Wherever you turn, from lunch tables to sitcoms, you hear women talking about men as being irrational, infantile, and afraid of commitment. Men play into this image by acting as if marriage is a trap, by looking scared if a woman mentions the future, and by being notoriously afraid to say "I love you."
You may have experienced the problem yourself. You may be attractive, bright, capable, articulate, and ready to love. More than once, you may have thought that the man in your life was great for you, only to realize that he wasn't going ahead another step. You tried different approaches, but after a while you felt shaken, and it was hard to do anything right. You got angry at yourself and very angry at him. Maybe your man ended the relationship, maybe you did. But either way, now it's over, and you're still not sure exactly why.
Obviously you don't want this to happen in your next relationship, which may have already started. Yet you can't help worrying. Even if there is real love on both sides, you know from experience (not just from yours but from those of your women friends) how easily things can go wrong. Men have a way of pulling back suddenly.
It may seem that you've been facing men's classic problem -- commitmentphobia -- that men just don't want relationships the way women do. But this is oversimple and not true. Men actually want commitment, love, and permanence every bit as much as women do.
So why do many men act as if they don't?
What terrifies men in love relationships isn't commitment but what they perceive as the loss of their masculinity -- the strange way that they view masculinity. The secret of why men won't commit (even when they want to) involves very particular fears that nearly all men have. Without realizing it, you may risk triggering your man's fear by simple acts that can make him afraid to commit to you for life.
From childhood, men have been brought up to be strong and silent -- never to show weakness. They've been taught that to say they're afraid, or in pain, or even that they're happy or in love is unmanly. Most men have spent so many years putting their feelings aside that by adulthood they lose their ability to describe many of their feelings, or even to know what they are. But they still have feelings, of course -- which become unidentified forces within them that confuse them. What we can't identify always feels very exaggerated, and most men react in exaggerated ways when they're bewildered and threatened.
The feelings that confuse men the most and often lead them to act in dramatic ways are feelings of threat to their masculinity. It's these feelings that stop them from commitment. Your man has the tremendous (and largely unnecessary) burden of having to maintain a masculine image, which he feels can be very easily put in jeopardy -- especially by a woman whom he loves.
* * *
The worst mistake that women make in relationships is to overestimate men. Men pretend to be in control, to know what they're doing. But men aren't nearly as secure as they would have you believe. Men don't have the insight into their emotions that women do. Real insight takes courage. When we first look inside of ourselves, we don't always like what we see. So most men don't bother to look.
Your man is probably worried about aspects of his own self-presentation that might seem utterly trivial to you. He feels threats that you can't possibly even imagine, but he can't talk about them. If he could, he would probably see that he wasn't under threat at all. The two of you could discuss things and put them in perspective. You could help him see that commitment to you would pose no threat to his masculine image.
But because the threat remains at the level of a vague feeling -- what I call a gut reaction -- it can ruin everything. Your man is too much ruled by his gut reactions, and when his gut reactions are bad, he wants to run away. He may overreact to small things that bother him in your relationship because he has no idea what to say or do to make things better. Unfortunately, this means that the man in your life is likely to make big decisions about you -- decisions often based on fear, like the fear of being trapped or the fear of showing softness -- without knowing why.
Most men are on a quest for the ready-made perfect woman because they basically feel that problems in a relationship can't be worked out. When the slightest thing goes wrong, it seems easier to bolt than to talk.
The man you began dating last week, or whom you've been going with for six months, has gut reactions to you aplenty. Most of them are positive, or he wouldn't be with you. But he may also have certain negative reactions that stop him from committing himself to you. He has been afraid to look inside himself for such a long time that he couldn't tell you what they are, even under truth serum. But you can know what they are.
This book is about why men won't commit. But more specifically, it's about what you can do to help your man overcome his irrational fears so that he can commit himself to you fully. As a woman, you probably have an insight into feelings that most men don't. Feelings have been an integral part of your life. You have lived with yours, talked to your friends about them, and accepted them as a part of you. You have used your awareness of your feelings to improve past relationships. Now you can use your knowledge to improve this relationship, easily and at no cost to yourself. You can help your man move toward the commitment that he secretly craves.
Men are much more alike than they seem to be. Nearly any man who likes you and wants a relationship to grow will look for basically the same treatment from you.
True, this new man in your life may seem very different from the last one. Men's personalities have been shaped by family histories, their interests, their skills, and so forth. But these account for only surface differences. All men's basic psychological needs are the same, and these needs determine their gut reactions. You can go from one man to the next, but if you continue acting in the same ways, you will predictably get basically the same responses, good or bad.
Obviously, some things you can't help. If a man's gut reaction to you is wrong in a way that you can't control, it's time to move on before you get in too deep. Maybe you simply don't appeal to him enough, for whatever reason. You're too far apart in life goals, or you're the wrong religion. Or it's physical -- you're too tall, or you're a blonde, and he likes dark women. In these cases, so be it. It's time to move on.
On the other hand, the problem might be rooted in something that can be changed. For example, you're the same height as your man, but you always wear heels. And he never says, "Please don't wear those three-inch stilettos." That would be a shame if you might have been very happy together. You may ask now, "Why didn't he simply tell me? He mattered more to me than my choice of shoes." He probably didn't tell you because he just "felt bad," and he himself didn't understand why. He felt some vague threat to his masculinity. But he didn't stop to analyze his feelings or your attire. It was easier to withdraw and perhaps find a woman who made him feel big and strong. The perfect ready-made woman!
Your man may react this way to other things you do that make him feel threatened. He feels somewhat upset by something that you are doing, perhaps innocently, but fails to bring it up, and so you go on doing it. Many tragedies in relationships occur when the woman creates bad reactions by behavior that she would willingly change, and might even prefer to change.
Sometimes you can make a critical difference in a relationship just by understanding what is going on in your man's mind. Too often women think that in order to keep a man, they have to make major sacrifices. They betray their own basic needs, trying to remold themselves out of desperation. As things get more hopeless, they may stop taking care of themselves altogether. Your man can't always talk to you about what's bothering him, but if you can figure out what he's really irrationally afraid of, you can make tiny adjustments early so that you won't be tempted to make big ones later on.
Take the case of my patient Richard. He met Tracy at a film festival, and they connected wonderfully right from the start. Richard was a schoolteacher, and Tracy was a successful travel agent. Richard was extremely attracted to Tracy and was excited to have found someone who shared his interest in books and in old films. Their first few dates went very well. Neither of them said much about their first marriages.
But on their fourth date, they started talking about the locations of some of their favorite movies. Tracy mentioned that she had made a point of using her travel connections to visit some of the famous locations with her husband. She got very animated when she described how "Bob and I went to Venice and Monaco, and even Algiers." She described Bob as a competent traveler. "One thing you have to say about Bob. He was a fearless driver. You should have seen him on those narrow roads in Monaco."
Richard got unusually quiet, but Tracy didn't notice. It never occurred to her that Richard was reacting badly, that he had no desire to see Bob driving fearlessly with Tracy at his side in Monaco. The conversation shifted, and the topic seemed to be closed. But Richard went home with a very bad gut reaction, which he didn't even want to think about. The next week in my office Richard told me that he really liked Tracy, but that he was thinking of winding down the relationship. He said that it just didn't feel right to him. Observing the radical change in his picture of Tracy, I questioned Richard and finally elicited the memory of that conversation about Tracy's ex-husband and all the fun that she'd had with him. Once I got Richard to put into words what was bothering him, he was able to discuss it with Tracy.
At my prompting, Richard told Tracy that the conversation had pained him. He had felt that Tracy was setting him up against her ex-husband. He had felt unmanned in what he interpreted as a competition with her ex-husband. He'd had the irrational feeling that Tracy was being disloyal to him.
Tracy was amazed. She'd had no intention of conveying anything like that. She told Richard that she had never been as attracted to her ex-husband as she was to him, and that they'd had very little in common. By the time they had gone to Europe, their marriage was already in serious trouble, and in Europe all they had done was fight.
Because Richard was able to identify his gut reaction and tell Tracy how upset he'd been, Tracy was able to explain what she had really meant. Tracy had never imagined that Richard would see her as being disloyal or emasculating if she praised her ex-husband's driving. After all, she was with Richard now and not with him. She knew that much of her marriage had been miserable. She could barely stand to talk to her ex-husband these days.
But Richard's need for loyalty was very strong and irrationally intense. And his reaction to perceived disloyalty was well over the top. Once Tracy knew about this oversensitivity, she could deal with it easily and establish her loyalty early.
After a while, Tracy got the whole loyalty issue out of the way. As Richard's positive gut reactions grew, he stopped evaluating Tracy and came to accept her as the terrific person she really was. Soon Richard was the one pushing for commitment. His need for loyalty actually began working in Tracy's favor.
Are men's gut reactions justified? In many cases no. But as they say, life isn't fair. Richard was extremely tough on Tracy for what was actually a totally innocent comment. He was tough because he didn't know what he was feeling. He didn't identify his irrational feeling of threat. As I mentioned, when we don't know what we're feeling, we tend to overreact.
Like Richard, many man have profound gut reactions. Because they are unable to put them into words, these reactions may rule them in a very negative way. When you know what's bothering you, you can deal with it. But if you don't know what's wrong, it eats at you.
Because men are so often in the dark in relationships, they tend to overreact to imperfections and pull back when they really want to come forward. So long as you, yourself, are not also in the dark, you can help your man and help yourself by making commitment easier.
The key is to understand men's secret concerns, and in particular those of the primary man in your life. When you do understand them, you can make them work to your advantage.
You certainly won't have to spend a lifetime studying the man you're with. No relationship would be worth that. And of course no relationship is worth the constant burden of your having to play games to keep it going.
Many women, feeling hopeless about their man's seeming inability to commit, resort to game playing -- like making him jealous or acting hard to get -- as ways of overcoming the resistance that they meet. But all calculated devices designed to overcome "men's fear of commitment" eventually result in a war between the sexes. Men have a powerful radar that tells them to run away when anyone tries to "overcome" them, when any strategy is being used on them.
Once you understand that your man wants commitment just as much as you do, you won't feel the need to play games. You will be free of "the battle of the sexes" mentality.
The art of sustaining a love affair is for two people to learn each other's sensitivities early on, so that there aren't major surprises as the relationship progresses. Once you do that, you will be able to give and to get what you both want in the relationship. After a while, you will be having a wonderful and effortless time with your man. You will enjoy a lasting love affair and get what you need as well.
As you start thinking about men's gut reactions, they may seem frighteningly random, like land mines hidden on your path to happiness with a man. When you trigger one accidentally, trouble ensues and the man pulls back. But, fortunately, things aren't really random at all.
Men's gut reactions fall into four basic categories, which spring from four special psychological needs that all men share. If not met, each of these needs prompts your man to feel threatened in particular ways. These needs are basic to his sense of masculinity. No matter how old a man is, how experienced, how sophisticated -- he will have these needs. Every man does.
All men have:
(1) the need to be special
(2) the need to travel light
(3) the need for loyalty, and
(4) the need to be close emotionally.
These needs are easily stated and may sound familiar, but once you understand how the male psyche works, you will see that they are anything but simple. Each need takes very subtle forms and runs deep. In some men, one need is more dominant than the others. But all men have these four needs.
Your man's readiness to commit reflects how you, as a woman, deal with these four basic needs.
In this book, we will encounter men's four basic needs again and again. We will see how these needs are basic to men's feelings of masculinity. They give rise to the gut reactions that make or break your future with a man. To understand these needs is to gain real control. If you do this in a direct and honest way, you can turn possible trouble into an opportunity to bond better than ever with the man you want.
We will also discuss what I call the Masculine Pretense, the set of attitudes that men imagine defines their masculinity. It's these attitudes that cause your man to feel so threatened and make it hard for him to commit.
MY OWN VANTAGE POINT
I am a psychotherapist, and I've been in private practice a long time. During the last ten years, I've been working mostly with men. This makes my practice quite unusual, since the majority of people in therapy are women. As everyone knows, women are more ready than men to talk about themselves and to explore what is going on in their lives.
Nearly all the men who come to me are outwardly successful. Many of them have their own businesses, or are professionals, or creative artists, and at the very least they are aspiring and enterprising. But when it comes to their love life, it's a different story. They unconsciously want that part of their life to take care of itself, and of course it doesn't.
Very few of the men I work with start therapy by talking about relationships. They usually begin by talking about what they're good at -- like making money, handling people, keeping a number of irons in the fire. They pride themselves on their power and efficiency, or on the fact that others depend on them. Only slowly does it come out that these men are deeply concerned about relationships, either one that they are in, or one that they are considering, or a marriage that is on the rocks and that they don't know how to save. Many blame themselves for their failures. ("I work too hard." "I travel too much.") Though some have gone through many relationships, they still have very little insight. "I guess I'm just no good with women."
All feel lonely -- as lonely as my women patients have felt over the years. The difference is that it takes the men a lot longer to admit to themselves that they feel disappointed and alone. In fact, I often have to question them at length about their feelings before they tell me this.
After talking to hundreds of men who finally opened up to me, I am convinced that men want relationships just as much as women do. They don't see themselves as being phobic about commitment. On the contrary, they are deeply disappointed when they lose a possible soul mate, even if they are the ones who ended the relationship.
Many of these men feel that a promise of life was broken to them. "What promise?" I ask. Nearly all tell me that they dreamed of being with a woman, not just a woman attractive to them, but one who is loving, loyal, spiritual, truly with them for better or for worse. They find plenty of attractive women, they tell me, and an abundance of available women. But it just never works out.
These men usually describe at least one relationship that looked perfect for a time before it collapsed. Usually the man has simply withdrawn. The woman panicked, not knowing why she was losing him. Ironically, the man usually couldn't say either.
In studying male-female relationships, I have become increasingly aware of the fragility of men's egos. The failure to realize that even the most seemingly successful men are, deep inside, unsure of themselves has led women with the best of intentions into difficulties that they have not understood. By failing to appreciate what men really need, they have elicited bad gut reactions -- sometimes fatal to the relationship -- when by doing less, they could have taken better care of themselves and kept the relationship heading in the direction they wanted it to go.
Recently, I came in at what felt like the tail end of a great but short love affair, full of good sex and good times, where everything had seemed right. Greg had built his own recruitment agency from the bottom up. Just about the time he met Jennifer, his business started to take off. Greg talked excitedly to Jennifer about expanding and improving his operation. Jennifer jumped right in. Trying to make herself useful to Greg, she devoted herself to seeing places for possible improvement. Hardly a day went by without her suggesting something for his business.
But while Jennifer imagined that she was helping Greg, he began feeling worse and worse. He was having a very bad gut reaction to Jennifer, and he had no idea why. They came to me in a last-ditch attempt to recover their relationship. I could see that Greg was responding to Jennifer's suggestions in two ways. He was delighted with her involvement, and she had some good ideas, but she was so prolific in her efforts to help him that he began to feel like a failure. He felt that Jennifer no longer saw him as he really was -- a man who had succeeded because of his own merits and who was on the verge of a great adventure.
Jennifer had actually put him up too high. She saw him as so successful and sure of himself that he was above being hurt by anything she said. In her haste to help Greg, Jennifer had unknowingly denied Greg's need to be seen as an individual -- in the way he wanted to be seen, as an accomplished person.
At my advice, Jennifer offered Greg no further suggestions for improvement for two months, and after that only sparingly. When she saw anything good, she complimented Greg, as she had when they'd first met. Greg's gut reaction changed for the better almost at once. Greg once again saw Jennifer as the supportive, giving person that she was, and they are still together.
The man in your life is acutely reactive, both positively and negatively, to small acts of yours. He has much stronger gut reactions to you, both good and bad, than he lets on. If he is like nearly all men, he likes to pretend to himself, and to you, that he is above these gut reactions, but he isn't.
If your man cares for you at all, you are much more important to him than you realize. And he is more subject to your influence than you realize. This is double-edged. True you risk bad gut reactions. But with understanding, you can create the gut reactions that lead to commitment.
Copyright © 2002 by George Weinberg, Ph.D.