One of my favorite Seinfeld episodes is the one where George has just broken up with Susan. He had done everything he could to get away from her, and then, in the very next scene, we find him lying on Jerry’s sofa, lamenting, “I loved her!” So he wins her back, and by the end of the episode has to pick his nose “up to my elbow” to get rid of her again.
George was a classic commitment phobic.
I suspect that a lot of you can relate to Susan, and the utter bewilderment of dating someone who wants in one minute and out the next. And, as you read these columns on commitment phobia, you are fighting the temptation to print them all out, tie them up in a little ribbon, throw the whole package down in front of some poor, hapless ex and say “Here, read this!”
I noted in the first installment of the series that many singles — women in particular — love diagnosing commitment phobia. They can tend, however, to be a little loose with the definition. A commitment phobic becomes defined as “anyone who, for any reason whatsoever, doesn’t want to marry me.” And so, instead of accepting the verdict and moving on, they become obsessed with “fixing” the rejecting party. They read books and demand that he read books and then they subject him to long lecturing talks and try to drag him off to therapy.
And then he says, “Eureka, you’re right! I was commitment phobic! And, now, thanks to your constant interference and nagging, I am cured and ready to move on to a very happy, very permanently committed marriage!” And they ride off together into the sunset.
Seriously, trying to “cure” commitment phobia is a bad idea on so, so many levels. First of all, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but maybe it really wasn’t a full-blown commitment phobia. Maybe he just didn’t want to marry you. That doesn’t have to be a psychological disorder. It could also be immaturity, blindness, utter foolhardiness. Or maybe, just maybe, you weren’t the right one for him. It’s okay.
On the other hand, if you did manage to get yourself involved with a raging commitment-phobe, the odds that you’re going to fix him and go on to live happily ever after are remarkably slim. You may, in rare cases, think you did – perhaps even enough to get him to walk down the aisle. But wedding cake does not cure commitment phobia. It only makes them feel even more trapped. And the only thing worse than having a commitment phobic boyfriend or girlfriend is having a commitment phobic spouse. Look at poor Susan. She got George to propose. And that didn’t turn out so well . . .
The thing is, once you’ve broken up, it really doesn’t matter whether or not the end was precipitated by some deep-seated fear of commitment. It’s over. Don’t waste your time looking back, trying to psychoanalyze the hurt away. Get through it and move on.
Of course, the best-case scenario would be to avoid getting involved with a commitment phobic in the first place. And, while you may not be able to diagnose it with perfect accuracy, there are certainly some signs you should look for.
The first warning signal comes early in the relationship, during the “pursuit” stage. How enthused is the person from the outset? Is he — early in the relationship — smitten or impressed or overwhelmed by your wonderfulness at a level that is completely incompatible with the amount of time he has actually known you? I know, you know all of these wonderful things about yourself, and clearly he must be seeing them as well. But seriously – in one evening or one weekend or a couple of dates, could he possibly know you well enough to fall so head over heels for you? That’s not to say you aren’t that wonderful. I’m sure you are. But people who fall madly in love without enough information are more than likely falling in love with a fantasy, an ideal. And seeing your real wonderfulness over time will probably just scare him into realizing he has to actually commit to your wonderfulness, which of course won’t happen.
Yes, I will grant that occasionally two people just fall madly in love at first sight, and there is a slight statistical possibility that it could happen to you. I’m just saying beware. You don’t have to dump someone just because he or she is smitten with you right away. But don’t get too caught up in it. Keep your guard up. Realize there’s a good chance it won’t last. Let it stand the test of time before you start combining your last names or picking china patterns.
Also beware of “future talk” early on. If, on the second date, he’s making plans six months into the future, you may find it encouraging or endearing. But six months down the road when he is long gone, you’ll probably find it infuriating. Don’t block the time out on your calendar just yet. Prudent people who are realistic about dating generally don’t assume after six hours that they’ll still be together in six months. There’s still too much to learn. But the commitment phobic who’s still in the fantasy phase loves to project the fantasy into the future.
Basically, the early phase of commitment phobia is all about winning – about breaking down your defense so that he can prove to himself that he’s good enough to get you. That probably isn’t a conscious scheme, but it’d definitely the underlying motivation, even if he is unaware of it. Your job is to keep those defenses up long enough to discern whether this person has what it takes to stick it out for the long run.
If you do that, you won’t be as liable to take it personally if and when the tables turn and you’re suddenly seeing tail lights vanishing into the horizon. Commitment phobics, if they bother to break up with you at all, are notorious for doing so with the flimsiest of excuses. Suddenly slight inconveniences become insurmountable obstacles. The reasons he loved you become his reasons to leave. And the temptation to the bewildered receiver is to argue. The explanations being presented are so illogical – if you could just make him see that, you could continue on toward your happy, wonderful future.
Don’t bother. Someone escaping because of fear of commitment doesn’t want to see the flaws in his logic. He just wants out. So let him go, bid him well and get on with your life.
This might be easier said than done, because commitment phobics are also notorious for not staying gone. Fear of commitment means being afraid to commit to yes or no. So once you’re gone and the fear has subsided, the realization of what he has lost frequently sets in. And it re-activates the longing, and the fantasy, and the desire to pursue. And so he often returns for a curtain call. And as nice as it would be to believe that he’s learned his lesson and won’t ever let you go again, the better odds say the same cycle will play out again, just more quickly. Remember George Constanza?
Don’t be a Susan.