We all know someone like Miranda. She went out with Peter for four years during which time he displayed enough signs of commitmentphobia, hyperactivity, insomnia, dyspepsia and night sweats to qualify him for heavy sedation while Miranda patiently awaited his proposal of marriage. Her fearful mother, her protective best friend and her disgusted sister urged Miranda to get out on grounds of futility. Even Peter’s mother said it, and his best friend and sister: “Forget it, Miranda.”
So she did. Four years and one month into the relationship, she broke up with him.
Exactly eleven months later, Peter married a woman named Penny, whom he met while he was getting over Miranda.
Now you tell me: Was Miranda right to leave Peter when she did, or is her story a subtle morality tale about what happens to women who don’t Wait Out a Good Man? Were those eleven months post-Miranda what matured Peter into a husband, or was he transformed only after he took one look at Penny? Was it Miranda he didn’t want? Was it his age, was it fear, was it grief that made him suddenly marry? Was it happiness? Timing? Luck? Blind love? What, what? How is a woman in Miranda’s position supposed to figure out whether her darling, screwed up, damaged wreck of a guy is poised to metamorphose into a fabulous husband, or if he’ll forever remain a heap of dysfunctional bachelor flesh?
It helps to know a few crucial facts about courtship and about men during courtship before attempting to answer these questions. Some think the very word courtship–once such an orderly, precise process leading irrefutably to marriage–is a misnomer, replaced in the 1990s by a dating routine that feels as random and dangerous as a free radical. Courtship is the right word, though, still; it’s just the rhythm of it that’s different. In truth, the news about men and marriage is excellent, even today. Trust me: You may hear endlessly about “reluctant” bachelors and “eager” (read “desperate”) single women–as if marriage itself were a female-imagined system and that we, like brutal bearhunters, “trap” our grizly male prey into unwanted wedlock. Pay no attention to this linchpin of the romantic myth. Men adore marriage–and always have. Every study I know of proves it. Men thrive in the institution emotionally, mentally, physically–and are startlingly prone to depression and illness outside it. The suicide rate among single men is twice as high as that of married men. And in one study, men aged 45 to 64 who lived alone or with somebody other than a spouse were twice as likely to die within ten years as men the same age who lived with their wives. Even if they live with other members of their families–their children or their parents–the death statistics remain just as high. And happily married men whose wives die almost invariably remarry quickly, so miserable are they outside an institution that served them so very well.
Yet, despite the benefits, some men are famous for stumbling loudly and dramatically along the very path they so want to take, thereby buying inordinate hunks of time for themselves even after they know their fate. So sure was George that Diana was the woman he would marry that after their first date he went to Tiffany’s and bought wedding rings, declaring, “I just want you to know that I’m going to court you till you say Yes.” That he then backed off in terror for the next three years (long after she had said Yes) neither negates his original feelings nor invalidates his words. Other men groan and bleat and get sick and develop ecsema and back problems each time the word Marriage comes up, and then, once they’ve put together the fact of their relationship with the fact of their marrying, float across the altar like a warm summer wind.
Either way, in other words, coupling is a process. Like any process–grief, for one–it moves through predictable emotional phases, each of which takes time. It’s often slow, painful, even grueling, as you move together, then apart, then together, etc. But it is orderly, in its way. And if you know what phase of the process you’re in, even the most bizarre male behavior makes more sense.
Courtship consists roughly of three phases–the choosing-each-other phase, the casual-dating phase, and committed dating. (There are many sub-phases, of course, but we’ll keep it simple here.) Each phase has its etiquette and its expectations: You don’t make assumptions about next weekend’s plans when you’re in the dating-casually phase, nor do you talk about other lovers when you’ve both stated your full emotional and sexual commitment to each other.
Remember Woody Allen’s famous line, “a relationship is like a shark–it either goes forward or it’s dead?” Well, sometimes that shark is just in still waters and can’t–or won’t–budge. One of you gets stuck. John, although definitely moving out of the casually-dating phase when he began spending Saturday nights with Brenda, refused to stay later than 4:00 AM on Sunday mornings because that’s when he wanted to jog. For months, she’d buy pancake mix and the Sunday paper and hope he’d sleep through the hellish alarm–or at least come back to her place after his 10 miles–but, after fourteen Saturdays, Brenda threw the alarm clock across the room. “Just once,” she said irritably, “come back and have brunch!”
He panicked, Brenda said. “He bolted out of bed and into his jogging togs and said, as if he were facing his executioner, “I hate brunch. I’ll never eat brunch!”
Half the night is all John could commit to, and not one hour more. Straddling the line between casual-dating and cozy, spend-the-weekend-together, committed-dating, he made it clear that pushing him either way just made him want to….run.
When you see courtship this way, as a series of progressive, developmental phases, you don’t take a man’s responses to those phases so personally. It’s not you he doesn’t want to be with, it’s Permanence, or Obligation, or Forever.
Worse than his straddling two phases is when a man actually regresses to a previous one–precisely as a child regresses to a developmental phase he’s already left when his progress feels too threatening.
Fred and Jane were dating each other more than casually, although they were still going out with one or two other people. They hadn’t yet discussed sexual exclusivity, but neither did they speak about other dates. When Jane spotted an ad in the paper for a cheap chartered trip to Bermuda, she called Fred and said “Let’s go!” and he agreed. When she picked up the tickets, she called Fred to tell him.
“I got the tickets, Fred!” Jane announced.
“Tickets?” Fred asked, suddenly afflicted with amnesia. “Tickets?”
“To Bermuda!” Jane said.
“Oh, were you serious about that thing? I mean, when was that trip, anyway? Christmas? I dunno, Jane, I mean, I’m really, really busy next Christmas. I have therapy. I have basketball….” And then, the clincher, “Let’s talk sometime, okay?”
Let’s talk sometime? The man had taken two giant steps backward–from committed-dating not to casual-dating but all the way back to “Say, you’re kinda cute, what’s your name again?”! Jane suddenly felt crazy, overly pushy, as if she had made up their closeness; fantasized their relationship. She hadn’t. But he was signaling her that he’d like to return to a more unfettered time (like maybe puberty?). A trip together, 24-hours-a-day-in-another-country, meant….too much. So for the next few weeks, he behaved like the teenager he suddenly wished he was. “He even set up a meeting with his old fraternity pals, pretending to be a wild and crazy guy, on the loose and available to any woman around,” she says.
Jane refused to be further humiliated as soon as she understood his backslide wasn’t about her. She canceled the trip and said no more about it to him except an encouraging, “You know, you’re right. Christmas isn’t the best time for our first trip. And maybe we’re not ready for it, anyway.” She didn’t beg him to reassure her, nor repeat to him his words of love the night before she bought the tickets, nor tell him what a baby he was; she let him flounder around in an earlier phase for a few weeks. When he came back as his real self after a month, she said, “I think that trip scared you, don’t you?” and he said, “Mmmm, yeah, sort of.” But they were fully together again–and he was back to being a grown-up–within 30 days.
Another surprise: During that month, Jane neither beat herself up for buying the tickets, nor tortured herself with worry over whether he’d return. She actually welcomed the relief she herself felt during this respite from their involvement. Women are often surprised when they experience their own need for “space” (oh, that word), but we have to remember something: Women are every bit as ambivalent about permanence, commitment, forever, even closeness, as men are. We go through just as much fear and questioning; just as much approach and avoidance. We just rarely play it out as dramatically because they’re so busy doing it for us, and we–guardians of relationships that we are–are so busy trying to keep everyone happy. Surely you’ve been with a man who pushes you forward too fast; who wants your undying love now and your promise of forever by morning–in which case I imagine you’ve seen yourself act peculiarly, too.
When he suddenly wants “space” long after you’re committed, after you both had seemed comfortable with closeness, terror can really set in–as it did when Allen told Jessica he wanted to postpone their engagement in order to be free to “see” (read “sleep with”) what he termed “more than one person”.
“We’d worked so hard to get where we were! But what was I supposed to do, scream and shout and tell him he wasn’t allowed to do that? That I’d call the police?”
No, she did even better: She told him okay, but they’d now have to negotiate all over again the trust they’d spent two years building; that they’d have to go back to that anxious place where each had spent time wondering whom the other had been with. And then, brilliantly, she included herself in the equation: She, too, would now be free to “see” other people.
He wasn’t quite prepared for that.
“Ah, I see those old boyfriends lining up right now. In fact Arnold is picking up the phone this minute,” he said, feigning lightheartedness. “Ah, yes, old Arnold. The man who Wouldn’t Go Away.”
“Well, I mean, he’s such a good friend and yeah, he does still call me a lot. I suppose I’ll see him.”
“Are you threatening me or something?” he asked, more seriously.
“Not at all, darling. You’re the one I want to be close to! But wouldn’t you feel guilty if you had all this new freedom and I had none?”
That little lapse lasted approximately a day and a half. Seems Allen had made a date for dinner with a female colleague, and in order to support his having done so, decided he needed the freedom not only to dine with her but to sleep with her, marry her, have babies with her–lest he feel constricted. Jessica gave him the psychic space for his fantasy, and took a little of her own.
Besides knowing where you are on the courtship continuum, waiting him out means listening. No one can tell you more about him than he can, yet it’s amazing how many women will heed everyone else’s evaluation of a man’s intentions (their hairdresser’s, their mother’s, their neighbor’s)–and ignore what he himself volunteers. Thus a man who, say, isn’t going to be available for what you want will probably tell you so in straightforward English. When Fred said to Adrienne, “Never again,” each time the subject of marriage came up, he was so adamant, so funny, that she laughed and ignored him. “Never again,” he’d say whenever he got off the phone with one of his twin boys and, because she knew he loved them so much, she’d marvel at his vehemence. “Hope you’re not waiting for marriage and kiddies,” he’d say to her whenever he saw a woman with a stroller, “`Cause I’ve seen that movie! I’ve got all the little ones I’m ever going to want.”
Now, how much clearer can a fellow be?
Adrienne had her own subtext, though, that she superimposed upon his boldfaced lines. How could he mean it? she thought to herself; he’s such a terrific father! He was happily married once, he’ll be happily married again! “If only we just get married, he’ll be imbued with a sudden yearning for a baby. Many men have two families….”
Poor Adrienne. Her double agenda–marriage and children–so clashed with his that it was painful to have dinner with the two of them. He was divorced, broke, looking for freedom and fun at the very moment she was hoping they’d find an apartment, buy furniture and start a new family. “Never” was a word he used, and many times. But she wouldn’t listen.
Fortunately Adrienne had given herself a time limit, and after a year of his Nevers, realized she wanted marriage and kids even more than she wanted Fred. So she found someone else whose timing matched hers more precisely.
Tom, on the other hand, a psychiatrist, volunteered so little about his feelings, even after he’d been dating Leslie for over a year, that she had to be constantly alert. On a trip to give a speech at a psychiatric meeting in Vienna, he called Leslie twice daily back in Chicago to report on his trip. As always, he never said he loved her, nor that he missed her. When he came back, he raced over with a Sacher torte for their first dinner, still saying nary a word about missing her. But somewhere deep into the dinner conversation he let slip, “I don’t think I want to go there again for another meeting–not until we’re married, anyway. Please pass the torte.” Enough said.
Some men present their insecurity verbally but their certainty behaviorally–in which case it’s safer to discount the former. “I’ve never been good at relationships,” Ralph, a construction engineer, declared to Jen, all the while he was building her a new kitchen and bedroom closet. “It was hilarious,” Jen told me. “Here he was telling me he wasn’t sure he could have a good relationship, he wasn’t a good talker, he’d never understood women, he couldn’t fathom love–and he was doing the most loving thing for me anyone had ever done. I mean, a new kitchen, can you imagine?” At night, Jen would fix him a little dinner and tell him he should go home for some rest, and “he’d sort of sit around and talk about how difficult relationships are and do the dishes and then just fall asleep at my place.” They had a six-month courtship, were married before the microwave was installed, and all the while he talked about the Deterioration of Intimacy in America and she said things like “Uh huh. Terrible! Really? That bad, eh?”, as her gorgeous new tiles were being grouted by her glorious new husband.
But when a man’s words have a ring not of shyness nor of insecurity but of danger–and his behavior supports it–heed his warning. A 48-year-old man who says, “I can’t love just one woman” and “I’ve never been faithful to anyone” is pointedly loath to be sexually exclusive. Dating him on every third Tuesday for over six months hardly looks like a monogamous relationship is forthcoming. A man who forgets dates or constantly shows up hopelessly late, or does other rude or unpleasant things throughout your relationship, and then says, “I’m not good enough for you,” is not praising you but excusing himself and announcing his intention to continue his bad behavior. He has obvious experience with not being good enough for someone and it’s not your job to disabuse him of his honest observation, nor to assure him you’ll take on his badness.
A man who seems vaguely unhappy in your relationship, then lists a string of unhappy dating experiences he’s had before–and then says, as 45-year-old, never-married Tom did to 28-year-old, eager-to-wed Nora, “I don’t do relationships”, probably doesn’t, at least not well. And the fact that he’s codified his failure into a charming, hip phrase means he’s sort of proud of it–and not looking to change. A man who says, “I can’t love” because “I’ve never been around people who like each other much” is telling you something about his background and himself you cannot afford to ignore.
My point is not to abandon all hope when a man warns you away so glibly and clearly, but to not go immediately into Savior Mode, to prove he can be better than he says he is–as if he were asking for your help in changing him. A man’s cool self-appraisal when it comes to his ability to love or be faithful is not just charming, self-effacing bait to which to rise. Says my friend Janine, who spent four years with a man who boasted, “I only cause pain to the women I love”: “I was vain enough to think he didn’t mean he’d hurt me. When I finally told him I couldn’t wait for him anymore, he said, `I told you I was no good’–and, of course, he had.”
Okay, so his words and his behavior tell you what kind of man you’re with; and your knowledge of courtship tells you what phase you’re in. One more thing. Only you know in your heart whether this relationship feels good, feels right; whether waiting is something that sits well. “My friends said, `Dump him. He’s not good enough for you,’ a 30-ish book editor says, “but I had such a strong gut instinct that the relationship could work.” Her friends unwittingly supported her (and our) fantasies of a baggage-free mate who loves us utterly and unreservedly–a dreamboat who lives in that wonderful land where there are no passive-aggressive ex-wives, no aggrieved children, no custody quarrels, no money, drinking, job or personality problems. Who has ever met that man? Where is that land?
Meanwhile, our heroine had a rough six months back here on earth: “He was still smarting from divorce and a couple of women who left him post-divorce. But he is changing and becoming a wonderful boyfriend….I’d say the relationship has become sturdy and nice only in the last three weeks.”
Another woman, now happily married, describes her positive instinct during courtship as based on “not exactly a sense of his moving forward definitively and actively,” but of always having had “that half-full rather than half-empty feeling about our relationship. He was clearly scared to death,” she remembers, “but he always seemed willing to inch forward somehow–even if anxiously and tentatively, and I trusted his bravery and his rhythm.”
I’m always for giving the man room and the process time when you have this gut sense of a relationship’s rightness–no matter what anyone else says. For one thing, feeling good in the relationship itself is what matters most (after you get married, you’re still in the same relationship!). For another, if you were to break up with him, you’d have a whole other courtship–all its phases, all its stops and starts, all that man’s history and hesitations–to live through all over again. And as one woman I know who’s waited two whole years to get to the committed-dating phase puts it, “I have worked so hard on myself and on him and on the relationship, I’ll be damned if I’m going to hand over to another woman the fine product of my labor!”
She has a point.