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Dating Maze #351: Help Me Want to Get Married!

January 25, 2012 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

Am I a commitment-phobe, or is something else holding me back?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I’m a 28-year-old Jewish guy. I’ve been dating a woman seriously for six months, and I don't know what to do next. I like her, but I know that at some point she's going to want to take this to the next level. I don't know if I can. I want her in my life, but I'm not sure I want to get married. What's going to happen when she expects me to move forward and I can't?


Dear Daniel,

Many people are as ambivalent about marriage as you. You aren’t trying to decide if Kayla is the right person for you to marry. You can't address that question because you’re not even sure you want to get married. Many people would call you a "commitment phobe," a label that has become a catch-all for anyone who has trouble moving forward in a relationship.

So while it's unfair to call you a commitment-phobe – simply because you’re uncertain about marriage – that may indeed be what’s underlying your situation. There are many men and women whose fear of commitment defines their life. They may have a form of social anxiety that can make them shy away from commitments in many areas of everyday living, not just in relationships. A commitment-phobe may have an extremely hard time choosing which college to attend or selecting a career; is reluctant to sign a long-term apartment lease; or becomes anxious about accepting a permanent job offer.

There are many reasons why someone holds back from making commitments, including fear of becoming trapped in a situation or relationship, or worrying that they'll lose control of their life, their independence, or their sense of who they are.

Commitment-phobes will rationalize some justification for the break-up.

When it comes to dating, many commitment-phobes go from relationship to relationship, seldom staying long enough to allow anything to develop. If a courtship has some promise and progresses to a deeper level, someone who is afraid of commitment will start to feel uncomfortable and anxious and either break it off or sabotage the courtship in a way that causes the other person to end it. Many times, he's not even aware that his fear is the catalyst for the break-up. Instead, he rationalizes what happened by finding some justification for the break-up or claiming he felt pressured.

How can someone tell if the break-up was triggered by fear of commitment, rather than because they weren't right for each other? By looking at repetitive patterns in dating history. Do the break-ups often occur at the same stage in the dating process? Does s/he avoid emotional intimacy and prefer to relate to dates on a superficial level? Does s/he feel very uncomfortable when a relationship becomes "serious"? Does s/he see a pattern of actions that sabotage the relationship by antagonizing, offending or scaring the dating partner?

In such a case, cognitive behavioral therapy is a very effective form of treatment for this and other forms of social anxiety. A person can learn how to overcome the unproductive thought patterns that lead to feeling fearful, trapped, losing control, or losing his sense of self. Once someone starts to make progress in therapy and feels ready to date for marriage, we'd recommend they also work with a dating coach who can guide him through something that he hasn't experienced before – the relationship-building process.

Various Possibilities

Although you didn’t provide details in your letter, there are other possible reasons why you do not want to get married:

  1. You haven't seen a truly happy marriage, and can't understand why someone would want to put themselves into a situation that will make them unhappy.
  2. Your parents (and/or friends, siblings, etc.) are divorced or in an unhappy marriage, and you are afraid to repeat their mistakes.
  3. You worry, "How can I support a family? Am I ready to be responsible for other people besides myself?"
  4. You wonder what marriage will do to your life. "Will I feel trapped? What if I get bored? How am I going to have time for myself once I'm married?"

What can you do to move past these genuine concerns?

One way is to become friendly with a couple who has a strong marriage. They can be friends, family, or acquaintances. Seeing a successful marriage firsthand can help you feel more positive about the idea of being married. You can observe the way the husband and wife interact with each other and relate to their children. You can ask how they manage to balance their family responsibilities with everything else in their lives – jobs, community obligations, and personal interests.

Having this model will give you a marriage to aspire to, so you can think about those elements of the couple's relationship that you'd like to emulate when you get married.

Educational Programs

Marriage education can be another venue to help you address apprehensiveness about marriage. This can help prevent repeating others’ mistakes. Marriage educators know this first-hand, because we've seen so many clients succeed at being married, no matter what their family background. You can learn the skills to help you be a loving, supportive and responsible husband.

For you, marriage education should start now, before you’re in a relationship. There's a wealth of reading material that can dispel some of your misconceptions about marriage and help you feel more optimistic about it as a life goal. Here are some good places to start:

  • The Case for Marriage by Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher
  • The River, The Kettle, and the Bird by Rabbi Aaron Feldman
  • What Did You Say? by Rabbi Simcha Cohen
  • The Garden of Peace by Rabbi Shalom Arush (for men)
  • Women’s Wisdom by Rabbi Shalom Arush (for women)

Then, when you meet the right woman and are ready to “take the plunge,” you can embark on a marriage education program together – to develop skills of enhanced communication, problem solving, arguing productively, handling finances, and sharing responsibilities, to name a few.

Who are marriage educators? They can be qualified relationship coaches, marriage counselors, and marriage preparation teachers, who can offer personalized counseling. These organizations offer marriage skills workshops for engaged and newly-married couples:

Looking Outside

If you are concerned about your ability to undertake the responsibilities of being a husband and father, we'd also encourage you to look outside of yourself to develop a sense of responsibility for others. You might consider becoming a big brother to a disadvantaged child, volunteering at a soup kitchen, tutoring or mentoring, fundraising for a charity, or some other form of community service. These activities will help you develop skills and feel more confident that you can properly give of yourself when you have your own family.

Finally, we should mention that some people who feel ambivalent or anxious about getting married benefit from working with a psychotherapist to help them address and change their negative thoughts and feelings about love, relationships and commitment. You can consider therapy if you have tried a few of our suggestions and don't feel they have significantly helped to resolve your concerns.

The ambivalence that you feel about marriage, and the pervasive anxiety that true commitment-phobes experience, can't be wished away, and they usually don't get resolved on their own. Happily, we can't begin to count the number of men and women we know who once felt the same way as you, and are now in healthy, thriving marriages. They found the right venue to help them work on whatever issue was keeping them from wanting to get married, and succeeded beyond their dreams.

We wish you success in navigating the dating maze,

Rosie & Sherry

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