Committed – not entangled…
The philosopher Julian Nida-Rümelin wrote last year¹: “In the philosophy of language, it is agreed that successful communicative practice can only be achieved if those involved in communication abide by certain constitutive rules. This includes the rule of truthfulness [synonyms: sincerity, honesty, loyalty, righteousness, commitment, reliability]. It requires that, if I say something, I myself am convinced that it’s true.
We can also expect our communication partners to trust us; that is, they may assume that what I say corresponds to my own beliefs.
These rules are only seemingly trivial. Since they impose on the communication partners the obligation to orient themselves – when communicating – to be guided by good reasons which they recognise and not on behalf of their own self-interest. Because in many cases, the mere self-interest would speak against compliance with the rules of truthfulness and trust. If we were always untruthful [= insincere, dishonest, disloyal, corrupt, non-binding, unreliable!], if it were in our interest, the communicative act would suddenly lose most of its value.”
From an oligoamorous point of view, I think this text is great, since communication partners are treated as if they were involved in a relationship – and that is certainly true: When people communicate, even if only briefly or about an irrelevant (factual) topic, they are in a mutual relationship at this moment and an exchange (of information) takes place. Concerning Oligoamory, it is also remarkable that Nida-Rümelin mentions important relationship values in this context as well: “truthfulness”, “trust” and a “mutual interest”.
However, as far as the “good reasons” are concerned, I have to admit that I am a little more cautious about this than the author of the lines above. In Entry 11 of this bLog, I deal in detail with the “individual good reasons” and try to show – although we humans really value an “all-round common good” at the need-level and usually strive to bring it about for everyone involved – that we still are often sabotaged by the choice of our strategies to get there. If, despite being aware of our “good reasons”, we choose a fulfilment strategy in which external needs are ignored or even curtailed – we usually reach a point where we quickly slip back into the treacherous waters of our not-quite-so-selfless self-interest.
Likewise, “trust” is nothing we can count among our natural gifts. On the contrary. Both the scientist Stefan Klein² and the philosopher R.D. Precht³ indicate in their work that the evolution of the human species is rather based on genetically induced caution. If, for example, an early Homo sapiens had discovered a bush with blue berries on a hike, his brain would NOT have come up with the initial idea: “Great – there is my next meal!” – but rather with the thought: “Be careful, those berries might be poisonous…”. In other words, in an unfamiliar decision situation, our brain would have advised caution and avoidance in well over 50% of the cases. In the early days of mankind, such a “vigilance program” definitely made sense: Not every berry was edible, not every cat was suitable for petting, not every cave was uninhabited – and when suddenly a bunch of long-haired neighbours with crooked branches stood at the door, they rarely wanted to invite you to a hockey game.
One of our human problems today is that this vigilance program – which is actually a “survival security program” – is still active in us today in the manner of a predominant, initial distrust. And it is also active every time we are confronted with new people. Our primeval program tries to keep us alarmed and instead of saying “Hey, a new person – that might be an enriching opportunity…!”, we rather think: “Better be vigilant, let’s check out this guy first…”. And since we have a powerful brain, which is able to quickly search through its databases of past potentially bad experiences, a film of (pre)assessment and assumptions is quickly knitted. The results – even in the 21st century – are mistrust, avoidance and ultimately rejection and exclusion.
The combination of not always impeccable need fulfilment strategies due to only poorly clarified personal “good reasons” plus a tendency towards initial mistrust as a reflexive standard reaction easily results in what is to a certain extent the antagonistic nemesis of the Oligoamoy: NON-BINDING and NON-COMMITTED behaviour.
And as a faithful author and chronicler of Oligoamory, as an idealist, as a romantic and especially as a passionate advocate of a conscious and free human will, for me this is precisely the main problem of successful – or more often rather unsuccessful – ethical non-monogamy.
Non-committed behaviour – sometimes it starts at a very early stage, for example when someone says: “Yeah, well, Cathrin and I – well, we have this little something going on, I don’t want to label it in any way…”. Already in Entry 7 I try to describe that this is not necessarily a mature expression of personal freedom, but rather an admission of little reflected approximation.
Or it concerns the drama of clear nomenclature as a whole, wherever so-called “polyamorous” people come together, who use this term as a self-designation. Because let’s just imagine a social scientist who would ask those people present at any polyamorous regulars’ table, workshop, seminar or meeting, what would be the connecting characteristic of all participants with regard to the lifestyle and philosophy of Polyamory. You would probably be faced at first with a somewhat embarrassed bunch that would look a little waggishly before a few people would grin whimsically, poke each other in the ribs and finally answer: “…that we could all have sex with each other!”. Oh dear, I think, that would have been an answer if asked about promiscuity or sex-positivity. But if that is all that provides the smallest common denominator regarding polyamorous multiple “relationships”, then it is no wonder that this lifestyle will always fear and fight for its reputation and recognition. And that is why I also explain in detail in Entry 2 why I myself no longer want to be counted among such “Poly-people”.
Because in the end, this non-binding nature will rather sooner than later shape the view of any metamour-relationship (concerning the potential significant other loved ones of our loved ones): These are just some strange people the partner has in tow – and one don’t want to have anything to do with them. Neither in the sense of mutual togetherness (although you share the same significant other!), nor in the sense of any overall responsibility for a common good. Because that would get you too close to you, would be somehow almost unpleasantly “real”, no, that wouldn’t work…
Human beings resort to non-commitment, as seen above, when we define our personal self-interest as the most valuable asset in a relationship. Self-interest that frees us from the obligation to be always honest or sincere, which keeps our loyalty flexible, always leaves room for a little bit of seductiveness and always leaves some ethical leeway…
How on earth… – why do we want to be like that in our most intimate relationships?
Because we humans are very often afraid of obligations, commitment and expectations.
We are afraid of reliably “being someone“.
That seems to be a terrible reference which I am giving to all of us (including myself) here. And monogamy seems to be the sole way out – because we can only barely manage to offer a more or less tolerably authentic idea of ourselves to just one single partner, maybe to one-two-three children and a pet. And if the beautiful façade crumbles? Get out by means of a divorce – “better luck next time” – and off into the next kind of seriality?
In several entries on this blog I wrote that a characteristic of “adulthood” is a certain desire to take on responsibility. But true responsibility, which I once again highlighted in my previous entry as “accountability”, inevitably goes hand in hand with (self)obligation, with commitment and expectations.
Why is it still such a big deal to stand up for it in a relationship?
I believe the reason is Julian Nida-Rümeling’s “blind spot”: that our “good reasons” are often more closely intertwined with our “self-interest” than we usually recognise.
In Entry 11 I tell the story of the “Black Flittermouse-Man” who wants to be a good and ethical person in all his relationships. However, he gets into turmoil because he is trying to fulfil everybody’s needs to the greatest possible extent as well as he is trying to do justice to his own interests. For this purpose, he chooses different strategies, which ultimately do not turn him into a “great hero” for everyone, but in the end he has to deal with emotional outbursts and, as a result, even self-doubt.
Dear readers: We are all the “Black Flittermouse-Man”!
And today we live at the beginning of the 21st century still in a time when most of us have not learned to accept themselves with all(!) of their own feelings – and we are afraid of being rejected because they exist nonetheless.
Please think about it carefully for a moment.
How should our most intimate relationships ideally look like? They sholud provide a place where we can authentically be ourselves, where we can drop all masks – a place where we can trust that we will (always) be accepted as the person we are.
But we are also human. That is why we cannot always merely display a socially desired spectrum of positive and pleasant feelings. Sometimes, we are sad, angry, depressed, confused. We are also not always perfect. We will not always be sincere, honest, loyal, righteous, committed and reliable. We are humanly fallible – and that is why we will make mistakes.
Many of us today are (still?) trying to keep our relationships as the “last bastions of bliss”. Relationships in which there is always harmony, in which everything is joyful and easy, from which one always emerges energised and in which only appreciation and understanding are expressed on all sides.
As understandable as this longing may be at the beginning of this crazy 21st century and its unraveled work/life balance – it is also completely unrealistic. And it puts tremendous pressure on everyone involved: On the one hand, to pursue an ideal in which everyone has to hide in the basement, who violates it – on the other hand, to impose this unfulfillable longing on any new relationship in the vain hope that it might be fulfilled there.
As a result, in the harsh reality we are only able to create disconnected islands of short happiness, which must literally remain “non-binding”. Because if they were connected, the imperfect overall picture of our personality would be immediately visible again – revealing our temporary sadness, our situational anger, possible depressedness and confusion – and, above all – our faultiness. Accordingly, we prefer to have compartmentalized, non-binding, non-committed relationships. We do not want to show our deficits to the others since we have difficulties to trust in anybody: In the others and their possible reaction – and in ourselves and whether we can endure that reaction…
Folks, if we approach multiple relationships in this way, any relationship building, any relationship management, any attempt to “love (several) people (at the same time)” will remain a futile venture.
I emphasize the “mutual we” and the “all-round trust” in the Oligoamory that much, because they are at the very bottom the literal linchpin with which (strictly speaking) every relationship-management stands or falls.
Relationships cannot be places of perfection. They can’t be places where there is always cheerfulness and lightness. Where only a good moods and good feelings prevail. Where there are no differences and where no one is ever hurt.
That is why relationships must first of all be places of trust. Or respectively: everyone involved must first muster the effort and the will to create them together. In order prevent the above-mentioned pressure in the first place, not to be allowed to appear in that relationship in one’s own (fallible) human nature. To create a place where sadness, anger, depression, confusion and mistakes may occupy the same space as the supposedly easier “good feelings”. Ultimately, “good” is in this regard an (external) judgment anyway: I am human – and sometimes I laugh and sometimes I cry – why should I put a bag over my head during one of it?
In addition: I can only be really authentic, honest and therefore credibly commited if I can entrust myself to my loved ones with all of my needs, emotions and feelings.
And as a result, relationships are authentic, honest and committed, in which everyone involved is allowed “be” completely.
But what if the others can’t endure it?
If we humans want it, we can endure seemingly incredible things: We give birth to babies, we cross snowstorms at night, rescue people from burning buildings or hold hands with the dying. Most of the time we have a choice – we don’t have to do any of that. All four examples just listed probably fall into the category “uncomfortable” – and difficult. Still they are done.
When it comes to people we love and trust, we can activate enormous abilities.
Having these abilities does not mean, however, that they make us invulnerable, impenetrable. Which in turn wouldn’t be human again.
But our humanity clearly shows that if we really want it and a thing or living being is really important to us, we can grow far beyond our primeval “avoidance strategy”.
In this respect, it may be like the first human being to pick up a burning branch: This person dared to trust. First of all, him*herself, because he*she wanted to accomplish something against which all his*her animal instincts and fears violently objected. But maybe he*she also trusted in a group that stood behind him*her – a companionship that would help in case of emergency – people who would be capable to “endure a failure”, who would endure such an imposition and would care for possible blisters.
But without the “imposition” that we all probably occasionally are for our familiar group in this way, we also couldn’t become heroes and sources of all-round well-being the next time or the day after. To be human, to be with each other, means to accept both occurences regularly – in respect of us as well as in respect of the other participants.
Therefore, I hope that all of us will always find the courage to make a conscious leap into trust, a trust that sometimes seems to be based on no plausible reason.
And that we end up with people who really dearly want to “endure” us.
¹ Julian Nida-Rümelin in “Digital Humanism”, Max Planck Forschung, 2/2019
² Stefan Klein, “The Formula of Luck – or: How good feelings arise”, Fischer 2014
³ Richard David Precht “The Art of Not Being Selfish – Why we like to be good and what keeps us from being it”, Goldmann 2012
Thanks to my constant muses Kerstin, Svenja and Tobias and to congerdesign on Pixabay for the photo.