Monday, August 15, 2005

Commitmentphobes: We're born, not made

After careful consideration, and series-long study of ABC's "Hooking Up", she says "I'm a commitmentphobe." Her voice is framed by a tinge of horror.

"Of course you are."

We've known each other for thirty years; I've known this about her for, oh, maybe twenty of them.

"But why? I understand why you're one..."

She trails off, hesitating before carefully selecting the processional route...."with what happened to you...how you grew up."

That's our shorthand. All friends have it.

In this case, 18 years of a Dickensian history described in four small words: how. you. grew. up. A lifetime, encapsulated by four, seemingly innocuous words - meaningful only in context. Code. And, apparently from an outside view, the root cause.

"It's not that," I reply. "Commitmentphobes are born, not made."


Despite a mostly normal childhood, she married someone who had the conversant abilities of an indoor ficus. A man whose intellectual capacity was limited to drunken discourse on the merits of fantasy football leagues and impassioned soliloquies on video games, punctuated by a burp.

And from that field, what gold had she expected to mine?

Not that I should talk. Really. For my lifelong (or, in reality, decade-long) mate I chose someone whose childhood was so odious it made mine more Austen than Poe.

He had a wealth of emotion, though. Running the gamut from anger to rage, he expressed the depth of his feelings by what he broke. Mildly angry meant small knick-knacks. Enraged? A wall. Funny, no matter how angry he got, he never broke the various bottles that carried his own memory elixirs.

Looking back, it was a sure sign of eventual built-in obsolescence. When the highlight of your respective childhood memories is the fact they both took place against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, you just can't expect much.

Of course she's a commitmentphobe - prior commitments notwithstanding. So am I. Only not for the reasons she's suggested, and not that reasons matter. They don't.

But, like children traipsing through puddles after a downpour, searching for whatever's washed up, we splash through personal history, looking for some catalyst. The flopping fish of personality bedrock, evicted from it's natural environment, it's a mystical, mythical past relationship on which we'll play "Pin the Phobia on the Donkey."

"So, why am I like that?" she asks, more to herself than me.

"Well, here's my theory. . ." I begin.

If you ask me, commitmentphobia is about fear of mortality. Nothing more. Nothing less. For whatever reason, it's marriage - not children - that carries with it the stigma and scent of eventual death. Choose your life's mate and all other choices are insignificant. Now it's just a matter of time.

The common thread for all commitmentphobes is the fear of being trapped. No exit route. Marriage, or even selecting and maintaining one permanent, intimate relationship, is messy business for anyone.

For the phobic, even the idea of giving up free time is threatening. Not being able to get out of the situation induces panic. In life, the only time we're ever really trapped is death. See, it's a very short leap to understanding exactly what's driving the big bus o' fear.

A majority of us even choose the same scenario for both events: dressed in our nicest clothes, in a church, surrounded by those who love us.

"But what about the people who are like serial daters? They have relationship after relationship?" she asks.

"Oh. They're commitmentphobes, too. They just find it easy to commit because deep down inside, they already know they'll eventually move on. It's less mentally constricting. Less pressure. Looks like commitment, but it isn't. So they can do it.."

The only question neither of us asks is how to change it. Too bad. I think I've discovered the answer to that, too.

Long stretches of solitude and isolation provide serious perspective on the issue. When not being able to find your glasses one night, you start tossing accusations of theft at your cats' tiny feline faces, it's the other type of commitment you begin to fear.

After a handfull of years spent being cared about only by pets and bill collectors, a permanent, "til death do us part" relationship would hardly induce the slightest panic in even the most commitmentphobic of humans.
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