She is pushing her fiancée to say it out loud. She ‘hears’ it, feels it, smells it, and it would be a relief to them both if he would just say it. But he is struggling. He is afraid. So, as the moments tick by, the unspoken sits between them.
What he needs to say out loud is, “This is a deal-breaker. I cannot abide this relationship in these circumstances. If these circumstances persist, I won’t choose this. I won’t choose you. I will leave.”
And I think of Rex. Rex is my mentor, my friend, and the closest thing to a father I will ever have. I met him when I was 11. A sixth grader. He was 32. His psychic fingerprints are all over whatever qualities I possess as a man.
Rex was a walking library of great one-liners. Here is one of my favorites: “In every human heart is the longing to hear the words, “I love you, and I will never leave you.”
Oh, my. These words fell powerfully on me, a then-boy and now a man whose default worldview is “Everybody leaves.” Eventually. Sooner or later everyone will find the thing about Steven that just doesn’t measure up. That no love can embrace or tolerate. I was at once one of those humans longing to hear those words, even a man daring someone to say it; but, for much of my life, unwilling to risk believing those words even if uttered.
But Rex was right. When I finally heard and believed those words, I was changed.
Yet, the couple in front of me is discussing deal-breakers. It doesn’t fit. If a radical commitment is “I love you and I’ll never leave you,” then why are they discussing deal-breakers. Terrified to discuss it, actually; but it’s in the room here with us.
It’s not a contradiction; rather, a fascinating paradox. Radical commitment is held upright by the bookends of deal-breakers. Before we can meaningfully say “I love you and I’ll never leave you,” we must have a list of scenarios and circumstances in which we’d never consider this relationship. And, once radically committed to the relationship, those same deal-breakers stand sentry at the other end, holding all accountable. Expecting the best. Insisting on the best.
Here’s a lesser-known maxim when looking for a mate: Always fall in love with someone who has the strength to leave you. Who could leave, if and when circumstances warranted leaving? Because it is precisely this kind of strength that makes commitment authentic, meaningful, powerful, deeply credible. If our mate must stay, then staying doesn’t have all that much value. If our mate has the strength to leave, then this gives great meaning to the fact that they stay.
Comedian Paul Riser says it this way in his book Couplehood: “In the end, you marry the person who won’t let you get away with anything.”
Deal-breakers are the ‘shadow side’ of radical commitment. Without deal-breakers, commitment becomes a mere sentiment, not a decision/act coming from a place of real power. Without deal-breakers, “’til death do us part” decays to “sure hope this works out.”
I revel in my mate’s commitment. I feel it. It embraces in me what is lovely and unlovely. It embraces the joys of my past and the failures. She at once never expects me to be perfect, yet never stops expecting the best of me.
Let me begin to speak to her with disdain, scorn, or degradation, and I would find myself staring down the business end of her self-respect. Let her discover I’m secreting some dalliance with an Internet babe, and I’d get the ol’ heave-ho quicker than you can say “Jesse James.”
Same with me. I love her and I’ll never leave her. And … if I find out tomorrow that she’s making methamphetamine in the bathtub and selling it to 3rd graders, I’m walking. And calling the police on the way out.
The man in my office finally speaks: “I’m not staying in a marriage with a woman that falls asleep every night on the couch in a vodka fog.”
There’s a loud pause in the room. She is sober, sad, but seems peaceful. Even relieved. She needed to feel the strength of his self-respect. “Thank you,” she says simply. The very next day she’s at her first AA meeting.
If there is no scenario in which your commitment could and would be withdrawn, then your commitment isn’t healthy.
(Steven Kalas is an author and therapist who writes a weekly column for the Sparks Tribune. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org)