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She's Got Issues
Whether you're dragging your Manolos down the aisle, rejecting every available man in your zip code, or jumping ship every time a man brings up the future, many of you are right now suffering from commitment-phobia. As novel as the concept may seem, it's hardly a laughing matter. I mean, how funny is it to want something, drive yourself crazy fantasizing about it every day, and then when you finally get it, drop it like last year's Ugg boots? I don't know about you, but there's something downright unnerving about being so conflicted about thinking you want the whole enchilada (marriage, kids, live-in boyfriend, or husband) and when the time comes to sign on some dotted line (be it a one-year lease or a marriage certificate) realizing that you don't. Not even close. Not at all. Well, maybe a little.
THE CONFESSIONAL: Jane, 38
It's weird now that I turned 38, I'm much calmer about the whole thing. But that wasn't always the case. For fifteen years, I spent all my time looking, dating, and trying to find Mr. Right. I read every self-help book. I visited psychologists, tarot readers, psychics you name it, I did it. During those years, I met some great people, but nothing ever worked out. I remember all the heartache, the drama, the feeling that I just had to find someone or die trying, all the classes I took and all the insecurities I had, like maybe I was unlovable. I finally met someone a year ago. He was everything I thought I wanted good-looking, stable, nice, secure, funny. And then out of nowhere, I freaked out and broke up with him. It was a huge shock to realize that I actually missed being single. Everyone thought I was crazy. But I know I'm not half as crazy as I used to be. At least, now I know what I want. I can't help regretting all that time I spent agonizing over my relationships and worrying about being alone. I wish I would have figured it out sooner and enjoyed those years a little more. I don't know...hobbies, traveling more, whatever just focusing on my needs instead of running around town like some crazy woman.
For years, I have watched many women struggle with commitment anxiety. I have seen perfectly sane females insist that their one goal in life is to have a stable relationship, and then do everything in their power to avoid it. Or those women who go on ad infinitum about their careers, the joys of living solo, and no-strings sex, only to collapse in a weeping heap when a guy doesn't call when he says he will. And how could we forget those who are so terrified of facing their commitment fears that they break up with someone they love when things get too close?
Let's face it many of us can't even commit to a hair color, let alone a full-fledged, long-term relationship. And it's not just your typical runaway-bride scenario, either. You don't have to have a gaggle of bridesmaids and a reception hall reservation to experience cold feet. In fact, there are a million and one ways we express our fear of commitment, whether it's by staying in go-nowhere relationships, cheating on our spouses, blowing up our boyfriends' tiny flaws to mammoth proportions, serial dating, or hiding out at home watching reruns of Sex and the City. The behaviors may vary, but the underlying cause is the same: we want to engage in long-term committed relationships but are terrified of what we'll have to give up in the process.
Whether you recognize yourself or any of your single girlfriends in any of the above scenarios, you have to admit one thing: our commitment issues are starting to get a little out of hand. With so many options and conflicting messages (Date! Don't date! Be independent! Find someone to love!), it's no surprise that women are acting just a wee bit schizophrenic. Stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of desire, ambivalence, and confusion, many single women simply don't know that they are afraid of the very things they think they want commitment and stability.
You're so Not Alone
As millions of single women stand on the threshold of commitment, struggling with their fears as they try to decide whether to get married, cohabit, or break up, many of them wonder:
- Is this normal?
- Why am I feeling so anxious?
- Am I the only one who feels this way?
The answers to these questions are simple: (1) Yes, it's normal. (2) Because commitment is scary. (3) And no, you're not alone.
The Census Bureau reports that single women are the fastest-growing segment of the American population, with more than 47 million in this country, 22 million of whom fall within the 25-to-44 age range. Many of these women are right now struggling with commitment anxiety.
While it's becoming clear that women have immense anxiety about commitment and are pushing back marriage later every year, there is almost no information about our ambivalence. As a result, many of us feel completely alone when in fact there are millions of others just like us. The most important thing to realize is that you're not alone. Not even close!
CPs Around the World
If you thought American women had major commitment issues, you'd be surprised to find that your girlfriends around the globe are just as stumped. Here's how some other countries stack up in the commitment department.
United States: The number of women living alone has increased more than 33 percent in the past fifteen years to 30 million, and the marriage rate in 2004 has declined nearly 50 percent since 1970, from 76.5 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women to 39.9 (State of Our Union, National Marriage Project).
Japan: The number of unmarried Japanese women ages 25 to 34 is skyrocketing, so much so that the government is enacting policies to ensure the continuation of the population. How apocalyptic! What used to be a very family-centric culture has quickly become single-minded, with a bestseller about life as a thirty-something single female, titled Howl of the Loser Dogs, flying off the shelves and Boyfriend Pillows (headrests shaped like a man's arm) selling out as quickly as they're made.
Brits: When it comes to our friends across the pond, they're taking commitment-phobia to a whole new level. With the average age of women getting married now at 32 years (Office of National Statistics, 2001), there's a reason why singleton Bridget Jones was invented here. And with a new National Singles Week holiday to call their very own, it's unlikely that the trend will reverse anytime soon.
Aussies: Australia's marriage rate is the lowest it has been in a hundred years. Nearly a third of all Australian women from 30 to 34 are single. And this from the people who brought us Muriel's Wedding?
Not your Mother's Problem
Female commitment-phobia is a relatively new phenomenon. Not to say that our mothers didn't struggle with a certain amount of anxiety, because they did, and many still do. But when it came to 'fessing up to their commitment issues, the old-girl network never stood a chance. Back then, the idea of an unmarried girl on the loose was just plain unheard of. In fact, they had another, not-so-flattering name for that type of girl.
When it came right down to it, there just wasn't any room for ambiguity or indecision. Like it or not, a woman had to maintain a certain measure of semi-respectability. Translation: get married and have kids, pronto! Those who struggled with committing usually stayed silent, sucked it up, and went through with it despite their misgivings. Our mothers just didn't have the wherewithal to defy these expectations (ever see those pouty bride photos from the old days?). Besides those awful cone-shaped bras, there was a good reason why so many of them looked so peevish.
Of course, there were a few rare exceptions. Not everyone walked gently into that good night of matrimonial bliss. There were the brazen sex-kitten screen stars such as Mae West, fiercely independent actresses like Katharine Hepburn, and unrepentant serial wedders Elizabeth Taylor and Hedy Lamarr. These feisty femmes were around kicking up a storm the whole time, but no one really noticed or cared to think about the matter much. After all, they were famous, and certain allowances had to be made for Hollywood types.
But that was then. And now? Well, we have a much bigger problem on our hands. We're still confronted with a barrage of social pressure to settle down and commit, but it's not like anyone really cares what we do anymore (save for dear old Grammy and De Beers, of course). These days women are free to choose rather than just be influenced by social pressure. We have more opportunities than ever before. We can get married, get divorced, travel the world, run a Fortune 500 company, play the field, cohabit, have kids, adopt puppies, all of the above, or none of it. It's really anyone's call.
THE CONFESSIONAL: Avery, 25
I think that women's commitment-phobia stems from not wanting to settle for something right now, especially since something better might come along. We've seen our mothers and grandmothers who did settle and are unhappy because of it. I think that one advantage of staying single is that you control your own destiny. You aren't tied to someone else who could potentially bring you down. My mother was a housewife for most of my childhood. I'm afraid of being trapped in a situation where I am just a wife/mother and feeling as though my potential is untapped. I also feel like this time in my life is about being selfish growing up and developing myself. If I'm not selfish now, I don't want to have a midlife crisis and be selfish later when the stakes are higher.
So what exactly is the problem? you're wondering. Before you start burning your bras and celebrating in the name of female empowerment, consider that we might have gotten more than we bargained for. With all our talk about winning the right to choose, that's exactly where the problem lies: choice and more choices! With all the emphasis on the right to choose, there's been little talk of how to choose.
The truth is many of us grew up thinking that we would one day be picked, rather than having to do the picking ourselves. Schooled in the art of capturing a man, flirting, and looking good, we never learned how to scrutinize, analyze, and evaluate the opposite sex. It was enough that he fit a standard ideal of the "right" guy financially secure, polite, and color-coordinated. We may have the power to make our own decisions now, but that doesn't mean we're any more equipped than our mothers to make good ones.
With so many dizzying options to pick from, today's women are far more prone to catching the commitment-phobia bug than ever before. Think about it. It's all too easy to decide on a coat of paint for your bedroom when you only have a choice of two colors. But when presented with a rainbow of equally pleasing options (caramel latte, polo blue, acorn yellow), the whole matter can become far more confusing than it needs to be. And when it comes to making a decision about love, the rest of your life, or even the next few years, it's all too easy to freak out and lose our heads. With choice comes responsibility, and that's the hardest pill of all to swallow.
If you think our mothers had it rough in that department, consider that their lack of opportunities could have been a blessing in disguise. Not that I'm proposing to go back to the old regime or anything. After all, many of our mothers are now left with the hard work of reinventing themselves after never having the opportunity to invent themselves properly in the first place. But you have to admit that life seemed a little bit easier back then. So before you start thinking about how much luckier you are than dear old Mom, stop to consider that our freedom exacts its own price, and its name is commitment-phobia. While your mom may wonder what it is like to be in your shoes every now and then, rest assured she's also pretty damn glad she isn't.
The Times are A-Changin'
No matter what you call it commitment-phobia, cold feet, runaway-bride syndrome the results are the same: a new breed of women with an enormous sense of entitlement, unwilling to put up with less-than-perfect behavior, poor style choices, or personality flaws. With so many factors contributing to this phenomenon, let's stop to consider what's really behind our newfound reluctance to commit.
THE DOCTOR IS IN
I think that women are freer to make their own decisions than they were 150 years ago. In light of the women's movement, women are expressing themselves in a larger way because they can. They actually do have a voice. I think their independence can become an issue, making women a little more selective, potentially. I think women of old used to settle more. That's why I think it's more of a phenomenon today.
Dr. Michael S. Broder
1. Money Honeys
It used to be that the marital institution guaranteed an upgrade in lifestyle and social status. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, remaining single was often tantamount to a lifetime of menial labor and penury: women would be turned out of their parents' houses, forced to work in demeaning occupations, and sometimes even starve due to a lack of marital opportunities. So when the first man came along who could rescue them from their squalid conditions, you can bet that they didn't spend time ticking off all his annoying habits or raising hell when he picked the wrong restaurant. They were just glad to have something to eat.
But all that's changed. The American way has always been about the quest for something better a bigger dream, a better house, a higher-paying job. And with women finally getting a bigger share of the economic pie, it's become the woman's way as well. Judging by such Newsweek cover headlines as "She Works, He Doesn't: The Latest Twist in Jobs and Family (Why 30% of Working Women Make More than Their Husbands)," it's obvious that women are making considerable economic strides.
Despite the fact that women still earn 78 cents for every dollar a man makes, we've certainly come a long way. A 2003 National Association of Realtors survey found that 21 percent of home purchases were made by single women and that they are fast on their way to becoming the most active buyers in the market, even outpacing single men. What's more, single women in the United States account for 50 percent of stock market investing. Entrepreneurially speaking, we're also leading the pack by owning more than 35 percent of U.S. companies and employing more than 27 million people.
With money and social status ceasing to be a primary factor in the choice of partner, it's clear that women's growing financial independence has lessened the urgency to commit. No longer dependent on men for financial security and social status, women are reveling in their freedom and are worried that making a commitment would mean renouncing all that they have worked so hard to attain. So with work and men both vying for equal attention, something usually has to give. And for the professional modern woman, that something is usually romantic relationships.
THE CONFESSIONAL: Gloria, 38
My career is very important to me. I need to feel purposeful and that I'm constantly growing and learning. As a result, I often choose work over relationships. My mother, because of a bad marriage, had to give up a lucrative job. She's always felt unfulfilled, and in some respects, I believe that she resents us (my dad, my siblings) for keeping her from realizing her goals. And I see my sister, who needs to be Suzy Homemaker to make her husband happy. I feel like her identity is totally wrapped up in her status as a wife and soon-to-be mother. I don't want that to happen to me. At the end of the day, you can point to your achievements and say, "That's mine and no one else's." That's important to me. I worry that I would be less inclined to take opportunities because of my partner.
2. Le Divorce: Unhappily Ever After
If our careers are a convenient excuse to avoid commitment, then the collective fear of divorce is an even bigger doozy. I mean, who would be brave enough to get in a car if it meant you had a 50 percent chance of dying before you got where you were going? Talk about some bad odds!
Having lived through the record-setting divorce decade of the 1980s, many of us have developed a natural suspicion of the marital institution. Because our parents were expected to get married, have kids, and put everything else on hold (many times before they were sufficiently ready), disillusion, dismay, and divorce frequently followed. As a result, many of us are understandably gun-shy, having seen the devastating effects that divorce can have. Even if our parents gallantly stuck it out for the sake of the children, putting up with the constant turmoil in our younger years often made us wish they hadn't.
Whether it was watching our parents quarrel, toil away in unfulfilling relationships, or suffer the hardships that accompany a single-parent lifestyle, we swore that that would never be us; we vowed to never end up in a similar situation. Now that we're older and, we hope, a bit wiser, many of us still haven't quite gotten over the past.
THE CONFESSIONAL: Teri, 29
My parents are divorced. My dad is remarried to a woman eighteen years his junior and is a workaholic, and my mom is single and dating. My mom tends to date guys with a lot of money and older or much younger. I take marriage really seriously. I have seen too many people look at it like, "Well, you can always get a divorce, so what the heck." I think it would work for me because I am not one to settle for just anyone I am comfortable with, and I am realistic on the downsides because I have seen it all before.
With the 50 percent marital survival rate lodged firmly in our brains, there's a lot more riding on our choices. The stakes of love become so high that it becomes virtually impossible to relate to others in a calm and nonvigilant manner. We worry that the wrong choice of partner could lead to an unhappy union, culminating in an acrimonious and bitter divorce.
If he even as much as glances at another girl, we mentally file him away as a serial cheater. If he innocently asks us to do the dishes one night, we imagine a life of household chores and domestic drudgery. If he doesn't call three nights in a row, we brand him a raging commitment-phobe, thus conveniently avoiding dealing with our own anxiety about commitment. And his socks, the ones that looked so cute lying on the living room floor when we first started dating, suddenly morph into deal breakers once he's moved in.
With so many failed marriages, soured relationships, and broken unions, many of us assume that in order to be successful in love, we have to beat the system and find the one person who is perfect for us in every way, the one person who will never, ever land us in divorce court. But as we all know, there's no such thing as a divorce insurance policy.
THE DOCTOR IS IN
Parents who got divorced can have a very big impact on women in terms of fear of commitment, especially if it was a volatile divorce or if the divorce didn't make sense to the child. For instance, if a child saw that the parents get divorced but had thought that the parents loved each other (never saw them arguing or having any open conflicts), and all of a sudden it came out of the blue, then often when these children grow up into adults, they start distrusting their own judgment of their own ability to love and be loved.
Debra Mandel, Ph.D.
3. Thirty Going on 13
Is 30 really the new 20? We've all heard that one before. But there's definitely more than a little truth to that statement. Our world is undergoing a radical shift in its expectations of when we mature. The MacArthur Foundation's Transition to Adulthood project has set a new ceiling for adolescence at 34 years of age. And the 2005 U.S. Census Bureau's marriage statistics indicate that women are waiting longer than ever to settle down, with the average age of first marriage increasing from 20.8 to 25.8 between 1970 and 2005. Just as we've all heard about the Peter Pan complex, the boy who wouldn't grow up, it was only a matter of time before the Tinker Bell Syndrome reared its head.
THE DOCTOR IS IN
The whole social expectation of mating is a sign of maturity, leading to the mythical 2.5 children, the dog, and the white picket fence. This is the cultural expectation of what you do when you grow up. And so just as men are affected by what's been called the Peter Pan Syndrome, women, too, can see that their parents or other grown-ups are not having as much fun in their lives and it doesn't look very attractive. And it's easy for them to say, "I don't want to go there." We don't really have rites of passage in our culture anymore. And in the absence of other rites of passage, marriage has become the main symbol of being grown up.
Dr. Deborah Anapol
In the past, our youth was defined as a time of personal struggle for identity that ended with the choice of a career and a spouse. These were the goalposts on the road to adulthood. Whether it's because of our extended life span (77.6 years in 2003) or the fact that it's taking far longer to match our parents' middle-class lifestyle, we don't feel as compelled to get a job, settle down, and push out 2.5 kids all before we turn 30. In fact, more and more studies are encouraging women to wait, showing that late marriages have better success rates than early ones.
What used to be the years for moving to the suburbs and picking out china patterns have now become a time of unabashed self-exploration, a period to experiment, travel, date, establish a career, and nurture social networks. Having postponed marriage and carved out a thriving single life for ourselves, many of us have become habituated to living on our own, much like a confirmed bachelor. In the end, today's women are in no hurry to grow up, and it is these new expectations for the onset of adulthood that have eliminated the urgency with which many of us pursue commitment.
THE CONFESSIONAL: Lia, 33
I have a huge fear of aging and death, and view marriage as a milestone followed by a series of losses. I see people around me finding happiness and peace within scenarios that on paper look entirely unriveting. It makes me wonder if there is something to be said for boring. Then again, the idea of being saddled with a husband and children right now is terrifying. I think I just move at a slower pace than some of my peers.
4. Hip to Be Single
Fifty years ago, a single woman who postponed marriage would have been branded a spinster, an old maid, or a recluse. Unwed women were usually derided, barely tolerated, or viewed as home-wrecking threats. Thankfully, today's social climate has changed drastically.
Look around and you'll see images of the hip single woman everywhere. There's the immense popularity of the chick-lit genre, national singles organizations, TV shows such as Sex and the City, singles registries at stores such as Williams-Sonoma and Pottery Barn, and diamond companies marketing right-hand rings to celebrate women's independence. Sure, there are the occasional eyebrow furrows when you tell someone you're single, but overall the stigma of being uncoupled has dramatically decreased, helping women shake off the spinster stereotype and celebrate their single years.
But can it really be all that simple? Not at all. In fact, life has become more complicated than ever. On one hand, it is perfectly acceptable for us to enjoy a variety of relationships without long-term commitment. On the other hand, many of us still have traditional leanings and crave stability, family, and commitment.
5. Mommy Madness
Single mothers may have made for startling headlines in the past, but today they're old news. The idea of a woman having or adopting a kid by herself doesn't even faze us anymore. But life hasn't always been this sweet for the single mommy. Besides the lack of financial opportunity, a woman in the past who wanted to have children either had to get married or face a meager existence on the fringes of society. Not only that, she would have to risk her children being ostracized as well.
Fortunately, the stigma of having kids outside the confines of a conventional marriage scenario has significantly decreased. A record number of babies (almost 1.5 million) were born to unmarried women in the United States in 2004. And according to new data from the Federal National Center for Health Statistics, those mothers were much more likely to be in their twenties than to be teenage moms. It's obvious that women who want kids today find that they don't have to wait around for their knight in shining armor to enjoy the benefits of motherhood.
But the issue of single mommies isn't quite so cut-and-dried. Some women struggle with the idea of going it alone and wouldn't dream of having children outside of marriage. For these women, their ticking biological clocks are a constant reminder that they have yet to make a commitment. Many of them are legitimately freaked out that their fear of permanency will impede their chances of starting a family. With nine times more fertility clinics in the United States now than there were in 1986, it should come as no surprise that women are delaying having children well into their thirties and forties. And yet, there are many women who are as averse to the idea of having children as to the prospect of committing to a relationship. For them, committing to a child or a man poses an equal-opportunity challenge of giving up the freedom and mobility that they currently enjoy.
THE CONFESSIONAL: Casey, 28
I definitely think about getting older. My mother said she went to this wedding last night and the bride was 30 and we were talking how she should be having babies. And my mom said, "Yeah, she's up there." And I'm like, "What do you mean? I'm knocking on 30." You do have to think about marriage and babies age definitely affects what you look for when you are going to be dating someone. But it also scares me, because I think, if I find that person, am I really going to want to be with them for the rest of my life? And marriage usually leads to children, and that's the other extreme where you are not only responsible for yourself, but you are responsible for this other life. That changes the whole dynamic of your life. Everyone speaks about how wonderful it is, and that it's a love you will never experience anywhere else. But you can't know that until it actually happens. And it takes away a lot of your freedom and your identity. You have to be really selfless.
6. Chick Cliques
In lieu of committed relationships, many women are forming close-knit groups that serve as surrogate support networks. You can't walk by a bar or restaurant without seeing a group of women toasting their friendships and successes. And who could forget all those hours you and your friends clock on the phone or at your regular Sunday brunches? The idea now seems to be, "Who needs a boyfriend when I have so many friends?" Women can travel together, start businesses together, live together, and support each other during a health scare or crisis.
THE CONFESSIONAL: Danielle, 31
I have a ton of friends I'm a very social person, I get along with people really well. I just think someone who will be sharing that part of me will have to be not just someone that I trust, but someone who is not like a hero, but bigger than me. I don't want to sound all Sex and the City (I think that was a line on the show), but I'd rather be alone than be with the wrong person. I'd rather spend time with friends.
With many of their social and personal needs being met by friends, it's no surprise that women are more likely to question commitment. Some of these surrogate urban tribes are so emotionally supportive and rewarding that women do not feel the need to form traditional nuclear families of their own. In the absence of one significant other, many women find themselves turning to their friends for support.
Of course, what starts out as a great substitute often becomes a convenient way to push away commitment. After all, who has time to commit to a long-term relationship when life is already so full? Suddenly, men are finding that they have to jump through hoops to pry a woman away from her friends or worry that they will be disqualified if they fail to impress her girlfriends.
CINE-PHOBIA: COMMITMENT-PHOBIA IN THE MOVIES
No matter how perplexing our issues are in real life, female commitment-phobes are riveting to watch on the big screen. Here are a few of the most memorable.
Runaway Bride (1999): Who could forget the classic image of Julia Roberts racing away from the altar on horseback? In the movie, the phenomenon of a woman who won't commit is so shocking to the world at large that a famous New York reporter, played by Richard Gere, must fly into her small town to prove the existence of this strange creature. Can this really be true? Can such a woman really exist?
Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961): It's ironic that a movie about a commitment-challenged girl-about-town would serve as the inspirational theme for so many weddings. The film introduces us to Holly Golightly, a madcap single gal who sips champagne before breakfast and survives on her wiles and megawatt charm. To her, money equals freedom, and the word love is not in her vocabulary. Until, that is, she meets a man who helps her realize that her fear of being captured is a trap in itself because she cannot truly ever love anyone. While the film intimates that Holly may have finally met her true match, Truman Capote's original book, on which the film was loosely based, has Holly fleeing to Brazil, never to be heard from again. In the end, Holly became an emblem for single women who refused to play by anyone's rules but their own.
Bridget Jones's Diary (2001): Bridget Jones, played expertly by Renée Zellweger, has become the modern symbol of the liberated if slightly neurotic (okay, more than slightly neurotic) single woman. While so many critics and reviewers pegged the lead character as a woman desperate for commitment, Bridget Jones is the ultimate commitment-phobic female, torn between having fun with bad boy Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) and settling down with the stable and serious Mark Darcy (Colin Firth). We should all be so lucky to have her problems. Despite the fact that she frets about being alone, so much of her behavior is self-sabotaging. She continues to engage in a fantasy relationship with the roguish Daniel and constantly picks on poor Mark for being dull and boring. It took a second book/movie and the threat of a life sentence in a Thai prison for her to finally reconcile herself to the notion of long-term commitment.
The Graduate (1967): Even though it was made more than thirty years ago, The Graduate stands the test of time as one of the greatest movies ever made about the fear of commitment. What's unique about this film is that it shows both a man and a woman struggling equally with the same issues. When Dustin Hoffman crashes Katherine Ross's wedding to the "wrong" man, the audience cheers him on. Now the couple can make a commitment to each other and live happily ever after. When the bus whisks them away, their smiles slowly fade as they face the realization that they're nowhere near ready to make a lifelong pact.
THE CONFESSIONAL: Kira, 41
I think women can definitely be commitment-phobic. I think the general difference is that it's not as obvious that we are commitment-phobic because it's not a stereotype of women to be that way. Many men just take it as the woman is cold or not into him at all, so men will just give up. On the contrary, when a man is commitment-phobic, the woman will just keep trying because it's a stereotype for men to be that way and she may think she can change him or that he is just a typical man. I think it would be great if more people knew about this problem so that guys would become more aware and consider that this may be the reason why I act the way I do instead of that I am just not interested. That way, men could learn to give me a little space and understand, especially while I am trying to understand myself!!
Not your Boyfriend's Problem
The stereotype of the elusive bachelor is everywhere. You know, those lads who never make plans until the last minute, date three women at a time, and are always bragging about dodging the marriage bullet. Society just loves to pigeonhole men and women into these Mars/Venus categories. Men are commitment-phobes and women are commitment-holics. End of discussion. Or is it?
In the past, women were brought up to play with dolls, plan their weddings, and imagine their knight in shining armor long before they even learned to finger-paint. In many cases, it was the woman who dragged the man across the marital threshold. Men would mumble about being caught hook, line, and sinker, and women would be congratulated on landing such a fine catch.
Despite evidence to the contrary and more and more women choosing to stay single, many of the old stereotypes persist. Everywhere you look, it's still one variation on this theme after another. Whether it's a businesslike plan to nab the love of your life or a time-tested formula for getting him to propose, women are constantly being taught that it's somehow their responsibility to find a man and get him to commit.
But a recent CBS/New York Times poll of teenagers produced some startling results that defy many of these gender-alizations. The survey found that boys had much more traditional ideas about marriage and family than the girls. According to this study, "The girls surveyed were more likely than the boys to say they could have a happy life even if they do not marry and that they would consider becoming a single parent." Only 61 percent of the boys thought they could be happy if they didn't get married, while 73 percent of the girls said they could live a happy life without getting married.
In the end, there's no use placing blame on the powers that be. The stereotypes are just as much our fault as anyone's. After all, we girls have enabled the notion of the commitment-phobic man and commitment-hungry woman. We believed it when they told us, "He's just not that into you," and never stopped to wonder if in fact we're into him, committed relationships, and all that they entail.
The fact is, fear of commitment is an equal-opportunity relationship killer. The view of this phobia as a strictly male issue has led us to turn a blind eye to the effect it has on us, and it's high time we realized that we are just as responsible for our love lives and start figuring out what, if anything, we want to do about it. So while pointing the finger at men may make us feel wonderfully neurosis-free, it doesn't help us come to grips with the underlying causes of our fear.
THE CONFESSIONAL: Vivian, 36
I always presumed that it was men who had commitment issues. I guess in terms of the last relationship, I pushed and pushed and pushed him to be committed to me, and once he did I hightailed it out of there. When he gave me what I wanted, when he indicated to me that he would try to be in a relationship with me, it freaked me out. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was because I wasn't ready. Although I say men don't want to be with me and don't want to commit, I'm the one who leaves the relationship. I'm the one who ends them. It's obvious to anyone else. But it's something that I've finally admitted to myself that I have commitment issues. The older I get, the more I kind of have a spiritual view of the world. If the universe wants me to realize that it's me and not the guy or the relationship, if it wants me to realize that I am the one creating the issues, then fine. I'm finally ready to do that.
The Genderless Divide
In the battle of the sexes, even commitment-phobia is up for grabs. Many of you are probably trying to figure out who's more phobic, men or women. So if you're wondering how the genders really compare in the commitment-phobia department, read on to find out.
1. Time's Ticking
Tick. Tock. It's been said that no matter how commitment-phobic or independent a woman is, she will probably want to settle down once her biological clock starts ticking. And while it's true that our chances of conceiving drop at 35, it's important to note that men aren't exactly off the hook here, either. According to The Male Biological Clock: The Startling News About Aging, Sexuality, and Fertility in Men by Harry Fisch, M.D., men older than 35 are twice as likely to be infertile as men who are 25. So whether they know it or not, it seems that men are now in the same fertility boat. But does that mean that every guy will automatically jump into commitment mode once he reaches the ripe old age of 35? Highly doubtful. Because despite biology and the urgings of our reproductive systems, many men and women are simply not ready to say goodbye to the single life. In the end, just because our eggs are ready to get hatched doesn't mean we're emotionally ready to get hitched.
2. Nature or Nurture?
We women are often credited with having innate nurturing instincts. Men were the hunters and gatherers, while women held down the fort and protected the little ones. Not to go against years of social conditioning, but the roles aren't as clearly defined as they used to be. Getting food is as easy as calling a reservation hotline, and what with twenty-four-hour convenience stores and all, women are plenty adept at hunting and gathering their own supplies. Also, with so many women spending their time in corporate boardrooms, many have put a premium on developing male-specific traits such as competition and aggression at the expense of female-centric traits such as cooperation and empathy.
Despite the popular wisdom that all women are able to emote and nurture till the cows come home, many of us never learned to share feelings, act selflessly, cooperate, and make the kind of compromises that relationships require. Most of us can't even bring ourselves to hand over the remote control, let alone the reins to our future happiness. In fact, in a poll conducted by Women Today Online, half of the women surveyed said they didn't see themselves as nurturing in a way that comes naturally to them. In the end, for all that talk about us women being born more emotionally intuitive, the shifting economic tides and our newfound career focus have made us no more emotionally wise than men in the realm of personal relationships.
THE CONFESSIONAL: Julie, 36
I'm not really into having kids. I think I'd rather have nice, fabulous affairs. I don't think marriage is the ultimate goal of anything. I have a brother, and I think that's his goal he wants to fall in love and find somebody and have kids. He once asked me for a nephew for Christmas, and I looked at him like he was insane.
3. Why Buy the Cow When You Can Order a Quart of Milk Online?
In the past, women who wanted to move in with a boyfriend would get a strict talking-to about a common male mentality: "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" It's often been said that men are postponing marriage because they can now have all the sex they want without any of the emotional commitment. After all, why get married if you can have all the conjugal benefits without any of the fuss? Seems like a tempting enough proposition. Of course, that argument supposes that women don't enjoy sex for its own sake but instead have to use it as a lure to make a man settle down. Problem is, sex is no longer the commitment bait it used to be. Today, both women and men are finding that they don't need to settle down to have sex and can experiment with a variety of partners, which often results in both genders experiencing a host of commitment issues.
It used to be that a woman who had sex outside of marriage was considered loose and immoral. Today, that notion has gone out the window. Plenty of women are having no-strings sex and enjoying every minute of it (more on that later in "The Player" chapter). Women are just as enticed by the prospect of casual sex and (except for a small percentage) don't see anything wrong with a few carnal marathons before marriage.
So while men may still have a slightly higher propensity to enjoy no-strings sex (due to the waning but still powerful double standard), it doesn't mean that men do not yearn for committed relationships or that women have no sexual desires beyond lifelong monogamy. In fact, a study by a university showed that there is no statistical difference between the genders' desires for stable relationships. The 2005 Bowdoin Student Life Survey found that 66 percent of men and 61 percent of women want to be in a relationship (and this from college students at their sexual prime).
THE CONFESSIONAL: Melissa, 24
I don't want to be with anybody seriously right now. I really like being by myself. I really like just having my own voice in my head. Not having it mediated by someone else's opinion. I think I would have to be more fully formed, more strongly formed, before I can be in a committed relationship. I feel like I could be guided into a lifestyle that's not quite right for me and into a way of thinking that doesn't suit me. And it could really close me off from growing in the way that I need to grow. And I get a lot more out of random experiences. I don't want to get tied up with someone. I think it's important to think about your own goals and not to think about what other people want for you.
4. A Sharper Image
It's not surprising that men are growing more conscious of women's commitment-phobia. Nowhere is this more evident than in the trend of "metrosexual men." You know, that color-coordinated guy at your office with the Valentino suit and moisturized skin who you thought was gay until he showed up at the office party with a lingerie model. Since most adults today, ages 18 to 59, can expect to spend around nineteen years living alone (according to The Sexual Organization of the City report), men are quickly realizing that their bachelorhood is not necessarily a temporary arrangement. Many have discovered that if they want to have any hope of living in a civilized and organized manner, they must learn to take care of themselves.
With so many women achieving success in the workplace and leading full, active lives, men are also finding that they have to step up their game in order to set themselves apart in the dating market. The pressure to maintain appearances and succeed in a competitive dating atmosphere is certainly intense. Consider the fact that more men are getting plastic surgery that ever, with over 1.2 million procedures performed in 2004, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
It's no longer enough to just bring home the bacon; today's man needs to cook it, serve it, and even garnish it. The more women advance, the higher their standards become for their partners. As a result, many women will no longer accept men who expect them to keep the house clean, take care of the children, and go to a full-time job every morning. So whether it's through watching shows such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, taking cooking classes, or getting facials at the spa, men are finding that they have to improve their overall lifestyles in order to attract today's modern woman.
THE DOCTOR IS IN
In general, I think men and women are more similar than we want to recognize. Of course, there are differences. One of the big differences in the way the fear of commitment shows up is that for the man, it's more expected that he be afraid of commitment. It's more likely that it comes out directly with a man. With a woman, she's not expected to be afraid of commitment, so it may come out a little sideways. A woman might say, "I would commit if I found the right man." Rather than taking the responsibility and saying, "I don't want a partner," it's very convenient for her to find there's no man who's good enough.
Dr. Deborah Anapol
The evidence is clear: when it comes to commitment, both women and men suffer equally. The only difference between male and female anxiety is that men aren't afraid to admit to it. After all, it's all too easy for them. There's the notion that bachelors are Lotharios fending off women right and left. As a result, most men are actually proud of their commitment-shy status, since it bestows on them a certain unattainable allure.
But when it comes to women, singleness is considered not an asset but a liability. Despite the gradual shift, women who are single are still assumed to have been left on the shelf too long or have three legs. As Bridget Jones so aptly described the single set, "It doesn't help that underneath our clothes our entire bodies are covered in scales." Our culture sends so many mixed messages about singlehood, spinsterhood, and our "duty" to settle down that we don't quite know what to make of all our conflicting emotions and ambivalence. So while some women do own up to their commitment issues, most will try to deny them for as long as possible, thinking that it will make them seem abnormal, strange, and somehow unfeminine.
What's Love got to do with it?
Poetry, religion, literature, philosophy...since the beginning of time, all have exalted the transcendent power that love has over the human soul. So it's no surprise that within the heart of even most vehement commitment-phobes lies the need to love and be loved.
So with all this talk about pursuing careers, the perfect man, and personal growth, one has to wonder what many of us women are giving up. By ignoring our desire for stable and loving unions, we are actually turning down the very thing that will ultimately give purpose and meaning to our lives. By avoiding commitment and stable relationships, aren't we actually committing to another course...often without even realizing it?
In our bid for equality and personal freedom, many of us have sorely neglected our fundamentally human need for love and sharing. Despite our best efforts at independence, most of us still long for the companionship, comfort, and connection of a solid, committed relationship. We know we don't need a man, but therein lies the whole problem: we have become so emancipated that we are shutting out real love from our lives.
Instead of working to live, we live to work. Instead of opening up, we build insurmountable walls. Instead of learning to share, we become more guarded. Many of us have come to view men as either deterrents to our happiness or harmless distractions, and we have become less capable of relating to them in a meaningful way. And while no one would argue that committed relationships don't require some degree of compromise, the price we pay for avoiding them entirely can be much dearer still.
So whether you're tired of acting unavailable, constantly falling in love with unsuitable men, or feeling terrified of taking your relationship to the next level, it's high time you got into the driver's seat and on the road to facing down your commitment fears once and for all.
Copyright © 2007 by Elina Furman