Is Your Partner a Commitment Phobe?

Is “let’s shack up” really the new “til death do us part?” This article will discuss and attempt to answer the questions, what is commitment today in the 21st century and are you clear about what role commitment plays in your relationship?

My good friend Tina just sent me an e-mail telling me that she hasn’t dated anyone since her divorce about 6 months ago, and since she’s been married and divorced 3 times, she insists she will NEVER marry again. Further, any man who gets involved with her will have to understand that the word ‘marriage’ simply is not in her vocabulary!

At the same time, I was in the midst of ending a relationship with a man I love and adore because he could not make the leap to marriage, which I see as vital to commitment.

I have another client who has been married and divorced 5 times and she says that she will NOT have sex with someone without the commitment of marriage. She wants to be honored and cherished and she believes in the old saying, “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

How is it three people who want and value commitment all come to it from such different places? Where do you stand on the issue?

What about the couple who decide, reasonably, to move in together and see how that goes and then decide if they are compatible, and if they are, then they’ll get married. I recently spoke with a woman who told her boyfriend that she viewed moving in together as though she would be auditioning for him and if she passed, he’d keep her. This may not bode well for many people who are seeking commitment. In fact, according to the Relationship Coaching Institute, your chances of staying married are no better if you live together first.

Is living together a commitment? Is promising not to date anyone else a commitment? Is agreeing to have a child together a commitment? Is marriage, these days, in light of the high divorce statistics a commitment? Is sharing finances a commitment? Just what is a commitment?

David Steele, president and CEO of the Relationship Coaching Institute says there’s a difference between a promise and a commitment that includes marriage. “In short, a promise is something you say, and a commitment is something you do… A promise is a small commitment. If a potential partner doesn’t keep promises, I would question their ability to keep commitments, as they are definitely related.”

Steele goes on further: “A commitment is explicit and unambiguous. A commitment is a formal event of some kind between two people. A commitment is something you DO over time. A real commitment is usually legally enforceable and there are consequences for breaking it. And, for a relationship to be truly committed, there are no exits- mentally, emotionally, or physically. When the going gets rough, you make it work.”

I recently worked with a client who was living with a man for 8 years. They have a 6 year old child. He kicked her out of the house, and she is now homeless, going from friend to friend. The house was his before the relationship and he was the one with a job. She can’t even get custody of her son because she has no where to live. If she were married, she would have rights to the house, the child and child support.

I have another client whose boyfriend left her out after 17 years. He left her with the house and the child, but no way to make the payments. Of course, she can go after him for child support, but since he is a self-employed handy-man, she’ll be lucky to see $300 per month. If she were married, he’d have to help with expenses and/or spousal support.

Of course, I’m giving legal examples of what can happen to people living together without marriage or a co-habitation agreement. Heterosexual couples who live together are similar to homosexual couples in that they have no legal standing. Without a will, there are no inheritance rights. Without marriage or a binding power of attorney, there are no rights to make medical decisions about your loved one, rights to medical insurance, etc.

On the other hand, what of the marriage where one person is keeping secrets, having affairs, hiding money? Does the “marital contract” make one committed? Certainly we all know many marriages which have ended in divorce.

What about the emotional security of commitment? I was recently listening to a program by Alison Armstrong about being in sync with the opposite sex. She described women as only being able to love as big and wide as her future can hold. So when a woman believes there is a never-ending future, she can give her whole self, all her love, attention and passion, to a relationship. When she is uncertain about her future, she literally has to reel in her emotions, temper her loving feelings.

Similarly for men, there is a security in marriage. When tempted by women or sexual advances, his wedding ring is a good reminder of the safety zone in which he lives. He remembers his vows and what is important to him. It is always hard for a man to reject free sex; let’s be honest here. But when he is really committed, his integrity will save the day and the relationship.

David Steele proposes these three criteria for looking at whether something is really a commitment versus a promise:

CRITERIA #1: Promises made to each other about the permanent nature of the relationship that are kept.

CRITERIA #2: Explicit, formal, public declaration.

CRITERIA #3: The commitment is unambiguous to partners and others. This definition of commitment sounds like the marital commitment, doesn’t it?

One problem we have with the term commitment is that it gets confused with the mental or penal definition of “commitment”. We think about men mostly as commitment phobic or scared to make a commitment. Perhaps the number one fear most men face is loss of freedom. Whether or not it is true, it typically is
the # 1 thing men site as the reason NOT to get married.

Steele says “some couples have troubles with commitment because they confuse the two definitions. They are afraid that commitment in a relationship means getting into an institution with too much structure, control and barriers to their freedom to be themselves. They are wrong.

“A commitment is a freeing and growing experience. When two people make a commitment to each other to grow, learn about life and love together, they are creating a positive place to be. A commitment is an act of trust, both of yourself and of your partner.”

The person afraid of the commitment has to look within to see why they don’t trust themselves in a relationship. Will they lose themselves? Is their sense of self not strong enough to withstand the “partnering” part of a relationship? When we think about FEAR (False Evidence Appearing Real), the only way to get over it is to jump in and do it and TRUST yourself that whatever happens, you can handle it.

I have, over the years, known many men who say that fear of losing their freedom really was False Evidence Appearing Real to them. Only after making the leap, did they discover the richness and fullness of life that commitment had to offer. The question of commitment, especially with men, is interesting because men do commit to all sorts of things in their lives. They commit to jobs, homes, sports teams, clubs, and they tend to frequent the same bars and restaurants. In general, men are very loyal when they choose to be.

Choice, it seems, is a key component to commitment. You have many couples who are together and are happy and content while it is their choice. Once the choice is removed, let’s say, in the case of marriage, now it’s a promise and a “contract” and is no longer representative of “free choice” in their lives.

Picture the whole idea of commitment like a big round circle. From one side of the circle, it’s a gift of love, adoration, caring, and from the other side, it is obligation, change, and uncertainty. Yet, from another side, it’s fun, excitement, and spontaneity and from another side it’s monotonous and routine. I think the view of commitment changes with your own perceptions and choices.

Most men, says my friend Tom, a happily married man of 35+ years, resist change. If you have an older man who has been single his whole life, he simply will not be comfortable with making such a big change. Some younger men seem like they are commitment phobic, Tom says, because they do not want to commit until they have stable, successful careers. They need to feel ready and to do that, younger men need to feel successful and know they can make the woman in their life happy by providing a good home and life-style for her. Even so, he says, sometimes it does take a woman to wake him up and give him an ultimatum. If he is young, he needs to see she has faith in him, because he does not yet have experience with success himself. If he is older, he may have to “ease” into the change.

For those of us who want a sure thing, I have to apologize. I am sad to say, there is no sure thing. Even with the act of marriage, the ultimate commitment in our society, the divorce rate is still 50%. Is there a way to beat the odds? I believe, to be truly committed, there needs to be a combination of choice, a continuing choice to be in the relationship, heart and soul, with a legal, stand in front of people and promise type of commitment. I love the idea of every wedding anniversary, choosing each other all over again. Reassess your relationship to see if you are on target with your goals and dreams as a couple.

We are all different, that’s what makes the world go round. Feel free to send your comments on this back to me. I am very interested in what you have to say. In the next article, I will share with you the most important factors to hold your committed relationship together.

Lori S. Rubenstein
Love-Advice Coach