Wow – we definitely hit a nerve last month with the discussion about how to recognize a commitment-phobic relationship. Apparently there are more than a few George (or Georgia) Constanzas out there, and you’re all looking for information on how to deal with them.
You all seemed to particularly resonate with the bewilderment of dating someone who behaves like an ardent suitor one minute, and a reluctant victim the next. And you want specific advice on how to handle it, how to “protect yourselves” so that you don’t wind up getting your hearts broken by someone who pursues and then suddenly runs.
At first I was reluctant to spend a month’s column addressing that, because this “fear of commitment” series has been running for several months already. But then two thoughts changed my mind. First, it’s clear to me by the response I’m receiving that singles are very interested in this topic. And second, I realized that the steps to protecting oneself from a commitment-phobic partner are really just the same “smart” rules everyone should follow in the beginning of a relationship.
The first rule, in the beginning of a new relationship, is to keep your fantasies under control. I’m not just talking about those fantasies, which I hope it goes without saying should be avoided. I’m also talking about the fantasies where he’s on your arm at the family Christmas party, or she impresses everybody at your high school reunion. I know it’s tempting – you meet somebody new, you’re excited about it, and it’s hard not to think about all of the ways that this wonderful new relationship could improve your life. But if it doesn’t work out and you’re alone at the parties anyway, only now you’re comparing it all to the fantasy experience you expected, you’re not going to be happy. Incorporating someone you barely know (which means, by definition, your fantasy of who that person is) into your image of your perfect future is a sure-fire route to disappointment.
Second, don’t be won over too easily. You probably have an image in your mind of how your “perfect” person acts or what he or she does. When you see it playing out in real life, you might have that “eureka” moment just a little prematurely. Just because she’s doing all of the right things or he’s spending lots of money on you, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re with “the one.” People who enjoy the challenge of winning someone over have generally had quite a bit of practice, so they’re often very good at it.
Speaking of which, you’ll want to watch your own tendencies at “winning over.” When you’re in a new relationship, don’t focus all of your energies on trying to be the “perfect” person for him or her. Your goal is to figure out if the two of you are compatible, remember? That means you have to be seeing each other as you really are. And if you’re putting yourself through all kind of contortions to be what you think he or she wants, where is the real you? Of course you want to put your best foot forward, but don’t do anything that you can’t sustain in the long run. Anything else and you’ll be the one guilty of “bait and switch.”
For many singles, the excitement of a new relationship makes them want to drop everything and pour every ounce of their time and energy into their new beloved. They stop calling their friends, they cancel plans, they start to cut corners at work. This is a mistake. You need to have a life – a real life – outside of him or her. You should protect it.
Because, if you do wind up dating someone with commitment issues, you’re gonna need that life when the great turn-around happens.
What do you do when someone who had been so crazy about you suddenly makes a 180 degree turn? What do you do when, with no warning, the enthusiasm is gone? It feels, as Dave Barry once described it, as if he starts to de-materialize before your eyes, and within a few minutes you could stick a tire iron right through him.
And everything your instincts tell you to do is wrong.
When he retreats, you want to advance. You want to go running after him and find out what’s wrong. You want to do something big and romantic to sweep her off her feet and recapture the magic. You want to believe the excuses about being busy or tired or sick. And yet, all of that is counterproductive. It doesn’t make the fleeing party want to come back. And it doesn’t respect you.
Here’s the thing: backing off with no explanation isn’t very nice. Cancelling plans isn’t very respectful of you or your time. Breaking promises is unacceptable behavior, particularly in a dating relationship. But when you’re in the midst of Sudden-Turnaround Confusion Syndrome, you don’t want to rock the boat, You’re afraid of losing the relationship, and making a scene over his or her transgressions feels too risky. You’re in fear, so you deny. You accept his excuses. You make up excuses for her.
This is not a good plan.
Your purpose of dating is supposed to be to determine if you’re compatible with this person, not to hang on to him or her at all costs. I don’t know about you, but I like to consider myself incompatible with someone who treats me poorly. Tolerating bad or disrespectful behavior isn’t respecting yourself or the relationship.
If you’re dating someone who is suddenly backing off, there is a reason. The appropriate response isn’t to chase after him to find out what it is. You need to withdraw as well, to assess the situation and figure out where to go next. That’s where that whole “having a life” thing comes in handy. If you ditched everyone else for him, and now he is ditching you – well, I guess that leaves you alone in that ditch you dug.
Keep telling yourself: the goal isn’t to “get” or “keep” him. The goal is to act in the truth. If the truth is that he’s withdrawing, then that’s the truth you need to deal with. Fear won’t help you. Neither will denial.
The truth will set you free. Literally, in this case.