I am afraid of commitment. Should I get married?
June 10, 2013 3:10 PM   Subscribe

I’ve been dating my girlfriend for two and a half years. She is 28, I am 42. She really wants to get married and have kids. Part of me likes that idea a lot, but another side of me has extreme anxiety around the idea of commitment. I have struggled with anxiety since my early 20s and have undergone a lot of therapy, and while I understand what the anxiety is and where it comes from, no one has been able to “cure” me of it to the point where suddenly the things I’m anxious about don’t bother me any more.

The commitment thing has been a big one for me for a long time — obviously it’s why I’m 42 and never married — but I didn’t understand until recently it was anxiety that was holding me back when it comes to relationships. Anxiety also makes it very hard for me to travel, something she loves to do. And the idea of being a parent with anxiety is really difficult for me to grasp, too, as I am used to being so focused on myself and my own problems. So why even think about getting married? It’s because I know what’s waiting for me if we break up — a life of loneliness that will mostly suck, despite the fact that right now my anxiety is trying to trick me into thinking that it will be so awesome to be alone. I love my girlfriend so much and we have a great time together, but I don’t want to rob her of any more time if this isn’t going to work out—especially since she is so much younger. So I guess my question is, do I suck it up and face my fear and ask her to marry me and just gut out the anxiety I know I’m going to feel, at least for a while? Will the reward be worth it? Or should I just set her free to find a normal guy who doesn’t have all these issues? I know I’m being really selfish even thinking about letting this drag on, but I’m hopeful maybe there’s a light at the other end of the tunnel. She is great; she has a great family and great friends, and I can see them all standing in the doorway waiting for me to come in, and it’s killing me that it’s so difficult for me to do so.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
For what it's worth, there are plenty of women who don't want to get married, who are happy to be in childfree relationships. If your perception of loneliness is what's keeping you with this woman who wants marriage and children, it's wrong.

If you've already been in therapy about this for 20 years, maybe you could try a different sort of therapy? I'm not a doctor, but that seems to me to be a long time to battle crippling anxiety. (I have an anxiety issue myself).
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:14 PM on June 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Well, probably this is something to be worked out in therapy, and you can do couples therapy as well to keep in sync with each other as you navigate your relationship's next steps. You say you only realized recently that your anxiety and commitment issues were related, so give yourself some time and effort to work on that in therapy before making life decisions.

Or should I just set her free to find a normal guy who doesn’t have all these issues?

It's not up to you to set her free. She's an adult and doesn't need your permission to move on if that's what she believes is best for her. What you do owe her is honesty and open communication about the issue so that she can make an informed decision.
posted by headnsouth at 3:15 PM on June 10, 2013 [13 favorites]

Have you had an honest conversation with her about all this? Is couples' therapy an option to help sort the fears out with an objective third party? Both options seem quite rash to me, and I think your first move needs to be upfront and honest with your partner because ultimately a marriage or relationship won't survive if you're not on the same page.
posted by rawralphadawg at 3:16 PM on June 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

It’s because I know what’s waiting for me if we break up — a life of loneliness that will mostly suck

I would also like to point out that it's also your anxiety telling you what awaits for you if you break up. Yes, breaking up with someone you love is always painful for a period -- sometimes a long period. But that is NOT the same as being doomed to "a life of loneliness that will mostly suck."

The most important thing I learned in therapy about anxiety is this: the fear of something happening does not make it a fact. Fear of feeling lonely does not mean you will always be alone. It's vital that you learn to separate those two things. Don't let fear make your choices for you (and that includes becoming so paralyzed that you essentially force a series of lesser-choices-by-default upon the people around you and eventually yourself).
posted by scody at 3:23 PM on June 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

Hmm, yes. I think if you love her, you should probably go out on a limb. You have basically said, "My anxiety is holding me back. Should my anxiety hold you back?" No. Not being in love enough and stuff like that, are good reasons to hold you back. Anxiety is a good thing to buck up and face. You're not getting any younger.
posted by mermily at 3:24 PM on June 10, 2013 [10 favorites]

Marriage and children are two seperate choices and I think it would be helpful to think about them individually.

Start with the kids question. This is really the bigger, higher stakes decision. Search your soul and heart and what you want for your life 5, 10 years into the future and whether you want that life to include a family.

If you don't want kids, you need to tell your girlfriend that you don't want kids. Having a kid because your girlfriend wants a kid isn't fair to anyone, especially the kid.

If you do want kids, then ask yourself if your girlfriend is the person you want to have them with, and whether you want to spend the rest of your life with your girlfriend in general. Try to figure out what it is specifically about marriage that you're afraid or worried about.
posted by Asparagus at 3:35 PM on June 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

If you genuinely love this person, I think you should either do two things:

1. Resolve to face your fears and change your ways. I understand that you have anxiety issues, but maybe you should think of them more as fears. Anxiety is something you live with, fear is something you conquer. Fears of traveling, fears of commitment, fears of having children. You are afraid of these things, but now you are working on changing them. For her sake, for the sake of your relationship, be proactive about taking risks.

2. Break up with her. Because honestly, it doesn't sound like you're willing to give this woman the live she envisions. I personally love traveling, and I personally want to have children some day, and if my husband didn't want either of those things, we probably wouldn't be married.

Also, please please don't have children unless you really want them.
posted by zoomorphic at 3:40 PM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Will the reward be worth it?"

Yes. Marriage is awesome. Go for it.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:47 PM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you're thinking of marrying her and having kids to stave off "a life of loneliness", please don't. You should not be thinking of her as a life preserver that will stave off the worst of your fears. That's not fair to anyone involved.

You should marry her and start a family because you love her like no other and want to spend your entire life with her while also being excited about and deeply committed to raising human beings with her.

Would she be surprised to read what you've written above? If so, that's a major sign that communication is not strong in your relationship. Your decisions about the future should be jointly discussed and agreed upon. Don't make a unilateral decision to propose if she doesn't know what she'd realistically be agreeing to.
posted by quince at 3:47 PM on June 10, 2013 [10 favorites]

Setting aside the whole other issue of kids for a moment...Do you want to be married?

I mean, when you think about it in the abstract and sometime-future with a dreamy lady, not the immediate choice, so you can separate it from all your anxiety, do you want to be married to the love of your life someday?

If the answer is yes, and you think this girl is your girl and you both want the same things, then tackle that anxiety straight on. Get new therapy, drugs, whatever. Then get married. Yay!

If you'd rather just find a peachy lady to date for an indeterminate time without any long-term commitments on either side, then you should STILL tackle that anxiety head on, because why not? But don't get married if that's not what you want. Also, yay.
posted by ninjakins at 3:52 PM on June 10, 2013

I'm with quince, 100%.

If you're thinking of marrying her and having kids to stave off "a life of loneliness", please don't. You should not be thinking of her as a life preserver that will stave off the worst of your fears. That's not fair to anyone involved.

You should marry her and start a family because you love her like no other and want to spend your entire life with her while also being excited about and deeply committed to raising human beings with her.

Get married because you love her like crazy, communicate well, are working toward the sames goals, and want to be teammates and mutual cheerleader for the rest of your lives.

Marriage and kids won't cure your anxiety or dull your fears. Hell, they won't even save you from a life of loneliness. This kind of commitment is hard work forever. If you do it for the right reasons with the right person, it's completely worthwhile, but she wants to, you're scared not to, and you "have a great time" do not sound like the right, mature, carefully considered reasons.

You both deserve to be with someone you love with vigor and joy, who is your best partner in happiness and in hard times, and with whom you share an enthusiastic vision of your future together. I'm so sorry, but I just don't hear that here.
posted by mostlymartha at 3:58 PM on June 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

please don't use her as a crutch against loneliness and please don't have kids to please her. you like her more than that, right? you think she deserves a husband who really wants to be with her and father for her children who really wants them, yeah? if you think there's a way forward with treatment for anxiety, and you think with less anxiety you'd want to get married and have kids, then, yes go forward, try counseling, let her know you're working on it. but - if you think of who you want to be in 5, 10, 15, 30 years and you're child free, then let her go.

you aren't doomed to loneliness if you take marriage and kids off the table. you don't have to take the path that most people take. sure, your prospects are limited (just like any mating preference limits your available pool), but it's not a closed door. it's a far lonelier prospect to be part of a family you want out of.
posted by nadawi at 4:00 PM on June 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've watched quite a few people enter their late 30s and early 40s and really struggle with relationships, intimacy, and marriage. I am now going to make blanket statements, so please forgive if they sound offensive and/or ignorant, for they are not intended to be that. Rather observations.

What I have seen to be a common thread is that as people get older, they become more set in their ways. I watched a couple that seemed to be really into each other go for two years, and then fall apart because neither of them knew how to share their lives. For so long, they had been used to only looking after themselves, and being accountable only to themselves, that they didn't even realise how inflexible they had become. It was hard to watch actually because I don't think they could see it. But it was very clear to the people around them.

It's hard to describe how couples make decisions, and every couple has their own language for sure. It's not as simple as any book presents or golden rules, but something that happens when people grow together. It's not big decisions, like should we have kids, but tons of little decisions. Like staying at the bar for one more drink. Or taking a holiday instead of saving for a house. Or realising that it's irrelevant if you like certain things, there are things that are important to the other.

And the difficult part is how subtle that is. It means not only giving up control over one's life, but doing it constantly and happily. Younger people probably do it more easily because they've had less time on their own. Whatever you practice, you will become good at. That's just how we're wired. If you are on your own for 20 years, you will be fantastic at being on your own. It doesn't matter how badly you want to be with another person, you will just be wired to be on your own. The opposite applies as well. If you've been married for twenty years, it will be very hard to be on your own.

The next observation that I have is that it has little to do with the other person. You've said you've been in this place for a while, and that you're not getting better at it. I won't use the word anxiety, because I don't know anything about that. What I know is that it doesn't matter if it's this woman, or another, you are not making the decision to be married. It's not magic. There's no secret sauce. It means getting up every day and being married. It's not magic juju beanstalk unicorn hoof. It means being in a marriage and all that entails. It's a decision, and it's a decision you are not making.

It's probably not as easy as saying you don't want to be married, else why are we having this conversation now. It seems like you may well want to be married, and you feel powerless to be married. Your situation with yourself gets in the way. You've been on your own, responsible only to yourself, nobody moving your cheese. And now this woman wants to move your cheese. There's a lot of compromises involved in taking on a partner. It means giving up a lot of control. And not just when you decide to get married, in every other part of your life. Every decision you make will have someone else involved. Your life is no longer wholly your own, but you literally have to consider someone else at every moment.

Perhaps that feels unnatural because you've never done it before. But there's no way to do it without doing it. Maybe you get married and it's a complete and utter disaster. It could be absolutely horrible. That happens. It also doesn't happen. And there's no external validation that is going to steer you in the right direction. Or witch doctor or medical doctor that can tell you with certainty as to if you want to get married or not. You either get married and figure out how to take someone into your life and be their partner, or you continue on your own.

And that's the decision that I've seen so many people miss. You cannot be a single married person. You cannot have the same life when you are married as you do now. Or with a kid. You will not be the same person in any way. Your physical brain grey matter will alter. Your chemicals will change. How you see the world will shift. You will become a different person. A person who is married and/or a father. And that's cool because that is what is supposed to happen.

Nobody's waiting for you to do anything. It's not killing you. That's all drama. You either get married and work it out, or you don't and stay single. No big deal. The moon doesn't care. And I don't say that to be rude, but to mean it's not an epic decision. It's very simple. Either you want to share your life with someone – her – or you don't. Either you commit to it and do that. Or you do not.

And you're not the only person to have trouble with this. They were called shotgun weddings for a reason. It's scary. There are no assurances. It's a big change. Things will change. You may fuck the whole thing up. She may fuck the whole thing up. You may raise a delinquent. Or a prodigy. Who knows. But you don't want to get to the end of your life with regrets. So which will you regret more? Never getting married? Or potentially having a divorce? Never having a kid? Or having a kid who isn't perfect?

There's really only one question to ask. Is this a journey you want to go on? Either you do or you don't. She'll be fine. You're not going to waste her fertility. That's her decision, not yours. This is your decision. You've not made it for a long, long time. Now is the time to make it, and really own it.
posted by nickrussell at 4:01 PM on June 10, 2013 [67 favorites]

I still get anxious about being a parent and my kids are all grown and out of the house.

Open, honest conversation with your girlfriend and decide if this is something to work on together, or not.
posted by tamitang at 4:04 PM on June 10, 2013

Sometimes if you just jump the hell in, all this spinning and turning and analyzing truly does cease. And the things you are most anxious about are the things that save you. This does happen.
Immersion therapy, flooding -- both can be successful approaches for extreme anxiety. Good luck.
(I think you should go for it.)
posted by thinkpiece at 4:15 PM on June 10, 2013

You talk about "anxiety" as if it's this free-standing thing (as opposed to fear, which has an object). In this sense I'm saying something similar to what zoomorphic is saying above. But, rather than stating you need to "conquer" (an aggressive term) your fears, maybe you could accept more that you are, as stated by somebody else above, working on them.

It's NOT anxiety that's standing in your way -- it's your FEARS that are standing in your way; the anxiety is a signal that you should "look out --- danger ahead!" It's the danger you must address, or, rather, "danger".

As far as "curing" your anxiety so that you are not afraid of those things you are afraid of, sometimes I think of therapy as more a process of adding on layers rather than eliminating the (anxiety) layer that you struggle with; that is, yes, you're anxious, but you could add layers that tell yourself that you don't have to be paralyzed by your anxiety; you don't even have to *listen* to it; you could work on "turning down the volume" of your anxiety so that it's not screaming (no! no!) so loudly at you, but, rather, speaks to you in a more modulated tone in the background, as you go about your life.

(Meditation/mindfulness training can be very helpful in this regard)

You do have some choices about how you're going to deal with your fears; you could try marriage -- does that sound terrible? when 50% of marriages in the US end in divorce, do you think your chances are so much worse?

Can you think of anything you've done in your life that you felt very very anxious about, but in time the anxiety decreased and it turned out okay? have you ever taken risks that worked out and you were happy (and even proud of yourself) that you ventured out of your "safety zone"? What couldn't you do ten years ago that you can do now? twenty years ago?

There must have been a time when you went off to, say, kindergarten, or camp, or a friend's house, or something, and it felt terrible, but now when you think about it, of course you could do it.

You could try to have a little faith in your ability to handle difficult, new situations, because you know that you want a better life for yourself, and make sure the therapist is in place to go through the angst with. And talk to your girlfriend about the angst too! She should be let in to what you're feeling (without scaring her *too* much) so you feel you have a real-life partner who gets it.

(I am a therapist but not yours, and I don't do therapy over the internet)
posted by DMelanogaster at 4:23 PM on June 10, 2013 [8 favorites]

So a clarifying question - do you not want to spend the rest of your life with her as a couple, or do you not want to get married (ie the big scary institution of). This may be a different way of addressing the anxiety. Mr. Kitty never wanted to deal with the big scary institution of marriage and his connotations of it, but he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me.

So instead of viewing it through the prism of Marriage and the societal constructs and ya da ya da, break it down to if you want to spend the rest of your life with her. If you could see it, and be happy. If the feeling of being with her [her specifically, not just a wife] for a long period of time fills you with dread, then the kindest thing you could do would be to bail now.

But if you want to be with her, if she brings out the best in you (and vice versa) you're a good match, and such- then perhaps try reframing the idea of marriage as spending time with her, not this abstract that means your life is over and nothing good will ever happen to you again [or however the abstract/anxiety presents itself].
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 4:31 PM on June 10, 2013

I think you should consider that you talk about how wonderful she is, but your description laks a sense of "I can't stand the thought of not having her (specifically HER) in my life."

Love can be deep and yet not "enough." If you're not crazy for her, don't marry her.
posted by SarahBellum at 4:58 PM on June 10, 2013

you could try marriage -- does that sound terrible? when 50% of marriages in the US end in divorce, do you think your chances are so much worse?

I'm not one for the sanctity of marriage or anything, but going into a commitment with a "one foot in, one foot out" attitude is a terrible idea, is unfair to your partner, and surely can only make you more likely to split. Given that this woman is being direct and clear that she is 28 and wants to marry and have kids, presumably as a package deal, you're talking about half-assing a parenting partnership as well.

Don't do that.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:47 PM on June 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

Just a thought: if you break up with this girl over this, are you going to never date again? Because I think you're gonna have this situation come up over and over again with every woman you date. If you don't confront it with this one, you'll get to deal with it again with the next one. Just a thought.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:53 PM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm an anxious person, and marriage has been awesome for me. It's provided me with the stability and safety net that I never felt I had when I was single. Yes, doing so will mean facing your anxieties and facing change and therefore being uncomfortable in the short term--but in exchange you're going to get long term stability, love and support. At least, that's what I've found in my marriage.

What's more, it sounds like you want to be married. Despite all the fear and the worry. It sounds like you want to be part of a loving family and to have a partner who cares about you. I think you should do it. I think you will be incredibly happy--no, relieved--when you do. It's making a choice that prioritizes your own happiness and self-worth. You deserve it. You are worth it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:57 PM on June 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

I think you need to ask her, not us. Does she want to co-parent with you, knowing full well what your issues are? If you are both going into this with eyes wide open and she is willing to help you and you are willing to be helped, then do it. You will regret messing this up. It will hurt you for the rest of your life if you miss this chance. Just be honest with her. She clearly loves you and wants to have your children. Do you know how difficult that kind of love is to find?

Also, get on medication, stop focusing so much on yourself, volunteer for something, and encourage her to travel without you so that you have time alone to muddle through your issues while she gets a re-charge.

There, now, I've been bossy.
posted by myselfasme at 6:56 PM on June 10, 2013

a life of loneliness that will mostly suck

Imagine a life of divorce and the bitter tear stained faces of your unwanted children.

I am used to being so focused on myself and my own problems

You are extremely wise to notice this and be concerned in regards to parenting.

There are women who want what you want. This woman is not one of them.
posted by French Fry at 12:24 PM on June 11, 2013

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