To have and to hold
In 1978, the chief executive of the Dogs Trust, Clarissa Baldwin, devised the slogan “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas”. Her aim was to emphasise the virtue of commitment on the part of pet owners, at a time when thousands of dogs were abandoned after being given as presents. Nearly 30 years on, you can have a dog for Christmas rather than put up with the bother of having to look after it for life. But here’s the twist: you can have one without guilt. Commitment, you might be forgiven for thinking, is no longer a virtue.
This October, an American firm called Flexpetz will open a branch in London. It will enable customers to spend just a few hours or a few days with one of Flexpetz’s dogs, all of whom, says the website, are very lovable and fully trained. After you’ve spent Christmas nuzzling, chasing, making home movies of and surreptitiously feeding turkey under the table to the dog (its eyes filled with glowing, if temporary, adoration), someone from Flexpetz will even pick it up from your home or office. There may be some tears on parting, but you would get over the loss. Perhaps by hiring a different dog the following day. Flexpetz is surely symptomatic of a new age in which commitment is on the wane and there is a great deal of money to be made from services that offer traditional pleasures without the pain of ownership. It’s one in which the commitment to owning and maintaining consumer durables (cars, handbags and – if it isn’t too ludicrous to put the next two under such a heading – pets and partners) seems just too much of a bother.
For example, what is the point of washing a car, checking the tyres, water and oil, paying road tax, residential parking charges, insurance, and all the other boring blah of car ownership, when you could get someone else to take on those responsibilities? Instead, you could just walk up the street and climb into a VW Golf you’ve pre-booked on the internet when you want it. This, at least, is the raison d’etre of Streetcar, Whizzgo and other car-pool firms that have sprung up in recent years. Paradoxically, Streetcar urges you to give the car a name. But the suggestion is poignant: it surely indicates that, even as we are less likely than ever before to commit to anything long term, the sentimental, perhaps even self-deluding, pleasures of attachment remain with us – like ghosts of old ways of being.
Commitment-lite schemes that minimise risk exposure are increasingly common. Why buy a bicycle, and enter into a dreary committed relationship with it (change brake pads, maintain the chain, repair punctures etc), when instead – if you live in Paris – you could pick one from 750 special racks and cycle it for free, thanks to the Vélib scheme run by the city council? Why buy a £4,000 Fendi handbag when you could rent one for that swanky evening from fashionhire.co.uk Initial three-month membership costs £9.95. Among those currently on offer are a Jimmy Choo Mahala, which is a black leather tote with suede side panels. It’s yours for £85 a month.
But, you may well ask, is there anything significantly new in these trends? Surely we have always had everything from suit hire to lending libraries? And surely these demonstrated that commitment was always a sliding scale?
This is true, according to Zygmunt Bauman, emeritus sociology professor at the University of Leeds, who writes in his book Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds: “In lasting commitments, liquid modern reason spies out oppression; in durable engagement, it sees incapacitating dependency.” His point is that we are all liquid moderns now – we prize fluid relationships, disposable goods, dogs that don’t stick around. Ties, bindings and bonds make us nervous: “There is neither need nor use for them that liquid modern rationality of the consumer could justify.” Bauman’s disturbing suggestion is that we treat all our relationships this way these days – it’s not only rental dogs we get rid of once they have enchanted us for a few happy hours, but lovers too.
What is new, according to Bauman, is that we have slid markedly towards the end of the scale that prizes flexibility over commitment. Fashions for handbags, lovers, dogs and lifestyles change faster than ever and, in this dizzying world, one must arm oneself with the means not to get left behind. “The skill I really need to acquire,” Bauman writes in the draft of his looming new book, Art of Life, “is flexibility – the ability of fast forgetting and disposing of the past assets turned into liabilities, changing tacks and tracks at short notice and without regret, and avoid swearing lifelong loyalty to anything and anybody. Good turns, after all, tend to appear suddenly and from nowhere, and equally abruptly they vanish; woe to the suckers who by design or default behave as if they were to hold to them for ever.”
The last thing liquid moderns want to be is suckers. And the suggestion is that those who commit are. Indeed, those who see commitment as a virtue in itself are deluded. It has been redefined for our age. “Commitment,” wrote Adrienne Burgess, journalist and co-founder of the Fathers Direct UK agency, in her 2001 book Will You Love Me Tomorrow?, “is a spin-off from other things: how satisfied we are with our relationship; whether we see a viable alternative to it and whether moving on would cause us to lose important investment (time, money, shared property, children).” Burgess, for all the ostensibly offensive nature of her categorising (when did children become investments?), comprehends our post-millennial zeitgeist perfectly: everything to which we relate can, and often is, based on a consumer model.
I ask Bauman what he thinks of this: “Consumer objects,” he replies, “are for one-off use and immediate disposal. Consumerist syndrome is transposition of that pattern on all other areas of life.” His suggestion is that consumerist syndrome has contaminated our society. Long-term commitment to a lover as set out in marriage vows is no longer compelling to everybody. In Liquid Love, Bauman puts the matter this way: “The romantic definition of love as ‘till death us do part’ is decidedly out of fashion – having passed its use-by date because of the radical overhaul of kinship structures it used to serve and from which it drew its vigour and self-importance.”
Love, if it involves entering into a relationship filled with passion and romantic hopes of long-term felicity (of the kind that, say, Jane Austen never dared describe for her marrying couples), seems folly to liquid moderns – it is a bad bet, a commitment that, entered into in haste, will be repented at leisure. The era of liquid modernity may be catastrophic for romantic notions of love.
We use our skills, wits and dedication to create provisional bonds that are loose enough to stop suffocation, but tight enough to give a needed sense of security now that the traditional sources of solace (family, career, loving relationships) are less reliable than ever. The liquid modern is forever at work, forever replacing quality of relationship with quantity – always panicking about being left behind or becoming obsolete. Hence, no doubt, speed dating, leaping from one chatroom to another, texting addictively. We want relationships to be more like shopping – arousals readily met, easy pleasures quickly consumed and, fingers crossed, negligible suffering. We want love to be like it too – with receipts, statutory rights and legally enforceable promises of satisfaction.
But love doesn’t yield so easily to such commodification. It doesn’t obey economic rules. Love has always been difficult, but now more than ever when we seek both freedom from love’s bonds and at the same time yearn for the security it seems to offer. That is why love is insufferable today and why, too, no liquid modern worth the name gets embroiled in it.
Bauman’s account of how consumerist syndrome poisons everything helps explain a term coined in 1987 by relationship experts Steven Carter and Linda Sokol in their book Men Who Can’t Love: How to Recognise a Commitmentphobic Man Before He Breaks Your Heart. Commitment phobia has since become big business. There are books on how to overcome the phobia, self-help tapes, and even an online commitment readiness test (queendom.com/tests). The latter consists of 38 questions, which should put off the most commitment phobic.
Commitment phobia is now not gender specific, nor sexuality specific. Recently, when publicising her role as the cartoon Princess Fiona in Shrek the Third, Cameron Diaz said her career had suffered because of her inability to choose roles: “I’m really bad at commitment. I just hate committing myself to anything. It’s probably comes from me being a total spoiled brat and always getting my own way.”
Diaz explained why she felt commitment phobic towards men. “Each time I hope that this one will be different, that I won’t run away. When forced to make a choice I almost freeze in panic … the only thing I can think of is how to get away from this source of anxiety.” For Carter and Sokol this is classic commitment phobia: “Sometimes it is so pervasive that it interferes in their ability to make simple everyday decisions and on the larger scale, of managing and maintaining their life.”
This difficulty in making decisions is a feature of late capitalism, in which we are confronted by endless choice (TV channels, gourmet coffee, downloadable ring tones, perhaps ultimately even interchangeable lovers) and are terrified of making choices. Some of us are temperamentally more prone to that freezing anxiety than others.
But such dithering is economically untenable. The Nobel prize-winning economist Herbert Simon once said that any firm that tried to make decisions that would maximise its returns would bankrupt itself in a never-ending search for the best option. Instead, they “satisfice”, which means they content themselves with results that are “good enough”. In business, it’s not the utility maximiser who is prized but the decision-maker. In this context, to be a good decision-maker does not mean that you make good decisions, just that you make a decision. But what Simon didn’t recognise is buyer’s remorse – and that is what stalks the nightmares of commitment phobics such as Diaz.
At the heart of these issues is the question of what commitment means now. Burgess argues that commitment is not about prenuptial pledges. “Trying to force a partner to make a commitment is a waste of time,” she says. “Not only does it provide no guarantees, but it also causes resentment and hostility, which undermines any loving feelings. In relationships with a real future, therefore, commitment usually develops at much the same rate on both sides. But promises of commitment are meaningless in the long term, too – commitment isn’t an act of will.”
Freud wrote in Civilisation and its Discontents that civilisation is a trade-off between freedom and security. The suggestion now is that we have traded off more security in favour of more freedom. Bauman argues that one fear of pledging commitment is that the relationship risks “curdling and clotting”. He says: “It stays pregnant with vague threats and sombre premonitions; it tells of the pleasures of togetherness in one breath with the horrors of enclosure.”
That is not to say that those who don’t commit are more content than those who do. Anxiety about what one is missing may well be everyone’s fate. Indeed, Bauman, while suggesting no cure, argues that the liquid modern, so used to disposing of those they don’t like, is temperamentally incapable of doing the thing that many great religions have called a golden rule, namely to love one’s neighbour as one’s self. Such love – which promises no advantage or reward – has been difficult to manage at any time. Today it is all but incomprehensible.
The figures seem to suggest that we are indeed becoming commitment phobic and that we will become more so in the future, at least in Britain. The 2001 census showed that the proportion of households that are home to married couples fell by 10% in 10 years to 45%; in Britain in 2005 there were 2.2 million cohabiting couples and the Office for National Statistics predicts that figure will rise to 2.93 million by 2021.
In this climate, the Law Commission recently published proposals to give unmarried couples rights to share each other’s wealth (property especially) if they split up. Some fear that this could undermine that institution of commitment, marriage. Those seeking a change in the law argue that the proposals address a terrible unfairness – married couples have such rights, as do lesbian and gay couples whose relationships are covered by the Civil Partnership Act. Why can’t cohabitees not covered by that act be eligible for such entitlements too?
Yet these trends, and the suggestion that non-married couples should have property rights, outrage conservative columnists. Melanie Phillips, who defends the institution of marriage and is not keen to extend property rights to cohabiting couples, says: “The law is based on justice; justice requires that you don’t get something for nothing. You don’t claim rights if you don’t enter into obligations.”
But Phillips’ argument is dubious: the point, of course, is that if a cohabitee seeks property when a relationship breaks up, the court would seek to find out what compensation is fair; the idea is that you get something for something (helping to raise a kid, listening to your partner whinge about how rubbish work is on a long-term basis etc), not, as Phillips worries, something for nothing. These things, surely, show commitment, albeit of the provisional, practical, liquid, modern kind. Committing to marriage by making vows, as Burgess says, may mean very little; real commitment comes from staying in a relationship and making it work. Commitment, if seemingly ailing, is not quite dead. Autor: Stuart Jeffries