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For better or worse - do men still fear commitment?

7 Mar 2003

It’s a cliché that has inspired more than its fair share of books, programmes and plays – men are scared of commitment. But with society changing so much in the past few decades, is it time for a re-evaluation?

According to the dictionary, commitment is a “responsibility or promise that hinders freedom of action”. Of course in relationships, the ultimate commitment is marriage, but the issue often crops up way before you say “I do”. So how do men prove they are committed?

Psychologist Ron Bracey from Chichester sums up real commitment as a “psychological shift, a big change in direction” that happens when the level of intimacy is stepped up: a visit by her parents, a holiday for two, moving in together, getting engaged. But are today’s men as likely as previous generations to make a break for the back door when these issues crop up?

Fear of the unknown

Yes, says Ron Bracey. Yes, says Christine Northam, a Relate councillor from Basingstoke. And yes, says Professor Petruska Clarkson, a consultant sexologist from London.

“Men are much more scared of committing to a relationship now than they were,” says Prof Clarkson. “All around them, men see examples of their friends, their fathers…their colleagues who are broken people as result of divorce and its appalling consequences.”

She says men are particularly affected by the tragic cases where fathers are denied access to their children, or can only see them occasionally.

Christine says it’s hardly surprising men are being hesitant. “The divorce rate is now 40 per cent. That may make you think twice,” she says. “People are getting married older, and you think more carefully when older. There is no longer the stigma of walking away from wobbly relationships.”

Because relationships can so easily break down these days, it makes more sense to wait longer before committing to make sure of your choice. More people are testing their commitment by cohabiting first. Some of these partnerships work, some don’t, but many feel that in cases where they do break down then the people concerned have avoided the extra agony of divorce.

Money talks

It’s not just divorce though – money is another big issue, Christine says. “We live in a very materialistic society. People’s expectations are much higher and there is more pressure on a bloke.”

Despite changes in society, it seems the attitude that the man is the breadwinner still affects both sexes. Plus there is the issue of careers. “People take their career very, very seriously these days,” Christine points out. “If you are working long hours, it may make you think twice before committing to a relationship – which in one sense is extra work.”

However, while everyone agrees men are fearful of serious commitment, they also agree that this is not something we should panic about.

Taking stock

“Fear of commitment is not necessarily a bad thing,” says Christine. “Instead of blindly going forward, you are weighing up the pros and cons. People are now more aware of the hard work in commitment and how hard it is to get a relationship to work.”

“Fear can definitely be positive,” says Ron Bracey. “The person they fall in love with may not be their ideal life partner.” Instead, with men and women under no pressure to form early long-term relationships and with marriage now more a choice than a necessity, the problem of commitment being forced on a man – and hence the chance of it being rejected – is diminished.

Official figures bear this out. The OnePlusOne Marrriage and Partnership Research programme in London shows that we are marrying less and later on in our lives. Importantly, it is also clear that the older we are when we marry, the more likely the relationship is to last.

Sex before marriage

When the National Marriage Project in New York reviewed statistics from 1960 to the present day and interviewed a huge number of men to ascertain their feelings towards relationships, neither divorce nor career nor money topped the list.

Instead, perhaps unsurprisingly, the number one reason why men were reluctant to marry was: “You can get sex without marriage more easily now.” Typical men, some may think, but sex without automatic romantic implications is now just as much a part of many women’s lives as well, says Ron Bracey.

“The days when women did sex as a favour are long gone,” he says. “Pragmatically, women now use alcohol and go out socially in search of sex. There is more opportunity for sex these days and it is more acceptable that it can be just for fun rather than an emotional commitment.”

In this sense, he says, many men and women are less committed than in the past. “Men are more emotionally aware, more tuned in. They are more cynical of romantic commitment.” Put simply, they are now willing to accept that all they want from a particular person is sexual gratification.

Independent women

Many women also no longer feel the need for a strong show of commitment since they are both financially and socially independent. Instead, the issue of commitment has become something for older couples – and that may in itself be a good thing. “Women are enjoying the feeling of independence,” explains Christine.

Not that women’s need for a commitment doesn’t come, it just comes later than it once did. “Women, particularly when they feel their biological clock start ticking in their thirties are desperate for commitment and fearful of not finding it,” says Prof Clarkson. “Unfortunately, desperation and neediness is not sexually attractive,” she adds.

Are men still afraid of commitment? For some, yes. But many women are now also more reluctant, or rather, less compelled, to force a commitment decision on a man – both situations that may eventually lead to a longer-lasting, more loving relationship.

Further information:

British Psychological Society
OnePlusOne Marriage and Partnership Research
National Marriage Project

Link to this story on Discovery Health

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