Commitment-Phobes: Are Women The New Men?

Terrified of settling down? One commitment-phobe weighs the pros and cons

Flare Max Abadian

Photo by Max Abadian

Last fall I became a first-time fork owner. The set I bought was the cheapest in stock, but until then I had avoided anything that resembled permanence. The thought of staying in one place for too long made me want to hyper- ventilate. So I lived in furnished apartments. I had roommates. I didn’t own my own bed, couch, or—yes—cutlery.

Funny then, that fork ownership should be the result of my most dramatic escape act to date. For four years, I’d been working at the Edmonton Journal as an arts and life reporter. I wrote about fashion and reviewed concerts. It was my dream job. So how to explain why I quit to become a penniless student again, moving into a tiny London dorm room that came with neither a meal plan nor cutlery? When I told people about my new direction, their lips said, “Congratulations” but their eyes said, “You’re crazy.” Even I thought I was crazy.

All I knew was that I couldn’t stay. Four years was three years longer than I had intended to be in Alberta. I had to either leave or settle down, and while some of my best friends were buying houses and getting married, I couldn’t imagine follow- ing suit—I had trouble enough committing to a phone contract.

I knew I was being ridiculous. I had finally planted roots, only to start all over again in a strange new place. It seemed understandable to be flighty at 20 or 21. Should I really still be running away from commitment at 26? What am I, a man?

“Everyone talks about male commitment-phobia but no one ever talks about women’s fear of commitment,” says Elina Furman, a self- described commitment-phobe and the author of Kiss and Run: The Single, Picky, and Indecisive Girl’s Guide to Overcoming Her Fear of Commitment.

“Society and the media have not changed to reflect the new social conditions of women,” she tells me. Yet the cultural shift we’ve seen in the last few decades, driven by women’s lib and, more recently, globalization, has kicked open countless doors, leaving scores of commitment-wary women in its wake, eager to chase the new opportunities available to them.

Traditionally, our mid-20s are supposed to be about settling down, getting married and buying a house. But whether it’s the thought of a mortgage or the idea of working at one job forever that causes crippling anxiety, staying put is impossible for some of us—and the statistics seem to show that we’re a growing group. If marriage is the ultimate symbol of commitment, then women are becoming more capricious than we’ve ever been. We’re staying single longer, with the average Canadian woman now waiting until she’s almost 29 to tie the knot—six years later than when most of our mothers were exchanging vows in the ’70s.

“I have definitely noticed a trend[away from commitment] for women in their 20s, and even all the way to their 30s,” says Karyn Hood, PhD and clinical psychologist at Toronto’s Yorkville Medical. “Women are more educated now, we’re more exposed to opportunities. People have the sense that there’s lots of things [they] could be doing and [they’re] not so quick to want to settle down.” In a way, she says, we are becoming a bit like men.

“The same issues that men have dealt with traditionally, women are now confronted with,” says Hood. The gender gap, it seems, is closing fast. “Women make as much money as men a lot of times; they’re as educated. They’re exposed to more things the way men were. They’re encouraged to travel and be inde- pendent in ways that they weren’t 20 years ago.”

In the first Sex and the City movie, Samantha breaks up with Smith by telling him, “I love you, but I love me more.” That’s the scene Annmarie Melle uses to describe how things ended with her long-term boyfriend three years ago. “There were so many things I needed to do, and he had done them already and I hadn’t,” she explains. So after going back to school to earn a second degree, the 27-year- old teacher from Saskatchewan set off on her own for England.

“I got off the plane and thought, OK, this is home. Now what? ” says Melle. “It was the most frightening thing.” But frightening was exactly what she had been looking for. Life, she says, had become predictable. “[My dream] was to travel and do things on my own and know that I could do it and see and be inspired by things.” Melle plans to stay in London until the end of this year, then move on to Australia. After that, she thinks she’ll come home to Canada, maybe try out Vancouver.
Some people, she says, questioned her choice to leave. “[But] it’s not that I’m not taking [life] seriously,” she says. “This is what I want to do.”

I met Annmarie here in London, but there are women like us everywhere. Marie Pigarowa has a “five- year strategy”—a window of opportunity—for leaving her hometown of Edmonton. “When I’m 80, I want to be able to look back on my life and not regret having stayed in one place the entire time,” says the 23-year-old special events assistant. Like me, she refuses to buy furniture or a car, preferring to spend on experiences. When Pigarowa graduated from the University of Alberta last year, she was so afraid of feeling stuck, she actively searched for temporary jobs, rather than permanent ones. “I was scared that my life would become stagnant if I found a job here.”

Then there’s Mieko Nagao, who traded in her job and the money she’d saved for a house to take a four-month trip around the world. “It was a down payment or travelling and I chose the travelling,” she says bluntly. The 26-year-old had “an amazing position” in the marketing department of a major pharmaceutical company in Toronto, where she could have seen herself moving up the corporate ladder. “[But when I thought about] Well, if I worked at that company, continuing to progress for
the next 10 years, would I be happy? The answer was: Probably not.” In the back of her mind, she’d always think, Is there something else? Is this what I really want to do? Nagao describes feeling not so much a fear of commitment, but a restlessness—a pull toward a “something else” out there. “What I want out of my life is to experience everything that I can,” she says.

It’s nice to know I’m not alone. But when I look at my fast-depleting bank account or try to picture the future and come up blank, I wonder if my wanderlust might be hurting me. Maybe there’s something wrong.

Hood assures me that’s not the case and says that eventually perspectives do change. But she recommends considering the trade-offs of the nomadic life. Not having a home base can be hard on both relationships and credit ratings. There may be a real problem “if you find that you can’t make any bonds or any commitments and it’s always on to the next.” If life is becoming a string of broken relationships defined by anxiety or depression, it may be time to see a therapist.

But our parents’ model of getting married at 25, having kids at 27, and settling down in their hometown just isn’t the given it used to be. “Once you’ve had the education and the exposure, you know what could be,” says Hood. “The world is your oyster.”

While I’ve got forks to my name now, I haven’t invested in much else. My dorm room, all white walls and standard-issue furniture, feels cold sometimes. I worry about growing old alone and having only dogs for company. But then I see the cobble- stone, the Thames and Big Ben, and I remember how great it is to be surrounded by history, strange accents and cars coming at me from the wrong side of the road. I’m getting lost in winding side streets and I like it. I’m not sure where I’ll be next year or even next weekend; I just know my heart beats faster than it did before. And that, I think, is worth holding off on matching dishes for a few more years.