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 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 the seven years she’s been with her boyfriend have been his longest, most significant relationship.
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.
Fear or lack of interest?
“People who are commitment-phobic want a relationship, but they have a paralyzing anxiety or a fear of relationships,” said Bela Gandhi, a Chicago-based relationship expert and owner of the Smart Dating Academy. For some, it can be triggered by parents who had a terrible relationship; others may have experienced their own bad breakup, even as long ago as high school, although they may be in their 40s now, she 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.
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, he 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 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 he or she may be giving you — before you even start dating, Gandhi said.
He or she might have had short or noncommittal past relationships; may have never been married; may be unable to commit to dates or schedules; and won’t use relationship words such as “love” or “girlfriend.”
He or she may not even have many friends, as he or she doesn’t trust people, and doesn’t want to get close to anyone for fear of getting hurt.
But other times, it is a matter of becoming ready to commit, especially if the person sees a therapist to work out issues, Gandhi said.
The success stories are the exception rather than the rule in these situations, 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.”