Are you a commitment-phobe?

For years, Shannon Kyle thought all the single men out there were commitment-phobes, until she realised the problem wasn’t them, but her…


Are you a commitment-phobe?

Not for the first time, I was at my best friend’s house crying over a failed affair. At 35, I’d spent 10 years dating, looking for someone decent I could settle down with, but yet another relationship had hit the dust, this time after three months. As I bemoaned yet again the lack of men with the guts to commit, she told me bluntly: ‘It’s not a boyfriend you need, it’s therapy’. And this time I listened.

My life hadn’t always been this way. Everything changed when I was 25 and my boyfriend of six years said: ‘I don’t love you enough’, just after I’d had our baby girl. Life was turned upside down. From being settled with a man I’d been with since age 19, I found myself in a council flat as a single mum. Life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.

Spinning between grief, sadness, anger and loneliness, with my father, and my ex’s parents’ support, I found my feet on Bambi legs. A year later, I found a full-time job and bought my own flat before approaching finding love again. At first, I dated friends of friends, but the pool of single men was growing ever smaller. So I tried speed dating, but decided it wasn’t for me.

Then, feeling brave one evening, I wrote up an internet dating profile. My requirements were a man over six foot, with dark hair, who wanted a long-term relationship and kids. How hard could it be? And so began the merry-go-round; reading profiles, sending emails, texts, drinks, the odd snog and then silence. Either the men weren’t keen or, more likely, I wasn’t. This wasn’t as easy as I’d expected.

Girlfriends and I dissected my lack of luck. It was because men judged me for having a child. It was because my independence scared them away. Well-meaning friends reassured me ‘weak’ men are never attracted to ‘strong’ women. Honest friends suggested I was too picky.

The biggest shift

Months of dating turned into years. Despair kicked in. I veered from asking: ‘What’s wrong with me?’ to ‘What’s wrong with them?’ But any upset over my disastrous love life paled into insignificance when my beloved father fell seriously ill. Just two weeks later, I held his hand while watching his heart stop on the life-support machine.

The very ground I walked on felt irreparably shifted when I left my dad dead in that hospital bed. He’d always been my greatest cheerleader and my port in a storm. Life without him was unthinkable. I went home in a state of shock. I lost weight and months passed in an empty numbness. Feeling more alone than ever, I threw myself back into life as a working single mother – and back into the dating pond.

Friends with benefits

It was then that Harry* who I met on came into my life. The attraction between us was instant. By the end of our first date, he’d told me his life story. As we parted, he was guarded as he promised to text. Later, he told me he didn’t want a relationship, but wanted to see me again.

And so began a hideous 18 months. After each date, Harry ignored me for days before apologising. Then I would ignore him back, but he refused to leave me alone. We tried being just friends, then friends with benefits and then finally an item. That lasted about a week until he emailed me on Christmas morning to say he never wanted to see me again. By New Year, he was begging for another chance.

In a bid to forget about Harry, I returned to online dating with renewed determination. And I met nice guys – kind, caring, with no hang-ups, and happy in their own skins. Some I dated for a month or so, then I’d ditch them for being too dull. I wasn’t being too picky, I just refused to settle. And so it went on – until a three-month fling fell apart, and my friend made her fateful statement.

Opening up to a therapist, especially when she suggested I stop dating completely, made me panic. After all, I still had hopes for another baby. But after more than 10 years of fruitless dating, I didn’t trust my instincts any more. Instead, I unravelled where my emotional pain lay and how it affected my decisions.

‘Emotional unavailability’ was explained to me. People who have had to cope with big traumas in their lives become emotionally unavailable as a coping mechanism. I’d always thought I was just attracted to emotionally cold men. But the reality was, I was attracted to them because I was emotionally unavailable myself.

Fear of rejection played a huge role, too. If you’re in love with a man who is emotionally unavailable, he can’t reject you, as you’ve never had him to start with. At first, I railed against this. ‘There’s nothing I’d like more than a decent boyfriend,’ I insisted to my therapist. But, quite rightly, she asked why would I tolerate a man like Harry for so long if this were the case.

The penny dropped. Each time an emotionally healthy man showed genuine interest, I ran. There’s no quick fix to breaking the pattern, but understanding it is a start. I spent an hour a week for a year talking through my grief. For the first time in years I gave space to ‘feel’ my feelings. I realised that after my daughter’s father left me, I’d built an impenetrable shell. Then, losing my dad devastated me in ways impossible to articulate.

My fierce independence became my armour. It defended me from heartbreak but stopped genuine intimacy in its tracks. Behind the ‘strong woman’ the outside world saw was one secretly crippled with loneliness, heartbreak and bitterness.

After months of therapy, a chink of light broke through. Life started to feel fun again. Going out no longer meant pointless dates, but hanging out with friends. I learned to practise transcendental meditation and made it part of my morning routine. A year later, tentatively, I tried online dating again. The first man I met was very keen, but after he spent an evening bitching about his ex-girlfriend, I recognised his emotional unavailability and politely declined date two.

I had another dating break. I took my daughter on holiday, and focused on my job. I began to genuinely think if I never met Mr Right, perhaps that would be OK, too.

A good man

Just before I removed my dating profile, a man with a terrible profile picture ‘liked’ me. I deleted him, but he sent me a funny message. Old habits die hard and on spotting he was over six foot tall, I reluctantly agreed to a swift half in my local. Our quick drink turned into an eight-hour date. By the end, I knew I wanted to see this funny, charming, gorgeous man again. More wonderful dates followed in quick succession and suddenly, it felt easy.

Weeks later, when the ‘L-word’ was mentioned, a familiar sensation of suffocation caught me unawares. I feared rejection and making myself vulnerable again. But instead of running, I stayed put and got honest with him. Only by learning to trust our intimacy did my shell crack and finally crumble. Now falling in love didn’t need to be overwhelming and frightening.

Fast-forward 18 months and we’d bought a house together. We wasted no time in trying for a family. Within weeks of moving in, I found myself crying with happiness as I held a positive pregnancy test in my hand.

For years, the chances of meeting a good man, and having a baby, felt like sand running through my fingers. But I’d made it. It took 13 years of being single, around 200 dates, and hours of therapy to find what I was really looking for. As difficult as this journey has been, I can be grateful, too, because I know what I have now will never be taken for granted.

* Name has been changed

Photograph: Corbis