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I'm standing in front of a small audience of very well intentioned women, and men, who are investing their time, their money, and their hopes to attend a lecture on commitment and commitment conflicts. As always I have asked members of the audience to write down three questions that they would hope to have answered before the end of the evening. While they are signing in, I look at the questions. I do this carefully even though I probably already know them by heart. As much as I appreciate that each question reflects the unique personality and dilemma of the individual questioner, the truth is that the questions I'm asked are always fundamentally the same.
"How can I deal with a partner who is afraid to commit ... a partner who doesn't let me get close ... a partner who avoids intimacy?"
"Why do I get scared in relationships?"
"How do I know whether I'm afraid of commitment in general, or just this specific relationship?"
"I keep choosing people who are afraid of commitment. What does this say about me?"
"What can I do to help a partner who says he/she is scared?"
"One of us always seems to be afraid of moving forward. How can we break this pattern?"
Every time I schedule one of these talks and look at these questions, I wonder what I can say to make a difference to these people. I know what kind of disappointment and pain brings a person to one of these lectures. I know how hard it is to expose one's personal life to a group of strangers. I know how much work goes into having a good relationship. What I don't know is whether people are prepared to do the work that is required. I know for sure that fast answers are simply not enough. There are no quick fixes.
Sometimes as I stand in front of these men and women, I want to say, "Even if I share everything I know as honestly and openly as possible, are you really sure you want to know what I know? Will that help you? Because if you are sincere, then you have a problem: You will have to do something with this new information. You will have to change the way you think and act. You will have to do something differently in your relationship with yourself as well as your relationships with others. This takes time and work, and it isn't always pleasant."
During the nineties, many of us got into the habit of watching Seinfeld. Each week, we looked at George Costanza, and we laughed at the consistency of his problems. One thing we could count on was that George was not going to change. I remember one episode in particular: George fell in love with a woman in prison; her situation made her the ultimate in unavailable partners. How typical! By definition the relationship was limited and would put few demands on George. Of course, he was enthralled. And, of course the relationship fell apart as soon as the woman got out of jail. As always nothing changed. We can laugh at George, but often our behavior is just as predictable. In our relationships, we follow the same patterns time and time again. We either make the wrong choices or we mess up potentially good relationships. But in real life, it's just not funny. We can laugh through our tears, but the tears are still there. I believe there is little that feels more empty and painful than being incapable of forging a working commitment with another person. It implies a lifetime of missed opportunities, first dates, and failed connections. How dissatisfying.
The message is that for most of us, the "eyes-closed thing" isn't working any more. We keep bumping into the same objects and ending up in the same dark places. All we have to show for our efforts are the bumps and bruises that come from repeatedly hitting the familiar walls and experiencing the same negative emotions. If old patterns haven't worked in the past, what makes us think they will work in the future? They didn't get us into the open spaces of relationships; they didn't help us find the love we want.
Ten years ago, I knew everything there was to know about not making a commitment. I knew everything about romantic fear--every nuance, every gesture, all of the language and all of the behavior. I was an expert, if not the expert on fear. A thousand and one different ways to run away from love. For a while in my life, running away from love had it's own appeal; sometimes it was even fun. Fun to be ducking, dodging, and dating. Then it became awful. I wanted long-term love. I wanted a real life. I wanted to be able to share a deep commitment with another human being. I wanted to be able to fall in love and stay in love. I wanted to be able to make a real commitment.
Some people may honestly believe that they can live very happy lives without having a stable relationship. They say commitment is not an essential ingredient in their lives; they say this is not how everybody wants to live. I agree. Not everybody does. But it's how I wanted to live, and if you have picked up this book, a committed relationship must certainly be something that you desire. Now, you probably want to know how you can get from that place of desire to a place where you have the relationship you want.
My job is to help you get down the road. My job is to demystify the process, familiarize you with your options and tell you about the common pitfalls so you don't veer too far off the path. The tough stuff is up to you. There is only one difference between those who make it through and those who do not. One single difference, and it has nothing to do with your age, history, or desire. The one single difference is courage.
Examining My Own Fear of Commitment
One hot summer day more than ten years ago, I found myself in Chicago, sitting on stage at the Oprah Winfrey Show, waiting for the cameras to start rolling tape again after the commercial break. The subject of the show was "commitmentphobia."
The show was going out live to much of the country, and for the first thirty minutes, several men sat on stage and spilled their insides to an audience of riveted viewers. It gave the appearance of an on-air confession, and it was coming from a group of normal looking guys who were acknowledging their problems with romantic commitment and long-term love. Talking about their relationships and their problems with women, these men were taking responsibility for their share of broken promises, broken dreams, and broken hearts. The studio audience was surprisingly sympathetic. The women particularly seemed grateful for the honesty as well as appreciative for the new insight and understanding into a problem that had touched many of them personally.
Then it was my turn to talk. But I was not there to tell my story. I was there for a different reason. I was there because I had just published a book called Men Who Can't Love. In this book my co-author, Julia Sokol, and I coined the term commitmentphobia to describe people who have a claustrophobic response to intimacy. This book, which offers a self-protective message for women involved with commitmentphobic men, is devoted to understanding this problem.
I remember that day vividly. On stage, with Oprah Winfrey in front of me asking her first question, I am terrified. I glance at Julia for assurance. She knows just how terrified I am. Not only because it's Oprah, but also because I have my own unpleasant little commitmentphobic secret that I would like to keep off the screen. Right now I am painfully aware that even though I am the show's "expert," I am no better than any of the men who have already spoken. In many ways, I am worse. I have never been in a committed relationship. The obvious questions I am dreading are very simple ones. "Mr. Carter, what about you?" "What about your life?" "What do you really know about intimacy?" "What about your relationships?" "What about your own commitment fears?"
Now, I want you to understand that I know that there are no rules that say that someone writing about relationships has to be living a perfect life. There are no rules that say I cannot be struggling with my own commitment issues. For years all kinds of experts have invoked the "do as I say, not as I do" clause to explain and justify their own behavior. To some extent, this is valid. Just because the messenger is flawed doesn't mean that the message isn't reliable. Ultimately for the messenger, however, this kind of reasoning is bound to wear thin. Besides, on that day, I was ashamed of the way I had behaved in many, if not all, of my relationships. So ashamed that I could not imagine telling my whole story to anyone, let alone millions of anyones--and on national television. As a relationship expert, my veneer of superiority was being severely tested, and it was humiliating.
After Men Who Can't Love was published, I received scores of mail from women who asked if I somehow knew their boyfriends, husbands, or lovers. How else, they wanted to know, could I have so uncannily detailed their relationships. One of the reasons why the book so accurately described the behavior of people with commitment issues is because I was one of those people. Yes, hundreds of other men and women were interviewed about their relationships, but even though the details were different, their stories were my stories. When it came to running away from love, there was little that I had not done, said, or felt. I had pursued all the "wrong" relationships, and run away from all the ones that had the potential to be "right."
Writing a book about commitment fears had helped me. Some. But not enough. It had made me see very clearly how my behavior was hurting women. It had made me acutely aware that my ambivalence and, let's face it, cowardice, had created pain as well as confusion. Once the book was published, I felt as though I had been completely busted. I could no longer justify my old ways of being in relationships. I had to do something new. But what?
I figured that if I didn't do any of the things I wrote about, somehow my romantic relationships would change. Researching and writing about commitment problems made it impossible for me to go back to my old patterns. So what I did was shift gears into something far more dangerous--for me. For years I had been an active commitmentphobic, running away from women who acted as though they wanted me. I was too guilty and aware to do that anymore. But what could I do instead? My foolish knee-jerk reaction was fairly classic. I began to run away from love by pursuing women who were themselves on the run. Deeply ashamed of my inability to commit, I formed some new excuses for myself by somehow finding women who were themselves hard-pressed to commit to a date, let alone a long-term relationship.
Soon after Men Who Can't Love was published I started dating a woman who could turn on a dime. My head was spinning from this relationship. I think I knew I wasn't in love, but I was certainly in a fair amount of pain. I was getting a first-class education in what it meant to want someone who doesn't really want you--at least not for very long.
The week that Men Who Can't Love hit the bestseller list, my phone was ringing off the hook. Some of these calls were from people congratulating me, but there were also a fair number of friends as well as a couple of ex-girlfriends who called to say that they were finally beginning to understand my behavior. My current girlfriend, in the meantime, wasn't sure whether or not she could commit herself to meeting me for dinner. The relationship was making her feel a little pressured. Maybe next week? Suddenly I began to really understand the pain of women involved with men who forge and break connections. In the meantime I had a publisher who wanted a new book, one that would take up where Men Who Can't Love had left off, and I had a mailbox that was crammed full of letters from people asking me how to break commitmentphobic patterns. They wanted to know how to move forward. So did I. But I didn't know how.
The truth is that Men Who Can't Love gave, and gives, readers much needed insight. It gives information, perspective, and many self-protective guidelines. These are all very important things. I was, and am, very proud of the book. To this day, I think it remains one of the most honest and comprehensive examinations of commitment issues. But as much as I could describe, analyze, and even predict the patterns of men and women who run away from love, I didn't know what to do to change it. Not in my own life, and not in theirs.
Today I think I do.
FORMING INTIMATE CONNECTIONS
When we talk about love and commitment what we are really talking about is the capacity to handle the connections in our lives. Everything we do in life is about connecting. Connecting to our friends, work, homes, children, pets, communities, and even our planet. Good connections help us feel joy and happiness; bad connections can make us feel miserable and angry. The absence of meaningful connections can lead to emptiness and despair.
When we are connected to someone (or something) else, we are present and available. Typically a romantic relationship is defined by the degree to which the partners are bonded or connected--the degree to which they are present and available for each other. When we make a commitment to another person we are agreeing to be present and available; we are announcing that it is our sincere intention to stay connected.
Relationships survive or fail according to the level and integrity of the connectedness between the two partners. When a relationship is tested, it is the connectedness--the bond--that is put to the test. A lack of deep connection, complex connection, meaningful connection, and the relationship is likely to fail the test.
When we talk about connection, we also have to talk about disconnection--and the capacity to handle separation. For when it comes to your relationships, how you handle separation is often every bit as telling and meaningful as how you handle intimacy.
I know a woman who put on about twenty pounds in the first five months of a new relationship. Every single night after her new partner left her house, she found herself eating big bowls of comfort food--pudding and/or buttered noodles. She told me she was completely out of control. When she was with him, she felt "fine," but if he left her house in the evening, there she was in the kitchen, stirring up a storm. She never did this when she didn't have a relationship. It's not that she can't be alone. She has always done just fine alone. But once she connects to someone, she is reduced to a quivering, primitive mass of pudding-eating fear. Every time he leaves, it feels traumatic. This woman had the wisdom to understand that this response had nothing to do with her partner. He was doing nothing intentional to trigger her anxiety. She has a history of trauma associated with separations, and she brings this history into every relationship.
With the people we love, we always have to survive a never-ending process of connecting and disconnecting. In relationships, we come together, move apart, and then come together again. Monday morning arrives, and the couple who spent the idyllic weekend together is pulled apart by the real world. What will each of the partners be thinking and feeling when they are separated by their independent lives? When they said good-bye, both partners appeared to be completely attuned. Will the connection hold firm in their separate day-to-day worlds, or will one or both of them become so swept up in new experiences that what they shared will become weakened? Will the necessary period of disconnection be emotionally uneventful or will it be filled with intense anxiety, jealousy, or obsessive longing?
Men and women with commitment issues almost invariably experience serious difficulty handling connection and disconnection in an appropriate way. Often they attempt to shortcut the process or get around it entirely. Sometimes they form intimate bonds that seem as instantaneous as they are inappropriate. Other times, they erect enormous boundaries that keep their partners up in the air and prevent real bonds from forming.
LOVE IS A PROCESS, NOT A SOLUTION
If I continue to repeat this sentence, it's because so many of us don't want to believe it. We grew up wanting--and expecting--love to be something magical that changes everything on its first visit, and changes it forever. We may have hoped to meet the perfect stranger. We grew up honestly believing that the experience of meeting that special someone and falling in love would transform the way we felt about ourselves and the world PERMANENTLY. We wanted to believe that love changes everything in the blink of an eye--magically and instantaneously. That is how we defined love. Often, even as we mature, we hang on to this unrealistic view of how people relate to each other.
My friend Mike, for example, is trying to decide whether or not to move in with a woman he has been dating for the past year. I asked Mike when he felt most deeply connected to his girlfriend. He answered that it was deepest when they first met. This made it clear to me that he has not moved on to that other level of relating where you look back at the beginning and see it as lovely, but also a little bit primitive. If he still thinks he had his most powerful connection in the beginning, then someone has clearly not let this relationship mature. Mike acknowledges that he is the partner who is resisting growth.
Years ago, a woman who was involved with a deeply commitmentphobic man told me that her therapist had once pointed out that this troubled relationship had never progressed past the first magical date. It always had all the passion and intensity of a charged first meeting, but it never developed to the point where anything could be taken for granted. Not even the next time they would meet. On one level that was very romantic and exciting. On another, it was hell.
Yes, a new romance feels magical. And yes, some of it feels instantaneous. But that's only the beginning of a loving relationship--the primer on a paint job that will have thousands of coats. Love is something that evolves in stages, changing as it grows. New lovers may think their connection is very strong. But it is only over time, if we are very lucky, that we can experience the full power of the extraordinary experience of genuinely loving another human being.
Creating an intimate connection means revealing yourself to this other person, who is your partner, through your actions, words, and feelings while, hopefully, he or she is doing the same thing in return. To create this kind of connection requires that both parties are able to get close and stay close long enough for a bond to form.
Think about the many ways we reinforce our connections to another person: Connections are formed through social contact and conversation; connections are formed through lovemaking; connections are formed through shared experiences. We all know that intimate connections are deepened through shared emotions, vulnerabilities, and problems. Don't forget the connections that are created through doing nothing at all, but doing it together, like sitting in the living room, reading the paper or watching television without having to speak.
When we love someone, and want to increase our sense of connectedness, we try to do so by doing things together. We increase our knowledge and understanding of the other person by sharing our interests. We invite the people we love into our world to meet our friends and our families. This strengthens our connection.
As a relationship develops, all of these connections are happening at once, overlapping each other, as all kinds of bonds are being formed. These are the bonds that can withstand almost any kind of weather.
People who have difficulty with commitment typically don't let these ties develop naturally. More often than not, they are more connected to their fantasies than they are to another real, living, human being. Maggie, a woman who was involved in a long on-again, off-again relationship with a man who was resisting commitment, recently told me that it took her years to realize that many of her super-intense feelings were based on her connection to her dreams, not to a real person. If she had been able to look at her partner realistically, she would have seen and acknowledged the absence of true connections.
Commitmentphobic relationships are unions in which one or both partners are resisting commitment. Often the partner who is running away from love does so by constructing boundaries that keep connections from forming or deepening. These relationships may start out with almost instant intimacy and a strong sexual connection, but then one partner refuses to allow further connections to develop. Ultimately the relationship may become heavily lopsided. There are strong, emotional bonds of passion and intensity, but the other ties of shared experiences are lacking. The relationship never opens up and grows.
Many times we think we have made a powerful connection only to realize later that the connection itself had no teeth. We may think we have experienced a special bonding only to see that the bond was a superficial one, or one based on false information or, worse, fantasies and false hopes.
We are sometimes so anxious to find love that we are seduced by the possibility of a loving connection long before a real connection is made. We often painfully discover that some people simply can't form real connections. They may do a great meeting, or a great phone call, or a great ten minutes. But they can't keep showing up. They can't be real and stay real. It all feels too vulnerable, too raw, too exposed. There are too many chances to get rejected, hurt, misunderstood, or manipulated.
If you make a genuine connection, you continue to tie little pieces of yourself to little pieces of someone else. Making a deep connection means tying thousands of these little pieces together over the course of time. It means watching some of these knots break, and it means retying new and stronger knots. That's why the fabric of each relationship is so unique and unusual.
At the beginning of a relationship, it makes sense to maintain some persona and interact with a little distance. When you are going to meet a stranger, it's not wise to bring and show everything you have. That would be dangerous and foolish. But if you are going to form a lasting and gratifying connection with another, ultimately all parts of you must be revealed--in stages of course. When we keep large chunks of ourselves disconnected from our partners, we end up dancing on the surface of our relationships. We end up with fragile bonds--fair weather bonds. These can feel good at times, but they lack the depth and richness to make us feel truly and permanently connected.
Men Who Can't Love was a book about understanding the commitment problem. This is a book about taking the necessary steps to get to commitment. I often meet women who say that they can now recognize a commitmentphobic man from across the room. At the first whiff of any singular symptom, the label gets attached and everything ends. It would be nice if it were always that clear cut, but it isn't. Most of us have the potential to be "runners." Most of us also have the potential to engage in successful relationships.
Today my life is very different than it was ten years ago. I am happily married to a stable, loving, and lovely woman. I want and expect to stay in the relationship I have. I'm happy with it. I don't feel as though I made any compromises I can't live with; I don't feel as though I have sold out. None of this is an accident. My wife jokes that I am the hardest working guy in the relationship business. She knows what she is talking about. I have worked very hard to get where I am. If I can reach this point, so can you.
Posted January 23, 2002
This book can open you up to a whole new way of life. Steven and Julia are very insightful in the topics that many people face when looking for a relationship. Truly an awesome, enlightening book. I'm going out TODAY and buying a copy. This is a must have if you want to put an end to the cycle of drama filled relationships. I know I did not find this book by coincidence, it was devinely found for such a time as this in my life. I do hope you, too, will reap the knowledge it contains.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.