the title of this post is my favourite line from my favourite novel, What I Loved, by Siri Husvedt. It sums up my view that few of us can or do define ourselves as individuals alone: our sense of self is as derived from our relationships with others, the love we give and receive and the feeling we have that we belong in some way.
A lot of the stuff I’ve been reading on the consumerisation of society in the past few weeks argues that the throw-away culture of ‘supercapitalism’ (in Robert Reich’s words) has seeped into our personal relationships too. We have a much more ambivalent relationship to the notion of ‘commitment’, and to its implication that we might have some degree of responsibility for another person. It frightens us now in a way that, even just 50 years ago, commitment was a form of security, a guarantee of a partner in crime needed for when times were tough. Now it is feared as a form of entrapment.
As Charlie Leadbeater has written recently,
Happiness and well-being does not come from our freedom to break free of bonds but instead to commit ourselves to relationships.
How does this sit with the constant exhortations to ‘find yourself’, to ‘be free’? How does it sit with rising divorce rates and high rates of sexual activity?
Looking at the figures, I suspect that the problem is not that we no longer believe in commitment, but that we are forgetting how to do it. Even in this world where commitment can feel like a dirty word, people’s behaviour suggests it’s still important. 70% of single parents go on to have another relationship, staying single for an average of just four years. Re-marriage is rising as fast as divorce. Six times as many people provide unpaid care for relatives and friends as those people being paid to do so.
The work I did with teenage parents in Kent uncovered some deep ambivalence about commitment. On the one hand the women recognised their dependence on the men – as father figures and sources of essential emotional and financial support for the family. But on the other hand they saw them almost as commodities, to be thrown away when no longer useful or desirable. It’s not a simple story but one I’d love to explore more deeply.
Connected to all this is a great conversation I had with my friend who works at Relate. We got talking about the way love and relationships are portrayed publicly. In most cases, we choose to strip out the hard work of successful relationships – the painful negotiations, disagreements and compromises that are so important – in favour of the thrill and romance of love at first sight, huge sleb-esque weddings and portrayals of easy relationships that require no effort.
At the very least, if commitment and relationships remain – as I think they do – essential to our individual sense of self and sense of wellbeing – then we need to start rebuilding the stories we tell about love and partnership to match.