Ask Polly: Should I Give My Commitment-Phobic Boyfriend An Ultimatum?

Dear Polly,

Is it possible for someone to have commitmentphobia while simultaneously professing enthusiasm for commitment — all while not doing much about commitment, either way?

Let me explain. For the past year and a half I’ve been dating a man in his early 40s. I am in my mid-30s. Most of our friends are married, cohabitating, have kids, have houses. You know the drill. I have never pushed on these issues, mostly because I don’t feel the need: I have a career I like, friends and family and hobbies I love, a nice place to live, the ability to pay my own bills. My life is full and rich, and this great, smart, caring guy I began dating, after a year-long period of close friendship, simply made it fuller and richer. I’m not against marriage or kids or any of that, but it’s never been my top objective. I’m sure this dynamic evolved, in part, because in the past I’ve dated younger guys who were even less interested in any sort of settling-down than I was.

Now, from fairly early on, we decided to date exclusively and my current fellow seemed to have ‘future’ on his mind. He emailed me real estate listings for houses. He talked about wanting to be a dad and coach Little League. He will say things like “I can’t wait until we can buy a place in [quaint nearby town].” He jokes about how we’ll have to develop a finding aid when we combine our respective book and record collections. And you know what? Instead of being nervous or put off by this, I found it exciting! Turns out, planning for a joint future feels doable when you are with someone who seems invested in it, and who is a good person, and who has an excellent book and record collection. “This sounds great,” I told him. “I’m in.” And I meant it.

The thing is, I’m starting to think that what he enjoys is the fantasy of commitment — the ideaof a cute house in [quaint nearby town], me bringing in greens from the garden, the kid suiting up for Little League — not the reality of making it happen. I’ve tried to have conversations about, say, moving in together, and a panicky look crosses his face. I can practically smell his stress levels rise. We drop the conversation and let it go. Lately if I bring up stuff like that he says he’s sick of talking about it. I get it, commitment is scary, but if it is so scary, why the house listings? Why give me a gardening book as a present, when I live in a Manhattan condo? It’s sort of the relationship equivalent of someone who watches the Olympics religiously but cannot bring himself to go to the gym.

We’ve talked about this, and he tells me that he struggles with indecisiveness and is prone to sticking with the status quo until an external force makes him change. But we’re at a point in our lives where our living situations and future plans are self-driven. We have no roommates to leave us in the lurch, no graduations to launch us into a new job market in another town. Some of my girlfriends have told me to “put my foot down” and “give him an ultimatum,” but that is SO not my bag. Really, I just want to know where I stand, and I don’t want to end up looking like a fool by mistaking his future-talk-mirages for something solid. If he wants to keep it casual but spice things up with unattainable domestic fantasies, I guess that’s OK, right? So Polly, is this a case of commitmentphobia trying to pose as something else? Is he being selfish, or am I? Also, is this give-your-partner-an-ultimatum thing really a thing? According to my girlfriends it is, which horrifies me — then again, they teased me when I found out that Spanx are a thing and I found those horrifying, too. Maybe I am just clueless, in general?


Single, Spanxless and Confused

Dear SSC,

Everyone hates ultimatums. It’s demeaning to give one, and it’s obnoxious to receive one. It’s like giving someone Spanx as a gift. But you know what? Just as some women feel better when they wear Spanx, some men will not get off their asses without an ultimatum. And by “Get off their asses,” I do not necessarily mean “Run out a buy a diamond ring.” In most cases, it’s more like “Stop bullshitting their girlfriend and make it clear that they are definitely not going to be gardening-and-Little-League material for at least another decade.”

So that makes giving ultimatums even worse, because you’re likely to get bad news. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the course of several long-term relationships, and witnessed among friends, it’s this: Men who get very nervous and evasive and refuse to talk about commitment after a year or so usually (7 times out of 8?) don’t commit. You say that you don’t really care about marriage and kids, that everything is great. If that’s the case, then why even write me a letter? Relax and enjoy yourself. If you don’t need the goddamn Spanx, why denigrate those who feel they do?

But if you’re thinking that marriage and kids might move up your priority list, if you imagine yourself in the same situation two years from now and that doesn’t seem all that great, then I’d address the issue right now.

When I was 34 years old, I started to notice that my live-in boyfriend of two years, who loved to talk about how awesome our domestic life was, always talked about marriage and kids like they existed in some distant future, when he was much, much older and had a great career. In the meantime, we should just relax, pack another bong hit, and watch “24.”

Life with this man was pretty enjoyable. He was a happy, talkative ray of sunshine. But I was sure I wanted to have kids, so I told him we needed to get serious or I should move on without him. He said he couldn’t decide, so we went to couples’ therapy. Even in couples’ therapy, it was hard to get any information. (If there’s just one thing you want to know and your guy won’t say that one thing? You’ve got your answer already.)

So finally I said, “I’m going to give this three more months.” He agreed. One night two months later, he told me how, on a recent visit to New York, he’d told all his friends that I was disappointed that I didn’t get an engagement ring for my birthday. I’d never said that. (Who gets engaged on their birthday?) But he’d added together my deadline with his habit of buying crappy last-minute birthday gifts at the local drugstore, and came up with that assessment.

See how pathetic my ultimatum looked then? Demeaning. Just terrible. I felt like a disgusting sea slug, crawling around 50 leagues under the seas on which his delightful little stoner sailboat glided peacefully along.

So I broke up with him. Three months later, I met my husband, who is pretty and kind and has a great career where the bong should go. In fact, he’s downstairs right now rubbing sunscreen on two little girls while I sit here tapping out highly subjective drivel. He probably should’ve found some sunshiney cookie-baking pin-up girl, but instead he got me. His loss is my gain, motherfuckers!

Nine years later, my ex is 42 years old, he’s never seriously dated anyone, and he’s humming “Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand!” while spanking it down to Sports Illustrated’s latest discovery.

I know I’ve probably told my twisted, dark heteronormative fairy tale many times before. The real lesson here is that my exboyfriend would’ve upheld the status quo forever. He liked me enough, he just didn’t want to commit. He looked at me and he thought about all of the sunshiney cookie-baking pin-up girls out there he could marry instead. I knew that all along. I knew I’d rather be alone than stay with someone who was ambivalent about me.

I understand that your life is good, you’re undecided about marriage and kids, and it’s silly and beneath you to deliver an ultimatum. But you must ask yourself if you’ll be happy with the status quo in a year or two. You really do need to figure out whether you want kids or not. Don’t walk away from that question just because it fucks with your current life and makes you feel like a walking cliche. If you decide you’ll absolutely be happy without these things? That’s fantastic. Now you can sleep better at night.

But if you know deep down what you want, and you just don’t want to be the sad, lame woman who wants those things? If most of all, you don’t want to play the part of the woman who has the gall to ask for marriage and kids (instead of getting them, magically, from a charming prince)? Well, that’s not going to serve you very well.

Some people will tell you to follow The Rules, pretend not to care, stay busy, act happy, pretend you’re nonchalant about the whole goddamn thing. I can understand this approach for the first few months, but after a year, you need to know if you’re with someone who can tolerate a serious conversation about what you both want from life. Pretending that you don’t need that and you can hang with some weird, juvenile fantasy that romantic entanglements should always be shrouded in mystery? That path lies to ruin, in my opinion.

It’s not creepy to talk about what you want from your life, no matter how much other people want to make you believe that. Don’t ever design your life around the need NOT to be That Woman. Because our culture makes every fucking one of us into That Woman. We are That Woman when we refuse to take whatever is dished out at work, without complaint. We are That Woman when we cry at some moment deemed inappropriate by someone without a fucking soul who’s incapable of feeling human emotions in the first place. We are That Woman when we live alone and we adopt a cat, because we fucking like cats. We are That Woman whenever we dare to behave like regular human beings.

Most of the good things in my life came out of being That Woman.

Decide what you want, and then own it without shame. Knowing what you want, even if you might never get it, doesn’t make you a loser. Owning what you want, and sticking your neck out for it: That’s what separates happy people from unhappy people. Standing up for your dreams and politely declining to “be cool” and “hang” and play along with the status quo? These actions are crucial. They shape your whole life. Without them, you are merely a spectator.

As a woman, you will be denigrated for saying what you want. Because you have made your desires known, and because those desires might be inconvenient to others, you are a problem. People are very good at shaming desire out of women. This is not a conspiracy. This is social reproduction. These are the natural forces that uphold the status quo.

If you think marriage is a joke, people will shame you into thinking you should be married. If you put your kids in day care, people will make you feel shitty about it. If you don’t want to have kids, people will act like you have a serious problem. If you think Little League and herb gardens in a small town sound vaguely dreamy, you are That Woman who wants gross, typical things that she’ll probably never get.

Fuck that noise. Do not let the world shame you out of your true desires. Dig deep and decide what you want. Then own it. If you can’t do that, then you should expect to be disappointed.


Dear Polly,

I love reading your advice and wondering who these people are with such complicated lives. Well, now I am one of them.

I recently made a new friend at work. He just moved to my city from across the state and basically knows no one, although his fiancée will be joining him in a few months. A couple of my other friends at work are annoyed with him because they just want to go home and sleep after work and he is constantly bugging people to go out. But I see where he’s coming from. I have a fair amount of free time and am always up for an adventure, so we’ve been hanging out a lot in the past few weeks. He and I started to get a little bit flirty, and I figured it was all just in good fun.

One night we got pretty drunk and ended up kissing at the end of the night. The next day he explained to me that he’s been having problems with his fiancée. She cheated on him about a year ago and ever since then they have been trying to repair the relationship. Evidently she wants him to go out without her for a while and be open to new relationships, so that he can experience other people before they get married. (He dated other girls before her, so it’s not like he’s never experienced any other women). He claims he didn’t think he would ever be able to do this because he loves her too much. But then he met me. And now he doesn’t know what to do.

We are now in this weird grey zone where we hang out all the time and do couple-y things, but we aren’t hooking up and we haven’t kissed again since that night. We did both attend a wild party where we got wildly drunk and held hands/cuddled on the couch all night. That’s all. I was hoping that I could just see him as a good friend, but the problem is that I’m starting to fall for him. I know I should end it now and stop seeing him altogether but I just can’t. Every time I see him or I get a call or text I’m drawn back in.

It’s hard to hang out in a large group because my closest friend doesn’t like this guy. To be honest, he can be a bit self-centered and is always talking about himself. He’s had an interesting life though, so I like listening to his stories. He’s extremely polite, holding doors and such for me, which most guys I know never do. I just don’t know what I’m getting out of the relationship. I know he is going to go back to his fiancée in the end. Should I cut it off now before I get more hurt? Or should I enjoy this time with him now? (I am moving away in under a month for a new job). If I keep seeing him I know I’ll want to move the relationship to the next level. He’s said that he’s very attracted to me, but it feels wrong for him to cheat on his fiancée. Even though she kind of wants him to.

My friends all agree I need to stop seeing him, and I know that’s true too. Even if I delete his number, I’m still going to see him around work and our neighborhood. Once I see him, he’ll charm me back into making plans with him.

I’m afraid I’m going to fall in love with him. Then I will leave and his fiancée will come back, and I’ll be alone in a new city, a nervous heartbroken wreck. At least if I break it off now, I’ll have my friends here to support me when I’m a wreck.

I’m usually pretty even keeled when it comes to relationships but this one is throwing me. I’ll have a great time with him but it always kills me when he walks away at the end of the night. I’m even getting weepy about it at work, which is something I never do. I want more and I know he can’t give it. But I can’t seem to give him up.

What do I do?

Can’t Walk Away

Dear CWA,

This one is easy. You’re leaving town no matter what, and this guy isn’t sleeping with you now and he’s not dating you no matter what. Why hang around and demean yourself for another second? This thing you’re in isn’t romantic or exciting or worth mooning over. You know what is romantic? Telling him he’s never going to see you again, and then sticking to it.

Think about your life story. Do you want your moving-away story to have a dark cloud over it, so that whenever you look back on this time, you feel sick over what a loser you were to be hung up over that guy with the fiancée? Or do you want to look back and say, “Oh yeah, that was the time I stood up for myself, walked away from a guy who was just milking me for adoration and attention while his fiancée was gone”? Do you want to call your friends, tell them you’re through with this guy, and it’s time to go out and celebrate? Or do you want them to look at you and sigh and shake their heads, in a way that burns into your brain and maybe even begins to define how you feel about yourself?

Do you want to move to a new city feeling like you’re someone who stands up for herself, who never settles for less than she deserves, who doesn’t get involved with attached men, who absolutely draws the line when things start to look dicey?

You already are that person. All you have to do is walk away, and never look back.


Are you That Woman? Then write to Polly immediately!

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Top photo by Philip Taylor. Bottom photo by “che corona.”