Dear Maggie,

I’m 30 and for the past three-and-a-half years have been going out with a man who has come to be the love of my life. Although we fancy each other we have chosen not to go too far physically. The problem is that although he says he loves me, whenever we talk about the future and the possibility of getting married he gets cold feet. He says that he is worried about making such a final and big commitment. His older brother got married but then divorced three years later and I think this has really shaken him. Last week when I tried to raise it with him he bit my head off and said I was trying to nag him into proposing. Do I keep quiet and wait and hope, or am I wasting my time waiting for a man to commit who never will? I am starting to think maybe the relationship has stalled because the physical side has been squashed. Please help.

I very much doubt that your relationship has ‘stalled’ due to saving yourselves sexually for marriage. In my experience, commitment anxiety goes much deeper and interestingly is much more common among men than women, for which we have to ponder ‘why?’ It does challenge our confidence when we see marriages collapsing around us, though it is easy to focus on these and miss the impact of the faithful grandparents we see quietly holding hands in church and hobbling to their cars together at the end of the service, their love honed through decades of life experiences.

Although there are women who fit this bill too, what is it about the male psyche that is particularly vulnerable to commitment anxiety? While many men do not struggle with these problems, I wonder if some men are more conditioned around the need to succeed and so they need more help in coming to terms with the fear of failure, and note, it is the fear of failure more than the experience of failure. There may also be something about men learning how to feel safe and powerful whilst also being open and vulnerable. Taking that step of trust without knowing the future can feel too scary to risk. He may benefit from focusing on how he can feel confident that your relationship will last the ages due to principles that are in place now and that you will both commit to continually nurturing every week of your marriage: which is what the marriage vows are all about.

However, I’m aware that any guesswork psychology on my part is not of much practical use to you since you cannot implement it without robbing him of the initiative to propose! This is where community needs to step into action. We get so isolated in relationships in our privatised society; it would be much more effective for others to step in and challenge him and help him find ways through, rather than you trying to play every role. If I were you, I would tip off a friend or your pastor and ask them to help him face his fears and come to a conclusion.

In the meantime, coHTMLntinue to love him through his fears and take time to communicate together about your relationship, what you are committed to together and what your shared values are. He needs substance to build his confidence on so that he could be secure in entering into a lifelong commitment. Of course, there would eventually come a time when you would need to decide what your limits are as to how long you can wait for him and give him a deadline. However, I don’t think this is what either of you need right now.

First, try this period of others challenging and helping him through his fears, with you building positively. In regards to your physical intimacy, don’t be deceived that if you give yourself away sexually this will hook him into marriage because I don’t think it will. It may be that for him holding back sexually is a parallel with holding back on his commitment, but he needs to make his peace with the underlying issues and then marriage will be the context for you both to give full sexual abandonment as an expression of your committing to full life enmeshing. Decide what your limits are physically, then enjoy closeness up to and within those limits as a taster of the gifts that are to come.