Disclaimer: in this discussion on whether or not you should commit to a relationship–including a discussion of the risks of commitment–I am consciously leaving aside the dangers of abuse. I am aware of the risks of abuse, and they’re shared by men and women; but this article will not address abuse since it’s important enough to be its own topic.
Is this you?
– You’re not sure if marriage makes sense for you
– You’re scared to be fully committed to someone
– You’re not sure if she’s “the one”–maybe there’s someone better (read: perfect) out there?
I’m a 27-year relationship and mens’ coach, and author of two internationally bestselling books on how to build a loving and lasting partnership. It is my calling and my joy to offer relationship advice for men. I’ve spent decades helping men (and women) to navigate relationship problems and build successful, long-term relationships.
In this blog, if you’re in a relationship but not sure whether or not to fully commit to your partner, I’m going to be speaking directly to you.
Benefits of Commitment
There are four big benefits to being in a committed relationship.
The first benefit is companionship. We’re all human, and we crave connection with other people. We want someone to talk about the deep stuff with. We want a partner we can laugh with and fall asleep next to. Our romantic partners shouldn’t be the only source of connection in our lives, but they can be a big one.
Again, we’re all human. That means that each and every one of us craves validation, at least a little. We want to know that someone loves and cares about us. We want to feel special and like someone is choosing us.
That validation can come in part from a committed relationship. To be clear, a romantic partner shouldn’t be your only form of validation any more than it should be your only form of companionship. But when we commit to our partner, we are saying to each other that we choose them. We are acknowledging that we have other options and consciously choosing to eschew those options in order to be with our partners. That’s powerful–and validating–stuff that you don’t get from hookups or an open relationship.
A committed relationship between two people who love each other can offer substantial security.
On a purely emotional level, it can help to have a partner to share the rough parts of life with. When your kids are mad at you, having another adult to share the burden can make a difference. Ditto when one of you gets fired. That doesn’t mean you should turn your partner into your therapist; and if you find yourself consistently crying on their shoulder than something is deeply wrong. But when life is firing bullets at you, it can be good to have someone else you trust in your foxhole.
There are also financial benefits. It’s easier to buy a house and pay for kids on two incomes than it is on one. Ditto saving for retirement and putting money away for a rainy day.
Finally, in a committed romantic relationship both parties can be more confident that their partner won’t cut and run the first (or second or third) time that things get hard. That’s a level of support you don’t get from a Friday night hookup.
The next benefit is combined resources. It’s easier to raise children when you have a committed and loving partner. Two parents can split the 4am wakeups, the doctor visits, the piano recitals and the endless trips to different practices. If you try to do it alone, every ounce of that weight is going to fall solely on your head.
Your children will also thank you for staying together to raise them. Children raised in two-parent households do better on every measure than children in single-parent households. They are more likely to graduate college, more likely to avoid falling into poverty, and less likely to go to prison. They’re less likely to end up on welfare, less likely to have their own kids out of wedlock before they’re ready, and more likely to be physically healthy both as children and as adults.
A good and loving partner can also serve as an excellent sounding board. When you’re kicking around a career change or what your role should be in your grandchildren’s lives, it can be good to have someone to talk to. This is valuable even if you have other close relationships, because it’s about going to the best person for the need at hand.
This doesn’t mean you should make your partner into your therapist. Here’s a handy demarcation: use your partner as a sounding board when you’re making a decision that will affect both parties. Don’t use her just to vent or as a coach to help you do your own work.
In a good relationship, one person can also keep everything going smoothly (in the short term, at least) while the other person is incapacitated. If you get sick, your partner can pick up the slack and make sure the kids get fed while you’re recovering. Ditto if one of you is slammed at the office; having a partner to keep the house running smoothly can stop the non-work parts of your life from falling apart.
There’s also division of labor. Chores and paying bills are easier in one household than two, which means there’s less work for each party when you live together. You can divide up the tasks so that no one person carries all the load. This is essential when you have kids, since both partners often work full time and kids have soccer practice, recitals, Boy Scout meetings, and homework they need help with. If you try to go it alone, you’re probably going to end up overwhelmed.
Risks of Commitment
There are big risks when it comes to committing to another human being. You will absolutely lose them, and you’ll be devastated when you do. And that’s even if everything goes well.
The Pain of Loss
The cold hard reality is that every relationship is terminal. Every single one will end at some point. There’s a good chance that one or the other of you (generally both, in my experience) will blow it up, and the relationship will end with both partners still alive. But even if you stay together for decades, through your middle years and retirement and through old age, you’re still committing to a reality in which one of you dies.
By committing to a relationship, you are committing to *certain* pain.
Marriage Is Risky For Men
The second big risk of commitment is that, in the United States, marriage as a legal institution is risky for men.
Divorce laws favor women financially. Attorney Sharon D. Liko, P.C. explains:
“The problem lies in the factual reality that most men are the primary breadwinners, and most women have been the primary caretakers of the children. Under the law, the spouse who is financially dependent and unable to independently take care of his or her financial needs will have at least a claim to temporary maintenance. Debts are often split in proportion to the party’s gross incomes.”
57 percent of American men believe that divorce courts favor women on average. Only 5 percent of Americans (men and women) believe that divorce courts favor men.
Divorce laws also favor women when it comes to child custody. If you and your wife split up, the default for you as a father is seeing your kids–at most–on the weekends. That’s if you’re lucky. I’ve known fathers who only see their kids once a month, and fathers who don’t even get that. If you want anything approaching full or even shared custody, be ready to fight like Hell for it.
Even living together without tying the knot is risky, because of the reality of common-law marriage. In many states, just living together for a certain amount of time means you’re married in the eyes of the state–with its attendant disadvantages for men.
Statistically, the odds of a marriage working out are slim. Almost 50 percent of marriages fail across the United States. If you and your best friend both get married to the partners of your dreams, odds are pretty good at least one of you is going to end up single in a few years.
These problems are not exactly helped by our modern hookup culture. If you’re with a woman who’s had 10 or more sexual partners, the odds of a divorce are six times the odds if you’re with a woman who’s had 0 sexual partners.
I would be a hypocrite if I told you not to get married. I’ve been happily married for over 4 decades. But if you want to get married, it is important to understand the risks. Go into it with your eyes wide open, and have a prenup that governs (at the least) finances and child custody.
Why Are Men Scared Of Commitment?
In my relationship coaching practice, I see a lot of men who are terrified of commitment. Some of them are scared for good reason, and others are just plain scared.
If you’re a man, I won’t bullshit you–there are good reasons to be scared of commitment.
“Till Death” Made A Lot More Sense 700 Years Ago
“Till Death” made a lot more sense in the 1300s, when “till death” meant until you turned 35 and keeled over from the Bubonic Plague. Nowadays, if you get married at 25, “till death” means potentially being with the other person for another 40-60 years. That’s a lot to ask of anyone.
Marriage Is Risky For Men
I covered the reasons above, but suffice to say–this is a rational fear. If you get married, and it goes south, you could lose almost everything that matters to you. It would be downright foolhardy to not be at least a little concerned about the possibility.
The Pain of Losing Your Partner
No matter what, you will lose your partner in the end. Either through break-up or divorce or death, there will come a time when you are no longer together. And the more loving years you have together, the more the eventual end will hurt like Hell.
What separates the men from the boys though is how you deal with this reality. Pain is certain. But do you use this pain as an excuse to never commit? Or do you decide to accept the pain and lean in anyway?
The fact is that some people are dangerous to enter into a long-term relationship with. Hell, they’re dangerous to enter a short-term relationship with too; but everything becomes a whole lot riskier once you share a house and a bank account and kids. If your partner is displaying red flags, it’s important that you not ignore those.
Fear of Losing Yourself In a Relationship
This is one of the biggest challenges of any relationship: how do you be a “me” and an “us”? I’ve known men who have completely lost themselves in their marriages. They made their wife the center of their universe: whatever she wanted, she got. If she wanted attention 24/7, they gave it to her. If she wanted them to give up their hobbies and stop seeing their other friends, she got it.
Eventually the men woke up and realized that after 10 years of this they had no idea who they were any longer.
Relatedly, I’ve spoken to lots of men who fear losing their freedom. Having a family carries with it an enormous lifestyle change. When you have kids, you will lose a metric ton of freedom, and have to put aside (either temporarily or forever) many of the hobbies and activities that you once cherished. This isn’t a moral or gender issue, and women deal with it too; it’s simply a math problem. There are only 24 hours in a day, and kids take up most of those.
The Impact of Children
I’ve talked to many men who fear the impact that children will have on their relationship. In 8 out of 10 cases, the relationship problems of couples I’ve coached started when the couple had their first kid. Kids change things enormously. Sex becomes harder, sleep gets scarcer, and hobbies go out the window.
This risk is compounded because of the culture we’re in. We’re brought up to focus on hobbies and entertainment to the exclusion of family. Our individualistic culture doesn’t prepare us to parent, or for the sacrifices that parenthood requires, so when kids do come it’s a massive shock.
The solution here is to talk about kids with your partner beforehand. Do a collaborative risk assessment, and figure out together if this is the right time to have kids. Make sure you’re on the same page, and that children don’t enter the picture until you’re ready for them.
I’ve also worked with men who have a number of irrational fears about commitment. They tend to fall into three big categories.
Fear of Being Tied Down
In my coaching practice, I see lots of men who are dating amazing women but who are scared. They’re not scared of the institution of marriage; they’re just scared of being tied down to any one person. Many men are even experimenting with the idea of “handfasting,” a Scottish tradition that is essentially a temporary and nonbinding marriage. I’ve coached a number of men who are only comfortable making a one-year commitment; at the end of the year, partners can choose to re-up or to go their separate ways.
Some men balk at the idea of even a one-year commitment; I’ve had men ask me if they can do a two-month agreement instead. These men love their partners, but are terrified to make a real commitment to them.
Here’s the deal with this kind of fear: it’s a cognitive distortion. Your fear does not have your best interests at heart. This fear is a manifestation of your ego, and its goal is to keep your life small.
As men, we are called to live with courage. Don’t let fear make your decisions. This doesn’t mean you should marry the first girl you see; but if you’re dating an amazing woman and the only reason you won’t commit is that you’re scared, I respectfully suggest you grow some testicular fortitude.
The Search For the “Perfect Woman”: Fear By Another Name
Some men I’ve talked to are dating wonderful women, but they don’t commit because they think there might be something better out there.
You know the type:
“She loves me so much, and we have wonderful conversations. But man, if she were just a little wilder in bed (or “if she’d just lose ten pounds” or “if her energy was just a little different”), THEN I’d marry her.”
This search for the perfect woman is just fear by another name. These men are scared to commit, but cannot admit that to themselves; so they hide behind the idea that if they ever found the perfect woman, THEN they’d commit. This is highly convenient for the ego, because there is no such thing as the perfect woman; so, their bluff will never be called.
This search for a way out often arises when the sex cools. In her book Mating In Captivity, sex therapist Esther Perel tells the story of a man who dates someone and thinks he’s found his soulmate. She’s smart and fun and sexy, they have amazing conversations, and the sex is incredible. Two years in, the sexual fire dwindles. “She’s just not the one for me,” he concludes, and leaves her heartbroken to pursue his TRUE
soulmatefantasy: a woman with whom the fire will never fade.
This search for the perfect woman also manifests in men having unrealistic expectations for what their partner should do for them. If a man expects his woman to be his WalMart, his one-stop shop. He can look to her to be his best friend, his spiritual guide, his always-on sex partner, his shoulder to cry on, his support system, etc. When she’s not all of those things, he leaves in search of the mythical woman who CAN meet all of his needs.
Don’t make your partner into your Walmart. That’s too heavy a burden for any relationship to handle.
Instead, your partner should be like Tiffany’s: rare and beautiful, sophisticated, elegant; but also a niche store. Go to your partner for specific things, not for everything.
Culturally, We’ve Turned Away From Our Masculinity
For the past 60 years, our culture has told men and boys that it’s not okay to be masculine. The American Psychological Association has criticized “traditional masculinity ideology” which it defines as a constellation of behaviors including, “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.”
Men are so scared of appearing masculine that many won’t even ask a woman out on a date. Bill Maher reports that 44 percent of teenage boys won’t even masturbate. As Maher quips, “are they afraid to touch their own dicks, because a gym sock can’t give consent?”
Our culture consistently tells men that if they act masculine, they’ll be: stepping on their feminine partner, contributing to rape culture, mansplaining, manifesting “toxic masculinity”, etc. The perceived consequences range from being a bad person, to just being tarred and feathered as a social regressive.
Is it any wonder that men are scared to fully embody their masculinity?
I call this an irrational fear because there are two things the world needs right now: strong women, and strong men. When you embrace healthy masculinity (and, for what it’s worth, healthy femininity) you become stronger. You can do and achieve more. And, yes, our feminine partners tend to love it when we fully step into our masculine energy and juice.
Specific Conditions Under Which Committing to a Relationship Is Good
It’s easy to see the conditions under which you shouldn’t commit. But what are the conditions under which you and your partner should commit to each other?
– You’ve been together for at least a couple of years (the honeymoon phase only tends to last 9-12 months), and you’ve successfully weathered one or two big storms together.
– You’re both committed to your own personal growth.
– You’ve talked through, and are on the same page about, the big things in life: kids, finances, where you want to live, etc.
– You have a prenup mapped out around custody and finances, that you both agree to.
When couples meet these conditions, they can do very well in a modern committed long-term relationship.
So, Should You Commit Or Not?
If you’re in a relationship and you’re struggling with whether or not you should truly commit to your partner, I can’t tell you what to do. Every relationship is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
I can give you three rules of thumb to adhere to as you explore this issue:
- First, make the decision in loving consort with your partner. When the two of you are discussing this issue, both of you should be making the decision from the deepest place available to you. That means that irrational fear might get a voice in the conversation, but it sure as hell shouldn’t get the decisive vote.
- Second, seek the help of a relationship coach to help you and your partner design the relationship you both want ahead of time. Designing a relationship is like drawing up plans for a house. It’s better to do it now than in five years, when the foundation is already crooked and the walls don’t fit together.
- Third, make your decision based on real women and real partnerships.Be watchful you don’t fall into the trap of Fantasyland. Don’t hold out hope for the perfect woman. She doesn’t exist .Instead, look for a woman who makes you happy to be around, is committed to supporting you in constant evolution as a man and human, and brings you joy more often than not; do not look for a woman who will meet your every need and fulfill your every fantasy.
And if you’d like help navigating the particulars of your relationship, I do offer one-on-one relationship coaching as well as coaching for couples. Check out my relationship coaching offering; and if you think it might be a good fit, reach out and we’ll set up a meeting to discuss how I can help.