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Would You Rather Be Committed Than Commit? : Fear of rejection often keeps singles from getting close enough to anyone to find real intimacy.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If the man or woman in your life keeps responding to your unreserved “I love yous” by saying, “I’m very fond of you, too,” watch out. You may be faced with a case of chronic commitment-itis.

It’s a common malady among today’s singles, says Debbi Elliott, a Corona del Mar psychotherapist.

“People want to commit because they want quality relationships, but they’re afraid,” she says.

Often, fear of rejection is what keeps singles from getting close enough to anyone to find real intimacy; they guard themselves by moving from one superficial relationship to another, according to Elliott.

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Or they find the real thing and panic.

One of Elliott’s clients is a woman who would like to marry the man with whom she is living but is thinking about breaking up with him instead. She told Elliott: “I’m afraid he’s going to leave me, and I’d rather leave him first than deal with the pain of being abandoned.”

People who engage in such self-defeating reasoning often end up sabotaging relationships by blowing little things out of proportion, Elliott says.

Fortunately--with a lot of self-examination, motivation and patience--many find that they can get past their fears and set themselves up for a relationship that holds the promise of long-term happiness. Two Orange County singles who are moving in that direction agreed to talk about their struggle with the fear of commitment on the condition that they remain anonymous.

He said

Paul, a boyishly handsome, 38-year-old Newport Beach lawyer, has a history of brief relationships with women--including a marriage that practically started and ended in the same week.

It was a mistake that was quickly put behind him because his bride chose not to go with him when he left Oregon for Southern California a week after the wedding.

He had accepted a job that was too good to refuse, and they had eloped impulsively without realizing she wasn’t ready to give up her life in Oregon. Once they were apart, they could see that they were separated by a lot more than miles, and the marriage was soon annulled.

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All that happened in October, 1989, and since then Paul has been taking a close look at himself and the pattern in his romantic relationships, which--with the exception of his sprint in and out of matrimony--have never reached the living-together stage or taken on any of the trappings of marriage.

He’s been reading self-help books, attending “personal effectiveness” seminars and seeing a therapist. And he’s changed enough during all this self-examination that former girlfriends with whom he has remained close have asked him, “Why couldn’t you have been like this when we were going out?”

One reason, he now realizes, is that his image was more important to him than the quality of his relationships.

So, he explains, if his date was “gorgeous, intelligent and athletic,” people would figure, “This guy must be OK because superwoman is with him.”

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Meanwhile, “superman” didn’t have enough confidence in himself to believe that the stunning women he was dating would hang around if they really got to know him. So he hid behind smooth talk and his ability to charm.

“I’d be really evasive. It was common for me to answer a question with a question. Talking to me would be like talking to Groucho Marx or Chevy Chase. I’d do a routine to avoid talking about feelings and exposing myself.”

But as a relationship progressed, it became more difficult for Paul to maintain a safe distance.

“Then I’d create difficulties to prevent closeness. I figured they’d eventually find out who I really am and wouldn’t like me anyway.”

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He’d make it clear early in a relationship that he just wanted to have a good time, and when a woman tried to break through his armor and get closer, he’d retreat.

Just thinking about marriage made him feel like a man in a suit two sizes too small--probably, he speculates, because the view of matrimony that he got from his parents was so grim.

“I saw an overly dependent relationship. I perceived that they really wished they were doing something else and that they felt trapped,” he says.

In spite of his recent failed marriage, Paul says he is more open to the idea of matrimony now because “I have a better understanding of who I am and the kind of person I want to be with.”

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As his self-image has improved, he has stopped pursuing the “cheerleader types” he dreamed of in his youth--and only recently outgrew--and started looking for women who are “mature, honest, fun and accepting.”

He’s discovered there not only are women like that out there, but they’re interested in getting to know the real Paul--not the slick guy who easily talked his way into bed and out of corners.

He used to start a relationship thinking, “Let’s be lovers while we see if we can be friends.” But he’s learned that it should be the other way around--especially if he wants to find a woman so right for him that he wouldn’t let her get away.

He says he’s taking the time to build friendships with women now, finding out what real intimacy is all about. And if something deeper grows out of this closeness, he’s ready.

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She said

Christine, a 40-year-old Fullerton entrepreneur, has a knack for finding men who are wrong for her, but she’s wising up to the fact that she feels safer with someone she wouldn’t dream of marrying. Or even living with.

She often puts on a protective “I can take care of myself” air--head high, shoulders back, every hair in place, clothes stylish but severe, eyes cool and direct--that she knows many men find intimidating.

But, until nine years of single life caught up with her and she started yearning for something more, she didn’t mind driving men away. In fact, she made a habit of it.

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Christine married the wrong man at 19 and divorced him about 13 years later. She’s dated a lot since the divorce and has had three long, exclusive relationships. But she hasn’t lived with any of her lovers or considered marrying. And she’s always been the one to call it quits.

She has looked for men who would let her take charge, probably because she wanted to get as far away as possible from the domineering style of her ex-husband and father.

“I always run the show,” she says.

But deep down, she wants someone who won’t let her do that, someone with whom she can let down her guard and take turns taking charge.

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After some therapy and a lot of soul-searching, Christine now understands that she needs to be able to let go of her “untouchable, iron woman” persona and show her softer, more vulnerable side if she is to attract the kind of man she’d want to marry.

One man she met admitted he was afraid to kiss her good night on their first date because her body language was so intimidating. She wanted to be kissed--more than once--but was afraid to let him know.

“Inside,” she explains, “I’m so frightened of being too vulnerable, too needy. So I make myself more powerful. It’s sad because I really want nurturing and kindness.”

Until recently, Christine hasn’t felt ready to meet the man of her dreams. She describes him as tall and physically fit, smart, emotionally and financially secure, warm and compassionate. And she hasn’t found him, she believes, because she has felt unworthy of him.

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“I’m afraid he would figure out that I’m so much less than him and he wouldn’t want to be with me,” she says.

After three dates with one man who seemed too good to be true, she found a subtle way to torpedo the relationship: “I got little-girlish with him. I knew what attracted him was my maturity, so it was a perfect way to have him disappear into the woodwork--and he did.”

She wants to remarry but is afraid she won’t be able to hang on to a husband.

“I don’t know if I’m capable of keeping someone interested for a long time,” she says.

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She’s also terrified of the arguments that she knows must be a part of any long-term relationship. Her parents yelled and hit each other, and her fights with her ex-husband were also violent. She’s never experienced the kind of conflict that clears the air and brings a couple closer together.

But she’s now ready to try, she says. She feels good enough about herself that when a man tells her she’s beautiful, she no longer flinches or quips, “Yeah, right, but you should see me in the morning.”

Now, she listens. And most of the time, she believes it.

She’s dating two men who seem to belong on her “A” list. And she hopes one of these new relationships will turn out to be exclusive, stable and lasting.

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She used to be convinced that stability was boring, but that was just another way of pushing away the best men, she admits.

“I don’t need a thrill a minute anymore,” she says.

She’s not only ready for a long-term commitment, she’s also optimistic.

“I think I will be married before my next birthday, and I’m not even sure the man is in my life now.”

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