Come promise; compromise

  • Posted on March 29, 2014 at 4:42 pm

‘The government has vowed …’

It’s what? I hear and notice it a lot and wonder what it means. A vow is, depending on your dictionary, a solemn promise, and earnest promise, a serious one, a personal one. It seems in origin to have religious overtones, in other words a promise that your god hears and will hold you to. It’s really about your best intent. Of course for many of us the first and only vows we are asked to make are marriage vows. How lovely that in modern ceremonies you can devise your own, word them as you feel most loving and capable.

I wonder what my vows would have been, had I been asked, not at the age of 25, but 55? For instance, had it been one of the conditions, would I have made it my earnest promise to do my best to live as a man? Maybe at 25, hating this part of myself, I would have still made it because I was in love. But had we come to a point where we wanted to renew our vows, and my ex had said, ‘I’d like you to make that vow again’, year by year that would have become more difficult. In the end, at 55 it was unreasonable, because it would have meant a de-recognition of my authentic self.

My vow is your condition

Almost any marriage vows are about love, commitment, loyalty, persistence, support, and above all, respect. They are promises about giving, not taking. But they are not unconditional: if you don’t respect me, then I won’t promise to give all these best things to you. They are about ‘through thick and thin’, they are about seeing each other through hard times, but more than anything, they surely are about allowing the other to flourish in the nourishment of your love. So why is it that so many people in their marriages feel constricted? Not from having other flings and affairs and finding someone else more exciting, but simply obligated in ways that narrow them down, make them feel guilty about pursuing their individual interests. No, darling, I promise not to go out with my friends so much. Of course, I’ll limit myself to one writing group a fortnight. Maybe it isn’t a good idea to set aside funds for each of us to learn something new, let’s only do everything together and save our money and time for that. I do know that life is pressurised, and that for many couples quality time together is hard to come by, and those that do too little together can become distanced. But what we don’t notice so much is how what we call commitment becomes constriction. The invitation to make promises ends up making compromises. We forget to give to the other what they need in order to grow and develop as a person. Not just flowers and love songs, but encouragement, positive reflection, space ̵ and be a developing and interesting person to be loved too.

Here is a picture that echoes something I wrote here a year ago, about relationships, and how we imagine the perfect marriage like bonsai trees twisted together until they become one. Instead, my idea of a good partnership or marriage is not one of complete dependence, but like these trees, allows individual growth and flourishing whilst providing support and intimacy and complete trust. We don’t learn this when we are young, only as more mature adults, long after we made our commitments and vows.

I actually found these trees in Falmouth, at the University’s College of Arts, on the day I took my son for interview. They stood out then and remind me still, that either of these trees could die and the other would still flourish, but neither was leaving the other, whilst not restricting the other’s growth, nourishment or life. He was starting out a new phase of life, learning to flourish away from the home he grew up in. I was just beginning to come to terms with what was different about me, and things had been starting to get difficult.

Promises we don’t make

Did anyone ever say that they would promise not to change? Or state limits of change or growth? Did anyone really make marriage vows that so long as you stay fit, healthy and able-bodied, I will love you? Did anyone say, I will love and be faithful, providing you don’t go trainspotting, knit in evenings, perform on the trumpet, practice your saxophone, work on a mental health nightline? The joy of loving someone surely has to include seeing them reach their potential, and experiencing authenticity?

No, this isn’t a personal criticism; I’m past that. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and all I am observing now is: what do I feel I want from any future relationship? What might the other want by way of promises? What, as well, might I or the other most fear? One thing I detect is not wanting to be swallowed up, being isolated together, eroding friendships because there isn’t time for them. Suspicion that time spent with others is escape or avoidance or lack of inclusion. Very insidious, committed relationships, sometimes.

Maybe it just takes an extraordinary amount of mutual trust to achieve this, but I think that many of us emerging somewhat lost, out of long-term partnerships and marriages, are afraid of being sucked back in. We want something more. We want to have learned and to be doing something different, better. Our problem is that intimacy and maybe even falling in love, threatens what we like about having our own space and time to develop and express.

We are afraid. We are sometimes over-defended, determined not to be vulnerable, because we have found some new authenticity and have decided we are not going to let it go and get compromised. Working together is one form of compromise. Give and take is good and helpful, providing it is equal. There is no deadweight from each other. The dancers are perfect at fingertip touch, not needing to be held tight, one leading, the other following. One tree rests on the other, not in dependence but in mutual support.

This is how ‘come, promise’ becomes the demand: ‘compromise!’

Love by permission

I have been shedding layers over the last years and months, and I have been really seriously asking myself why I was so terribly grateful to be loved ‘so long as you don’t …’ Why was I so overjoyed when I was being given permission for one gram of authenticity providing I didn’t find a kilogram of it? Why could I never discover myself without permission and conditional love? What does it mean to love the inauthentic person? What does it mean to be loved as a restricted, inhibited person? And why, oh why, do I feel so rejected for being finally authentic? Why do I feel that I lost love? I lost intimacy alright, and that cuts deep. But no, I didn’t lose love, if it was given, promised or vowed on the condition that if I found my authentic self was a bit different, I would not be allowed to express it.

I am looking for a new kind of grown-up love that does more than that I found at 23, that allows me to grow, that is based on giving and trust more than fulfilling a role. I wonder if I shall find it. I have a friendship that ticks all the boxes except the intimate, and I wouldn’t want to lose it for anything less. But could I ever find one as good that ticks the last one without unticking something else important?

Watch this space, but I’m not off dating for real any time soon.

The footnote to this has to be a new vow that I have to make. For my gender recognition certificate I need a statutory declaration, witnessed by lawyers, to say that ‘I intend to live full-time as female until death’. (No further comment on ‘living as’, for which you know my feelings already.) Well, it isn’t a vow for me, or an earnest promise, it’s just a fact, written down for people who don’t understand, so that I can have permission to be a woman. Yes. Exactly. I have now passed the two-year mark required to somehow prove my commitment to being authentic, so there is no further confirmation to be gained. This vow, then, is empty and meaningless. I promise to be myself? That’s what I spent too many decades not doing, because I promised myself in other ways.

Come promise? Sorry; no compromise. Not any more.


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