Anxiety attacks

I'm in love with a man who takes a year to decide which sport coat to buy and I'm waiting for a decision about our relationship. Help!

Published November 20, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I see you as Jung meets Dear Abby meets the Dude meets Leonard Cohen. So here goes.

I've been seeing a wonderful man for about two years. I'm 31, he's 29. We laugh until I snort, we debate the finer points of dadaism to toothpaste, we get on each other's nerves and at the same time find these annoyances charming.

He believes in not living together before marriage, yet I live in the bottom-floor apartment of the same three-story house where he lives in an attic apartment. He's usually out of town on business during the week, but when he's home, he wants us to be together every day and every night, which I have no problem with.

He turned down an incredible job offer in New York back in January because he wanted to stay on this romantic adventure with me. He knew I couldn't afford to move and because of the "living together" belief, which I respect, it wouldn't have been possible for me to go. He tells me that I would make a wonderful mother, that he'd love me to be the mother of his children. I'd love for him to be the daddy. He tells me that he wants to spend the rest of his life with me. We are best friends and we are in love.

So, what did I go and do? I asked where we were "headed," which makes him scared. He'll have a rush of emotions sometimes and tell me that he wants to marry me someday. Then he freaks out. Because he's so desperate to be sure he's making the right choice, he'll take back all of those sentiments and say he's not sure. Then he beats himself up because he knows that's a shitty thing to do to someone. Then he's consumed with guilt and the cycle starts all over again. I'm on Round 3 now.

This adorable man takes at least two trips to the store before he can decide what underwear to buy. It took him almost a year to decide on a linen sport coat. He took almost two years to decide if he really wanted to move from Houston and the day before the movers showed up, he had an anxiety attack that rushed over him, and he called the movers and told them that he wasn't sure he was ready.

I want to help him, but at the same time, I need answers. I want to talk about this with him, but I don't want him to feel pressure. It sucks feeling like someone is playing hide-and-go-seek with my future, but I imagine it must suck more to be so unsure of yourself that making the simple choices in life can overwhelm you.

Needing Your Thoughts

Dear Needing,

Wow. He's done everything but get down on his knees and propose to you. He's told you he wants to be with you forever. He wants to have your kids. He just doesn't want to get married or live together.

So what is the nature of this freedom that he is trying to preserve? That is, what is the nature of the freedom that he is afraid of losing if he makes a choice? That's what I think his anxiety is about: He's holding on to a kind of freedom of movement that signals autonomy to him. He's got his own apartment. That's freedom. He's traveling during the week. That probably feels like freedom. He's not living with his parents or doing what they want -- he's not even living in their state, I take it. That probably feels like freedom. (And yet when it came to leaving that state, he had an anxiety attack. Hmm.)

He's walking a fine line. He's emancipated, in a sense, and yet, by refusing to act, he's living a provisional life, a life on hold. By not choosing, he avoids the eternally un-undoable act, the final consent, the signature on the dotted line that signals the death of infinite possibility. By staying in motion, he preserves that notion of freedom. But constant motion without direction is actually a kind of unbearable stasis. So he is stuck. He is not free. He is stuck because he has not really thought hard about the nature of this freedom he is preserving.

It's an illusory freedom grounded in fear.

True freedom is the father of action and gives rise to principled conflict. This other thing, this refusal to act, this conflict avoidance, this isn't freedom so much as fear. You need to explore that zone of friction between action and possibility where freedom takes shape as honor.

He gets anxious when he's about to make a choice, because making a choice means opening the door to a specific and actual future of your own making: It's like giving birth to a future that is branded by you, tied to you, a future that says to you: You are now responsible for me. I belong to you. You chose me.

Choosing is like having a kid. It's how men progress, how we populate the world with our doings. This other thing, this anxious, perfectionistic refusal to choose is an abuse of freedom that leads to romantic impotence. In this impotence you can have a child's romance. You can play house. He can have his room and you can have yours. But you can't shape a future.

That's where you are now. But you knew that. You're asking me how you can shake him out of it. And I can't really tell you precisely how to do it.

But understand what's going on philosophically and clinically here, and you have a place to start. He loves you, but he's clinging to an illusory notion of freedom. He's also perhaps just plain not ready yet. He may be ready next week or next month. He may also be having clinical anxiety attacks. So, if it's clinical, I mean powerful, paralyzing, uncontrollable bouts of anxiety, then there are medicines and treatment for it, and he needs to look into that.

There's no reason to get married today. But there is reason to face this conflict head-on, and to try to get across to him what his waffling is putting you through. Saying he'd like to have your kids is a really big thing for a guy to say. If he didn't mean it, or if he's too scared to follow through, then he owes you some kind of explanation, or apology, or something. Otherwise, it's just mean.

What about his upbringing down in Texas? Was he, by any chance, raised in a strict Christian fundamentalist household? That might have something to do with the anxiety, as well as the stark refusal to live together before marriage. If he is a Christian, then he may need to make the long journey from a Christian crippled by indoctrination to a Christian liberated by faith. I'm not sure how you do that; definitely takes some hardcore pondering, rigorous self-examination. And maybe the right preacher?

Look, don't do anything drastic, sweetheart. You two are in love, and you don't want to mess that up. But the love isn't going to get him over his fears all by itself. You've got some work to do. But I think it will be worth it.

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