be changed.
All in all: when things change, asking ourself “what am I OK with? What is good for me? What is a hard boundary?” is important. And difficult.
Commitment and the fear of missing out
I feel I have some too strong opinions on this: part of my path of growth has been accepting the freedom to invest my freedom in something that is worth it, to stop wondering all the time if there is something better.
It is difficult to commit with someone that seem always tempted by the shiny new thing: anything that has been there for a while is not shiny, we know the blemishes and problems. I strongly feel that learning to notice the value of something that is not new, and not comparing it to something we do not know, is important, on a personal and political level. But of course this made me a biased moderator.
Being the group that we were, it was first pointed out that commitment does not mean exclusivity. It makes sense: we commit to several relationships and project, we commit to our partners, parents, children, friends, to ourselves, to our projects, and missions.
It is true: it is not about exclusivity.
We reached what I found a beautiful common ground with the insight: we fully commit to different people, and we prioritize our commitments.
We commit 100%, but in different ways with different people.
I find it fitting. It makes sense.
From that, we touched the idea of using “stakeholder management” (see Tools) for relationships: different people have different stakes in a relationship, they have different needs to be involved in decisions, and informed.
Prioritizing people with more at stake sounds pretty sensible to me, once we put it that way.
Of course, with different people, we end up with different boundaries, goals, shared projects, needs, and desires. It happens in life all the time, from balancing family and partners, relationships and work, and everything else.
Here the concept of prioritizing is useful, but I guess it can be brutal to have to admit “I prioritize having this new experience to my long term life partnership”, as it is brutal to receive that piece of information.
I don’t think there is any solution to that: if something is clear, I guess it is better to state it clearly and give everyone involved (with stakes) agency to act and react.
Keeping people informed and in the loop, allowing them to decide for themselves if their commitment is still worth it.
Giving agency and respecting consent.
Again, the concept of enthusiastic and continuous consent came back: any commitment is intrinsically breakable, it can change, it can be renegotiated.
“Right now, I commit”.
It is an ongoing process: maybe we ask every day, or every week, or every month, or year. Some marriages set an expiration date for every anniversary, “do we still want to re-marry?”, having “no” as a default.
Given this, it is a good idea to ask ourselves: “how do we go on if we change our minds?“.
I find the idea of planning a breakup, or a change, while very much in love, while things go well, while happy, beautiful and elegant. I for sure will do it myself, even if it feels a bit scary.
Relationship anarchy and commitment
I am sorry to say I do not have much to report. The relationship anarchists did not speak up, and the people that spoke up had bad experiences dealing with them, and felt they avoided commitment.
This was very one sided, even more than the rest.
I think another Cookbook on “relationship styles” could be appropriate, sometime in 2021.
All in all, with all the problems, and given everything I could have done better to create a fairer playing field, I found it great.
We shared ideas, we found similarities and differences, and I went home with a few new tools, and lots to think about how to find out were we are with the person in front of you.
As usual: the process of a lifetime.
A huge thank again to everyone that participated, it was a blast.
The Cookbook was born of the idea of sharing practical tools. I quickly realized that not everyone thought in terms of “there is an issue, let’s find a tool to deal with it” (and with “not everyone” I mean almost no one), and it pivoted into sharing experiences, ideas, allowing the tools to emerge organically.
That is good.
On the other hand, sometime people offer specific tools. This time, we had several.
The easiest to present is having a relationship check in every two weeks, considering what’s going to happen, upcoming decisions and engagements, and also considering how things are going, if there is any change in commitment or expectations. Similar to the idea of a retrospective. Since the idea of using project management tools for a relationship seemed new to many, I guess I will write something specifically about that one day, and we will organize for sure a cookbook on the topic. This article seems appropriate.
We talked about using the ideas from “stakeholder management” and applying them to everyone involved in a relationship. Who is involved, who is affected, who has a say in what’s happening. This will probably be a covered by a different cookbook, as I don’t feel I know enough to expand much on this. I like the idea and I will play with it for sure.
Circle of comfort
An amazing idea to clarify commitments, or boundaries, or something in-between, is using the circle of comfort (or something like this, I am not sure it is what was described):
drawing a circle, inside it we put the “hell yeah”s, what we are easily ready to commit to.
At the borders are the “maybe”: we are not sure we are ready to commit, but we could give it a try.
Just outside the borders, we have what is a “not yet, not now”. Soft boundaries.
And far out of the borders are the “hard no”s, the hard boundaries, “I will never do this, ever” (or so I think now).
I guess I will draw it and update the article.
Books and resources:
Someone talked about The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, from U.K. LeGuin, one of my favorite novels. Among the rest, in the anarchist world of Anarres, the default is not having monogamous long term partnerships, and not committing long term. The protagonist and his partner do, and it is considered strange, but respected. An example of “we will do what is good for us, even if it is not what everyone else does“.
When talking about toxic relationships, and relationships with people suffering from Narcissism, someone pointed to “Rethinking Narcissism“. I guess I will read it before organizing a (planned) Cookbook on “relationships and manipulation”.
Kitty Rea was described as really good. I had a quick look, I will read more
The relationship Anarchy Smorgasbord was proposed, for figuring out ‘attributes/commitments areas’. It looks interesting, I will look into it, possibly report back.
|↑I||yes, yes, we will move away from Facebook one day or another|
|↑II||these are the topics I propose at the start|
|↑III||it is possible to join 2 topics so that they get voted together|
|↑IV||actually, this was pointed out to me, and then, when I thought about it, I realized it was true|
|↑V||the word used was different|