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Why do many men act as if they don’t want commitment?

From childhood, most men have been taught to be strong and silent, never to show weakness. They’ve been discouraged from talking about their feelings, so they never learned the skill. Now, most are on a quest for the ready-made perfect woman. They feel that, in relationships, things can’t be worked out. When the slightest thing goes wrong, it seems easier to bolt than to talk. Dr George Weinberg, author of Why Men Won’t Commit: Getting What You Both Want Without Playing Games, has been a therapist for over 25 years and has discovered that — deep down — men actually want commitment, love, and permanence every bit as much as women do.

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 over-estimate 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.

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