NEW YORK — Gulp! It's Valentine's Day - which translates to Ultimatum Day for millions of men who are deeply in love, but still break out in a sweat at the thought of wedding bells.
It's time to put up or shut up. It's ring time or hit the road time. No wonder the mere mention of hearts and flowers and boxes of chocolates sends tremors down the spines of the commitment-phobic.
I know. I was one of those men. It all started out like a fairy tale, when I met the woman who is now my wife on an elevator in midtown Manhattan. We flirted shamelessly for an hour, got back to work exalted and breathless, dated, fell wildly in love, and within weeks were talking about what color eyes our babies would have.
Then I hit The Commitment Wall, known to millions of men. I couldn't get a fix on "forever." I wondered if we'd still love one another when we were shriveled up old raisins. I obsessed over monogamy; I wondered if she was The One and if I might not meet a woman I'd love more within days, weeks, months, or years after tying the knot. For four years, I drove myself (and everyone around me) absolutely nuts with my indecision.
But during that time, no calendar date was so assuredly torturous as Valentine's Day. Each year, my then-girlfriend expected a ring. Each year, I'd stammer through the standard lame excuses: "I'm almost there." "I love you, but...." "I just want some space." She'd plead with me, "What are you looking for, perfection?"
"Don't you realize you're wasting my best years?" Then, she'd deliver an ultimatum, which would only undermine my ability to make a decision.
The day after Valentine's Day was equally bad. She'd get dozens of "Well, did he propose?" calls from girlfriends and relatives. Later that day, I'd get a "don't waste one more nanosecond of my precious daughter's life" call from the woman who is now my mother-in-law. We'd have our post-Valentine's Day breakup, then we'd drift back together days or weeks later.
But all that's a distant memory now that we're married and have kids. Valentine's Day means we give those candy hearts that say "Be Mine" starting at 7:01 a.m. Our kids dash off to school so they can exchange candy hearts and cards with their latest crushes.
Then at dusk, while I'm buying last-minute chocolates or lingerie for my wife, I see men scurrying to buy last-minute chocolates or lingerie for their beloveds. I can see the outright terror in the eyes of the most apparently commitment-phobic guys. They know it's gonna be a long, long night that might end in a fight.
Why was I so frozen by my fears for four years? Was it merely an inability to see that I'd flourish in marriage? Or was it really true that I wasn't ready, at least not as soon as she was? Or was she hiding her own commitment-phobic fears behind mine (which were as outsized as the Green Monster at Fenway Park)? Having finally overcome my commitment fears, I put the blame partly on not truly knowing myself well enough to make such a life-altering decision, but I know my outlook wasn't helped by a popular culture that celebrates the supposedly romantically charged bachelor life and makes long-term marriage sound like a prison term instead of something to embrace. A similar story lies behind many a hesitant man.
Hints for commitment-phobes: Get to know yourself and quit putting her under a microscope. Define how you and the woman you love envision your marriage (most people spend more time planning a five-day vacation). Be honest, discuss your fears, create your own deadline, and consider taking a break.
But don't take too long. It's not fun getting flowers flung in your face.
James Douglas Barron's newest book is 'She Wants a Ring - And I Don't Wanna Change a Thing' (Quill/HarperCollins).
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