The Lights On theory: are commitment phobes really like taxis?
Are commitment phobes really like taxis - when they're ready to pick someone up, their light goes on?
This week, millions the world over were shocked and appalled at the news that George Clooney had done the most surprising of things. No, he didn't get a facelift. He has apparently become engaged. Commitment-phobic men and women the world over collectively gulped.
Their poster boy, the one who wasn't interested in marrying the parade of beautiful women that hung off his arm over the years (allegedly scarred by a disastrous first marriage) is throwing in the towel on singledom and getting hitched, according first to celebrity Bible People magazine. Then when Clooney's prospective wife Amal Alamuddin's employer issued a statement congratulating the glamorous lawyer (who is sporting an impressive rock on her engagement finger), it seemed the news was not a cruel prank on women everywhere.
Cynics claim that perhaps Tina Fey and Amy Poehler's dig at Clooney at the Golden Globes - "And now Gravity... the story of how George Clooney would rather float off into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age" - may have harmed Gorgeous George's reputation, hence the furious coupling. Add to that the fact that Simon Cowell, another famous commitment avoider is now a father, and it begs the question – is settling down the new staying single for former eternal bachelors?
For so long, the 'C word' terrified those fond of their freedom. It may be sexist or unkind to say so, but in popular culture, this concept usually applied more to the male of the species. Why was commitment seen as such a big, scary concept for so many guys who, into their 30s and beyond, seemed to find the prospect of settling down less a lifestyle choice than an existential horror for the ages?
Or at least that's how it seemed to be until – ding! – it's like a switch flicks and suddenly they are capital 'R' ready: to meet someone special (alright special-ish), relocate to the burbs, push a Bugaboo to the shops. We're going to call it the 'light on theory', as propounded by Sex and the City character Miranda (yes, the shrill, overachieving one) – that when it comes to relationships, men can be like taxi cabs. When they're not ready to commit, their 'light' remains off, but when they're metaphorically more open to taking someone on board, boom, on goes the light. Hideously generalist, perhaps – but is there a scrap of truth in this?
To properly address this phenomenon it is necessary to acknowledge diverging perspectives between the genders: the principle difference being that, as women grow older, they are often (though, of course, not always) eager to strip the clutter from their lives and commit entirely to another person. For some women there are very practical reasons for this: having a baby in your early 30s is a HECK of a lot more straightforward than attempting it as your 40th birthday looms. But women – not to be sexist or crassly generalise or anything – also seem to understand that, relationship-wise, the grass is assuredly not always greener. If you're in a good place romance-wise, maybe that's where you want to stay. Why gaze over the hedgerow when you've got everything you want in front of you?
Lacking an internal hormonal time-piece, for the unmarried dude the world may look very different. Even if they're not, ahem, 'playing the field' – what Irish person even says that? – perhaps we see an endless horizon and do not understand why one should wish to see it narrow before its time. Also, they may feel that just because they're in a good place it isn't to say that a better place doesn't exist somewhere else. Better to realise that now, the voice in their head may say, than when they are 45 and encumbered with kids.
How is it, then, that men who (consciously or not) subscribe to this theory can suddenly veer to the complete opposite viewpoint? We've all seen cases of guys who, proudly uncommitted for years, seem to all of a sudden decide they wish to settle down. And then, boom, like that they have a regular girlfriend. More often than not, 18 months later, they are engaged and the rest of their life has begun – much to the chagrin of their previous partners who believed that they just weren't the marrying kind.
In part it's simply a question of age. In his book Why Men Marry Some Women And Not Others, writer John T Molloy, estimates that 90pc of men aged 26 to 33 are at least open to the possibility of marriage. There's a caveat, however – this state of mind is finite and, within four to five years, they are in danger of passing into confirmed bachelorhood.
"The chances men will commit are slightly less when they are 31 or 32 than when they were between 28 and 30, but they're still in a high-commitment phase," he writes. "Once men reach 33 or 34, the chances they'll commit start to diminish, but only slightly. Until men reach 37, they remain very good prospects."
Molloy is writing for an American audience and it is not beyond the bounds that Irish people are wired differently. Still, the general tenor of his argument rings true, for women, as well as men. We reach a certain age – let's just be lazy and say 40 – and all of a sudden the compromises, the emotional nipping and tucking that are part of a committed relationship, start to feel more trouble than they are worth. We don't want to snuggle up to Game of Thrones, we have no use for 'brunch', we are not inclined to put our trousers on just because 'friends' are coming over.
Or, as Molloy, states: "After age 38, the chances they will ever marry drop dramatically. The chances that a man will marry for the first time diminish even more once he reaches 42 or 43. At this point, many men become confirmed bachelors."
Relationship experts differ on the 'lights on' theory – for some, love is love and people settle when they are ready. Others tend to agree that there are phases in life – for men especially – when the relationship green light is set to 'go' and commitment starts to look less terrifying.
"This I feel is a generalisation," counters counsellor and psychosexual therapist Eithne Bacuzzi.
"And not really my experience of males. As with females [romance] can happen at any age. If the connection and the chemistry works, males seem to be as interested in commitment as females. The difficulty seems to be around finding that one other person where the ingredients to form a lifelong relationship exist.
"Some men will remain single and eternal bachelors forever," says matchmaker Avril Mulcahy. "They think they want a relationship and they may even come to a professional matchmaker like myself. However, their priorities are all wrong. They still look at their career, money, cars, and yes, ego, as the most important things in their life.
"They will never settle. They keep saying that they can't meet the right girl. This is not the case. They have met amazing, attractive, intelligent and soulful women. However, they just won't give any girl a chance. No girl will ever live up to their egos. I can spot these men a mile away and I've no business in working with them. What these men say and do are two completely different things."
The good news is that not everyone with a Y chromosome is a career-obsessed cad.
"Other men come to a certain time in their life that their priorities change," says Mulcahy. "This time may come from a period of grief. They may have lost someone close. Or they may just have a light bulb moment of what they really want from life. These guys are ready for a relationship and ready for commitment."
Relationships are a lot about timing, she believes.
"The old saying 'you can bring a horse to water, but you can't make him drink' sings truth. It must be the right time. Men come to me to use my matchmaking service because it is the right moment for them and they don't want to waste any more time or energy searching.
"In my opinion, that is the number one advantage of matchmaking; bringing two people together who are at the right time for a relationship. That is gold."
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday’s Irish Independent
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent