I’m a sucker for romance novels. The first one I read was Wild Paradise, written by Patricia Coughlin and published in 1987. My mom had it sitting on an upper shelf in her closet, and I just happened to come across it one day when I was snooping around. Like nearly all romance novels, the cover pictured a beautiful couple in a passionate embrace and just about to kiss. The colors drew me in, too. Overall, the whole thing was just swoony.
So I did what most kids probably do when they find something they’re not supposed to–I snuck it back to my room and played with it. In this case, I started reading.
And oh boy, did I get an eyeful. Especially for someone around ten or eleven-years-old. Yep, I started young.
For a while, I’d read for a little bit, then sneak it back into my mom’s closet so I wouldn’t get caught. This went on for weeks, maybe even months. I could only read a chapter or two at a time.
Then one day I was laying in bed reading, and my mom unexpectedly came into my room. I tried to hide the book, but it was no use. She saw it. Her response?
“Oh, you can go ahead and keep that. Your grandma gave it to me, and I don’t read those kinds of books. There are more in my closet if you want them.”
And so began my obsession with the romance genre.
But what does this have to do with commitment phobia? For me, romance novels offer me something that I’m incapable of attaining in my personal life: romantic emotional fulfillment.
Let me clarify with some of my background. Strap in, this may take a while…
When I was almost nine, my family moved from a small town in NE Wisconsin to another small town in what’s deemed the Fox Valley. Moving is always hard on kids. I went from having lots of friends to having absolutely none. It was worse because we moved right before the end of the school year, so I still had a couple months of third grade to live through at a new school.
When you hear a kid yell, “I hope it’s a boy,” right before your intro to your new class, it tends to stick the Unwelcome label on your back from the start. Not really the best first-day experience. But I did what I had to and pushed through. And overall, it wasn’t the worst experience.
The thing about small towns is they’re often cliquey. And as we all know, kids can be brutal. I wasn’t bullied, and for the most part, I got along with my classmates.
The problem? I was ultimately invisible.
It was a truth I came to realize more and more as the years went by. Sure, there were kids I spent lunch with and went to school dances with. But outside of school? I didn’t have friends. I didn’t get invited over to anyone’s house, and no one showed interest in hanging out or getting to know me at all. It was a very lonely experience for me. And when anxiety, panic, and depression started to manifest around twelve-years-old, it was the start of the worst phase of my life.
My teen years were rough. I hold no fondness for them and all the money in the world would not convince me to relive them. With my emotional issues, the odds were stacked against me. So I did what I had to to survive my lonely existence: I learned to enjoy my own company.
I read. I wrote. I watched movies and TV shows. And back at that time, Yahoo chats were a big thing. I found people to talk to online, to engage with. I’m sure there were plenty of other hobbies I took up to entertain myself with when I wasn’t at school, or work once I turned fifteen. For the most part, I was treading water, waiting for the day when things would change for the better in some way–in any way.
And over time they did. I graduated from high school and went to college. I started working at new jobs and even made a few friends. It was a pretty emotional experience when people started asking me to hang out outside of work or class. I hadn’t had that before, and at times it was overwhelming.
Then came dating.
I dated a couple of times once I started college, but nothing really stuck. One of us would lose interest, and when it was the guy, I had no idea why.
Had I done or said something wrong? Were they expecting something different than my personality? Or had they just gotten bored?
It wasn’t until I had my first serious boyfriend (at 23) that I got my first taste of commitment phobia. We worked together and had been flirting off and on for a bit of time. Once we finally dove in and started dating, we tried to keep it quiet at work. Of course that didn’t last, as we were both friends with several of our coworkers, so the cat was out of the bag in no time. It didn’t really matter, though. Our friends approved, and for a while, everything went well.
On the night before my 24th birthday, I had a pretty bad anxiety attack. Everyone’s anxiety is different. For me, I may have several strong attacks within a couple of hours, then remain in an anxious state for a few weeks after that. If the anxiety doesn’t abate, a depressive episode sets in, and with that is a whole lot of bad stuff. I’ve had a few of these general episodes over the years, and I have a better grasp now of how they operate and how I need to combat them. But back then, it was only the second time I had one of that scale.
It was scary. And the only person I wanted to be around was my mom because she knew what I was going through. And as you can imagine, my then-boyfriend was totally confused and hurt by my sudden avoidance of him. Not that I blamed him; I’d have felt the same way.
But he pushed and prodded. He wanted me to talk to him when I wasn’t capable of doing so. I didn’t know how to explain things to myself, let alone him. And as time went by, he grew more frustrated and pushed even harder for me to confide in him. He didn’t want to be patient with me, to let me figure out what I needed to do to deal with what I was going through. Claustrophobia set in, and one night I’d just had enough.
A switch flipped. I was turned off to him. And the anxiety I’d been feeling? It redirected itself to him. I didn’t want to see him. I didn’t want to talk to him. I didn’t want him contacting me ever again. As you can imagine, it ended pretty quickly after that. Work wasn’t a whole lot of fun after that, either.
A few years later I started dating another coworker at a different job–I know, bad idea to begin with. We had a lot of fun and got along really well. But unfortunately, another anxiety/depression episode came along while we were together, this one landing me in the hospital for a couple of weeks.
He was amazing. He came to see me while I was there and was a great support. Eventually I got better and left the hospital, and for a while things between us seemed like they were back to normal. But soon something felt off. I can’t say what it was after all these years, but I felt myself pulling away from him, even when I didn’t want to. It wasn’t long before things ended.
A couple of years later we got in touch again and decided to give things a second shot. We already knew each other, so we weren’t starting completely from scratch. And again, things were great between us. We even talked about moving out to the Pacific Northwest together, since I’ve always wanted to live there. Having someone to make the move with would be a lot less intimidating, too.
But the more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I became with the idea of making the move with him. And not just the move, but actually living with him. For lack of a better word, the thought of living together started to make me feel twitchy. Granted, I’ve never been good about sharing a living space with another person. Not family, not friends. Hell, there are times I wish I didn’t have to share my space with my pets.
You see, it all stems back to my teen years when I was forced to adapt to my lonely, solitary lifestyle. I’d become so accustomed to having my own time and my own space that anyone entering either felt like an intrusion–invasive. To this day, it’s difficult for me to share much of my time or personal space with anyone unless I’m at work. And the idea of living with someone, even a roommate or friend that can come and go as they please and demand my attention, no matter how small, is utterly overwhelming.
As you can imagine, all of this makes it extremely difficult for me to date in any serious capacity. Demands on my time, my thoughts, and my emotions can make me feel claustrophobic to the point where my anxiety is triggered. And as you’ve already read, things don’t end well when that happens.
So what is the point of this post? There really isn’t one. I was contemplating my nonexistent personal life and the reasons for it, and I felt compelled to share. If you somehow managed to make it through the entire thing and are still awake, I applaud your conviction.
In closing, I guess I’ll just say that commitment-phobes don’t necessarily shun romance and love. Some, like me, truly crave it. But the sad truth is some just aren’t emotionally capable of committing to another person, no matter how much they’d like to. Therapy is undoubtedly helpful in cases such as mine, and honestly, it’s a route I’d be willing to try if the day ever comes when I meet someone I feel deserves the effort.
But until that day comes, I’ll stick with the magic of romance novels.