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"Commitment-Phobic":

I want to express some skepticism about this term, when used to describe men who don't want to marry. (I realize this common usage was quite tangential to David's post; David's post simply reminded me of my objections.)

Commitment is scary, and should be scary. It indeed has all sorts of benefits, as well as risks — I should note that I'm happily married. But "phobia," which generally means irrational fear, is a generally unsound term to describe normal, reasonable fear of making what could be a very emotionally (and financially) costly mistake.

Nor am I just fighting the term's etymology here. As best I can tell, "commitment-phobic" is something of a pejorative in part because it still carries the meaning, or at least the connotation, of irrational fear rather than perfectly reasonable fear — or even perfectly reasonable quaking-in-your-boots terror.

LTEC (mail) (www):
I have always been angered by the term "math phobia". This should mean an irrational fear of math. But in my extensive experience, almost everyone who is said to have "math phobia" has a very good reason to fear math: they don't like it and they are bad at it. In fact, although I am sure there exist people who are good at math and tend to like it when they do it but are nonetheless afraid of it, I have never (knowingly) met such a person.

However, I have met many people who think they are good at math (due to silly courses they have taken), but are in fact terrible at it. These people have an irrational lack of fear of math! Similarly, mountain climbers have an irrational lack of fear of heights. And people who have been divorced many times have an irrational lack of fear of commitment.

Is there a suffix like phobia that denotes an irrational lack of fear of something?
9.9.2006 6:59pm
jim:
Some fear of commitment is rational and some is irrational. The same can be said of spiders, heights, and many other named phobias.
9.9.2006 7:14pm
John Armstrong (mail):
I think "phobic" here is denoting not quite the irrationality, but the fact that the fear has grown into a pathology. I can be nervous around dogs, but if I run screaming when a yapping yorkie on a leash is coming down the block it's become a problem. Similarly, the "commitment-phobic" term is (or at least was at first) used to denote not someone who's nervous about making a solid commitment like marriage, but someone who avoids it to his own detriment.

The man who loves his partner and would hate to be separated, but would rather suffer that fate than walk down the aisle.. that's a commitment-phobe.

LTEC: I really have to take exception to your point. Someone can be afraid of dogs because he was bitten severely as a child. That's a perfectly valid reason, but it doesn't make it any less a phobia. Generally (in fact, universally in my experience), "math-phobes" fear mathematics because they have had truly awful teachers in their youths.

In fact, "math-phobia" is another example of a case where (at least originally) the suffix denotes a pathology rather than a simple dislike. Every time I teach calculus 1, I run into students -- ivy league students, no less -- whose brains simply shut down at the sight of mathematics. They may not be literally huddling in the corners and wetting themselves, but their minds certainly are.

Math-phobes really do panic at being asked to do mathematics. I remember one student in a midterm who spent the second half of the exam teetering on the verge of a breakdown right there in the lecture hall. Math-phobia is pathological, preventing the student from achieving his goals. He simply can't "just grit his teeth" and get the class over and done with and move on with his life. Every minute he's forced to endure this subject he's built up such an animosity towards is all-but-painful, and at the end of it he's internalized almost nothing. Out in the real world he is almost completely innumerate, with all the penalties that go along with that (bad risk-management skills, being easily swayed by charismatic pseudoscientists or leaders...). It's a real problem, and despite the fact that it's almost always traceable to a source, that doesn't make its pathological extent any more rational.
9.9.2006 7:22pm
jvarisco (www):
You can make the same argument for the term 'homophobic'. I'm not sure how disapproval of homosexuality came to equal an irrational fear (and of what? gay people? people in general?), but it seems quite clearly wrong.
9.9.2006 7:30pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
While I agree the term is often misapplied and certainly the idea that most men are commitment phobic is in error (but like all things like this we all recognize it as an exageration of a genuine difference). However, surely you aren't attacking the idea that someone could in fact have irrationally high fear of commitment.

For instance I'm dating someone now who has great difficulties committing to what she wants for lunch. She will seriously spend a half hour or more hungry and fretting about what to eat lest she choose poorly and end up stuck with a less yummy meal. She's great but the same behavior applies to relationships which can make things a bit complicated sometimes.

Moreover, I'm not convinced that what people call commitment phobia is truly rational. I certainly feel this fear and my immediate intuition is that commiting to live with someone for the rest of your life is the sort of thing that should be scary but on reflection this seems to be more of a failure of my rationality than an observation about rationality.

To the extent there is a notion of 'rational fear' it means the fear is proportional to the risk. Do we really face a huge risk when we make lifelong romantic commitments? Yes, but not the sort of risk commitment phobic people are concerned about. Sure people who jump into marriage after only a few months or who don't try living together first do face a serious risk of romantic failure but merely insisting on reasonable caution and a trial period is not what gets one labeled as commitment phobic.

Rather commitment phobia is usually reserved for people who are reluctant to get married either because they are unsure if marriage is really the right thing for them or because they are unsure if the person they are picking is sufficently optimal (are they attractive, nice, loyal, smart enough?). Since studies show significant happiness benefits for men even if BAD relationships the first worry isn't reasonable at all.

Now it is true that the person you marry is virtually guaranteed not to be optimal. Given the number of people in a socio-economic group and the nearly universal institution of marriage it must be the case that most people marry sub-optimally (it may be optimal GIVEN the time it would take to find someone else but given a choice to go back in time and replace this relationship with another one you should take it). Yet we are still happy to call marriages where neither partner is totally ideal for the other sucessful if they last a long time and make the participants happy. Thus if we were being rational we would either be totally pessimistic about marriage or we would recognize that marriage is ultimately a pragmatic comprimise and 'good enough' is okay.

Ultimately commitment phobia seems to be a side effect of the way love works. Loving someone comes part and parcel with idealizing the other person. You can't be in love with someone and think of them as a generic sort of person who happened to come by at the right time and is no better a romantic partner than tons of people you miss connections with regularly. Love is in part the feeling that a person is special and wonderful. This sets up the inevitable tension between our need to feel our s.o. is special and unique with our knowledge that their are many other people out there and we have no good evidence they really are special and unique. So even though it may be a natural outgrowth of the human condition this doesn't mean it is rational.

Moreover, I see no argument that rebutes the notion that we would be better off if people were more commitment inclined. I don't agree but it seems like a reasonable position to hold.
9.9.2006 7:42pm
liberty (mail) (www):
logicnazi,

You seem to have set up a dichotomy between the "rational" idea that a person is not really special (there are others out there, who knows if they are better) and an "irrational" feeling of love based on idealization of your partner.

This is extremely jaded &pessimistic in my opinion and not in any sense proven by your logic. What about the "connection" that two people have which may include where they are at that particluar time in their lives, what they have in common in the way they think, their passions, their personalities, as well as physical attraction and myriad particular attributes that people find important: given all this, rational thinking people who are able to feel strong love (and idealization) of their partner and find it reciprocated should conclude that they are extremely lucky and are not likely to find this again.

Many relationships are not ideal - one or both of the partners does have the feeling that they should be happy because 'good enough' is okay.

Some relationships end because one or both partners decides that 'good enough' is not okay anymore. They realize that they want to fall in love for real.
9.9.2006 8:13pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
logicnazi, it sounds like you just haven't been in love, dude. With an SN like "logicnazi," I don't find it shocking that you view love as a foolish digression requiring self-delusion. No offense.
9.9.2006 8:19pm
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
The popularity of the idea that men are "commitment-phobic"--despite the rather high percentage of them who get married, many of them more than once--isn't hard to understand. It serves two constituencies extremely well: women who don't want to admit to themselves that a particular man isn't as devoted to her as she'd like, and men who don't want to admit to a particular woman that he isn't as devoted to her as she'd like.

I'm sure lots of men would gladly embrace the theory that women are "sex-phobic", if only they could get away with it. But unfortunately for them, most women expect men to be emotionally tough enough not to need a mutually face-saving excuse like "it's not you--it's just that I'm afraid of sex".
9.9.2006 8:30pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Best Post honor to Dan Simon, that is very funny and discerning.
9.9.2006 8:41pm
Lev:
I would add on to Dan Simon's comments the observation that in our modern times, there is no longer the need for commitment for males to...get some action, and no societal pressure for any committment, whether to get some action or otherwise. And if there is no such need or pressure, why commit. Why be as devoted to her as she wants.

I think there is a Bartleby Factor: I'd rather not. A rational choice, as it were, impugned as a psychological problem.
9.9.2006 10:48pm
DonBoy (mail) (www):
I'm sure lots of men would gladly embrace the theory that women are "sex-phobic", if only they could get away with it.

Under the name "frigidity", this concept has had a pretty good run, doing the work you propose, although less so the last couple of decades.
9.9.2006 11:09pm
anonymous coward:
If etymology were destiny, English would lose half the dictionary and all the fun.

My sense is that "commitment-phobic" connotes something along the lines of immaturity, rather than irrationality. (Not that I think such usage is any more fair!)
9.9.2006 11:11pm
Speaking the Obvious:
So the man who has lost half his estate in a divorce without children and doesn't want that to happen again--the man who, for example, demands a pre-nup, and is concerned because some attorneys tell him a pre-nup can always be broken--is such a man "commitment-phobic"? I think this is the sort of thing Eugene had in mind.
9.10.2006 12:01am
AppSocRes (mail):
LTEC: How about anphobia for an irrational lack of fear: "Because of the Aussie's archnoanphobia he wound up dying from the bite of a funnel web spider."

BTW, the many women with whom I had relations earlier in my life should thank God for my commitment-phobia: I am so selfish, self-centered and unremittingly male, i.e., comfortable with sloppiness and disorder, that I would have made a miserable husband for any self-respecting woman. Edwardian literature is full of happy middle-class and upper-class permanent bachelors like me. They were socially useful for filling vacant male slots at various events and catrered to by various useful institutions like gentlemen's clubs. Maybe we should think about reviving some of these institutions.
9.10.2006 12:19am
Latinist:
If you want a Greek term for excessive lack of fear, tolma is probably the best (though it's not always a bad thing in Greek; something like "boldness" in English). So someone who wandered on the edges of high cliffs without taking reasonable precautions could be called an "acrotolmac" or similar. Of course, if we're going to attach it to utterly unhellenic words like "commitment," I don't know if there's any particular reason to demand a Greek suffix; we could just use an English word like "rashness," and stick it on with a hyphen. On the other hand, "commitment-rash" sounds like a euphemism for an STD.
9.10.2006 12:39am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Uhh no I've been in love a couple of times (indeed am now). Just like many people I tend to feel 'commitment phobic' when it starts looking like an inalterable commitment is on the table. I use the scare quotes since unlike the girl I'm dating I don't think I am particularly far away from average.

I think we can all agree that when people are about to make a commitment it is totally normal for people to worry about whether they are marrying the right person and have doubts about whether they should hold out for someone better. So far no problem. If the time you have spent with someone, the experience you have shared yada yada are significant enough this person likely is the best option for you. Indeed I agree they are special and unique because they are the only person you have shared those experiences with or made a connection with.

So no I'm not advancing the pessimistic view that everyone is settling or that marrying is just selecting someone who is good enough in an overall sense. Now if this was the way people (at least in american culture) tended to think about the specialness and worthwhileness of their significant others commitment phobia would be much more rare.

However most americans (if not everyone) who falls in love feels their partner is special and worthwhile. I know very well that being in love makes you feel like your partner is great and special not that just your history with them is special or that they are special in this context. This is why people in love tend to say things like 'you're special', 'you're so great' or otherwise exclaim over their partner rather than saying, 'our relationship is so great' or 'our history together is so great'. They may observe these other things are true but the force of love is in the feelings you have for your partner not some abstract relationship or history.

This is good and neccessery. Seeing our partners through rose tinted glasses lets us live with their little foibles and makes life with them that much better. I know I prefer to have these strong positive feelings for my s.o. rather than just for our relationship.

However, the tension here is obvious. Love is deeply intertwined with feeling the person is special and unique but in reality it is the person plus your history together which is special, unique and valuable. So when someone thinks about making a commitment there is a strong tendency to ask whether you are making a commitment to a person who is sufficently good not whether you are committing to situation that is sufficently good.

I tend to think this is just a small annoyance compared to the benefits of idealizing your partner but it can cause some stress.
9.10.2006 12:40am
liberty (mail) (www):
logicnazi: "Love is deeply intertwined with feeling the person is special and unique but in reality it is the person plus your history together which is special, unique and valuable."

Once again you have skipped what I see as the most important part about falling in love. Its not just the person is "great" but so are so many other people; its not just your history together; the primary part is the way that the two people connect. Both because of "incidental" things like the time/circumstance that you each are in your life and also your emotional, physical, cultural, personality/temperamental and intellectual connections.

That has nothing to do with whether a person is "great", neither objectively nor even subjectively, because it isn't about whether on rationally judging the choice you would say "oh yeah, this person is great because he/she is a scholar and also has a great body" - thats something to rationally consider and goes in the category of whether the person is great; but what I'm talking about, that I think you missed, is the other component: that the two people actually get each other excited when they discuss abstract concepts, and want to climb into bed when they see each other. That is the connection. That is love.

And rational or irrational, it would be stupid to think "But there are so many other fish in the sea" when its time to tie the knot with someone for whom you feel all that.
9.10.2006 1:00am
lucia (mail) (www):
If a person really wants to marry but doesn't because they are afraid, that is a phobia. Still, my impression is the word is often applied to people -- particularly men-- who just don't want to marry the person they are dating.
9.10.2006 1:07am
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
Men may by commitment phobic, but that's often perhaps because after they've had sex with a man, many go rather ...how best to put this....'boily rabbit' and see sex as some kind of commitment by the fellow or mark of ownership.

For many men I suspect sex is just one box on a long checklist (pun intended).

The 'bodily rabbit' routine is rather off-putting.


The other term that is in common use, especially in the UK -- is 'Islamophobe'. Personally I see that as rather an oxymoron….but I digress.
9.10.2006 6:33am
PubliusFL:
"Sure people ... don't try living together first do face a serious risk of romantic failure but merely insisting on reasonable caution and a trial period is not what gets one labeled as commitment phobic."

Hmmm. If a phobia is an irrational fear, maybe insisting on a "trial period" does qualify as commitment-phobia, considering that the data shows that cohabitation before marriage increases the risk of romantic failure rather than reduces it.
9.10.2006 7:28am
Gary McGath (www):
The term "phobia" has been degraded by all kinds of pressure groups, who seem to think that pathological fear responses are the cause of all ideas and actions they don't like. Opposition to homosexuals is supposedly caused by "homophobia." The Mohammed cartoons are an "Islamophobic" reaction, even though you'd think that fear of Muslims would make people <i>not</i> display or publish the cartoons.

"Commitment-phobia" is just one more way of trying to impress people with a pop psychology diagnosis.
9.10.2006 9:50am
AnonPerson (mail):
An irrational fear is one way to define "phobia". The difficulty of this is that it is often not the fear itself, but the degree of fear. It would be foolish to have absolutely no fear of heights, for example. Being extra careful when one mistake could cause death is a good fear to have.

Perhaps a better definition is that a phobia is a fear of something that is so strong it prevents the person from a "normal" life. Of course, we could then debate what "normal" is, but we could probably at least agree at the extremes about what is and is not "normal".

Stated this way, someone who is commitment-phobic is so afraid of commitment that they never enter into any long-lasting relationships, even if the relationship itself is perfect.
9.10.2006 10:49am
TJIC (www):
Dan Simon:

The popularity of the idea that men are "commitment-phobic"--despite the rather high percentage of them who get married, many of them more than once--isn't hard to understand. It serves two constituencies extremely well: women who don't want to admit to themselves that a particular man isn't as devoted to her as she'd like, and men who don't want to admit to a particular woman that he isn't as devoted to her as she'd like.


You made exactly the comment I was going to, but you phrased it far better than I would have. Well done!

liberty:

Best Post honor to Dan Simon, that is very funny and discerning.


Seconded.

An additional comment on the term "commitment phobia": A commitment to behavior over a very long period has a cost: the cost of each individual time slice, summed (or, more precisely, the Net Present Value of each future time slice, summed). The longer a time horizon one has, and the more realistic that one is about possible variations in outcomes, the higher the cost a commitment has. I've seen lots of fools rush in to marriages ("commitment"), because they don't imagine the possible downsides, or they massively discount future costs.

...and these folks often pay for their poor calculations.

As Eugene says "commitment is scary, and should be scary".

I 100% agree.
9.10.2006 12:45pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
Observing that legal authority now exists that the VC is citable, and just to clarify, EV are you saying "irrational fear" is defined as a phobia? In turn, is a phobia defined by the DSM-IV-TR? Autistics are very literal, and I never heard this before.

Mathematics phobia ... I don't really have a math phobia, my mind doesn't shut down, and I can't say I wet myself when confronted with math, but I do have to have color coding to perform mathematics operations. And with a nice calculator and/or computer (and my MBA), I can understand enough math to get along quite well in the world.

Phobia of heights ... I don't really have this either. I have successfully survived having been run off with more than once by ex-racehorses 'on the muscle,' heading toward 5'-6'3x6'6" jumps, and taken over such obstacles, without once having looking down.

Spider phobias ... tht depends. Frequently, spiders run off the hose when I pick it up to wash down horses I ride, and bite me. But, statistically, in Florida, I could encounter a brown recluse, and that would scare the beegeebers out of me. But I wasn't scared of the giant black spider with the blue stomach that dropped off my ceiling into my husband's shoe. Then again, I wasn't the person wearing the shoes.

Phobia of commitment ... my husband got over his as soon as I went on strike and told him I wanted to ride more horses and would not be able to help with his legal work anymore. (Just joking). My husband was the marrying kind, and we have a pretty good partnership.

Now, if anyone wants to know what a *real* phobia is, try confronting an autistic with garlic.
9.10.2006 1:28pm
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
Perhaps I travel in the wrong circles, but I simply haven't heard the term commitment-phobic used that much. I'm pretty sure the more appropriate commitment-adverse is far more popular.
9.10.2006 2:38pm
Hans Bader:
On first glance, there seems to be a sexist double-standard here.

Unlike men who don't want to get married, women who don't want to get married aren't denigrated as being "commitment-phobic."

Maybe that's because while men make financial commitments by getting married, women, in reality, do not. Marriage doesn't really involve much commitment on the part of the wife. Thus, there isn't really any commitment for a woman to avoid by not getting married.

If a man's wife leaves him (two thirds or more of all divorces in this country are initiated by the wife, typically despite no allegation of adultery or abuse by the husband), he will often be ordered to pay alimony to his wife, even for life, and she will typically get custody of the kids and child support. See, e.g., Bristow v. Bristow (Virginia Supreme Court reversed lower court ruling placing time limits placed on alimony to wife who left her husband after a few weeks of marriage). This is true even if the wife cheated, was abusive, and did not contribute to the family's well-being. Calvin v. Calvin (Virginia Court of Appeals upholds award of alimony to adulterous wife who it conceded was "vindictive and cruel" to her husband).

But even if the wife makes far more than the husband, she will seldom be ordered to pay him alimony after she leaves him, even if he is financially needy, suffered a work-related injury, or devoted himself to being their children's primary care-giver. See, e.g., Asgari v. Asgari (Virginia Court of Appeals upholds ruling denying alimony to husband who made less than a fifth what his wife made, and ordering him to pay her 40 percent of his meager disability pension).

There are a handful of states, like California, where a husband who is poorer than his wife has a decent chance of getting alimony the way a wife who is poorer than her husband can (although in practice, awards to husbands tend to be a bit lower, and shorter in duration, than awards to similarly-situated wives).

But in most states, alimony is in practice a sex-based entitlement for wives only, even though this sex discrimination is contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1979 decision in Orr v. Orr, which invalidated as a violation of the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause the traditional rule that only wives, not husbands, can be awarded alimony.

Most family courts have just ignored, or paid lip-service, to the Supreme Court's decision in Orr v. Orr (1979).
9.10.2006 2:50pm
Tennessean (mail):
Mr. Volokh's post begs the question, in the technical sense.

(And it does so by apparently being unwilling to take people, women in particular, seriously. "Commitment-phobia" is used to describe exactly what Mr. Volokh says is its technical definition: an irrational fear of commitment. I.e., "Lisa, why aren't you and Frank married?" "Well, no good reason, he just has the usual case of commitment phobia."

While the term may well be "a generally unsound term to describe normal, reasonable fear of making what could be a very emotionally (and financially) costly mistake," that is not what it is used for, so this critique is at best tangential to the issue. At best this is Mr. Volokh expressing rah-rah support for his single buddies under the guise of a supposedly wise criticism of word usage.)
9.10.2006 5:15pm
lucia (mail) (www):
Kevin Connors:

If you haven't read commitment phobic, you must not read advice columnists. Commitment phobic is used. Commitment averse is not.

BTW, I'm not saying you should read advice columns.
9.10.2006 9:35pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Ms. Day-Petrano: See dictionary.com, citing the Random House definition of "phobia": "a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it." I most certainly make no claims about the DSM; I was referring to the lay meaning of "phobia," which I think imparts a connotation of irrationality to "X-phobia" terms.

Kevin Connors: I'm not sure if you were serious, but if you were, note that google reports 100,000+ hits on "commitment-phobic" vs. under 1000 for "commitment-averse" and under 100 for the spelling you used, "commitment-adverse."

Tennesseean: I take women quite seriously; I just don't always agree with them. Likewise with men, including my friend and coblogger David Bernstein, whose post prompted my reply. In my experience, people who use "commitment-phobic" tend to use it either without any reflection on whether the fear of commitment is irrational -- i.e., as a pejorative term for "reluctant to commit" or "afraid to commit" -- or with the assumption that fear of commitment is generally irrational. I very rarely see the term coupled with evidence that the fear really is irrational. Of course, maybe I'm listening to the wrong people, or noticing a disproportionate sample of its uses; but I'm certainly taking the people who use it quite seriously, even if I think they're mistaken.

As to my single buddies, incidentally, most of them are single women; I'm always glad to express support for them, but just not on this.
9.11.2006 1:26am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I am somewhat acrophobic (heights), though it is pretty weird. I ride chairlifts and fly in airplanes all the time without a qualm. Ditto for driving on mountain roads. But climbing a lift tower with OSHA required safety measures that don't allow you to drop more than a foot or so if you peel of is a problem, and I now have a really big problem with hiking and climbing where there are dropoffs. My ex told me that when we were hiking she could tell when there was a dropoff along the trail because I would slow down so much - I wasn't even aware of that. I have always had this - I would freeze when learning to climb in college, but it got 200% worse when my youngest brother fell on his head climbing and died. We have a family thing where one generation takes another up Longs Peak (in Rocky Mtn. Nat. Park), and I had to tell my kid that my next brother would have to take my place, even though my father took me up it some 40 years ago (as his did him). It is fairly safe, though someone did die there a week or two ago. But there are some open places that I don't think that I could get across anymore.

I have met guys who were truly committment-phobic. They would get like I do with heights when faced with a committment. But I would suggest that most of the guys who are called committment-phobic are really committment-adverse. Or even committment-hesitant.

Sorry to be a sexist, but the problem seems to me that a lot of women seem to look at sex as a committment, and the guys they get involved with just look at it as sex. So, the women blame the men for running from committment, when they weren't in it for the committment in the first place. I think that in a lot of these cases, the guys aren't really committment-phobic, just not willing to commit to this woman. In any case, the important thing is that they are in it for something else than the women are, and for the most part, I blame the women for that.

I blame the politization of speech for a lot of this problem. No, I am not homophobic just because I oppose gay marriage. I happily spend time around gays, whether they be family, friends, or acquintances. No, I am not commitment phobic just because I didn't want to marry all of the women I have been involved with in my life. But, yes, I am acrophobic because I do seize up when faced with certain types of heights. My stress level go through the roof, and my fear level doesn't let me do what I know I need to do.
9.11.2006 4:16am
PubliusFL:
"Sorry to be a sexist, but the problem seems to me that a lot of women seem to look at sex as a committment, and the guys they get involved with just look at it as sex. So, the women blame the men for running from committment, when they weren't in it for the committment in the first place. I think that in a lot of these cases, the guys aren't really committment-phobic, just not willing to commit to this woman. In any case, the important thing is that they are in it for something else than the women are, and for the most part, I blame the women for that."

I think that has a lot of truth to it, which means that countless grandmothers were largely right - giving away free milk is not a particularly efficient marketing strategy for cattle sales.
9.11.2006 6:32am
Larry2:
One big reason for the aversion to commitment many men seem to have was best summed up in a comic's monologue (I wish I could remember his name so that I could give him credit for expressing this insight in a funny and memorable way). It's as if you're taking a road trip with your girlfriend. It's getting close to dinner time and she's starting to get hungry. She sees a sign for a restaurant that she likes and suggests that you stop there to eat. You think to yourself, I like that restaurant, but maybe if I drove on further I'd come across a terrific restaurant that I'd like even better.

Years ago a friend of mine developed an 85% rule. He decided that was the minimum percentage he was willing to settle on for a wife -- a woman who was 85% of what he was looking for. When he found such a woman he married her. When I heard that I was shocked. It seemed rather unromantic, and also a low percentage. But I'm afraid as the years have passed I've increasingly concluded he was probably right.

This was an excellent initial post and series of comments. Thanks everyone.
9.11.2006 11:07am
lucia (mail) (www):
In any case, the important thing is that they are in it for something else than the women are, and for the most part, I blame the women for that.


I can't blame either men or women for wanting different things. I would advise a woman who claims she wants to establish a committed relationship to stop spending time with a guy if she has diagnosed as "commitment-phobic" (whatever that might really mean.)

There is nothing wrong with wanting what you want. But it's pointless to waste time doing things that clearly can't possibly get you what you want and afterwards complaining what you wanted didn't magically fall in your lap.

BTW, I'm not using "spending time" as a euphemism for "having sex". I'm not convinced women having sex is the problem that causes men to not commit. Plenty of men marry women who had sex with them before either one ever discussed, or even considered, the possibility of marrying the other.

I think the time sink is the real problem. Whether or not you have sex, if you devote most of your evenings and weekends to a commitment-phobic person, you won't be meeting other people.
9.11.2006 11:17am
PubliusFL:
"BTW, I'm not using 'spending time' as a euphemism for 'having sex.' I'm not convinced women having sex is the problem that causes men to not commit. Plenty of men marry women who had sex with them before either one ever discussed, or even considered, the possibility of marrying the other."

It seems plausible that, at a minimum, it reduces incentives to commit. Which, for at least some men, means they will not agree to commit as soon as they otherwise would, because there are fewer "benefits" to weigh against the perceived costs.
9.11.2006 11:25am
lucia (mail) (www):
It seems plausible that, at a minimum, it reduces incentives to commit.


Fair enough. It also seems plausible a man would be reluctant to commit to a woman who absolutely refused to have sex with him prior to marriage. Unless a man is convinced the woman has sincere moral qualms which he shares, a man might fear her refusal forbodes a serious lack of enthusiasm.


Are there any statistics we can examine to see which seemigly plausible theory prevails?
9.11.2006 12:22pm
PubliusFL:
"Fair enough. It also seems plausible a man would be reluctant to commit to a woman who absolutely refused to have sex with him prior to marriage. Unless a man is convinced the woman has sincere moral qualms which he shares, a man might fear her refusal forbodes a serious lack of enthusiasm.

Are there any statistics we can examine to see which seemigly plausible theory prevails?"

Hmmm. I can't think of any off the top of my head, but maybe some can be found. I expect both effects are in play, but can't prove which is stronger. I can imagine an experiment that would test which would test the relative strength of the two effects, though. Set up two parallel societies, identical as far as possible, except in one all women refuse to have sex prior to marriage, and in the other all women expect to have sex in any romantic/dating relationship, no matter how casual. I know which one I think would have a higher level of male commitment.

In fact, I would suggest that the two effects go hand in hand. When a society has a substantial proportion of women who are willing to engage in sex without first demanding serious commitment, it decreases the chances that men will commit to both the women who engage in such behavior and the women who refuse. In other words, when some producers give the milk away for free, it produces negative externalities for the entire cattle market, not just those segments that engage in the counterproductive marketing strategy. ;-)
9.11.2006 2:24pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
EV -- regarding your pointer, "Ms. Day-Petrano: See dictionary.com, citing the Random House definition of "phobia": "a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it." I most certainly make no claims about the DSM," I am just curious to know if you or anyone else out there knows any of the history on where the Random House dictionary obtained the definition of "phobia," such as the DSM-III or DSM-IV?

I encountered a similar issue when my husband served as my scribe-interpreter to draft a federal complaint and used the term "standing vigil." The definition of "standing vigil" became a critical issue in the litigation. After arguing that even General Lee stood vigil over his trops, I prevailed that those words gave me standing.
9.11.2006 2:30pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
"trops"=troops
9.11.2006 2:31pm
lucia (mail) (www):
PubliusFL:

So, your argument to support your opinion is to propose a thought experiment, which could never be performed, but which, if performed, might, in your opinion, provide evidence to support your opinion?

As an engineer, I'm relatively unfamiliar with this type of argument. Do the rules permit me to say "In my opinion the outcome would differ?" Do we get to propose slight variations on the impossible experiment? ;-)
9.11.2006 2:47pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
EV, I am also wondering, with respect to your observation "I very rarely see the term coupled with evidence that the fear really is irrational," how would one go about proving with admissible evidence that a particular fear is "irrational." This must require an objective test, no? A subjective test would result in anything the fearer belived not beinf "irrational."

Bruce, about your acrophobia. That brings back memories of my having gone on overnight horseback rides with a friend in the Georgia Pacific lumberland up near Fort Bragg, CA. At the top of some of the ridges, the trails narrowed, and the drop off the downward side was more than 200' straight down -- certain death to anyone who inadvertently rode their horse off the edge of the trail. My friend was riding a horse blind on one eye, and had to always keep the good eye toward the downward side of the trail, or position another good-sighted horse and rider between his horse's blind eye and the deadly trail edge.

"[T]he problem seems to me that a lot of women seem to look at sex as a committment, and the guys they get involved with just look at it as sex."

Well, maybe men have come to believe this, but the thought is not particularly well-articulated by men on behalf of some womens' point of view. Many women also "just look at it as sex" but the reason for "committment" is an insatiable appetite by women for all the sex all the time. Men just don't want to give some women all the sex all the time because, well ... men are very much like a stallion every time a mare in heat walks by. But, then again, I don't have standing on this issue, since I am happily married.
9.11.2006 2:56pm
Tennessean (mail):
PubliusFL, can you also include in your experiment some variables to address the signaling problem?

That is, in a society where women are willing to engage in varying levels of sexual activity prior to marriage, those variances may well predict with some reasonable level of accuracy sexual activity after the wedding day.

So if the man wants a higher level of sexual activity after the wedding day, he can look for, inter alia, a higher level prior to the wedding day. More importantly, perhaps, a woman who is noticeably less active than the norm prior to the wedding day would raise red flags, so long as the "unleashed vixen" theory is but a myth.

Hence, the externality you suggest falls hard upon the less sexual women (regardless of whether they are that way because of lower desires or because of higher self-identified stigmas). In a mixed group, the presence of the rest of the woman marks the relatively chaste women as bad marital choices for most men.

So, to fight this, the more chaste women push norms and ideas like "commitment phobia" and "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free" to enforce stigmas against their competitors and their unwilling partners.

From the vantage point of many men, then, "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free" has to compete with "why buy the cow whose milk is subjected to unending and restrictive regulation".

(All of this takes the wide gender stereotyping as given, which does seem to be a reasonable but not perfect approximation for swaths of American culture.)
9.11.2006 4:01pm
Tennessean (mail):
(Follow-up)

And, of course, the conclusion is that the problem is not that some women do and some women don't, the problem is identifying an effective way for men and women to signal the level of social regulation of sex that they believe is appropriate.

There are certainly men who ascribe to very strict limitations on sexual behavior, and it would be best if those men could end up with women with similar beliefs.

There are also almost certainly men who do not need a relationship or commitment for sex, and it seemingly would be best if those men could also end up with women with similar beliefs.

The problem is that we have apparently decided, 1 - it is difficult to align the populations just so, but more importantly, 2 - they don't match up, because more women are more restrictive than men.

If 2 is true, that perfect matches aren't possible, it strikes me that perjoratives like "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free" are question-begging and insulting, as they assume that the men are incorrect and that it would be morally right for the knowledgable women to scheme so as to induce the wayward men into rightful behavior.
9.11.2006 4:08pm
PubliusFL:
lucia: "So, your argument to support your opinion is to propose a thought experiment, which could never be performed, but which, if performed, might, in your opinion, provide evidence to support your opinion?"

Precisely!

"As an engineer, I'm relatively unfamiliar with this type of argument. Do the rules permit me to say 'In my opinion the outcome would differ?' Do we get to propose slight variations on the impossible experiment? ;-)"

Yes to both questions. Then we get apply reason and our knowledge of human nature to evaluate which outcomes are more or less probable.

Tennessean: Good point about the signaling problem. About some of your other points:

"There are also almost certainly men who do not need a relationship or commitment for sex, and it seemingly would be best if those men could also end up with women with similar beliefs."

I suppose so, for certain values of "best."

"[I]t strikes me that perjoratives like "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free" are question-begging and insulting, as they assume that the men are incorrect and that it would be morally right for the knowledgable women to scheme so as to induce the wayward men into rightful behavior."

It strikes me that what you describe is a large part of what we have heretofore referred to as "civilization." ;-) Lysistrata wasn't just a story.
9.11.2006 8:48pm
lucia (mail) (www):
Yes to both questions. Then we get apply reason and our knowledge of human nature to evaluate which outcomes are more or less probable.


Well, then I will state it outright:

I believe if the two societies are identical in all ways except the women's decisions about premarital sex - as you describe in the two cases-- I believe the men would enter committed relationships at the same rates in both.

(That said, I think the precise outcome depends on how one fixes variables other than the woman's decision to have sex or not. However, as you haven't set those in anyway whatsoever I'll let you specify the rest of the societal/ technological/ legal/ cultural rules later.)

I believe that that leaves us at a draw?

We could, of course, continue with this little game.

However, I have a problem with this thought experiment: It is entirely irrational!

I don't believe it is possible to make the two societies "the same", also control women's choices and afterwards simply observe the men's responses.

Presumably, two societies being "the same" means they are cultural, social, technological, legal and biological systems are identical. Yet, with all these set, somehow, mysteriously, the women make different choices!

What makes the women suddenly act differently? Not culture. Not biology. Not technology. Not social mores. So what?

Heck, if I've left something important out "the same" means that matches in both societies!

In physical systems, you can't just hypothetically set arbitrarily set all independent variable and even one dependent variable and then observe other dependent variables. You can control (or set) all independent variables, then observe all the dependent ones. I'm pretty darn sure you also can't overprescribe socialogical systems.

So, if your thought experiment permits rules that overprescribeing systems, I will argue the thought experiment is inherently irrational and defies all logic. In consequence, any claim to predict its behavior are inherently based on whimsey rather than reason.

I'd be happy to let you and others play the game. But, if you told me you were using logic or reason, I would simply sit here and laugh!

Does that seem reasonable to you?

On the Greek reference: Forgive me for my ignorance, but wasn't Lysistrata fiction? ;-)
9.11.2006 10:43pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
"The problem is that we have apparently decided, ... 2 - they don't match up, because more women are more restrictive than men.

If 2 is true, that perfect matches aren't possible, it strikes me that perjoratives like "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free" are question-begging and insulting, as they assume that the men are incorrect and that it would be morally right for the knowledgable women to scheme so as to induce the wayward men into rightful behavior."

T -- the problem with your argument is a false assumption #2 is true. That is highly doubtful.
9.12.2006 1:48pm