He's ramping up the pressure but I don't want to commit

My relationships never last long and this one's no different. Should I just surrender and make it permanent?

Published October 23, 2008 10:20AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

I'm back. It is a beautiful morning. A mockingbird is singing.

Dear Cary,

I am a 35-year-old woman who has consistently avoided serious relationships. Few relationships with men felt "right" or worth the effort, and those that did somehow ended in disappointment.

I have been dating a guy for about 10 months, and until recently, I was not taking our relationship very seriously (I am about to move), but he has been ramping up the pressure. We have fun together, but as with earlier boyfriends, he doesn't really feel like home to me. Previously, I have tried to defer the issue with him, but this weekend I began to think seriously about making a commitment to him -- and I got really depressed. Here's my question -- should I move forward with him and expect the depression to fade with the fabled wonders of coupledom, or should I repeat my previous pattern and flee quickly?

As an aside, I am currently in a difficult place, professionally (finishing a dissertation, job hunting), and am reluctant to take on something that will tax my frayed emotional reserves.

Thank you,

Clinging to Spinsterhood

Dear Clinging,

What if I said that it's fine to date around a little bit when you're young, but by age 35 you'd better settle for whatever man you can find? What if I said, All women eventually must become wives and mothers, so what are you waiting for?

What if a friend of yours said, "Well, the thought of committing to this guy made me feel depressed, but I did it anyway because, hey, maybe coupledom will make me happy"?

You'd be outraged, no?

Is being single nothing more than a dismal holding pattern women occupy prior to being rescued by a man's devotion? Is it every man's duty, when he has been dating a woman for a number of months, to begin "ramping up the pressure" to ensure her swift betrothal?

Imagine being an independent, self-sufficient woman with a number of relationships whose intensity and duration are negotiated according to the shifting needs and circumstances of the individuals involved. What's wrong with that kind of life?

It sounds like a good kind of life to me. It sounds like the life of a single woman.

So I suggest that you declare yourself unabashedly, consciously, deliberately single. Not single until the right man comes along. Not single as a regrettable consequence of a series of failed relationships. Not single as in poor lonesome spinster who can't land a man. Single as in free, self-sufficient, independent, committed to growth, happy and OK with who I am. Single as in maybe I'm free tonight and maybe I'm not. Single as in I control my own time. Single as in I have choices. Single as in I like you a lot and I will try to meet you halfway but this is my bed and I have to be somewhere in the morning.

Here is something about the post-feminist world to consider. Women's gains in the 1970s and 1980s came through personal struggle. Women worked individually and in groups to untangle the mess of unspoken assumptions governing their daily lives. It was difficult, sometimes heartbreaking work. It came between women and the men they loved. It disrupted family lives and work lives. It was personal, messy and dirty. Only after this work was done was it possible to change laws and institutions.

Men also worked hard to change how they treated women. It was not easy. It was like learning how to walk again.

Out of this hard work came new assumptions and new laws. But it didn't wipe out sexism. It didn't change how families raise children or what we learn from our parents and grandparents or how we can manipulate each other's desires and fears to get what we want.

Consider this analogy. Psychotherapy has changed many individuals. But your mother's psychotherapy will not protect you from life's struggles any more than your mother's feminism will inoculate you against the difficulties of negotiating your freedom as a woman. You have to consciously seize that freedom just as women before you had to. It is still necessary for individuals to find their own truths and uncover their own biases and hidden agendas.

In your current and past relationships, when you reached a point of conflict, rather than negotiate or compromise, you fled. I don't think in this instance you need to capitulate or flee. You can negotiate. You can declare yourself a free, single woman. You can say you like things just the way they are and wish to continue as they are.

He may not want you on those terms. That is his choice. But the idea that "coupledom" will somehow make all these difficult choices disappear is nothing but wishful thinking.

Declare yourself single!

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