Some time ago in this space, I plugged into the murky pool of generalizations to talk about "the commitment problem." Having done a double-blind crossover study of friends, I offered the opinion that men seemed to have more trouble making commitments than women.
I even pondered a reason for the difference. On the whole, women are raised equating maturity with connections. Men are taught that a grown-up is independent.
Women become fearful of isolation while men fear encumbrances. Our fears collide.
Well, as predicted, I received a good deal of mail on the subject, most of it from men. Their responses roughly divided into two categories.
First there were the men who believe that women who talk about commitment are really just looking for a male ticket. The man who escapes them is lucky. As a man from Seattle said, "Few men are willing to surrender their personal freedom for the exploitative, manipulative, hypercritical, argumentative institution of marriage. . . . Contrary to what you say, women still lay their traps and live their deceptive lives in an attempt to get a man to surrender to them. The problem is that men are no longer going along with that program so easily."
Then there were the letters from men insisting that my whole premise was wrong. Women were just as reluctant, or more reluctant, to make commitments than men are. As a writer from San Francisco penned, "Among my circle of friends and acquaintances . . . (women) are as afraid of commitment as men. They also regard relationships as encumbrances that will hold them back, maybe not now but in 10 years when they're promoted and transferred."
The more letters that came in, the more I began to see a pattern in the mail. Most of the letters decrying commitment as a "tender trap" laid by women were from older men. The bulk of the letters about women's fear of interdependence were from younger men.
From deep in his middle age, a Pennsylvania man wrote, "Tell me, why should a man tie himself down to marriage when he can have a relationship? When women opted for sexual liberation and relationships they threw away their trump card, their ace in the hole in the marriage game. . . . "
But a 25-year-old from Missoula, Mont., had a different view: "Unfortunately I see younger women moving toward the traditional man's view that independence is paramount. . . . (I)ntimacy is slowly being replaced by protective devices."
The age-gender difference struck me particularly because I was reading Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, "The Hearts of Men." Ehrenreich takes on one of the chicken-and-egg questions of the last decade: which came first, women's push for independence or the growing reluctance of men to support women? She believes that men rebelled first.
Ehrenreich tracks what she calls the collapse of the breadwinner ethic among men from the late 1940s to the early early '80s. She suggests that the women's movement was formed, partially, in sympathetic response to those men who no longer wanted to bear the brunt of economic responsibility.
I have the feeling that my letter writers fit somewhere in this spectrum of change. The older men echoed a 1950s view of commitment as a financial jailhouse. They sounded like true believers of the Playboy ethic as Ehrenreich states it succinctly: "To stay free a man had to stay single."
The younger men expressed little fear of the economic burdens of marriage. Most were involved with career- oriented women. But the women in their lives were anxious about adding marital obligations. They were less likely to see marriage as a mutually supportive state than as a limitation. Marriage was something else they would have to juggle.
The saga of men and women and commitment seemed to break down this way: the older men were suspicious that they would be stuck with a disproportionate economic burden from commitment; the younger women were suspicious that they would be stuck carrying a heavier personal load.
Now, this is just another theory, you understand. It's based less on psychology than economics. It's the sort of generalization that got me into trouble last time. But there is something intriguing here.
What an irony if the women's movement is alleviating the worries that men had about commitments, while increasing the worries of women. How do we keep a sense of balance on such a seesaw?