Thursday, March 09, 2006

A Rambling Lecture About Commitment, Dating, Marriage, and Misuse of Terminology

Note or warning: this is definitely a lecture, just because I feel all lecture-y. I usually can't say things like this to my clients directly, after all.

I recently read an article in what I happen to regard primarily as a decorating magazine (Real Simple) in which a guy described how a family tragedy changed his feelings about commitment. And in the article he did that thing that drives the therapist-me nuts, which is to misuse the term commitment-phobic. (Or commitmentphobic with no dash, if you like, and I think I do.)

Now, to confuse the issue, the dynamic of the situation was such that he did actually behave in a commitmentphobic way. However! However, his description of what about him was commitmentphobic was wrong, all wrong. At least wrong in a popular, yet dangerous, way.

What he said was something to the effect that because he did not want to get married, he was commitmentphobic. And he's not alone--you'll hear a lot of people using it that way.

People, please. Not wanting to get married, or even not wanting to just have a committed Significant Other, is not in itself commitmentphobic. A person can be a perfectly legitimate, honest, upstanding rake or tramp who only is interested in one-night stands*--this does not make them commitmentphobic.

--And here's the caveat: as long as they are up front about it!

That's right; the minute you say one thing but do another, that does make you a prime suspect for commitmentphobia.

Such is the case of the stringer, who doesn't want to break up, but also doesn't want to go to the next level (going steady? marriage? whatever), and strings their partner along with hemi-demi-semi-implications that someday, if you can just be patient, they probably will want that. Maybe. Just not now. Of course, the longer this goes on, the more clear it becomes that they really are a stringer or commitmentphobe.

Why is this the definition of commitmentphobia? Because the person can't commit to either course: leaving or staying. They can't commit to making the choice.

They don't want to cross that bridge, but are also reluctant to burn it. They want to "keep their options open" or "keep a foot in the door". And this, this, is the dishonorable act, which is suckier by far than any cad or sex kitten at the bar who only wants one thing. At least you know where that person is ... --never mind, that was going to be a bad choice of words.

I recently picked up a controversial book about finding marriageable men in the bookstore (and I'd like to see you reconstruct that sentence so it doesn't sound like the bookstore is where you find the men). I was reading this book because when I am in a bookstore I find myself reading the most disparate, oddest things, even if they don't seem to have any relevance to me, simply because they are at eye level and have a nice color of cover. I often don't get much farther than 10 feet into the store because I am so immediately arrested by any book. But I digress.

So anyway, regarding this book, yes I'm blatantly ignoring some of the giant questions going begging like the fact that it's always a book about women getting men to marry them; the heterosexual focus; why we as a society have such unbalanced relationship goals; and so forth.

Anyway, one thing that I thought the author got pretty right-on was that if a guy says he's not interested in commitment, then his partner should believe him. (All this would apply to the genderly reverse, by the way. However, I get more women clients in this position than men clients. Not all, but more. Studies suggest men stay home and drink instead of going to the friendly neighborhood therapist--booo!)

I would extend the author's statement to say that if a person says they're not sure what they want, then you can be sure they don't want to go to the next level. (Even if they act all tortured and pitiful when they're saying it. Yep. Maybe especially then.)

If you're someone who doesn't want the level-up, then hey! No problem-o. But if that is secretly (or overtly) what you want, you're not doing yourself a favor by a) staying, or b) pretending you don't want it, in hopes that not pressuring then will make them blossom into a marriage-wanting ... blossom. (Or something.) That means, don't waffle. They're probably already waffling enough for the both of you. And pancaking-fried-egging-and-French-toasting, and pretty much every other breakfast fooding.

One study showed that when people broke up after long uncommitted relationships and got married relatively quickly to the next datee, it was primarily because that next person laid it on the line: "I am in this for commitment, otherwise let's not bother." Notice: not because the first person wasn't sexy enough, or rich enough, or sophisticated enough. No--it was because the first person didn't back up what they said with actions. ("It's been 18 months, we're in or I'm out--nothing personal," for example, would be good.)

A lot of this comes down to being unafraid and unapologetic about your needs and wishes, because if you don't want what the other person wants, you shouldn't be together anyway! Right? Right?! --NO, I don't want to hear any of that "but they have so many wonderful qualities!" That's nice. So does most of the human race, really.

Bottom line: same relationship goals = go forward!; different relationship goals = getoutgetoutGETOUT!

As a dear old auntie of mine has said, the only man you can scare away by being yourself is your future ex-husband.

If accepting this is a hard pill for you to swallow, then my favorite book recommendation is Don't Call That Man. Again, applies equally to women too, but we still raise men and women to approach relationships differently, so it often ends up being expressed differently in practical terms, blah blah blah disclaimer. Also, you don't have to be breaking up with anyone to read it, though if you are breaking up, it's great for your mood.

And while I'm handing out unasked advice: While recuperating on the couch the other day, I saw an episode of Blind Date. The first thing the woman did was to tell the guy that she didn't trust men, because a lot a lot a lot of men had cheated on her.

Okay, don't do this. This goes for guys, too. You don't immediately douse a new date with exactly how terrible your ex was. Why? Well, for starters, picture seeing a man or woman sitting there with their drink telling how much wrong they been done. Oh so wrong! That's not a great mood to set right in the beginning.

Next, and you're going to hate this one, it cognitively lowers the threshold of what they think you are willing to accept as behavior from a partner. Not consciously, of course. But we all want to outdo our S.O.'s last partner. So if you portray that last partner as a horrible ogre, then what's to outdo? And what does it say about your spine that you would tolerate such terrible treatment?

Next, and you're going to hate this one, too, the more you emphasize how you've been mistreated, the more likely you are to push away someone who is healthy and attract someone who has a rescuer complex. (This doesn't sound so terrible, but believe me, it'll end up that way.)

Finally, how someone talks about their ex is also how they are likely to talk about others--including you. Your date will know this, and will be somewhat more repelled the more you speak negatively about others, no matter how terrible that person really, truly was. It makes you sound hostile and/or disrespectful. It makes it seem as though you could view them in that negative way, too.

Besides, what you focus on is what grows. Do you really want the focus of your date to be your misery? Because then I guarantee it'll grow.

So, what can you say that doesn't sound pollyannaish and fake?

Well, if you tell someone that your last relationship was nice enough, but you just had different goals, or personalities, or grew different ways, or whatever, that sounds respectable and respectful and reasonable. There will be plenty of time dish and gripe about your ex later, gradually, when you're all involved with each other. That's what 3am emotional talks are for.

Oh yeah, that TV couple with the distrustful woman (Ms. Trust, let's call her)? There was a setup with a hottie private eye who hit on the guy using a hidden camera. He was great. He respectfully turned her phone number down and said he was with someone else.

He was very kind and respectful to Ms. Trust the whole date through. I liked him a lot! In the post-date individual wrap up, he was eager to go on another date, whereas she flatly said there would not be another date. >sigh<

My guess based on that "a lot a lot" (a clear relationship pattern) is that she seeks out men who fulfill her cheating expectations, and he simply couldn't live down to them.

*Or someone who is completely uninterested in any of that kind of interaction at all.


Tim said...

Okay, my computer just did something freaky so let me drop this down again....

You know, I think this was an interesting entry, even if you thought it sounded like a lecture. Even though I don't have the training you do, I think you're right about Ms. Trust.

I also find it incredibly distasteful to hear too much about exes. True, if there was something traumatic that your spouse needs to share, that's prefectly (as we say) kosher. But especially not a first date!

Oh, and Doc, even though I admitted it here first, I have to admit I'm still making figure-eights with the mustard.

liz said...

I'd mainly be worried if you had to measure them each time and throw out the sandwich if it wasn't exactly right.

liz said...

--Oh, and thanks for reminding me: "Add kosher dills to shopping list".

Tim said...

Define "measure." If you mean with a protractor and ruler, then we're okay; if, however, you mean to imply that it's not okay to put the bread (on a plate) on the floor, and make sure it looks like a particular set of crop circles I saw as a kid, then we'll need further therapy.

liz said...

Interesting use of the first-person plural...."we'll" need further therapy...