If you believe that it’s necessary to choose between a life of freedom or one of committed partnership, welcome to the club. What many people refer to as “commitment phobia” often has to do with an unwillingness to accept what they believe to be a necessary surrender of freedom that committed partnerships require. The idea of being trapped in a relationship from which there is no exit is, to say the least, an unappealing prospect for most people. The belief that freedom and commitment are mutually exclusive, that it’s an either/or proposition, is a common one. While it may be true that in many situations it’s not possible to have it both ways, the relationship is one in which having it both ways is not only possible, but it’s a requirement.
To begin with, we need to define our terms. “Freedom” refers to the state of being unencumbered by restraints that limit our ability to take actions that fulfill our desires and needs. Having freedom means that we have the power to exercise choices that we wish to make. Having that power doesn’t necessarily mean that we will always opt for choices that fulfill our desires since doing so would present its own set of problems. Most adults consider the consequences of making certain choices before acting on their desires and usually (but not always) make decisions that serve their well-being. This does not of course mean that none of us ever opts for that second helping of pasta or that dessert that we don’t actually need. But we do have the freedom to make that choice if we want to.
The more we are denied (or perceive that we are denied) freedom, the more compulsively we will crave that which is forbidden to us. This is the reason that diets don’t work. Even if we succeed in denying ourselves the pleasure that comes from certain culinary delights, the sense of deprivation that usually comes from feeling that our freedom is being curtailed often results in the experience of resentment and an inclination to react by rebelling against the alleged depriver, even if that person happens to be ourselves. If we are in a relationship in which we perceive that our freedom to act is determined by someone other than ourselves, or a moral code that we don’t fully buy into, this sense of resentment and the impulse to rebel will be strong and it will contaminate the feelings of appreciation and love in the relationship.
Love without freedom quickly breeds resentment or claustrophobia, neither of which does much to keep the spark of passion alive. And freedom without someone to share it with just isn’t much fun. When asked what she most enjoyed about living alone, the French film star Jeanne Moreau replied that it was “the freedom to ask someone to share my solitude with me.”
Without the security and safety that comes with close relationships, our need for connection and intimacy gets neglected. In the best and most fulfilling relationships, both partners feel respected, trusted, loved, and free. The key to creating such a relationship lies in each partner becoming secure and self-accepting within his or her own skin. While this idea may seem unrealistic, if not impossible to some, there are many couples who are living proof that freedom and love can coexist simultaneously. Love without freedom soon devolves into resentment, and freedom without love results in loneliness and isolation.
It’s not possible to have a good relationship unless you have it both ways. The fundamental requirement of all partnerships is to honor the integrity of the relationship, which means to be willing to put the other’s needs and preferences above yours without losing yourself and neglecting your own in the process. (Note: There is a significant difference between being willing to do this and always doing it.) It’s likely that there would be a lot fewer marriages if more people realized how demanding the challenge of creating a mutually fulfilling relationship can be. This is not to suggest that marriage is not a viable option for those of us who want to experience the joys and blessings of sharing life with a loved one. But rather to be aware of what this option will involve in order to anticipate and prepare for what will be asked of us.
The dance of love and freedom allows us to open our hearts and experience deep intimacy without clinging or trying to control each other. The experience of separateness is as integral to this dance as is that of connection. Relationships do require the willingness to give of ourselves in order to make adjustments to each other. But when we are fully aware of the benefits that deep connection provides, these offerings to our partner feel more like gifts to ourselves than sacrifices. One of the greatest gifts that this dance provides us is the experience of being truly seen and known as we are. When we feel someone else’s acceptance of us and feel that they love us despite our warts and all, we can begin to love ourselves more unconditionally. This provides a sense of freedom from the need for the approval of others, something that we crave when we don’t possess our own self-acceptance and self-love.
We are slaves to the need for love from others until we've internalized it so deeply within ourselves that we enjoy their approval but don’t require it for our well-being. There's a huge difference between the natural desire to care about what others think of you and needing them to like and approve of you. We can only experience real love if we have the freedom to be ourselves.
Love and freedom aren’t mutually exclusive, they are interdependent, two sides of the same coin. But don’t take our word for it—go find out for yourself.