OK, you’ve probably had this question before, but I would love to hear your thoughts. I read your column faithfully and just reread the ones on commitment. I didn’t see anything on my subject. I am seeing a man that I have known for 18 years. We were all friends, my (now ex) husband and the man’s wife, who died five years ago now. He also has another woman that he has been seeing for a year. He says he loves us both. What are your thoughts on this? Is it possible, and how will he ever decide or commit to either of us when he believes this? He also says he does want to get married again and be committed – he was married for 40 years. I am the other woman as he says she doesn’t know about me. We have discussed this many times and get nowhere. I guess I know the answer in my head but have to ignore it as I do love the man. We have great times together always. Am I just being stupid and naive? Help! I would like your take on it. – P.T., Las Vegas
Stupid and naive?
There is nothing stupid and naive about having great times together. Great times are underrated. They are ever-so-much more fun than not-great times. And, in the second half of life, especially widowed or divorced, finding a friend and great times are blessings that cannot be easily dismissed or presumed upon. Just ask around. There are tons of single folks in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s who would consider a friend and great times a gift, a solace, a sweet interruption of life’s regular aloneness.
But neither is there anything stupid or naive about having a healthy, well-functioning human heart that is awakened by "great times" to want more. By more, I mean a longing to grow intimacy.
Human intimacy comes in many forms and contexts. And the relationship between intimacy and commitment is paradoxical. Sometimes commitment is an ally. Sometimes an impedance.
Consider spontaneous intimacies, like when we have that instant "click" with the stranger sitting next to us on the airplane. We talk ourselves blue in the mouth over the next three hours. We share deeply, both parties knowing there is no intention to an ongoing friendship beyond this flight. Part of the reason you are sharing so deeply is precisely because neither of you will have to be responsible to a relationship that contains this sharing.
The intimacy of a therapeutic relationship is like that, too. People share themselves profoundly in therapy. But part of the reason they can do that is because they don’t have to be responsible for the intimacies in any other setting. Not family. Not work. Not socially.
This is why people pour their hearts out to bartenders. This is why the best sex some people have (or should I say, "ever allow themselves to have") is with mostly anonymous, one-night partners.
But most people eventually long for courtship. That is, undefined, open-ended casual dating (aka "great times") will, for most people, have a diminishing return of benefits. The great times will start to feel less meaningful. Emptier. We become restless. Our souls pace back and forth behind a boundary that we see as more and more arbitrary. Limiting. Eventually even toxic.
Courtship is the next step beyond mere recreational dating. In courtship, the parties bring an intention to explore intimacy. And, in the intimacy of courtship, commitment is not merely an ally. There is simply no other way to grow this intimacy except that it is wrapped in commitment. Sooner or later, this means exclusivity.
I could easily believe that this man loves you … and loves this other woman. Yes, it’s possible to love more than one person simultaneously. And his believing this has no bearing on how or if he will decide upon an exclusive commitment. Like all of us, he will choose. He cannot not choose. If a buffet of good friends and great times in dating is what he wants, then committed will be, for him, contraindicated. If, on the other hand, he desires an intimacy of greater depth and intention, he will understand that saying "yes" to that will require saying "no" to the buffet.
And you will choose, too. If "great times" are enough for you, then you will accept what he offers. If, at some point, your desire for deeper intimacy with a committed life partner overrides the benefits of "great times," you will say "no, thank you" to the great times, and move on down the path with your heart open to meet a like-minded man. None of these decisions for either of you will be made by answering the question, "Who do I love?" Rather, you will make these decisions by answering the questions, "Who am I? … What do I want? … What is authentic and respecting of the self I am?"
In the meantime, when a man tells a woman, "I don’t want to ever get married again," the only thing you can know for sure about what he is saying is that he won’t be marrying you.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.