The men in my life weren't there because of a ring; they were there because they wanted to be.
A while back, I reached a point where I was deeply disillusioned with dating. It seemed like a pointless exercise in "who will mysteriously disappear on the other first?"
No matter how swimmingly the first few (or even several) dates went, it was always the same story: One of us would realize that going on more dates would lead to exclusivity. The idea would spark panic because said person was definitely not ready for that, and then that person would balk.
The over-30 dating pool is riddled with commitment-phobes, and truth be told, I'm as guilty as anyone.
Much of the current opinion swirling around about why so many of us eschew marriage and serious relationships tells a tale of a generation of constantly dissatisfied, entitled, emotionally stunted children in adult's clothing. And while I've certainly run into my fair share of those types, I think the truth is more nuanced.
The truth is, it's complicated.
Some of us have been married and didn't particularly enjoy the experience.
Some of us have kids and shudder at the idea of blending families.
Some of us really enjoy the perks of being an adult with absolute independence.
Some of us have decided traditional relationships don't serve us.
Some of us aren't convinced things can or should last a lifetime. There are countless reasons why, when it comes to The Big C, many of us have serious misgivings.
But back to my story. One night, after another relationship that had just started was abruptly stunted, I sat there, unsurprised and trying to muster the damns to give.
And I had an epiphany: commitment was ruining my love life.
Whether I was the one backing away or the other person was, it was almost always because of that word. Even if no one was asking for it — even if no one actually wanted it — one of us would see it as an inevitability and run like hell before we ever really had a chance to get beyond the surface of who the other person was.
Once in a great while, one of us truly was asking for it, and so ended what had been a good thing.
So, I decided to give it up. I wasn't interested in the things commitment usually leads to anyway, and I had no desire to possess someone else; I wanted connection, closeness, companionship, and consistency; I wanted a lover and a friend.
I didn't need a promise. Promises didn't have a good track record in my book, anyway; they were usually the things that led to disappointment.
I didn't need to be my other's only, and I didn't need them to be mine. Hell, I wasn't even sure I was capable of being or having an only. I kind of liked having options.
I set up new online dating profiles that reflected my changed approach, not really sure what to expect. It didn't take long for the messages to start rolling in.
A handful of men seemed to think that I'd probably screw them no questions asked, and a few more seemed deeply offended that I had the audacity to be looking for anything other than a ring and new last name.
But for the most part, the men who messaged me seemed equally stunned and excited that a woman would be hoping to date without trying to lock anything down. I weeded through the replies, chatted with a few men who caught my attention, and set about doing what I was there to do: date.
Immediately, things were different than before, mostly because they were far more fun.
The discomfort I usually had on dates evaporated and the impressively dense layers of protection I'd built up around myself began to fall away. Knowing nobody was assessing my potential as their life partner was freeing, and I felt utterly unrestrained to be my sarcastic, smart ass, opinionated, flawed self.
And because I wasn't sizing anyone up as a possible mate, I was good with them doing the same. I felt less pressure, less anxiety, less of a need to hide behind endless veils of vagueness and defense mechanisms, less of a need for reassurances and overwrought words. Without the worry of where things might go, I was able to just let them be.
It's mind-boggling for some people that I would feel confident in relationships such as these, but in order to understand it there's something more you have to know: for most of my life, vows have been the things keeping people chained where they didn't want to be — and sometimes, that was to me.
Most people find security in commitment, but I found it in having someone who was completely free to leave return again and again.
I thrived knowing that the men in my life weren't there because of a promise; they were there because they continued to choose to be.
With this paradoxical sense of security, connection flourished. I told stories I'd deemed "too much" for the audition type of dating, I asked questions I would've never dared otherwise, I spoke my truest truths aloud, I introduced men to my friends, and I expected nothing.
As they usually do, things eventually sorted themselves out. Some men fell by the wayside, some I left there, and others stuck around through mutual effort.
Yes, effort. Lack of commitment is not the same as a lack of concern, and perhaps, because we're always free to go, where it mattered, we put in the work to be able to stay.
In fact, one of the most surprising things about dating without the intent of forming an exclusive relationship is that it's taught me a lot of relationship skills.
It necessitates them. If you aren't following a prepared route, the only way to do a good job of mapping a new one is to communicate about it ... a lot. Because we cannot presume anything, we discuss our wants, our needs, our hopes, our expectations, our fears, and our limits.
More than ever before, I find myself empowered to speak up when I am unhappy, disappointed, or otherwise upset, instead of swallowing inconvenient feelings down in the name of achieving a coupled status. The outcome is not the goal, so what happens now matters most.
There is more kindness, less taken for granted. I ask more questions, I take more interest, I more carefully observe. I guarantee I'm a better, healthier partner now than I've ever been, and I gravitate toward the same.
The most unexpected part of all, though, is that swearing off commitment enabled me to mostly overcome my aversion to, and anxiety surrounding, that exact thing.
It's not something I need or would be likely to seek out, but it's also no longer off the table. You see, though I've said before that I'm not more committed to non-commitment than I am to the people I've allowed to care about me — and I have always meant it — I haven't always allowed people to care about me enough for it to come to that.
But in giving ourselves permission to experience without expectation, we gave the thing between us the space to evolve. It gave me space to evolve, too.
Don't get me wrong — committing would probably still require baby steps, lots of discussing, and some generous-hearted hand-holding through a "holy sh*t, you don't know my life" overthinking-induced panic or two, but I know enough now to know my reflexes aren't always indicative of my reality.
And so, for the first time in a long time, with the right partner, I could take that step ... and it wouldn't be fueled by fear or foolishness or happenstance, it would be fueled by really and truly wanting it.
I can see how it would happen, and I can see how it would be good.