Written by Kieran James Cunningham
Ben Franklin once said that those who choose security over liberty deserve neither. He was, granted, talking about matters of state, but his words hold true for relationships as much as they do politics.
Many of us reach that stage in our relationship where we have to make a decision — give it time or give up? A few years into our romance we are joined, suddenly, by a third member — the elephant in the room. Stick or twist, the elephant asks.
Usually, the decision isn’t an easy one to make. The chances are that if we’ve spent so long with someone we’ll have forged a secure-feeling bond and connection that ticks many worthy boxes and is, above all, comfortable. But is the strength and nature of that bond enough to warrant committing ourselves long-term? Sometimes, the fear of severing the bond, singledom or a lack of viable options on the horizon will cause us to put off the decision to a later date. Other times, the agoraphobic void of freedom (i.e. ‘liberty’) post-parting sways us to remain with the decency we know rather than the run the risk of the delightful or dire that may await.
In this article, we’ll look at why none of the above should be on the table as considerations when deciding whether or not your relationship is a keeper or a comfort blanket, and why the latter is something we should no more wish to make of someone than we would like to become ourselves. After that, we’ll delve into an alternative approach that may just offer the guidance you need when faced with that make-or-break decision.
A Personal Precedent
I’ve been there. A few years into a relationship the elephant had become an ever-present, room-hopping in the hours that I was with my partner and stalking me with unwavering persistence in those that I was not. I was at that age. You know, that one…the indefinable but easily identifiable zero hour when commitment to my partner seemed more natural than not. Somehow, time and circumstance had conspired to land me at a juncture at which my life had to take one path or another.
My partner and I ticked all the boxes. Bilaterally, I think. We were a cute-ish couple. We jogged together. We went for drives or hikes together every weekend. She tolerated my occasional flatulence and I endured her near-daily symptoms of FIT (Facebook Induced Trauma) when her friends and family failed to ‘like’ her motivational quote shares or snaps of her dandified and liveried Yorkshire terrier, Brian. We had passionate sex. We were as happy watching a movie on the couch with a takeaway dinner as we were heading out to a fancy restaurant. We shared a handful of mutual friends, had decent social lives, but still maintained our own interests and a healthy quota of ‘me-time’. We were, you could say, extremely comfortable. And secure — if humans were given credit ratings for relationship standing, we would have been sitting around a solid 750.
The Latitudes of Love
But something wasn’t quite right. Did I love her? Yes, I did. And I think she loved me too. The ‘love’ box, to all appearances, was well and truly ticked. But with time I became aware of what should have been plainly obvious: there are spectrums of love, calibrations and gamuts, and within them many further nuances and shadings that belie the sweeping generality that the term ‘love’ labors to encompass.
Like many loftier abstract concepts in life, true love is indisposed to definition. It is most easily delineated by deference to negatives and a process of elimination that whittles off the various things it is not.
So I asked myself a series of questions. ‘Is this romantic love, friendly love, erotic love, familial love or none of the above?’, ‘Is it built to last?’, ‘Do we have all the right ingredients?’, ‘Do I love her as much as I loved Holly Sampson in 6th grade?’ and, finally, ‘How do you know?’
The routine retort of ‘when you know you know’ just wasn’t doing it for me. Nor was ‘taking things one day at a time’. Days, alas, make years; years, a lifetime. One platitude I tend to take stock in, however, is that life is short. This being so, I wanted to know if I had found the woman with whom I’d spend the rest of my life. If not, I didn’t want complacency and mere contentment to stall my search any longer. Nor did I want to be responsible for keeping my partner from the man who would be her deserved counterpart.
The stakes were high. Being at that age meant that certain other considerations quickly petitioned for their place at the negotiating table — the ticking of biological clocks, for example, and an awareness of the abundance of married-off others of my generation having left a pool of potential partners somewhat shallower than it had been a decade earlier.
My partner was also a wonderful, eminently lovable person. Should my soul-search happen to lead me to the discovery that she was not my lifetime partner-to-be, I would be casting the person who’d been my best friend for the past four years alone into a world that has a history of disregard for the lonely, single and thirty-something. I would, moreover, be casting myself into a future in which she would play no part.
Nevertheless, I knew it was right. She would thank me for it. Eventually. Today, speaking some years hence, I can also thank my younger self for having had the bravery and strength that I would now, I’m fairly sure, struggle to replicate.
It was time to speak to the elephant. When I did, the questions that would elicit an honest and clear answer to my concerns somehow arrived without hesitation, as if borne aloft on the heat that had broiled below the surface all that time.
Three Questions to Avoid Comfort-Clinging to Your Partner
1. Can I live without this person?
Imagine your life without your partner. Don’t ask yourself if it would be better or not, happier or not, easier or not, but whether it would be emotionally and psychologically feasible. If you can see yourself without them without visualizing utter heartbreak and emptiness, then the answer to the above question is maybe a ‘yes’.
Not being able to live without someone is no slight on any of us personally. It is something to be cherished. In this age of uber-independence and individuality, needing someone is often considered a sign of weakness or insecurity. It is, however, just this: an age. What is timeless is our species’ longing and unquestionable goal of forging meaningful connections during our short spell in the thralls of existence.
2. Do I love this person as much as they deserve to be loved?
In many relationships, the degree of affection each partner has for the other is not always equal, at least not in the early years. This is perfectly normal. This imbalance can be unhealthy, however, if one half of the relationship is — whether consciously or not — in it half-heartedly, passively, or even anything less than fully.
One of the cruelest things any of us can do to our partner is continue our relationship when we’re not convinced they’re right for us and by doing just enough to satisfy that person’s emotional needs. Whether we’re satisfying some agenda, maintaining a foil for loneliness, just don’t like being single, or are hedging our bets while awaiting the chance with some other prospective paramour, the harm we can do to our actual partner is immeasurable. The bottom line? Any person who is worth loving at all deserves to be loved fully. If we’re unable to do so, we should step aside and make way for someone who can.
Sitting down and asking ourselves whether or not we’re guilty of any of the above indiscretions is unlikely to yield any results or elicit a detached, reasoned answer — the chances are that we have hidden the truth of our insecurities and underlying motives from even ourselves. Asking, however, if we are giving this person what they truly deserve — or are capable of giving them — is far more likely to do the trick.
3. Is this person the one I want beside me, many years hence, when I’m on my deathbed?
It’s one thing to envision ourselves walking down the aisle, holidaying in the Caribbean or sauntering along dusky Roman streets with someone, but quite another to imagine them being the last person we touch and speak to before our earthly departure.
Dark, right? It may seem so at first glance, but this question is actually a great way to get in touch with what our partner really means to us. After a few years together, this consideration may well be lost to us as the relationship goes into autopilot and the busyness of our lives takes over. We go from one year to the next, going through the motions, deferring any meaningful, soul-searching inquiry to a later date.
This question cuts through all ruses, hesitation and avoidance we may have harbored or employed until then like no other. Not only does it get us in touch with the urgency inherent in your average sapiens’ limited lifespan, but also homes directly in on feelings above and beyond the more materialistic, superficial, object-oriented, and perhaps even frivolous concerns that may have steered our dealings and doings until then.
Freedom, and Other Things Worth Having…
And what of Franklin’s ‘liberty’?
Freedom of choice (i.e ‘liberty) has a lot to answer for. It is also, ultimately, something of a misnomer. What freedom is there, after all, when every choice, every potential eventuality demands a small sacrifice of our energies, time and thoughts, thereby diminishing bit by bit our psychological and emotional wherewithal? If we consider the ‘choices’ to amount to dozens, even hundreds of viable alternative futures, then there’s not a lot of focus left once all have been humored with so much as a token glance or consideration. By directing our love, even its potential, in myriad directions, we spread it a bit thin. By isolating its objective we can release it freely and fully wherever it wants to go.
Finding the person you want to spend the rest of your life with is one of the most liberating events any of us can look forward to. Freed from the limbo of doubt, the result is most often counterintuitive. We find ourselves in a very spacious, open expanse, unspoiled by uncertainty or the disquiet of our fears and insecurities. Getting there, granted, might take a while and a few false starts, but it’s far better than settling for the security of a halfway house or selfishly clinging to someone to suits lesser ends than those to which we might ultimately aspire.
Accepting the challenge such a bold and potentially heartbreaking undertaking entails requires courage, faith, honesty, and no small dose of humility. Most of us inherently know, however, that most of the things which require such qualities are most often far more worth having than those that don’t.
I’m a freelance writer, editor, and mountaineer. I work as a co-editor for Gestalten Books and currently write for a variety of outdoor publications and websites (My Open Country, Moja Gear, Cool of the Wild, The Offroader), and also in the fields of mental health (inmyheadcase.org) and Buddhism (Lion’s Roar). I’m a Scotsman, but now live in the Italian Alps.