"Commitment" is one of those gender-specific terms that gets itself all tangled up by individual definition even when those using the term believe the meaning is clear. When a woman says she is in a "committed" relationship, for example, my guess would be that she believes the partnership is both honest and intimate, a monogamous coupling that will last a long time--maybe forever.

Either that or she is dating an inmate. Or both.

When couples use the word "commitment" I pay close attention.

When married folks announce, "we're committed to working it out," the phrase usually means that one or both of them have already contacted divorce lawyers. Did you ever hear two happily partnered people use the term casually?

"We're committed to working it out" is right up there with the equally paradoxical declaration, "But we're just friends." When you're genuinely just friends with somebody, when there is no hint of romance, the declaration "we're just friends" just doesn't come up. You don't have to emphasize this fact every time you meet. Most people don't walk into their office, say good morning to their co-workers, and then quickly add, "But we're just friends" If they did, they would find themselves quickly "committed"-- to an "institution." You can't blame men for being wary, either. Their use of the "C" word, however casual, will be scrutinized and dragged through endless conversational vivisections until, taken out of context, they might find themselves having agreed to marry a woman with one eye, no formal education, and terracotta teeth, because she misunderstood his intentions and because her daddy is part of the local independent militia.

It is nevertheless interesting to locate the definition of the word when it is used by couples.

Let me give you an example: the delightful man and woman in their late thirties seated on the other side of the table at a lovely dinner party the other evening are mature, smart and charming. They are not married, despite their long romantic affiliation, and I have gleaned from her conversation that he, rather than she, is reluctant to make their courtship official by proposing marriage or offering any form of other public and lasting declaration. She has communicated, in the secret dinner-party code that women have developed over 10,000 years, that their relationship is become hopelessly frayed by his inability to make a commitment, that he doesn't even know what commitment is-and that he won't even use the word. Even though we have never met before, I have signaled to her my understanding, frustration, and sympathy for what she considers her unsatisfactory position.

The guys, meanwhile, are talking about the best rental car agencies. They are happily and intensely discussing mileage, cost, and insurance.

So, in a different way, are we.

The conversation shifts as our host offers port to finish off the meal. The gentleman across from me declines; his ladyfriend accepts. I comment, all smiles, on this disparity.

Sighing, he explains "I have to get up at five tomorrow morning to go fishing in Maine. I can't be late." I express surprise at the fact that he is cutting short a glorious evening only to get up before dawn, something he doesn't exactly sound enthused about, and he shrugs, "I can't back out now. I've made a Commitment."

There is it, the "C" word. Ladyfriend and I lean forward, pupils dilated.

"Commitment?" I stutter, trying to draw him out from the protective shrubbery of polite conversation.

"What do you mean? Can't you just back out? What makes you feel like this a different case?" I am trying not to speak too fast or seem too invested. Ladyfriend has stopped breathing. "Can't you just call them now and tell them you don't want to do this anymore?"

"No," he replied, "I gave my word."

Undaunted, I pursue the conversation despite the fact that my own husband is now looking at me with the expression he uses when he knows I'm up to something. "When you say you gave your word, what do you really mean by that?"

"C'mon, you know," he explains as if to a child, "I made a commitment. A real ‘Commitment.' As in, I pre-paid."

Ah, enlightenment.

I never thought of commitment that way before; I suspect I'll never think of it any other way again.

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