Commit, Or Leave: The Art Of Long-Term Commitment.
I spent most of my dating life subtly hinting at long-term commitment in order to secure short-term affection.
Even in my longest relationships, I left at least one internal back door open. There was no one until my wife Carolyn where my apparent commitment was genuine.
I was mostly aware of these facts at the time. And despite a part of me feeling fairly awful trying to feign something that wasn’t real, I also felt justified doing so.
Why on earth would you commit fully to another human being? Things change. And more importantly, people change. So any real commitment is almost nonsensical — what are you even committing to?
And besides that, any commitment — even if it wasn’t nonsensical — would inevitably destroy the thing I treasured above everything else: freedom. And if I was going to sacrifice the one thing that mattered most, I had better be damn sure that the person was worth it. And how could I be sure?
It was thoughts like these that allowed me to justify a fundamentally noncommittal attitude. But the women I dated seemed to care a lot about commitment, so it didn’t take much more effort to justify feigning some level of it, to save the relationship from unnecessary misery for however long it lasted.
Underneath all of this, the genuine cause of my non-commitment had nothing to do with lofty ideals of freedom, and the cause of my feigned commitment had nothing to do with graciously saving the relationship from unnecessary misery.
The real reason for both was very simple:
I was a coward.
There is something almost unspeakably beautiful about the flavors of life that have flowed out of commitment to my wife:
The pure and simple clarity of knowing the precise direction to pour my devotion every day;
The daily deepening of a single art — loving her — and the irreplaceable sweetness of artistic discoveries and surprises familiar to any devoted instrumentalist;
The uniquely precious, soft, and secret blooming of her heart that became possible only with reverent containment;
All of these things nourish my soul like nothing else ever did.
But more than any of them, the greatest gift that our commitment has granted me is the template of commitment itself.
The Latin word for courage — virtus — means, literally, manliness. Their word for man is vir.
This etymology suggests — and history demonstrates — that the Romans had a fairly twisted society.
But the roots of words don’t merely reflect cultural biases. They also reflect underlying human intuitions.
And the intuition that this word reflects is an important one. It’s the sense that courage is somehow fundamental to the nature of a true man — that without courage, a man isn’t really a man at all.
Man the fuck up is a phrase that can be easily abused to shame authentic expression and repress emotions. I deeply hope that the world is moving away from this kind of abuse.
But the phrase has one real purpose. It’s not to say Stop showing your feelings. It’s to say Stop acting like a boy.
What distinguishes men from boys is that men are responsible for the people around them. Responsibility means carrying the weight of decision. And carrying the weight of decision demands courage.
Every difficult decision is ultimately difficult because we fear that we may choose wrong. Stepping directly into that fear is a courageous act — one that all too few men are willing to make when it matters most.
I spent the majority of my adult years abdicating this responsibility, trying desperately to hold on to the faux freedom of boyhood.
That was not freedom. Real freedom is impossible without courage. That was avoidance, shackled to denial, shackled to fear.
I remember the heartfelt feeling of terror when I considered breaking up with my first longer-term girlfriend when I was 19.
In retrospect, it wasn’t the idea of breaking up that felt terrifying. It was the act of decision itself.
There is something that feels fundamentally violent about decision. The word means literally to cut away (from de-caedere, in Latin).
Every time you decide, you are cutting away all possible realities that could have been, in order to step fully into the one reality you choose.
Because of this, the most empathic humans are often the most indecisive. They can feel the violence at the heart of decision, and they can’t bring themselves to enact that kind of brutality.
And so the most empathic men are often the most noncommittal in relationship. They’ll allow a relationship to unfold around them, without any commitment to stay in or get out. They will avoid any questions about the future, and allow their partner’s love to hold the relationship together.
Some of my own relational waffling was caused by this type of empathy. And while the waffling itself is a kind of cowardice, cowardice stemming from empathy can hardly be blamed. Right?
No. Not right.
Empathy can’t be true empathy without courage. The empathy that has a man avoid the violence of decision — either the brutality of breaking up, or the supposed sacrifice of commitment — causes infinitely more suffering than either choice, made with clarity and an open heart, ever could.
To keep a woman in a state of perpetual confusion, oscillating between deep affection and covert rejection, ruining her mind with mixed messages and her intuition with gaslighting half-promises, is not true empathy. It is cowardice hiding behind an empathic excuse.
Many of my friends were — and still are — extremely confused by my decision to get married.
Aren’t I sacrificing my autonomy?
My time for work?
Variety? Novelty? Freedom?
These concerns do seem legitimate, because all of those things are very important parts of a life well-lived.
I didn’t commit because I was willing to sacrifice those things. I committed because commitment is the only thing that could make them truly possible.
Everything my friends thought I might lose — freedom, autonomy, purpose, variety, novelty — opened up into a completely new dimension when I proposed to Carolyn.
The appearance of freedom that I had previously clung to paled in comparison to the freedom of completely choiceless choice that was sealed by the commitment.
The variety and novelty that bloomed in her as a result had a range and depth that could never be matched through any kind of superficial variety.
And my business, which friends thought would necessarily pay a price for me committing to devote myself to this woman every day, grew almost immediately, and exponentially — not only in revenue, but in alignment, enjoyment, impact, and literally every other factor that mattered to me.
This was somewhat of a mindfuck, but it also made perfect sense — because that’s what commitment is.
Commitment isn’t simply promising to not leave someone or something. It’s to do the opposite of leaving.
The word’s Latin roots mean to send forth fully. Commitment isn’t about sticking with something. It’s about moving towards it with your entire being.
I don’t commit to simply being with Carolyn, because that’s not commitment.
Leaving her would be moving away from her; being with her would be simply holding still. Commitment is moving towards her always.
In some way, I fail at this every day — just as every time I meditate my attention drifts. I routinely rest on the laurels of marriage, pretend not to notice her subtler feelings, or rush out of the house with a brief and distracted kiss.
But commitment would have no real purpose without those failures and drifts. The heart of commitment is the commitment to re-commit indefinitely. And the blessings bestowed by that perpetual promise go far beyond anything that a distracted life has ever offered me.
In the past, I often withheld commitment while I waited for a person or opportunity to prove itself to me. But doing this didn’t just contaminate life with the constant grating background static of indecision. It also put a massive cap on the extent to which any person or opportunity could reveal itself to me, because full commitment is required to experience anything fully.
If you spend your life wondering whether you should be playing cello or should pick up some other instrument instead, you will never become a master at cello or anything else.
If you spend your finite daily hours deliberating whether to go all-in on your business, you will guarantee that business’s stagnation.
And if you spend your relationships wondering whether your girlfriend is really worth spending your life with, you will guarantee that she is not, because she will always — and rightly — withhold the most precious parts of her heart in response to your subtle wavering.
While commitment is fundamentally an internal practice, it has no meaning without action.
Some of our daily rituals we have found for commitment to flow through:
* From 8:30-9:30 am, we sit together outside and write, in silence;
* From 9:30-9:45 am, we pour and drink three bowls of tea in a miniature tea ceremony, in silence; then sit quietly and breathe together;
* From 9:45-10:00 am, we share four intentions, four gratitudes, and four ideas for our new life.
Every day, the fourth intention is “to love you forever”;
the fourth gratitude is “I am grateful for you”;
and the fourth idea is “to love you always.”
* From 10:00-10:30 am, we have a ‘morning date’;
* From 6:00-7:00 pm, we have an ‘evening date’;
* From 7:00-8:00 pm, we have dinner together;
* From 8:00-8:30 pm, we write out and share reflections on our days;
* And at 9:30 pm, I do the dishes and prepare the house for the morning.
These 4.5 hours of phones-off, full-presence rituals act as the heartbeat of our marriage and our life. The disposition of reverence, practice, and quiet devotion that they instill is the only real reason I consistently accomplish anything else throughout the day.
I am not, by nature, a disciplined human being. I hated practicing cello as a child, had a lifelong love affair with my Snooze button, and only ever turned two papers in on time in college.
But the habit of devotion, born from the choice to commit, born of love for Carolyn, has granted an effortless consistency of doing in my life that has brought every external success since our engagement into being.
The texture of commitment hasn’t been a grandiose cinematic score. Daily, it feels more like a Bach Suite — sweet, rhythmic, flowing, precise, simple.
There is a limit to how loud music can get before causing damage. But there is no limit to how precise it can become. The greatest chefs are not those who make the largest amount of food, or the spiciest, they are those who learn to layer the perfect proportion of flavors with ever-greater precision. The only way the desire for more can be satisfied every day is by directing that desire not horizontally, but vertically.
Bach has always been my favorite composer, but I never understood why until I met Carolyn.
It is gentle Bach, not fiery Beethoven, who writes the true meaning of courage, and so transmits the great and secret gift of love in action.
His music captures the sweetness that is possible only with commitment, and the beauty that is possible only through the willingness to sacrifice apparent beauty for the real thing.
His music plays the truest long game, and as a result, his short game is perfectly on point.
Take a listen to this cello suite, and see if you feel what I mean.
Just know that — as with anything — to experience its treasures, our full commitment is required. And that commitment cannot be expressed with a single listen.
David Burns is a coach, consultant, and thought leader devoted to spreading ‘choicelessness’ — the art of uniting those things we are conditioned to treat as mutually exclusive. He runs the company The Business Monk, and resides in Santa Monica with his wife, Carolyn.