Welcome back to our ongoing series exploring the reasons that you aren’t married.
Well, maybe we’re not talking about you, per se, but we’re looking at the various factors in singles’ lives that may stand in the way of marriage — factors you may or may not recognize in yourself. For the past few months we’ve talked about how to pray about this – to be open to seeing what areas of our lives may need healing, and how to ask for that healing.
This month we’re going to start talking about what some of those factors might be.
The way I see it, most of what gets in the way of marriage falls into two broad categories – things that make potential spouses not want us, and things that make us not want potential spouses. Breaking the second category down further, we have situations where there things about those potential spouses that make them unacceptable to us, and other times when we’re reluctant to take the risk because of something (ie fear) going on inside ourselves. Only we often confuse the last two. Not wanting to admit even to ourselves that we’re afraid, we blame our reluctance on some kind of fault – real or imagined – in the other person.
Welcome to the world of commitment-phobia.
Fear of commitment seemed like a great place to start this discussion of obstacles to marriage. I can’t speak for men, but I can tell you that women love commitment-phobia. We don’t necessarily love encountering it, of course. But we love diagnosing it. It’s the ultimate “It’s not me, it’s you.” Men don’t break up with us because they see something about us they don’t like. No, they leave us because they have deep-seated problems that keep them from recognizing our inherent wonderful-ness! A scorned woman enjoys nothing more than gathering her girlfriends around her well-worn copy of Men Who Can’t Love, and pointing to various paragraphs with a knowing look that says, “the poor, poor, terrified man couldn’t possibly appreciate me.”
Of course, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you, and even a blind squirrel finds a nut, and a stopped clock is right twice a day, and some people – male and female – really are afraid of commitment.
Because I write about single issues while actually living as a single person, I try to keep a balanced perspective about these things. And so, on this topic, I rely on two different books. One, He’s Scared, She’s Scared, is about understanding the hidden fears that sabotage our relationships. It’s quite good, except of course for the all-pervasive assumption that “healthy” unmarried relationships include sexual activity. The other book is He’s Just Not That Into You, which is basically about the female tendency to psychoanalyze various men’s bad behavior instead of getting on with our lives. It’s far too vulgar to recommend without a warning, but the overall message about respecting ourselves can be really helpful.
And so, with that balanced perspective in mind, let’s begin what is sure to be a multi-part series on the ins and outs of commitment-phobia.
First of all, I think it’s important to note that anyone who isn’t just a little scared of permanent commitment isn’t really paying attention. I mean, it’s permanent. It’s about giving the entire rest of your life to another person. That’s a big deal. It’s risky. And anyone who denies experiencing the slightest trepidation about it is either in denial or just doesn’t take it seriously enough to find it frightening.
It’s all a matter of degree. A little fear helps us respect the process. A lot of fear can paralyze us. Especially when we aren’t aware of it – which is the case more often than not. Then we just wander through one messed-up dating situation after another without ever really knowing why.
So if it’s unconscious, how can we recognize it?
Apparently there are patterns. Two, depending on whether your fear is “active” or “passive.”
For the passive commitment-phobic, the pattern is pretty simple. They tend to date people who aren’t available – people for whom something stands between the two of them and happily ever after. Maybe she lives far away. Maybe there’s something you feel you’d need to change about him before you would marry him. Often, commitment-phobic Catholic types will date people who don’t share their faith, safe in the knowledge that without a conversion there will be no wedding. They may work like crazy to try to bring that conversion about, but their ardor wanes to the extent that their beloved actually moves toward the Church.
Then there are the “active” commitment-phobics, whose pattern overlaps the passive in some ways. Their modus operandi is hot to cold. In the early stages of a relationship, they’re all about the pursuit. They pull out all the stops. If they have money, they spend it. If they have gifts, they show them off. They are smitten, and they’re doing everything they can to overcome the reluctance of their beloved.
But once that reluctance is overcome, there’s a change. Suddenly they’re not so smitten. They realize what they’ve done, and they don’t like it. They feel trapped.
The process can be fast or slow. The moment of fear may set in after a single great date. Sometimes it happens after the wedding. More often than not, it happens after some “trigger event” – something that indicates that the relationship is moving forward. Maybe that’s meeting the family, or a trip together, or the first “I love you.”
Whatever the trigger, everything changes afterward. They’re looking for the Big Green Exit Sign. Any excuse will do
There are two dead giveaways that a breakup is motivated by fear of some sort. First of all, most breakups happen because things aren’t going well – it becomes apparent that these two people don’t belong together for some reason. But the person with unconscious fears often ends a relationship when things are going well. Or, it happens after things were going well until the phobic partner started throwing wrenches into the gears because it was all going too well.
The second giveaway is that the reasons given for the breakup – if there are reasons given at all – are often factors that were there all along. Suddenly he’s too short, too tall, too bald, too Jewish, or she’s too smart, too dumb, too pretty, too Catholic. It wasn’t a problem during the Initial Time of Great Pursuit, but it’s a handy excuse when it comes time to leave.
So, recognize any of this? Is it possible that there are unconscious fears sabotaging your relationships? Is this an area of your life that needs healing? Is the possibility worth bringing to prayer, to see what God has to say about it?
Speaking of unconscious fears, where do they come from, anyway? How did they get there? What exactly are we afraid of?