Pop Theory: “The Promise” Makes/Breaks a Relationship

There are diverse camps within the LGBT community that promote different types of relationships, from the LGBT political branch fighting for marriage equality (predicated upon the traditional notion of marriage as a monogamous union between two persons) to the “Savage” branch of the “monogamish” (an open marriage/relationship),  to those prescribing to a more non-normative branch that disavows marriage and its traditional, misogynistic chains in favor of idealized (grandiosely idealized, I’d not be reluctant to argue) polyamourous relations where everyone is care-free and detached and carries on multiple affairs without emotional attachments (we Spinozists know the body and the force of affective connections better than to presume such a thing).

I had originally envisioned this piece as one that championed monogamy — that “queer” type of relationship where two people promise fidelity to one other; granted, the fidelity of that contract is uniquely determined by those two people. So, fidelity to one couple may be defined differently from that of another couple; some (those, I believe, of a more paranoid inclination) may consider “flirting” to be cheating, for example. Monogamy is something I admittedly romanticize; it is something that also appears to be an impossible feat in today’s culture, as one divorce after another is broadcast on national television.

In the entertainment industry, whether film or television (“reality” or otherwise), its disavowal and disintegration is necessary for dramatic development (see a previous Pop Theory in regard to the necessary slippage for dramatic action to occur). RILLLY, how often do we watch a show with anticipation for our favorite couple to hook-up and, once they do, how anxious do we become conjecturing about how their “dramz” will unfold, how they’ll betray one another, who will cheat on whom, who will break the promise. (See seasons one through six of The L Word for more information.)

But then I realized that the fundamental condition of that relationship, and, actually, every type of (intimate) relationship, is not love, is not lust, is not the imagined reciprocity of those emotions that drive a relationship (which is impossible, for how can emotions be weighed and/or balanced?). No. The fundamental condition is the promise.

Regardless of the type of relationship, the underlying ethic of any relationship (that has a desired future; that is considered to be long-term) is the promise, the philosophical centerpiece of today’s column.

The promise, I agree with Nietzsche, is the most challenging metaphysical, ethical act that any human can accomplish; indeed, Nietzsche believes that humans are not capable of keeping promises (that is, it is only a feat of the “overman,” or “superman”). A promise, he says, is

…an active desire not to rid oneself, a desire for the continuance of something desired once, a real memory of the will.

Nietzsche contends that the promise demands “active forgetfulness”: while the promise itself is willed into the future, in order for that promise to be sustained, certain things must be forgotten in its name. In other words, a promise is the willing of the past in the name of the future. So, for instance, you must be able to forget — entirely forget — an argument (or an infidelity, or [fill-in-the-blank-here]) with your significant other if you are to continue to honor that relationship. Resentment is a recipe for failure.

The promise can only be made by a person who possesses free will (which therefore requires one to be free from past resentments/hang-ups); that is, a person who is free to “will” something (a belief, an ethic, a desire, a relation) into the future.  To make a promise with someone else requires trust (not to mention understanding and compassion). It also requires that both people fully comprehend the terms of that contract (in order to avoid miscommunication, to say the least!). What it produces, ensures and fosters, is stability and security — two integral components of what I think creates a “home” and the sense of comfort that it entails, to recall last week’s column. Not to mention that both stability and security undergird that relationship and enable its longevity.  

Why a promise is so challenging to maintain is that the thing being promised or willed into the future is not a stagnant thing; as a product of time, change is inherent in all aspects of what is being promised. In a relationship consisting of two people, the promise of the relationship must take into account that both people will change over time, not only in relation to themselves but, subsequently, in relation to each other. Herein lies the difficulty: the unknown. What we promise is in part what is unknown, the future, what time brings and how it changes us.

People do not account for this inherent change when they acrimoniously accuse one another, mid-break-up, with the line “you’ve changed!” Well, duh. The effort, the ethics, comes through in this acknowledgement: the thing being willed, including all the persons involved, will change in unknown ways. Only a strong person can understand this and still desire (to make) the promise.

Perhaps, then, it is not the type of relationship, but the act of “the promise,” that matters. It is the act of the promise and the type of promise (and the components of that promise) created that defines that relationship (monogamous, non-monogamous, or otherwise).

Dr. Marcie Bianco is now a resident of Brooklyn but is still gloriously unemployed— as only one with a handful of useless degrees could be. She currently serves as the Editorial Director of VelvetPark.