By Danielle Braff
Julia Tarnorutskaya, 35, and her 39-year-old boyfriend have been dating for seven years.
She’s hoping he’ll be ready to move in with her soon, but she doesn’t want to put too much pressure on him, and she’s willing to take their relationship slowly, so that he doesn’t get scared and run.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who is more afraid of commitment or making decisions than him,” said Tarnorutskaya, a pediatric massage therapist who lives in Grayslake, Ill., with her 10-year-old son. She’s been married before, but so far, the seven years that she’s been with her boyfriend have been his longest, most significant relationship yet.
There isn’t a single reason why some people are able to commit after a first date while others take years or even decades to put a ring on it.
But it appears that the percentage of people who aren’t interested in marriage is rising.
Nearly half of adults are married, while a quarter have never been hitched, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center report.
A 2014 Pew survey found that while 53 percent of never-married adults said they’d like to marry, this number is down from 2010, when 61 percent said they’d like to tie the knot. And 32 percent said in the same study that they aren’t sure if they want to get married, while 13 percent said they don’t want to get hitched.
But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating for those who are in relationships with the noncommitters, leaving them to wonder: a) Is it me? b) Will this change? c) Can our relationship survive?
“People who are commitment-phobic want a relationship, but they have a paralyzing anxiety or a fear of relationships,” said Bela Gandhi, Chicago-based relationship expert and owner of the Smart Dating Academy. “They want it, but they experience so much anxiety that they just want to lace up their Nikes and run.”
For some, it can be triggered by parents who had a terrible relationship; others may have experienced their own bad breakup, even as early as high school, though they may be in their 40s now, Gandhi said.
Others are afraid of going through a potential divorce, losing out financially or experiencing some form of a bait-and-switch in attitude or behavior once there is a legal commitment, said Kevin Darne, an Illinois-based relationship expert and author of “My Cat Won’t Bark! (A Relationship Epiphany).”
Overall, true fear of commitment tends to stem from trust issues and a fear of being hurt, Gandhi said.
That’s exactly what happened to Miriam Eskenasy, 68, who said she never wants to endure the pain and suffering that she survived during her 20-year marriage.
And even though that marriage ended decades ago, Eskenasy said the repercussions are present in every relationship she’s had since.
“I realized that I was always getting into impossible relationships that go nowhere because I was the one with the fear of commitment,” said the Hyde Park-based freelance cantor and bar mitzvah tutor.
For the past five years, Eskenasy has been living with a man whom she’s known for 40 years, but she still can’t fathom marrying him, though he’d like to tie the knot.
“I think it would be too much of a commitment,” she said. “I need to be free.”
But some relationship experts believe that few people are actually afraid of commitment, simply using the phrase because it’s more palatable to the person they’re dating.
“It’s simply another way of saying, ‘It’s not you; it’s me,’ ” Darne said.
Still, a refusal to commit to marriage or to any other significant relationship step doesn’t have to make or break the relationship, Darne said.
“The goal is to choose someone who shares your same values, wants the same things for the relationship and agrees with you on how to obtain them,” he said.
Essentially, a relationship is an agreement, said David Klow, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Chicago.
Sometimes, these are healthy agreements, but other times, they aren’t so healthy.
“A relationship can be successful when each party’s agreements line up and match with one another,” he said. “If both people want a commitment, then it has a better chance of working; if one person wants a commitment and the other person is afraid of that agreement, then it might present significant challenges.”
If you know ahead of time that you don’t want to be in a relationship with someone unable or unwilling to commit, then you should look out for the clear signs they may be giving you, before you even start dating, Gandhi said.
They might have had short or noncommittal past relationships; they may have never been married; they may be unable to commit to dates or schedules; they won’t use relationship words like “love” or “girlfriend.” They may not even have many friends, as they don’t trust people, and don’t want to get close to anyone because they fear getting hurt.
But other times, it is a matter of becoming ready to commit, especially if they see a therapist to work out their issues, Gandhi said.
The success stories are the exception rather than the rule in these situations, however, said Theresa Herring, an individual and couples therapist in Evanston, Ill.
“It takes a lot of patience, fortitude and self-preservation on the part of the person who wants this to work,” she said. “Because you cannot change your partner, only how you react to them. So if they aren’t interested in dealing with their issues, there’s not much you can do.”
After all, relationships will always have challenges, but at the very least, they should start with both people wanting to be in the relationship, Darne said