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Dating Advice #179 - Masking the Real Fear

May 9, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

He says that marriage has to wait until his finances are in order. What will be the next excuse?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I am in a bit of turmoil emotionally. I have met a wonderful man: he is caring, loving, respectful, educated... in other words, he possesses the qualities that I value most. We seem to have the same goals and similar dreams about having a family.

I am almost 30 and was previously married. He has never been married and his parents are divorced. Both of us have fears about failing, which we talk about.

He is also going through a career change, which will soon take a toll on his finances. He feels that even though I am a working professional, he needs to be able to maintain a certain level of income in order for us to get married. He had a painful experience before when a woman he loved resented him for not making enough money, so now I am paying for her mistakes.

Hopefully his life will be stabilized in 2-3 years. Yet I don't want to wait so long to start a family. It seems that we are able to compromise on everything but that question. What do you suggest?


Dear Larissa,

This man has given you a number of seemingly good reasons why the two of you should postpone engagement and marriage. Changing careers is very stressful and it may not be the best time to make a major life transition. He is wary of reducing his income after having been rejected by a former love because he did not make enough money. And he is concerned about meeting his fair share of family financial responsibilities. These all are legitimate concerns.

However, given what you have told us about his background, it seems to us that he is unconsciously using these reasons to avoid making a commitment. That is what he is really afraid of.

Because his real fear is that of getting married, it is entirely possible that even after he settles into his new career and his financial situation stabilizes, he won't be comfortable enough about it to agree to get married. His financial concerns are masking his real fear. That is why the two of you have not been able to make the compromises that can enable you to marry in the near future.

It isn't uncommon for a single person who is dating someone they truly care about, to unconsciously fear marriage and create a number of rationalizations as to why making the leap to engagement and marriage isn't a good idea at that particular point in time.

These reasons make so much sense that the person they are dating acknowledge their validity and continue the courtship, hoping that the logistics will someday be worked out. However, that usually doesn't happen. There is always a “next” logical reason why it isn't the right time to marry. Eventually, the couple, which has all of the right ingredients to build a great life together, breaks up because their relationship must move to the next level and one of them is unable to allow it to do so.

Instead of futilely trying to address the logistics that appear to be the problem, we encourage couples who have a healthy relationship and believe that they will be good marriage partners to address the underlying issue. They cannot rely on the passage of time to help the matter resolve itself.

The way to address a fear or commitment or marriage is through therapy --not couples therapy, but individual therapy for the fearful person. There are short-term, goal-oriented therapies that help people who are afraid of marriage to deal with their fear and move past it. We must emphasize that this therapy, like any other, can only be effective if the person obtaining it does so willingly, because he realizes that he has an issue he needs to resolve in order to move forward.

We have found this therapy is very helpful for people who are wonderful, personable, highly-functioning, and psychologically healthy. Most of them do not require long-term, psychodynamic therapy to work through their issues. That is why we recommend that people interview prospective therapists, and select one who uses a short-term, results-oriented approach.

As we said, an individual can only benefit from therapy if he is motivated to resolve the issue that blocks him from moving forward. The man you are dating has to be able to acknowledge that he is facing an obstacle, and he has to be willing to address it. Someone who goes to therapy to appease a dating partner will not experience success, because he or she can't take ownership of the problem and therefore won't respond to the therapy.

This doesn't mean that you cannot encourage the man you are dating to begin therapy. You can discuss our suggestion with him and ask him to consider the possibility of working with a goal-oriented therapist. If he is willing to do so, we hope that after a reasonable period of time his block will be removed and the two of you can move blissfully into the future. And if he is not willing to get therapy, you will have to then make the difficult -- but necessary -- decision to move on.

Rosie & Sherry

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