Marriage need not be the institution that defines us as individuals. That being said, many people still seek lasting commitment, often in the form of marriage. This can be a healthy desire if we bring realistic expectations to it. But many adults don't have a healthy template of marriage to follow when it comes to nurturing and sustaining a committed relationship, making it difficult to know where to start. Perhaps the first step is re-evaluating your view of relationships and adjusting your expectations.
Most observers agree that marriage in the U.S. has been changing. Over the last fifty years, there has been a quiet shift in the landscape of family life in America. Approximately 50 percent of adults over age eighteen marry; this number is compared to 72 percent in 1960, according to the Pew Research Center. The medium age at first marriage has never been higher for brides (26.5 years) and grooms (28.7 years) according to this report.
Some think this decline is because the progression of individualism has made it more difficult for couples to achieve satisfying and stable relationships. Others believe that changes, such as increasing acceptance of single-hood and cohabitation, have made our lives richer because we have more opportunities for personal growth.
Richard Settersten, Ph.D. and Barbara E. Ray, authors of Not Quite Adults speculate that many people harbor misconceptions about a recent trend to delay marriage, believing that young adults are afraid of commitment and are abandoning marriage. They write, "Marriage is on hold for this generation, but it is delayed, not abandoned. The majority of young people eventually marry. They are just getting their ducks in a row before they do."
However, it appears that ambiguity in romantic relationships is on the increase in the past decade, and options range from friends with benefits to indecision about permanent commitment. According to Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, "Ambiguity is now the norm as opposed to clarity." Author Jessica Massa, who interviewed hundreds of singles and couples for her book, The Gaggle: How to Find Love in the Post-Dating World informs us that many couples claim exclusivity, but won't call it a relationship.
It makes sense that people in their 20s and 30s might hedge their bets and see relationships as risky if they watched their parents' marriage fail, or even relatives and friends parents' marriage collapse. Multiple factors have merged together to create a generation of ambiguity. However, one the most compelling reasons is cultural since as the first generation of children to grow up witnessing mass divorce are now making their own decisions about love and commitment.
According to divorce expert Paul Amato, many adult children of divorce (ACODS) fear relationship failure. They fear that when they open themselves up to other people, they will get hurt, and will lose out on love. Fear of failure can hold ACODS back and prevent them from being their best selves. It limits them by causing anxiety and fostering a pessimistic attitude about the future.
According to Darlene Lancer, adults who grew up in an environment where their perceptions were invalidated may have learned to doubt themselves. She writes, "You may become distrustful and/or the opposite, suggestible to what others say and disconnected from your inner guidance system. Either way, you're not able to realistically evaluate other people."
For instance, many daughters of divorce, like Diana, have a fear of commitment. She just can't see a relationship working out, but she desperately wants one. Diana is a successful, educated young woman, but relationships have been her Achilles heel. Although she says she doesn't believe in men, Diana wants one who will be a true match for her. "I think I can have a happy marriage, but I fluctuate, she says. "If it's the right guy, if we're both faithful, I'll be optimistic. If it's true love, I'll be optimistic. But it's going to take a lot to prove it to me because I want it to be foolproof." Her craving for a failsafe relationship will always be unsatisfied because such relationships don't exist.
Psychologist Nathaniel Branden has written extensively about fear in love relationships. By acting from a place of mistrust and apprehension, Diana is most certainly creating her future, or what she calls, a "self-fulfilling prophecy." There are no guarantees in any relationship. Some work out and some don't but approaching relationships with fear or doubt almost guarantees a negative outcome.
If you fear commitment, you might want to consider the following: Know that no relationship is conflict free, but you are worthy of having a relationship that makes you happy. If you aren't there yet, embrace where you are now. What is it that holds you back from achieving a satisfying relationship? And once you have it, what will you do when you get there?
5 ways to overcome your fear of commitment:
• Face your fear of commitment and embrace the notion that a lifelong commitment has to be made when there is some degree of uncertainty. If you wait to make a commitment when you are free of doubts, it will never happen.
• Remember that life can be more rewarding when you take risks and make a commitment to a partner who seems to be a good match for you.
• Take your time dating someone and make sure you've known them for at least two years to reduce your chance of divorce.
• Make sure that you have common values with individuals you date. If you marry someone with drastically different values, you will face complex issues that could put you more at risk for divorce.
• Learn to trust your judgment and be consistent with your commitment. Commitment to someone you love and consider your best friend is not an on-again, off-again proposition.
Even in the twenty-first century, when ideas about the nature of modern families have changed, many notions about marriage remain the same. Relationships, whether they last three months or three decades, can provide their participants with the love, understanding, and intimacy they need at the time.
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