What’s that sound in the distance? It might be your friends shouting, “Yeah, right!” I’m talking about what people really think about the relationship put-off that’s as old as the hills: “I’m too afraid/nervous/scared to take the relationship to the next level.” Decoded, what does this statement really mean? And is it a pure put-off, or is it ever true?
Let’s be honest: Guys are usually the bearers of this lame dating line. While generalizations are often wrong or highly embellished, it is true that many men feel afraid of commitment and emotional intimacy in a way that many women don’t. Take a quick detour with me to life inside my house with my 4-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son. While he plays solitarily in the living room with his cars, my daughter sits next to me in the other room and feeds her doll with a toy bottle. Until I became a parent, I always believed gender differences were mostly socialized. Well, my kids’ distinct preferences for play remind me that a lot of the differences between males and females may be biologically based. In other words, maybe males and females largely behave as they do because of their gender, rather than in spite of them.
Without question, many gender differences seen in young children’s behavior (males preferring combative play or hyperactive play, females engaging in relationship-based behavior with dolls or friends) seem to continue later in life, though they are manifested in different ways later. When it comes to romantic relationships, it is certainly possible (though not provable) that one’s gender determines at least part of the way they approach sex and commitment. In my clinical work, I find that women seek a committed relationship at higher rates than men.
When a man says he’s not ready to take the relationship to the next level, what does that really mean?
This behavior typically reflects that a man wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He likes the freedom to play the field, or the freedom of not being officially tied down in a permanent way so that he could play the field should he choose to do so. While that may be fine for him, what about for you?
What to Say and Do in Response:
When a guy tells you that he isn’t ready for commitment, it’s time to have an adult conversation about the status of the relationship and whether each of your most important emotional needs are getting met.
Example: You’ve been dating Guy X for a year. When you suggest moving in together, he pumps the breaks and moans about how he isn’t ready to take the relationship to the next level. In the moment, simply digest it. Take a minute and sit with it, and tell him that you’re not sure what to say. (It is often a good idea to press pause in these conversations and regroup a little later after you’ve had a moment to get some perspective.) Sometimes there is nothing that needs to be said, but rather an inventory must be taken to determine how to best proceed. Your inventory requires asking yourself a few basic questions. Take a mental health day (with a bubble bath, yoga, or a run in the park) and ask yourself the questions below.
Overall, have I had a good relationship with this person?
Is this someone I can definitely see myself wanting to spend a good chunk of my life with?
Is this someone who will always make a good parent, friend or co-worker if he were not to change much at all in the future?
(Warning: The last question is the clincher.)
If I were to break up with him, how confident am I that I could meet someone else with whom I could have a happy, committed relationship?
If the answers to the first three questions are “yes,” but the answer to the fourth one is “no” or “not sure,” watch out. This particular constellation of thoughts and feelings indicates that you may be prone to staying in a relationship – even if you’re unhappy – out of fear that nothing better exists for you.
If your answers to any of the first three questions involve a “no” answer, you know what you need to do – and it doesn’t involve planning a wedding.
Once you’ve taken inventory with these crucial questions, your only healthy choices are to:
1) Hit the road, or…
2) Give him a time frame during which he must figure out what he wants to do. If you want to make the relationship work, consider giving him six months. Tell him that you’ll still be together during this period, but that you might detach a little emotionally to figure out your needs and make sure that the two of you are on the same page.
Ultimately, I know that finding someone isn’t easy and that it can be downright scary to end a relationship after you’ve been in it for a while. When your romantic life is in limbo, make an extra effort to reach out to friends and family for emotional support. Take this time to develop parts of yourself that have gone dormant for years – and, yes, I am talking about those tennis lessons you’ve been putting off, or that garden you’ve talked about starting for years. In short, when the romance department is struggling, invest as much or more in the other areas of your life. If you do so, you will find balance – and your way to a more compatible partner.
About the Author:
Dr. Seth Meyers has had extensive training in conducting couples therapy and is the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.