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Fear of the B-Word

Fear of the B-Word
Time Out New York
July 3-8, 2008
By Julia Allison

I’ve had boyfriends my entire life, a parade of them since I was 14 – there was Peter, then Greg, then Dan, then Jeff and Mike and James and John and Alex – to name a few. Yeah, I’m a bit of a serial monogamist.

But for the past two years, ever since I broke up with Alex, I’ve been terrified of the term “boyfriend.” In fact, although I’ve dated at least four men during that time who could technically have fit any standard definition of being my “boyfriend” – I only ended up saying the b-word to one of them. (That was only after a solid three months of dancing around the word – and then!! – substituting “[redacted]” for “boyfriend” for another six weeks.) Huh??

This weekend, someone referred to the guy I’ve been seeing since March as my “boyfriend.” As I defensively rushed to correct the fallacy (“He is NOT my boyfriend!!”) deja vu set in, and I started thinking, “Why do I keep doing this? I’m not even dating anyone else! What’s really going on here?”

And then it occurred to me: I may officially be a late blooming female commitment-phobe.

Maybe it’s just a stage. After all, commitment-phobia is made, not born (I think). And my initial phobia was the totally reasonable result of partnership exhaustion from a much-too-long-without-any-breaks string of being “NAME-OF-GUY’S Girlfriend.”

The impetus for my most recent spate is slightly more concerning, and it seems to be threefold: 1) fear of being tied down (see the aforementioned “partnership exhaustion”), 2) fear of losing myself in a relationship and 3) a rather sad mess of scar tissue on my heart from the one guy that I would commit to in the past two years. I’m not proud of it, but it’s there. And I can’t seem to stop myself from my knee-jerk “hell if I’m going to let another guy hurt me like that again.”

Of course, this is just my armchair self-psychoanalysis.

One reader, Cheryl, 28, told me that she believed women avoid labels like “boyfriend” because “when something bad happens, they’re embarrassed.  There is a certain sense of shame when your ‘boyfriend’ fucks up or the relationship just falls apart.  If you never call him that, then it’s easier to brush off.”

She’s on to something here (although it’s worrisome to admit that we might make our relationship decisions based upon other people’s judgments), but I would go a step further.  I think subconsciously we tell ourselves “if he’s not our boyfriend he can’t hurt us!!” or “if he’s not our boyfriend we don’t have to break up with him!  And then he can’t hurt us!”

Except that – obviously – neither of these is true.

To be fair, sometimes we aren’t so much afraid of being hurt as we are afraid of missing out on “the one” (romantic!), a BBD – bigger, better deal (jaded!), or simply someone who fits you better (practical!).  “I think we would all gladly be tied down to a person we thought was the creme of the crop,” writes reader Suzie, 26. “Both men and women alike are guilty of holding out for something better.”

Wait a second … “guilty”??  For wanting your match to be as good as possible?

Maybe that’s the problem.  If women felt a little less guilty about being in a sub-par relationship, there would be a lot fewer women complaining about their both their love lives – and their lives in general.

The cynical part of me (which was relatively tiny before my last heartbreak, but has grown substantially since then) has turned “anti-boyfriend” in an almost comical way.  I look back at the last decade and see an extraordinary amount of effort devoted to anticipating and fulfilling the needs of my significant others.

The truth is, having a boyfriend is like having a very demanding part-time job.  It can be rewarding, you may enjoy it, you may learn from it, but it will compromise your ability to live an autonomous existence.  Most women I know have a story about how they “lost” themselves in a guy at one time or another.  Best case scenario, a relationship will direct your personal growth in a particular direction.  Worst case?  It will stunt it!

So maybe commitment phobia invades our lives for a reason.  Maybe it isn’t something to be feared, after all.

As far as I can tell, the surest way to get “you” back is to go boyfriend-less – yes, no official labels! – for a while, as long of a “while” as it takes (then double it, for good measure). No one ever broke up with their boyfriend by saying, “I’m simply too self-actualized to be in a relationship right now!”

Here’s the traditional way of looking at it:  “I’m convinced that the right guy – who sticks around long enough to prove himself to be genuine, sincere, honest, will start turning this phase around,” writes Ellen, 24. “Maybe it’s the romantic in me, but I still think it all depends on the right person.”

But the right person isn’t just about him, it’s also about you.

So when I’m ready (and he’s right), a little label like “boyfriend” probably won’t seem like that big of a deal anyway.

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