DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Appreciate the site, and your responses to so many of us trying to figure this whole “desire for romance” thing out. It’s not easy, so thank you.
My question to you regards the idea of “commitment-phobia”. I put it in quotation marks because, while I had heard the term before, I never really knew there was a pattern of behavior associated with the phrase. I just assumed it was what people told themselves/others when they were rejected by someone they fancied so as to alleviate the sting of that rejection. Plus, I know it’s not an actual, clinical diagnosis with criteria that need to be met and so forth so I never really thought it could be a real thing.
Until it happened to me.
I was telling my buddy that the great woman (we’ll call her E) I spent two months with abruptly ended everything and pulled the “I’m not ready for a relationship” card (another phrase I never take at face value, to be honest) out of nowhere. My buddy was aware of how quickly things between myself and E escalated, and upon hearing of her very sudden and unexpected departure, said “yeah dude. She’s afraid of commitment.” After telling him I thought that was bulls
t, he went on to explain that commitment-phobia unfolds exactly how things unfolded with E and I. Commitment-phobes are super, crazy hot for you at the beginning, but the second they feel like a real relationship is forming, with obligations and expectations they’ll need to meet, they leave. They’re terrified of these obligations, these expectations, so goes the theory of commitment-phobia.
I started reading what the internet had to say about commitment-phobia and was floored. Blown away by how SPECIFIC these sites/authors were relaying E’s behavior. Our relationship was textbook commitment-phobia, come to find. We met through a friend of a friend and immediately hit it off. Numbers were exchanged that first night, flirted for about a month before our schedules allowed us to see each other again, and we were off and running. Text messages throughout the day, staying with each other two, three nights a week, dinners cooked, friends met and sex, sex, sex. Each and every time we were alone at either my place or hers, it went down. And SHE initiated virtually all of these things. I never said no to her, despite thinking once or twice that we were moving pretty fast, because I was absolutely crazy about her. She was amazing. We had “the talk” two weeks in, where she told me she thought about some reasons she shouldn’t move things forward with me but that she ultimately decided she had to be with me, she felt for me that much. “There’s no way I can not be in a relationship with you” she said, verbatim. I was absolutely over the moon. Couldn’t have been happier to hear her say that, I was head over heels for this woman.
So, this goes on for two months until one Monday night (she always came over on Mondays after her dance class and stayed the night with me; again, we definitely had a routine of shared time down by this point) she arrives without her overnight bag. I ask why she doesn’t have it, and she tells me we need to talk. My heart immediately sunk. Those are never good words to hear from your woman and sure enough, she did what everyone does when they tell you they “need to talk”. She dumped me. And did it by explaining how perfect a guy I am and that “this isn’t some Tinder fling with you, I think about you way too much, all day, and I can’t have that in my life right now. I’m way too busy starting my career and I’ve been through a lot of changes in life recently. You’re such a good, genuine person and I can’t give you what I know you deserve right now, so I have to end this.”
Crushed, broken-hearted and dejected I told her I wished she felt differently, that I would hope this could be something we actually talked about before she made such a big decision, but her mind was made up. So, I told her how much I cared about her and how awesome I thought our connection was one last time and then let her go.
But she didn’t let me go. Again, according to the patterns of behavior associated with commitment-phobia I read so much about, the commitment-phobe will end the relationship only until the anxiety they feel over being in a relationship and all the expectations with it subside, and then they’ll be back in touch. And E was. Not specifically to get back together, but to ask questions that didn’t need asking, to make comments that didn’t need to be made and just overall being unable to go without being in touch for more than two or three weeks at a time. I ultimately had to tell her not to be in touch with me for any reason, no matter how big or small she thought it was unless it was to discuss the rekindling of our intimate and romantic relationship.
To sum things up, and my question to you, is what I should be making of all of this and are the red flags described in the ideas of commitment-phobia something I need to pay closer attention should I find myself in a similar situation in the future? “If it feels great and is moving quickly because two people legitimately have deep feelings for one another, and they realize this soon, then SHUT IT DOWN because one of you is a commitment-phobe”. That just sounds crazy.
Or could E have been legitimately honest when she said she wasn’t ready for a relationship when she did so much, and went so far out of her way to make me think she did, and that she was into me and was in it for the long haul? If that’s the case, how is it possible the idea of her not being ready for a relationship only occurred to her after making it a point to spend as much time with me as she could for two whole months? She’s a mature, adult woman who is HIGHLY educated (38 years old with a Ph.D. in psychology FFS). How could she NOT have known she wasn’t ready for a relationship when we flirted for a month and then she solidified everything herself by bringing up “the talk” and telling me she had to be in a relationship with me?
I’ve had my fair share of experiences with women, I know when they pull the “I’m not ready” card it’s because they’re just not into you, but NOTHING about E’s behavior made me think she wasn’t anything but crazy about me.
What am I missing here?
Victim of Commitment-phobia?
DEAR VICTIM OF COMMITMENT-PHOBIA: Funny thing about women, VCP: sometimes (many times, really) when they say “I’m not ready”, they mean it. It’s not just a polite way of shutting things down and rejecting you, it’s that they really and truly feel like they can’t commit to you. More often than not – and in my experience, the commitment-phobes fall into this category – the issue has far more to do with a state of anxiety than any actual, logical issue.
Now where this anxiety comes from is up for debate. Some people who are commitment-phobic have had traumatic experiences in their relationships and so are afraid of being hurt again. Some have a classic anxious attachment style and start to feel anxiety when they feel that their needs aren’t being met or that their partners are really looking for an excuse to end the relationship. And still others have issues surrounding their own sense of deservedness; they don’t feel that they’re “worthy” of love and so they freak out when they’re in a position to actually be in a relationship.
So why does people like this fall in love so hard, so quickly? Because they crave that connection. They want that relationship, they want love so badly they can taste it. And that feeling is intoxicating. It’s easy to give into the rush, especially if you don’t have much actual relationship experience. But that rush comes with an equally powerful crash. Maybe they’ve experienced that rush before, in a relationship that fell apart and so they’re also afraid of the crash. Maybe they’re terrified by the intensity of their own feelings and worry that this means they’re making a mistake. They could worry that the intensity and the pace means that something is wrong, that this is a bad sign. Or they could worry that the person they’re falling for is falling for an illusion, a mistaken idea of who they are and will inevitably be hurt and angry when they see the reality.
Or they could very well be the sort of person who sabotages their own relationships because they don’t feel like they have a right to be happy.
But what about your ex? How could someone so smart and accomplished and presumably self-aware not realize she’s not ready for a relationship? Well, because anxiety isn’t rational, dude. She very well may have hoped that she was ready only to have her jerk-brain kick in and smack the blinders off. She may have legitimately thought that this time, this time it could work, only to fall into those same self-destructive patterns. Or this may just be how she works and she hasn’t processed that this is her relationship style: burning like a bonfire, but burning out just as quickly.
And you? How can you navigate this scenario if it comes up again?
Well, to start with: don’t play along. You can tap the brakes just as easily as she can. Things may be feel amazing and intense and you two may feel as though you have a passion and a love that nobody has ever experienced before… but that doesn’t mean that you have to go full-tilt boogie with it. You can say “hey, this feels incredible and I love what we have, but I want to slow things down.” You can make the conscious choice to dial things back a little, if only to make sure you’re not rushing into things and letting the joy of limerence overwhelm the rest of you. Wanting to slow things down, not commit early or making the conscious choice to NOT see each other every other day can help give you the breathing room to be a little more rational and less reactive. Having that breathing room can also help someone with anxiety issues get enough space and perspective that they can try to ease their brain-weasels. If they don’t feel that things are rushing to an inevitable, inexorable conclusion, it’s a lot easier to take a breath and a beat and talk themselves off the ledge; doubly so if they can open up to you about their anxiety.
So when things are feeling intense and rushed, then have a variation of that Defining The Relationship talk. Share that you are thrilled by everything going on between the two of you, but you want to slow things down a bit so the two of you can catch your breath and savor it all. Choosing to slow down won’t hurt or diminish your feelings for one another, but it can help everyone keep their head at a time when you very much want to lose it.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve been nursing a crush on a member of my stunt acting team for a while now (yeah, that’s a wild intro. I swear I wouldn’t mention it if it weren’t relevant). We definitely flirt, but in that way that actors do that may or may not mean anything about our mutual interest in anything more than flirting.
The thing is, on top of being my coworker of sorts, he also has talked when we’ve gone out in a group for drinks after practice about not wanting to have sex before marriage (he wears a purity ring and everything). That’s not something that necessarily bothers me in a potential partner in its most literal definition, but it’s not an attitude I share in my own sexual practices. Mostly, it feels like it has the potential to carry a lot of additional clauses that DO bother me, like wanting to get married pretty quickly or not wanting to do anything sexual at all before marriage. It’s just enough to make the prospect of asking him out feel extra daunting, because I don’t know how much this difference in our personal practices and boundaries around sex translates to a difference in ideas about how dating would even work.
And of course, there are concerns about messing up our work dynamic, particularly in an environment where we need to be comfortable working one-on-one in pretty intimate situations (have you ever faked strangling someone to death? Good Lord). Are there too many complications to try to pursue this beyond enjoying a no-strings work flirt? Or am I just overcomplicating the situation?
Confused in California
DEAR A CONFUSED IN CALIFORNIA: You’re overcomplicating things CiC. You haven’t just put the cart before the horse, the horse hasn’t even been foaled yet. You’re anticipating a whole host of issues that not only haven’t come up, but aren’t likely to come up for quite some time. You’re still working on whether there’s more to your interacting beyond just flirting for the sake of flirting and yet you’re already thinking about what his no-sex-before-marriage stance might mean for your relationship. That’s quite a few steps beyond where you are at this moment CiC.
Now speaking for myself, that whole purity-ring/virginity-pledge business would be a disqualifier. Sexual compatibility is a vital part of a relationship’s potential and there really isn’t any way to gauge that without, y’know, having sex. You can talk it through all you like, but it’s all theoretical until the rubbers hit the road (as it were), especially when one of you has no experience. The worst time to discover that the two of you have incompatible needs is after you’ve thrown thousands of dollars and legal agreements at the relationship.
But that’s just me. Maybe you feel like there’s enough there that you’d be able to woo that ring straight off his finger. Or maybe you feel like it might be worth exploring if he’s the sort of virginity-pledger that believes in God’s Loophole.
Regardless: those are problems for further down the line than where you two currently stand. Right now, you have a fun, flirty relationship. If that no-sex-before-marriage pledge is a dealbreaker for you – and it certainly sounds like it is – then the best thing is to keep it as a strictly sport-flirting kind of relationship and save flirting with intent for someone who you potentially have an actual future with.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)