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Is There Love Without Commitment?

On the pronoun of intimacy.

Commitment is not in vogue, currently. Instead, relationships without commitment appear to be on the rise. Non-committal people say to each other, "I love you," but what they really mean is, "I want to be with you today. A better opportunity may open up tomorrow, and if so, I'll take it." This is, perhaps, not surprising. Dating apps have made meeting new people fairly easy (depending on one’s location), so why not take advantage? Why deny yourself the chance of meeting someone new, and perhaps, more interesting? No less importantly, one can avoid blame for having multiple affairs simultaneously by simply never making any promises.

While there is something to be said for remaining non-committal and keeping one’s options open – and I will return to this issue at the end – what I would like to argue here is that lack of commitment puts us on a path to loneliness. In making my case, I wish to begin with the difference between falling in love and mature love.

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Silhouette of a man leaning on a tree with a hart-shaped crown at dawn
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When we first fall in love with someone, the mind of the other is to a great extent intransparent to us.[1] Did she really mean it when she said she likes us too? Has she changed her mind since Friday? Did he enjoy our night out or is he being polite in saying that he did? At this stage, we often try to gauge the other’s thoughts, feelings, and interests indirectly, by doing such things as talking to other people who know the object of our affection or spying on the other on social media.

Due to this perceived initial impenetrability of the other’s mind, at the start of a relationship, nothing the other says is sufficient to give us the reassurance we seek. Anything and everything can make us jealous and insecure. We don’t know the other well enough to know where dangers may be lurking.

Novelist George Eliot underscores our tendency to see the object of a romantic interest as intransparent and unknowable when we are jealous, as we are apt to be in the early stages of a relationship. Eliot writes, “Jealousy is never satisfied with anything short of an omniscience that would detect the subtlest folds of the heart.” [2]

Whence this intransparency? Marcel Proust suggests that actually, we always know little about the minds of others, but we don’t notice this, because we don’t particularly care about what most people think and feel. As soon as we become seriously interested – as when we fall in love – we find that we don’t know. Jealousy reveals to us how obscure the mental lives of others are:

It is one of the faculties of jealousy to reveal to us the extent to which the reality of external facts and the sentiments of the heart are an unknown element which lends itself to endless supposition. We imagine that we know exactly what things are and what people think for the simple reason that we do not care about them. But as soon as we have a desire to know, as the jealous man does, then it becomes a dizzy kaleidoscope in which we can no longer distinguish anything. [3]

When the object of love lends itself to endless interpretation in this way, he or she remains inscrutable, an “Other” whose mind is hidden from view and whose motives are a matter of conjecture, never of knowledge. The impenetrability of the other’s mind at this point precludes intimacy. For this reason, falling in love is quite different from love.

When the other, at this early stage, addresses us by name or by saying “you”, we may find this exhilarating. The object of romantic interest is, in that moment, not an opaque other we try to interpret from an external point of view, but someone who talks to us. Being addressed directly in this way gives us hope that the other’s mind will not remain forever unreadable. A door, a channel of communication – however narrow – has opened up, connecting us to the object of attraction. There is hope for love.

If we get lucky, as the relationship evolves, we need to rely less and less on indirect evidence of the other’s thoughts and motives. Instead, we can simply accept what the other says to us. Trust develops, and our conversations play a key role in this development. At one point, two lovers may get to know each other so well that conversation – which is so crucial in the beginning – becomes almost unnecessary. They can “read” each other’s minds. Silence itself becomes intimate.

Something else happens when we find love. There emerges a composite of the two lovers, a first-person plural perspective, a we. I want to call “we” the pronoun of romantic intimacy. Of course, a we perspective may emerge in a variety of contexts, for instance, when two friends are baking muffins together, two soldiers rely on each other to survive, or two collaborators are working on a common project. In all these cases, while each may do his or her part, people are not acting as individuals only but as part of a collective.

However, these are temporary, local alliances. The we of romantic intimacy is global, and it persists. Two people who love each other romantically don’t make important plans without consulting their partner. They don’t think to themselves, “I will move to New York City” or “I will buy a condo.” Instead, they think of what they will do together. It is precisely this togetherness that makes two people a couple. It is also the reason why we no longer feel alone once we find love.

Sometimes, when love is gone, one partner may say to the other, “We can work this out,” to which the other may reply, “There is no we,” alleging that the we-composite has disintegrated. Love has ceased to function as glue connecting the two lovers, and they have become separate and fully independent once again. (Some of the most painful breakups involve cases in which one partner is caught off guard due to having been kept in the dark as to the disintegration of the we-composite. The we may have ceased to exist long before the breakup, but the spurned lover did not know this as the other may have kept up appearances while secretly making plans that concern only him or herself.)

What I would like to suggest here is that the we of intimacy is never given a chance to emerge without commitment. If the lovers keep their options open, they exist in a state of separateness in which, ultimately, each looks out for him or herself only. At any point, each lover may make plans for the future that exclude the other. Love does not reach a state of completion. The two lovers remain fundamentally alone.

I should note also that a person who is very jealous by nature may be incapable of forming a we-composite with the object of his or her affection. To the jealous lover, the other's mental life remains subject to endless interpretation and conjecture, which breeds separateness and extinguishes closeness. The relationship never progresses beyond the initial state during which the other's mind is seen as impenetrable, though here, perceived impenetrability may be on one side only.

Suppose the foregoing considerations are right. Nothing follows directly from here as to when one should make a commitment. There is a danger of making it too early and to the wrong person. This can easily lead to a failed relationship and to misery. Nonetheless, to be unwilling to make a commitment at all is probably the bigger danger. If you take a risk, time may prove you wrong. The relationship may not turn out to be what you thought it would. The other may not, after all, be your soulmate. But if you never make a commitment, you will always be alone. Failure to find love is, in one case, a possibility, while in the other – it is certain. A soulmate is not simply someone who is a good match but someone we are committed to and who is committed to us.

I want to end with the words of a senior philosopher – and a wise person – who was once my professor. He had been happily married for many years. I was a young person then and unsure what I thought of marriage, so I asked him about it. He said that when you get married, it is as though you say to someone, “In this precarious world, there isn’t much that you can count on, but you can count on me.”

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[1] Fileva, I. (2020). "Beyond I and Thou: Intimacy's Pronouns," Journal of the Philosophy of Emotion, forthcoming.

[2] Eliot, G. (1860/1997). The Mill on the Floss. London, UK: Wordsworth Editions Limited, p. 397.

[3] Proust, M. (1913/1982). Remembrance of Things Past. New York, NY: Vintage, p. 529.

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