A catch-up session with girlfriends over coffee invariably becomes an all out hash-fest about our love lives. We do not hesitate to dive into the juicy stuff: who likes whom, who broke up or -- as it seems everyone is doing lately -- who got engaged. Like every girl, I swoon for my friends who found Mr. Right and live on Cloud 9 and rejoice for that girlfriend who is expecting her first son. With engagement rings in my news feed and wedding vows being exchanged every month, the long-held stigma that men are afraid of commitment seems passé. But while obsessing over the minute details of my own current relationship with various gal pals, I made a startling realization: I am not the only woman in the world who harbors a secret. In my life, my guy is not the one hesitating about marital commitment. I am.
Simply put, it's time to stop giving men such flack for their stereotypical fear of commitment. From where I stand, they are not the only ones.
As someone who has lived in Manhattan for years, I love the active life of singledom made possible by this concrete jungle. Far be it from me to worry when my guy is going to put a ring on it, or spend sleepless nights envisioning a future of owning cats and living alone. In some ways, I take pride in being "single and sensational." I do not avoid commitment entirely, per se. On the contrary, I try to be deeply loving and devoted as a girlfriend, friend, sibling, daughter and while working with my clients through my company.
When it comes to committing to someone in marriage, however, I feel a deep knot of anxiety in my stomach. After all, marriage is for life.
In those honest conversations with my girlfriends, we share our dreams to travel, to start our own companies, to write. The same vision, drive, independence and sense of adventure with which we navigate our lives as individuals simultaneously makes us afraid to dedicate ourselves to one person in marriage. We toss around questions like, "How do I know if this guy is the one to donate everything to forever?" or "What if we change?" "What if I have to give everything up?" These questions pose challenges to which we seek answers.
"You need a healthy fear of marriage like you need a healthy fear of the ocean," a friend poignantly remarked the other day. No sooner had she finished that phrase than my mind instantly flashed back to my first visit to the ocean as a gangly middle-schooler. I felt awkward and uncertain, not sure how to deal with the ebb and flow of the violent waves. I watched other people swimming around me, but my own body felt like a rag doll in a blender. I was warned to avoid rip tides and still insist that a crab bit my toe. It was exciting and energizing to be in such a foreign environment, but also mildly terrifying. Today, however, I have less fear of the ocean. I have learned how to swim in it and even surf the waves. If marriage can be likened to the ocean, I have learned a few lessons on how we women can overcome our fear:
1. Acclimate to the environment:
We do not live in the environment of marriage. Although the divorce rate has steadily declined in recent years with 70% of married college graduates remaining married after the 10-year mark, marriage rates amongst millennials are at an all-time low of just 26%. The average age of first marriage continues to climb to historic heights, now hovering around 27 for women and 29 for men. In large metropolitan cities where young adults congregate, we are not surrounded by others who are married. For this reason, it is hard to imagine what life will be like after we tie the knot. Our married friends become harder to reach by phone, text and email, triggering our fear that those who get married no longer have lives outside of their new little love cocoons. To solve this problem, it would be helpful to hear more stories from married couples about their happiness, and be invited into their homes to get to know their families. We already do the singles bar scene well; we need to learn how to navigate a new environment.
2. Find examples of others who have what we want:
Who doesn't love Kate Middleton and Prince William or Beyoncé and Jay Z? Although we know our marriages won't completely resemble theirs, to my driven and ambitious girlfriends and myself, we enjoy seeing married couples who still travel, who still have a romantic spark and who are still culturally or professionally engaged. I think on some level, we also want marriages that not only enrich our immediate community, but also play a pivotal role together in the culture.
Since these examples are so few, I personally searched the eastern coast to hand-pick exemplary couples who inspire me for their passion, purpose and romance together. Setting up my "marriage mentors" panel with couples who are married between 5-30 years reminds me that the kind of marriage I want exists. When I am ready to freak out about a small miscommunication with my boyfriend (and so much more!), I email them for advice or check in once a month to hear stories of their happy marriages. At my fingertips is a wealth of wisdom and encouragement, which is a game-changer.
3. Learn how to do it:
Finally, for the same reasons that made the ocean scary as a young girl, my fear of marriage comes from not knowing exactly how to "do it." I am afraid of being incompetent. I ask myself how I will deal with the storms that will arise, the ebb and flow of passion that swells and then dissipates after the honeymoon phase is over. What if a marital rip tide comes along and I have no idea how to get out of it? Just like I needed a swim coach, sometimes it is helpful to surrender my uncertainty to someone else. If you are like me, it is OK to confess these fears to a professional. We might need a life raft. It could be a marriage mentor, professional therapist, a communication class or the courage to be brutally honest in a relationship where both parties avoid talking about certain issues. Competence breeds confidence, and sometimes accumulating more skills helps alleviate the fear.
Making a commitment to marry is a huge decision and a big unknown. While still single, it is helpful to get acclimated to the environment of marriage, find concrete examples of married couples who have the type of life and love we want and learn practical skills to help us move forward. As I do these things, I am confident it is just a matter of time before I am ready to go out into the deep.