What does commitment mean in non-monogamy_ - hero CREDIT Priscilla du Preez-Unsplash

What does commitment mean in non-monogamy?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about commitment in non-monogamous relationships. What does it look like? What does it mean? Most importantly, how do we define it if we choose not to marry, cohabit or have babies?

I haven’t been pondering this for myself, though. I know what commitment looks and feels like for me – and I love it. However, when people hear that I’m solo polyamorous, they assume I’m a commitment-phobe. That I only want casual sex and ‘no strings’ (whatever they are), when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

It’s not just me either. Many of my friends face assumptions about their lack of interest in commitment when people hear that they are non-monogamous. Yet, a surprising number of them are married or cohabiting. Many have multiple long-term partners, and all are proactive about investing in the health of their relationships.

Most non-monogamous folks talk about the ‘relationship escalator,’ a term coined by Amy Gahran in her book Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life. By questioning monogamy, we also often challenge the necessity of the unconscious assumption that a committed relationship will include specific ‘steps’: sexual exclusivity, cohabitation, marriage, mortgage, babies. 

So, when we choose not to engage with some or all of those ‘steps’, we often encounter misgivings about our interest in commitment or, worse, our relationships are judged as having less value when compared to our monogamous, married friends. It’s no wonder so many people aren’t ‘out’ about their lovestyle when faced with this.

When I write about polyamory, I am giving you an insight into my take on it. But when it comes to the multi-dimensional possibilities of commitment in non-monogamy, I thought it best to provide you with a taste of how it looks for a broader range of people. After all, commitment can look different for everyone.

So, I reached out to friends in the London non-monogamous community and asked what does commitment mean to you? How does it show up in your relationships? And what are you open to in the future? Here’s what they said.

Jacqueline

Age: 50s • Pronouns: she/her • Gender identity: woman • Sexual identity: pan/demi • Lovestyle: non-hierarchical polyamory • Insta: @blackfluent_polyamory_hub_uk.

What does the word ‘commitment’ mean to you? 

I’m committed to the ‘agreements’ I make with people. It’s a spectrum that changes accordingly. I do not view ‘commitment’ as being centred in longevity or and intensity. 

I’m committed to ‘showing up’, whatever that looks in each relationship I might have with others at that time.

Have you ever experienced any of the commitment ‘steps’ on the ‘relationship escalator’ in previous relationships?

Yes, I’ve been married twice, still married but we are both polyam and view ourselves as more anchor partners.

You name it, I’ve gone up and down a good few escalators.

What does commitment look/feel like to you outside of these steps/conventions?

A point of focus, knowing someone’s got my ‘back’. It feels safe, it feels clear, clarity really helps because I can feel anxious.

Do you want or need all of your romantic relationships to involve some form of commitment?

Clarity about our relationship agreements and be committed to that, until it changes.

Do you feel like you are missing any sense of security or validation in your life by not opting for these socially condoned signifiers of commitment in your relationships?

Sometimes, the conditioning goes deep, but I know it’s not true. This lovestyle encourages self-validation for me.

Nia

What does commitment mean in non-monogamy_ CREDIT Nia

Age: 20s • Pronouns: she/they • Gender identity: non-binary • Sexual identity: queer • Lovestyle: non-monogamous.

What does the word ‘commitment’ mean to you?

I think for me it means being intentional about the ways in which I engage, communicate and spend time with others, in a collaborative way. The outcomes will look different depending on the people in question, but the intention to be good for one another is just as important.

How was commitment modelled for you as a child?

It was very much a visible and tangible thing. You could judge it by marriage, the number of children, pets, properties, etc. 

I didn’t grow up with any non-monogamous influence, so redefining commitment for myself has been a challenge, as I find myself judging my relationships based on their potential to incorporate these elements.

Are you open to having any of these ‘steps’ in your current or future relationships?

When I began practicing non-monogamy, I felt like I should banish the notion of marriage from my mind. But the reality is that a part of me really values what marriage could represent for me and a partner. However, I have no idea how that would fit into my future as a non-monogamous person.

What does commitment look/feel like to you outside of these steps/conventions?

Committing to seeing, hearing and appreciating one another fully has proven infinitely more valuable than any traditional outward displays of commitment I’ve experienced before in relationships. 

I don’t need to mark milestones in a relationship with gestures that tell me things are ‘moving forward’; that intimate connection is more than enough for me right now.

Do you feel like you are missing any sense of security or validation in your life by not opting for these socially condoned signifiers of commitment in your relationships?

I struggle with this sometimes. The feeling of security those elements offer is absolutely real, even if the security itself is an illusion.

Sam

What does commitment mean in non-monogamy_ CREDIT Sam Alexander Mattacott

Age: 20s • Pronouns: they/them • Gender identity: non-binary • Sexual identity: pansexual • Lovestyle: relationship anarchy • Insta: @samattacott

What does the word ‘commitment’ mean to you?

I think of commitment as the ongoing decision to be present with someone. Listening to them, offering support, sharing time. This goes the same for partners, friends, family members, work colleagues, everyone you meet really.

The commitment doesn’t have to be permanent either. It can change over time, grow stronger or weaker, entail different things with different people.

Do you find the concept of commitment appealing?

Yes absolutely! I find it scary too and extremely confusing.

Have you ever experienced any of the commitment ‘steps’ on the ‘relationship escalator’ in previous relationships?

I’ve lived with a partner in a monogamous relationship for seven years and was engaged for a short time towards the end of it.

Are you open to having any of these steps in your current or future relationships?

I’m open to living with partners again but in a very different way than I did before. Personal autonomy is extremely important to me, and I wouldn’t allow myself to sacrifice it again.

Do you feel like you are missing any sense of security or validation in your life by not opting for these socially condoned signifiers of commitment in your relationships?

Yeah, for sure. From time to time, I have a fear of growing old alone, that people will peel off eventually and pair off.

When I think about it for long enough, I remember we’ll always be around, even if the configuration and people involved change over time.

Ryan

What does commitment mean in non-monogamy_ CREDIT Ryan

Age: 30s • Pronouns: he/him • Gender identity: man • Sexual identity: queer • Lovestyle: open relationship.

What does the word ‘commitment’ mean to you? 

Honesty, trust, respect.

Have you ever experienced any of the commitment ‘steps’ on the ‘relationship escalator’ in previous relationships?

Monogamy, living together, shared mortgage.

Are you open to having any of these steps in your current or future relationships?

All of them are possibilities I may be open to, even if some seem unlikely now.

Have you ever had a relationship where your idea of commitment was different from your partners? Were you able to make that relationship work?

Yes many. But considering that in those cases, the person I was dating had not initially considered non-monogamy, it would sometimes break down because, after a while, they wanted more of the socially condoned signifiers of commitment, such as not dating other people.

Does anyone ever assume you’re not interested in commitment when they find out that you’re non-monogamous?

Yes. A lot, and it can be exhausting, as I feel like I’m having to explain myself a lot and prove commitment to them when I may not be getting it in return.

Ruby

What does commitment mean in non-monogamy_ CREDIT Ruby Rare

Age: 20s • Pronouns: she/they • Gender identity: lady-flavoured (?)/still figuring it out • Sexual identity: bisexual • Lovestyle: non-monogamous • Insta: @rubyrare

What does the word ‘commitment’ mean to you?

I really struggled with this! I’ve come back to the simplest idea of committing to someone or something – of making agreements and staying true to your word, and communicating openly and with kindness about how those agreements change and evolve, but not leaving people in the lurch feeling unsupported.

Have you ever experienced any of the commitment ‘steps’ on the ‘relationship escalator’ in previous relationships? 

Nope! My current partner is the first romantic partner I’ve lived with. I’m drawn to some of these societal ‘steps’, but also incredibly panicked by them!

Are you open to having any of these steps in your current or future relationships?

I like the idea of getting married, but 95% of the reasoning behind that is to have a big silly party and do a wedding in a very overtly queer way. 

The others I’m more on the fence about – the desire to have a shared mortgage with someone is less of a desire than a necessity. If I want to buy a flat/house in the future it’s very unlikely I’d be able to afford that without pooling resources with someone else.

What does commitment look/feel like to you outside of these steps/conventions?

Commitment outside of these steps feels even more important to me – I feel like these examples are how we socially recognise commitment, but that doesn’t guarantee the support, care, and kindness I strive for in my relationships. 

Emotional commitment is definitely a priority for me – knowing I have people in my life I can turn to in times of pain, grief, and mental health challenges, and who I can trust to hold me when I struggle to.

Do you feel like you are missing any sense of security or validation in your life by not opting for these socially condoned signifiers of commitment in your relationships?

I’m definitely feeling the societal pressure to start performing these forms of commitment because that’s what so many of my peers are starting to do. 

And if I’m honest, I worry I would feel I was missing out, or that I’d be viewed differently, if I opt out of all the forms mentioned above. I wish this wasn’t the case but want to be real about the impact of this pressure!

Adah

Age: 40s • Pronouns: she/her • Gender identity: woman • Sexual identity: queer/pansexual • Lovestyle: ethical non-monogamy.

What does the word ‘commitment’ mean to you?

To trust and be trusted. To be ethical, open and honest in words and actions. To continue to work on yourself for personal growth. All of which means that you are able to let go of the ego and desire to control.

How was commitment modelled for you as a child?

Monogamy, sacrificing oneself for the benefit of others.

Have you ever experienced any of the commitment ‘steps’ on the ‘relationship escalator’ in previous relationships?

Yes. I was previously in monogamous relationships and marriage.

Are any of these steps a part of your current relationships? 

No. They were too restrictive for me. I want to be fully able to be me.

Would you ever consider continuing with a form of commitment with a partner after you’ve transitioned on from having a romantic relationship with them?

Yes. Commitment (in the way that I describe it) is not purely about romantic relationships.

Zane

What does commitment mean in non-monogamy_ CREDIT Zane Henry

Age: 30s • Pronouns: he/she/they • Gender identity: (shrug) • Sexual identity: pansexual • Lovestyle: solo polyamory.

What does the word ‘commitment’ mean to you?

Considered, stated intentionality backed up with action.

Have you ever experienced any of the commitment ‘steps’ on the ‘relationship escalator’ in previous relationships?

Oh, yes. Tried the marriage thing twice. Didn’t take.

What does commitment look/feel like to you outside of these steps/conventions?

Reliability. It’s that simple but extends in every direction. Being able to rely on someone to be there in the small ways and the big ways is integral.

Do you feel like you are missing any sense of security or validation in your life by not opting for these socially condoned signifiers of commitment in your relationships?

I’ve tried it. I’m not missing anything. These steps are as empty of meaning as any other social convention. It’s the meaning we put into it ourselves that matters.

Do you have any other thoughts or feelings about commitment that you would like to share?

All we have is each other. We need to make sure we deserve that.

Erin

What does commitment mean in non-monogamy_ CREDIT Erin

Age: 40s • Pronouns: she/they • Gender identity: woman • Sexual identity: pansexual • Lovestyle: non-hierarchical polyamory.

How was commitment modelled for you as a child?

Mom married six times, a serial monogamist. Dad married three times and is now committed to not getting divorced again rather than investing in a healthy, happy relationship.

Are any of these ‘steps’ a part of your current relationships? If so, which ones?

Living together, mortgage, and marriage.

Do you want or need all of your romantic relationships to involve some form of commitment?

I enjoy it when they do. I prefer to allow emotions to flow naturally, so being able to trust someone, and know they are willing and able to invest as agreed and both desire, provides a sense of security for letting go and being fully free and secure about someone’s intention (backed by actions).

This is also nice in terms of kink; a level of commitment confers a sense of trust and safety for giving up power. However, that commitment could look like different things, not necessarily committing forever or living together. I like to know we’re committed to the same shared interests, goals and ethics (how we agree to show up, support, do the work, etc.) for whatever dynamic we may have.

It’s about understanding how I will be considered within a relationship and knowing what needs and desires you are willing and able to help me meet, and what I’m prepared to invest in similarly considering someone else and meeting their needs and desires. Also, it doesn’t have to be static; the nature of commitment may evolve and change as people do.

Would you ever consider continuing with a form of commitment with a partner after you’ve transitioned on from having a romantic relationship with them?

Possibly, I can still have friendships, and I’m still committed to my exes. Maybe be roomies at some point, buy a property together, wipe each other’s asses when old, shared pet care. The possibilities are endless.

Do you feel like you are missing any sense of security or validation in your life by not opting for these socially condoned signifiers of commitment in your relationships?

I have them, so I’m not missing out, nor would I feel like I was by societal standards if I didn’t have them. 

I’m bummed I don’t feel validated by society being polyamorous. That all my relationships and related happiness aren’t celebrated the same. I also find marriage a bit invalidating TBH being polyamorous. I’m more easily viewed as not worth investing in because I’m already taken. 

However, I think being married can at times make me be perceived differently, which confers social, cultural, and professional acceptance and affords me some physical security in some places of the world that I work.

Adrián

Age: 30s • Pronouns: they/him/it • Gender identity: genderqueer • Sexual identity: not comfortable with any word • Lovestyle: hierarchical polyamory • Insta: @adriancoto

What does the word ‘commitment’ mean to you? 

It’s explicitly setting expectations. It has the ‘rank’ of an agreement, but can be behavioural, verbal or even contextual (you implicitly agree to a building’s architecture when navigating it).

It’s unavoidable, but regarding relationships, it can be more ethically handled if we make it part of our behaviour to speak about the expectations and meanings.

Do you find the concept of commitment appealing?

It’s unavoidable. Even the most selfish person is committed to their own desire.

Have you ever experienced any of the commitment ‘steps’ on the ‘relationship escalator’ in previous relationships?

Yep, up and down, back and forth. Married, divorced, expected to reproduce.

Are any of these steps a part of your current relationships? If so, which ones?

I still handle living together as a higher ranking privilege. And I like it that way.

Do you want or need all of your romantic relationships to involve some form of commitment?

I require as much explicitness as possible. I understand different degrees of attachment and frequency, which are often mistaken for commitment, but the ability to speak about them is more important than frequency or quality in a sense.

Ricardo

Age: 50s • Pronouns: he/him • Gender identity: man • Sexual identity: heterosexual • Lovestyle: ethically non-monogamous.

What does the word ‘commitment’ mean to you?

It conjures other words like integrity and alignment. It’s following through on what you have said you will do, all requiring regular honest communication and an acceptance of change.

Do you find the concept of commitment appealing?

Generally yes, but it also depends on how it is used. If there is no recognition of the realities of fluidity, then it becomes less appealing.

Are you open to having any of these ‘steps’ in your current or future relationships?

I already have living together, marriage and a shared mortgage. Won’t have babies.

Do you want or need all of your romantic relationships to involve some form of commitment?

Yeah, for sure. You at least want a commitment for the other person to turn up (in all meanings of the word).

Do you have any other thoughts or feelings about commitment that you would like to share?

I don’t think about it much at all. I just try to be human, live with integrity and communicate my feelings.

Heather

What does commitment mean in non-monogamy_ CREDIT Heather Childs-Potter

Age: 20s • Pronouns: she/her • Gender identity: woman • Sexual identity: bisexual • Lovestyle: relationship anarchist.

Do you find the concept of commitment appealing?

I do – it gives me reassurance to know that someone is committed to me. I feel less anxious or insecure when I know that I have that person to support me and be there for me (though that doesn’t have to be all the time).

I’m not a fan of ambiguity and if someone says they’re not committed, it makes me question the whole relationship.

Are you open to having any of these ‘steps’ in your current or future relationships?

Potentially thinking about living with some partners but we are just starting to have the conversations now. I think it’ll be super interesting combating this from the person I am now, with new experiences and knowledge.

What does commitment look/feel like to you outside of these steps/conventions?

Someone who actively chooses to be in your life when they have a lot of other people they could be with. Being present in my life looks like commitment to me. I don’t need the steps.

Do you feel like you are missing any sense of security or validation in your life by not opting for these socially condoned signifiers of commitment in your relationships?

No, I think I feel more secure and more validated because I’m choosing my own path, not what society created for me.

Have you ever had a relationship where your idea of commitment was different from your partners? Were you able to make that relationship work?

Yes, I have – we were able to make it work though it’ll be interesting to see what will happen in the future because I think some adjustments will need to happen to make sure we’re on the same page.

Aida

Age: 20s • Pronouns: she/her • Gender identity: woman • Sexual identity: bisexual • Lovestyle: open relationship.

Do you find the concept of commitment appealing?

I do, very much. Probably because I come from a very family/community-centred background in which it’s important to care and be looked after by those who surround you (e.g. your family).

Also, because, even if I’ll always have myself, it’s comforting knowing that there are people in my life who will be committed to my wellbeing throughout time.

What does commitment look/feel like to you outside of the traditional ‘steps’/conventions?

Commitment to me is more about caring and looking after people than about living together, getting married or having children (which I’d say is what the society I live in ‘expects’ from a committed romantic relationship). 

Commitment to me can look like actions of love rather than a signature on paper. For instance, if I’m committed to you, I wouldn’t marry you, but I would travel across the world to be there for you when you need it.

Do you want or need all of your romantic relationships to involve some form of commitment?

In a way, I do. Probably commitment at different levels, but since commitment to me is about caring, I need the other person(s) to look after me in a way that makes me feel respected and bonded to them.

Do you feel like you are missing any sense of security or validation in your life by not opting for these socially condoned signifiers of commitment in your relationships?

Since I was a teenager, I ‘rebelled’ a bit against the ‘established’ and ‘expected’, so I’ve been saying for years that I wouldn’t get married or have children, and that hasn’t affected my commitment to other people. So I’d say no, in my particular case, it doesn’t feel like I’m missing it for now.

However, it’s very important to mention that living with my partner and being treated by our families (who are unaware of our ‘lifestyle’) as a monogamous couple has given us the privilege of that type of security and validation.

Does anyone ever assume you’re not interested in commitment when they find out that you’re non-monogamous?

Yes, all the time. Because they think commitment is getting married and living together forever. I don’t want to get married (not even to my primary partner), but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be committed to other people.

Timmy

What does commitment mean in non-monogamy_ CREDIT Timmy DG

Age: 50s • Pronouns: me • Gender identity: n/a • Sexual identity: demisexual • Lovestyle: non-hierarchical polyamory.

What does the word ‘commitment’ mean to you?

Someone who has got your back.

Have you ever experienced any of the commitment ‘steps’ on the ‘relationship escalator’ in previous relationships?

I’ve transitioned from monogamy to polyamory over a 12 year period.

Would you ever consider continuing with a form of commitment with a partner after you’ve transitioned on from having a romantic relationship with them?

Depends on each other.

Does anyone ever assume you’re not interested in commitment when they find out that you’re non-monogamous?

Yes, they want a fuck buddy, but I’m demisexual.

Do you have any other thoughts or feelings about commitment that you would like to share?

Live your own polyam truth.

Dans

What does commitment mean in non-monogamy_ CREDIT Dans

Age: 40s • Pronouns: they/them • Gender identity: genderqueer • Sexual identity: pansexual • Lovestyle: polyamory/relationship anarchy • Insta: @badass.queer

What does the word ‘commitment’ mean to you?

Commitment is an agreement to make time and space in my life for those I love. 

However, I think that there can be different levels of commitment as well as commitment that goes beyond that traditional romantic relationships. 

I have multiple queerplatonic relationships that I’m deeply committed to.

Are any of these ‘steps’ a part of your current relationships?

I share a home and live with one of my partners but we both have separate bedrooms and this works well for us.

What does commitment look/feel like to you outside of these steps/conventions?

I would happily have a commitment ceremony with my partner/s but I would never want us to be legally bound to each other. 

That doesn’t mean that I couldn’t see being with them long-term, because currently I do. But I would only want this for us both if being together in a committed relationship made us happy and was a dynamic in which we both flourish

Do you feel like you are missing any sense of security or validation in your life by not opting for these socially condoned signifiers of commitment in your relationships?

Having been married and then gone through a painful separation and now divorce, it has shown me that security is never as permanent as you think. So, I’ve had to learn to adjust to being okay with the sense of security I currently have.

Do you have any other thoughts or feelings about commitment that you would like to share?

I absolutely think it’s possible to have multiple committed relationships but I do think it’s important to know how many committed and casual relationships you can sustain.

Poly-saturation is absolutely real but I think that level is different for everyone. So, be open and clear with partners or potential partners about how much time and energy you have to share with them.

Beth

What does commitment mean in non-monogamy_ CREDIT Beth

Age: 20s • Pronouns: she/her • Gender identity: woman • Sexual identity: bisexual • Lovestyle: solo polyamory • Insta: @bella_lau42

What does the word ‘commitment’ mean to you?

Commitment for me is an agreed level of showing up. This is never a given, but an ongoing conversation with the input and knowledge of all parties involved. 

It mostly resonated with me in regards to time commitment. I like to see the people in my life on a regular basis (twice a week, once a month etc.) and I need to trust that they will be there for me, in the same way I will be there for them. This is the same for any kind of relationship for me, whether it be romantic or platonic.

Have you ever experienced any of the commitment ‘steps’ on the ‘relationship escalator’ in previous relationships?

I have had many monogamous relationships and lived with a monogamous partner.

Are any of these steps a part of your current relationships?

Not really, although I do live with a non-monogamous friend who I affectionately call my ‘platonic life partner.’ We would like to buy a house together one day.

Do you feel like you are missing any sense of security or validation in your life by not opting for these socially condoned signifiers of commitment in your relationships?

I used to really want to live with a romantic partner and really longed for it. Until I realised I can have parts of the ‘relationship escalator’ with friends. 

Now I am happy for relationships to be what they need to be rather than trying to have them conform to socially condoned signifiers.

Do you have any other thoughts or feelings about commitment that you would like to share?

My feelings about commitment and non-monogamy, in general, are definitely evolving. Although I try and live by my beliefs with integrity, I am only human and sometimes I get it wrong.

Commitment is hard to navigate in a world that is very monogamous, and also means a lot of different things to polyam people.

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