If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free (Darn It!)

Set yourself free from relationships that don’t feel healthy and safe; set yourself free from people you feel you can’t trust.

If you love somebody, set them free…Sting

Actually, Sting was far from the first person to express this sentiment [1], but he gets a lot of credit for it because he’s…well…STING. This guidance often comes with the tag “if it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was” and even though this is profound wisdom for the ages, MAN, does it make the vast majority of us squirm. It even makes some people who have experienced the pain of betrayal very angry.

I get it; I really, really do. But it’s rock solid advice. Sorry about that.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room (but this is not by far the only application of this truism)—infidelity. It’s the first thing that jumps into the minds of most people when they think of the consequences of setting their beloved “free”. It is interesting to note that while monogamy has only been the cultural norm for about 1,000 years [2], as far back as 17BC, adultery was considered a punishable crime, However, unsurprisingly, those early examples of sanctions were steeped in brutal sexism: fathers were permitted to kill daughters and their partners in adultery, husbands could kill the partners under certain circumstances and were required to divorce adulterous wives [3].

 Many of us have had the experience of being “cheated on”, even if only in a dating situation, and it certainly is not a positive one. But it is enlightening—as Jess says to Harry in the film When Harry Met Sally, “[Relationships] don’t break up on a count of infidelity. It’s just a symptom that something else is wrong.” Infidelity doesn’t happen in happy, healthy relationships; that’s a truth we conveniently overlook because we want to feel victimized (or align ourselves sympathetically with the “victim” against the “bad guy”).

Why is this so difficult for us to accept?

We all have also had the experience of being around a great relationship (or maybe we are even lucky enough to be in one!) and the main common denominator in all of these is a radical acceptance of each other—faults, foibles and charms alike. But the second component these fortunate couples share is ethical compatibility; they have the same values and morals and would never betray those, NOT because they are cow-towing to the RULES, but because these values and morals intrinsically define who they ARE and how they want to participate, not only in their relationship but in the world at large. In other words, the relationship is not governed by imposed standards but rather by compatible internal guidance.

 The problems with being in a relationship predicated on rules are many, not the least of which being “rules are meant to be broken”. If someone is being faithful to you because that is the RULE and not their own internally motivated desire? You deserve better than that, you really do.

 So why does it make us so uncomfortable to admit this?

 Is it because we don’t trust OURSELVES in a format without rules (a problem). Or is it because we don’t believe we are worthy of someone’s undivided attention (an even bigger problem)? Or is it because we are engaged in relationships with people we don’t trust (biggest problem of all)?

 Quick litmus test here: if you are involved with someone you feel needs to be instructed or threatened not to cheat on you? They are not a good choice if fidelity is a priority. Sorry about that.

 Okay, let’s get off of that hot potato topic and look at another aspect of committed relationships; the amount of time spent together. There is no “right” answer here; just again, it’s a question of having compatible expectations. But truly, the most vibrant relationships not only allow for separate interests, but also (and perhaps more importantly) ALONE TIME. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke writes “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”

 Now, I KNOW why this makes people uncomfortable—because SOLITUDE makes most people uncomfortable. In fact, a “shocking” study found that most of us prefer electric shocks to being alone with our thoughts (FOR REAL!) [5] and THAT is at the heart of the dilemma of FREEDOM in romantic relationships… You don’t want your partner to be free because YOU DON’T WANT TO BE FREE. Aw, snap!

 Love one another, but make not a bond of love:

Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.

Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,

Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

~~ Kahil Gibran “On Marriage”, The Prophet


So, here is the greatest irony of all: If you love somebody, set them free is wonderful advice best applied to OURSELVES most of all. Set yourself free from relationships that don’t feel healthy and safe; set yourself free from people you feel you can’t trust.

If you don’t trust your spouse/partner to have their own private e-mail account?

SET THEM (yourself) FREE.

If you don’t want your spouse/partner to have interests or relationships that are separate from you because that makes you feel threatened in some way?

SET THEM (yourself) FREE.

If you are with someone simply because you are afraid to be ALONE?

SET THEM (yourself) FREE.

And why do most people ignore this very excellent advice? Because we have been taught that a “love” relationship entails “ownership” (control). But people are not meant to “own” each other in ANY context.

So what does this mean? A free-for-all?

No, not in the least. It means don’t settle for a relationship where you feel less than secure; don’t settle for someone you feel you can’t trust without monitoring. Don’t settle for someone who you fear won’t “come back to you” if left to their own devices.

Believe that you deserve better than that. And set anything that might not meet that standard FREE. And don’t be surprised, if they DON’T come back, that instead of feeling hurt, you feel RELIEVED.


Credit: Good Men Project

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