This article is part of our weeklong series for Valentine’s Day, called ”Better Together”
Not so long ago, the term “committed relationship” meant something very specific: two people in a sexually exclusive romantic relationship. No other sexual partners. No other romantic partners. Probably marriage — or at least a goal of marriage. But that’s changed as social mores shift and people live longer. Just under half of marriages end in divorce, couples cohabitate for years (or even decades) without marrying, and an increasing number of people are exploring relationship structures outside of monogamy and marriage. The definition of “commitment” isn’t so clear anymore.
I started thinking about this idea after visiting my family over Thanksgiving. My dad, Stu (who has green hair and is very far from conservative) picked a fight with me about my relationship status. My partner and I have been together for seven years, aren’t married, and don’t plan on marrying any time soon. But, as I calmly explained to my increasingly red-faced father, we’re fully committed to each other. We plan on spending our lives together. We’ve actively committed to monogamy. And we view our commitment as a choice we both make every morning we wake up together.
For my father, who married at 23 and has been with my mom for almost 34 years, that definition wasn’t enough. Essentially, he told me and the man I’ve chosen to spend my life with that we’re not really committed unless we legalize our love.
This conversation got me thinking: If even two people like my dad and me—who have more or less the same politics and who respect and love each other—can’t agree on the definition of commitment, what does it even mean anymore?
I decided to investigate.
Pam Costa, a Bay Area sex coach, sees a range of definitions of commitment in her practice. In fact, she encourages her clients to have active, ongoing conversations about what commitment means to them.
“Commitment isn’t something that has a definition we all agree upon,” Costa told me. “It’s very unique to each individual. We actually have to have a conversation about what it means to you, what it means to me, and does it work for both of us.”
“Sexual non-exclusivity does not prevent us from putting in the work, being patient, and working together to overcome obstacles.”
For Seth, 34, a wedding DJ and writer in Oakland, commitment is less about legal contracts and monogamy than it is about working through the hard parts of life together. Seth identifies as polyamorous and has been in a relationship with his “nesting partner” (which means they live together) for two years.
“Commitment comes down to when things get hard, when there are challenges, when we’re butting heads or there are obstacles—commitment means I’m going to do the work to make it work,” Seth told me. “There isn’t really any reason why monogamy would be required. Sexual non-exclusivity does not prevent either of us from putting in the work, being patient, and working together to overcome obstacles.”
Kae, 31, a writer and educator in Vermont, is consensually non-monogamous and has a similar perspective on commitment. They have a wife with whom they don’t live or share finances, as well as several long-term partners. For Kae, commitment is not about monogamy, only sometimes includes marriage, and is dynamic.
“To me, commitment is about weathering whatever comes with someone and having a shared vision of the future, both for us and the world, and working towards that together,” Kae told me. “It means loving someone through growth and change, and deciding to flex and flow with those changes in a healthy way.”
For my father’s own relationship, monogamy is almost a religion. It’s the basis, the backbone, and the belief — the commitment — that has carried him through his youth and middle age. He and my mom set out very explicit boundaries early in their relationship. Flirting and close relationships with people of the opposite sex? That’s okay. But sex and romance are reserved for each other.
“If you don’t communicate and you don’t trust the person it’s not going to work, regardless of the model.”
“‘Romantic’ is the thing you do for one other person that you will only do for one other person, like buy them flowers every week or going off and soak in a hot tub all weekend,” my dad told me. “And the sexual is part of it? I’m not going to do that with another person.”
Seth and Kae both stressed to me that their definitions of commitment were for their relationships, and not for anyone else’s. But while monogamy is a non-negotiable for my dad, it eventually became clear that his definition of “commitment” is surprisingly similar to those of Seth and Kae.
While he had “so little patience for polyamory until recently,” he says, he recognizes that in order for either model to be successful, you have to set boundaries, understand each other, communicate often, and make sure everyone is at least in the same book, if not always the exact same page.
“If you don’t communicate and you don’t trust the person — or the persons — it’s not going to work, regardless of the model,” my dad says.
This new definition of commitment is not as clear-cut as the old one; as Costa pointed out, there’s a little bit of a choose-your-own-adventure quality to it. But, ultimately, commitment is about love, trust, and showing up for each other day after day, even when things get difficult. And that’s a definition polyamorous, monogamous-but-not-married, and long-term married people can all agree on.
Emma McGowan is a certified sex educator and freelance lifestyle writer. She's the sex advice columnist at Bustle and her work can be found all over the internet.