DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Recently, my ex (f/29) and I (m/31) broke up. It wasn’t the best break up ever, for reasons I’ll get to, but when we finally ended things, she yelled at me that I was “commitment-phobic” on the way out the door. That’s not the first time someone’s said that to me and several of my female friends have said that I absolutely am and that I keep ending relationships whenever they start getting serious and I need to grow up. I don’t know if that’s actually a fair assessment, since I’m the one who tends to be doing the breaking up and I have had entirely reasonable cause to end things. I feel like I’m being told to settle when there’re so many things in these relationships that were red flags. My friends (and exes) obviously disagree and this has become something of a contentious topic, so I’m reaching out to you for some clarity: Is it truly commitment phobia or am I right for holding out for someone who meets my standards and needs?
I’ll give you some examples of why my past relationships didn’t work.
With my most recent ex:
Future Aspirations: Our relationship spanned over a year. Initially, everything was smooth sailing. But as time went on and we began discussing the future, I realized we were on different timelines. She had her sights set on settling down and having kids in the near future, whereas I felt a bit overwhelmed by how fast everything was moving.
Friendships: A major point of contention was my social circle. She didn’t particularly care for my friends, leading to tension when I wanted to spend time with them.
Regarding past relationships:
Two years ago: An eight-month relationship came to an end due to her possessiveness. I often felt cornered, unable to have my own space or make individual choices.
Four years ago: A year-long relationship ended when I got a career opportunity abroad. Long-distance wasn’t something she was willing to try, so I had to choose between the relationship and my dream job.
Five years ago: A brief relationship lasted three months. We were fundamentally looking for different things – I was just out of college, looking forward to starting my career, she was thinking about settling down already.
I recognize, on paper, this might paint the picture of someone running away from commitment. But with each relationship, the reasons for the breakups felt genuine and inevitable. I’m genuinely torn. Do I have unresolved commitment issues? Or is it a series of unfortunate events? Am I just the asshole here? I truly appreciate your insight.
Sincerely, Seeking Clarity
DEAR SEEKING CLARITY: I’m going to start this off with an obvious truth: not everybody needs to settle down or get married. Commitment and marriage isn’t for everyone and that’s fine. Not wanting to get married, not wanting to start a family aren’t signs of immaturity or a sign that you’re a man-child who can’t handle responsibility or whatever. Not everyone is going to follow the same life path nor are they going to live the same lives and that’s ok. Everybody’s got a right to decide what kind of relationship they want – if they want one at all.
That being said: it sure as hell seems like the common denominator here is you being the one running for the door every time.
One thing I’m noticing is that none of these relationships lasted longer than a year. I raised my eyebrow at the one ex who was talking about settling down after three months, but I’m left to wonder if she was talking about settling down immediately, or this was a “where would you like this relationship to go eventually” issue. There is, after all, a significant difference between “It’s been three months, let’s have babies” and “well, I’m looking for a relationship that’s leading to marriage and a family”.
Now, the fact that it’s so consistently less than two years may be a tell; that’s not too far off from when the honeymoon period ends and that New Relationship Energy starts to fade. Is it possible that part of the reason why things end so frequently and you start seeing these red flags is that you’re mistaking NRE for the relationship? So maybe part of the issue is that you haven’t let the relationship last past the NRE stage to see that there’s more to it than the early dopamine rush.
Or, perhaps, you’re someone who needs that NRE and prefers short-term relationships, rather than long-term ones.
One of the things that can be frustrating is that we as a culture often ascribe “success” or “failure” to relationships based on longevity; the longer the relationship, the more successful it was. This has the tendency to diminish or dismiss the meaning or significance of short term relationships as being “lesser” because they didn’t last for decades or until one of you died in the saddle. But short term relationships can be as rich, as rewarding and as meaningful as long-term ones; length isn’t as inherently important as depth or importance. Ending a relationship before someone dies – or before the relationship is old enough to rent a car – doesn’t mean that the relationship is less significant or important than one that shambled along for decades before somebody finally put it out of their misery. It just means that it was shorter.
The other thing I can’t help but notice is that your partners want something more serious and as soon as it comes up, you’re out the door.
It does seem convenient, in that hmm-chin-stroke-interesting kind of way, that these break ups all seem to coincide with someone wanting to “rein you in” in some way, shape or form. It’s hard not to notice that every break up seems to come around the time that what might be seen as a restriction to your freedom, metaphorically speaking. Or how those break ups happen at times when your ex starts planning further into the future than the next couple of months.
As I’m often saying: once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but three times is enemy action a sign. And here, we have four relationships that all ended at about the point where people were talking about future plans… futures that you, clearly, don’t seem to have been that interested in.
What I’m not seeing are what I would call red flags. Your most recent ex not liking your friends is potentially troubling, sure. But at the same time, it follows the same trend of “things as what restrict my freedom” and so it’s hard not to think that maybe, just maybe, this wasn’t nearly as significant an issue as you’ve made it sound.
In fact, I’m wondering if that’s the issue here – that you’re worried about some nebulous loss of “freedom” if you were to settle down with someone. That’s something worth digging into. What, precisely, are you afraid that you’d be giving up or losing if you were to settle down and commit to somebody? Are you worried about not being able to travel? Not having time to spend with your friends (or the ‘freedom’ to do so)? Never experiencing NRE with a new partner?
Those are things that you don’t necessarily have to give up, you know. The thing about relationships is that you can build in space for those things. You can partner with someone who wants to travel and go on adventures with you. You can make sure to carve out time for you and your friends to have your own space, just as your future partner can have time and space to go do things with her friends. And, of course, monogamy and exclusivity are things that you don’t necessarily need to give up either.
Now, I’m not saying this in order to convince you that settling down and partnering up for good is the way to go. What I am saying is that it’s worth exploring just why you keep repeating these patterns and what it may say about either you or where your head is at with these relationships. Recognizing the pattern is the first step to breaking them, after all.
But that’s if the pattern needs to be broken. Like I said: if you don’t want to settle down with someone, that’s ok. If it’s the case, then it’s better to just own that and prioritize dating people who either are on the same page, or who at least understand that a romantic relationship with you is going to have a time limit. If that’s ultimately what you’re looking for, then part of the problem you’re running into is that you’re dating people who don’t want the same thing and, importantly, think that you want something long term too. You and your exes were never on the same page about that. Small wonder that these all end the way they do.
If you’re just not an LTR guy, then you should own the fact that you’re not an LTR guy. Lead with it with the people you date and make it clear to your friends that this is who you are and how you roll. There’s no point in trying to force yourself into a long-term relationship when that’s not what you want, and you’re not less mature or serious for preferring that.
However, if you do ultimately want something long-term… well, part of the issue is recognizing that NRE fades, but the other part is making sure that you and your partner discuss what your respective needs are and what your ideal relationship would look like when you have the Defining The Relationship talk. If you’re just coasting along on some “default relationship” setting, then your biggest issue is not making what you want and need from a relationship clear.
So figure out what you want, first. Once you have a handle on that? Make sure that your future partners are on the same page. Talk about what you will want and need to make space for, give them the chance to do the same. Every relationship is custom built; you just need to make the point of making it fit.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org