So, are you ready to talk about what you’re afraid of?
Last month, as a part of our multi-part series about what keeps us from marriage, we kicked off a “multi-part within a multi part” series about commitment-phobia. While anyone with two brain cells to slap together knows that marriage should be approached with a healthy dose of respect, it would appear that some people are so conflicted about it that they, knowingly or not, sabotage their relationships so as to avoid that long walk down the aisle.
The hallmark of active commitment phobics is that, in the early part of a relationship, they all about the pursuit. Smitten, they’re doing what they can to win the affection of their beloved. But once they realize that they’ve succeeded, and that in return they are now expected to function in some sort of committed relationship, they panic. Often they actually experience physical symptoms – racing heart, queasy stomach, anxiety attacks. They may not realize that what they’re experiencing is fear of commitment, but they do know this much: they want out.
So the next logical questions is: what exactly is it that they’re afraid of? What do they believe, consciously or subconsciously, is going to happen to them if they keep going down this road?
According to Steven Carter and Julia Sokol, authors of He’s Scared, She’s Scared, those fears fall into four different categories. First, there are circumstantial commitment issues. Maybe someone is already having a lot of problems and is afraid of adding one more. Maybe they’re afraid of the financial or practical implications of a permanent commitment. Maybe they’ve already made a mistake and are afraid of making another one.
Then there are universal commitment issues – the kind everyone has to one degree or another. Fear of depending on another person, fear of having to grow up and face adult responsibilities, fear of giving up options in the future – these are realities implicit in a permanent commitment, and everyone has to come to grips with them. It’s just harder for some people than for others.
The final two categories are more interesting. First among them are the claustrophobic commitment issues.
In my parents’ generation, getting married meant “growing up.” It’s what earned them the freedom to do adult things. But today life is different. “Freedom” is perceived as being able to do whatever we want, whenever we want. And marriage inhibits that. Particularly for those who are accustomed to sexual “freedom”, tying oneself down to a single spouse is experienced as limitation, not liberation.
We’re all single for longer these days. We’re used to making our own decisions, controlling our own lives, selecting our own furniture. Giving up that control is difficult for anyone. But for someone with control issues – someone who always needs to be calling the shots – that fear can be paralyzing.
And then, finally, there are the narcissistic commitment issues.
Narcissism in dating is about perfection – our own perfection, and the perfection of those we pursue. Obviously, no one is really perfect, so to the extent that we expect it in ourselves or in our beloved, we’re setting ourselves up for some serious stress.
For some people, that narcissism takes the form of seeking the perfect mate. These people say that “of course” they want to get married. They’re living for it, preparing for it every day. They just need the “right” person. They’ll swear up and down that they understand nobody is perfect. But then they’ll end every relationship as soon as they discover something they don’t like, something that contradicts the fantasy of what they picture their married life to be. And so they remain single, continuing the search for that elusive “right” someone while everyone around them ties the knot.
Oddly, understanding my shopping habits can help here. I used to shop for clothes by going to the mall and feeling completely overwhelmed by the stores and stores full of racks and racks of options. I’d try on a ton of stuff, but rarely bought anything because I was always wondering if the next store would have something even better. I had too many choices. But then, I started hosting home clothing parties. A consultant brings in a line of clothing, my friends come over, we try stuff on while drinking wine and munching on appetizers, and I buy a lot of clothes. Fewer options, but I buy more stuff and I wind up like it more.
It occurred to me that there’s probably a correlation to dating. People who believe they have a lot of options, who believe that they are really extra wonderful and thus could have anybody they want, probably have a more difficult time settling on a mate than people who believe that their options are somewhat limited. Not that anyone should “settle” on the issues that really matter, but I think sometimes the nagging “maybe I could do even better” cripples those with narcissistic tendencies. Meanwhile their more realistic friends date people who meet the important criteria, figure “I may not find this again” and go on to build happy marriages.
The other side of the narcissistic coin is about men and women who expect perfection in themselves. They’re often very invested in “image” they project. They see their value largely in the external characteristics they present to the world – their physical attractiveness, the way they dress. And so, when someone gets too close, they begin to fear that they’ll be “found out” – that they won’t be able to hide their various flaws and imperfections.
Some people’s self worth is tied up in the idea that they will in some way be the perfect partner – the perfect giving husband, the perfect nurturing wife, the perfect provider, whatever. Which is lovely as long as it’s a fantasy projected into the future. But whenever anybody gets too close and the time draws near where they’ll have to actually make good on that promise, they panic.
This is obviously not a happy way to live. Narcissistic tendencies make us believe that all eyes are on us, and that we have to worry at all times about what people think of us. It leads to a weird kind of flip-flop where, when the pursuer is pursuing, all of his self-doubts are activated and he wants to “get” her to prove that he has the qualities that can win her love. But then when she responds, suddenly he fears he may be too good for her.
Of course it’s important to point out that not every single person is a narcissist or a control freak or even generally afraid of commitment. Sometimes, especially in this faithless world, the right person really is elusive. But I also think it’s important to examine our part in it, and to see if our unconscious fears might be playing a role in our continuing single-ness. As Carter and Sokol say, that fear can allow us “to look at a perfectly suitable person and resist exploring the possibility of a real connection. It can automatically reject some pretty terrific possible people for a wide variety of reasons, most of the superficial and some of them downright silly.”
Which, of course, leads to the next question: what do we do about it?
Which, of course, gives me a topic for next month.