New Waverers

Women who can't make a Commitment in Amy Sohn's Naked City
Photo: Zohar Lazar

Stereotypes of male commitmentphobia abound in every sphere of popular culture, from Hugh Grant movies to reality shows like The Bachelor, but in this city, at least, more and more women are doing the breaking up. Whether they do it early on in the relationship or right before the wedding, it’s often for the same reason: a nagging suspicion that somehow, somewhere, there’s a better guy out there. Feeling confused and at bay, New York men say they don’t know how to read women’s intentions anymore. Do women date because they want to get married or because they want to have fun? Does sex on the first date mean the girl likes you—or doesn’t like you? Are financially self-sufficient women even interested in marriage these days? Sex and the City may be in syndication, but the role reversal shows no signs of letting up.

Tony, 27, is a smart, personable, cute Web designer who’s had his share of long-term relationships. He broke up with his girlfriend two years ago after realizing he didn’t want to wake up next to her every morning for the rest of his life. Since then, he’s been doing a lot of Internet dating but feeling frustrated. “The last three women I dated sent me very mixed messages,” he complains. “It wasn’t clear where things were going, and there wasn’t a clear dialogue about what they were looking for. I got the sense that they were playing the field but weren’t necessarily looking to find boyfriends. Women are much more picky and more selective about settling down than they used to be.”

One woman he dated recently, who happened to be Jewish, kept him at arm’s length until he began to feel unsure of himself. Still, they had good sexual chemistry and in the midst of one makeout session, Tony joked, “Am I your goy toy?” She said, “What if you really are?” He got upset and asked her what she meant. She told him she was dating someone else. “I told her, ‘I can’t really date you and know that you’re with some other guy.’ She said he wasn’t that important to her. I said, ‘If he’s not that important, why did I have to know about it?’ She wanted to tell me this, but she wanted to keep seeing me.” His tone is part disgust, part bewilderment—it’s as though the idea of a woman’s wanting to date two guys at once were more bizarre than off-putting. It’s not that he thinks women should be prudes; it’s that he wants a relationship and wants a woman who does, too.

He understands that these women would shack up with a guy instantly if they truly felt there was a future—but he says they’re not willing to let relationships grow over time: “They want that click right away. They want to fall head over heels.” If they don’t, they write the guy off. “They don’t give guys the benefit of the doubt,” he complains. “Especially in New York, there’s always this feeling that someone spectacular is just around the corner.”

To make matters worse, if a guy like Tony isn’t overaggressive, women are quick to reject him. As a female friend of mine expressed it, “Men in this city have taken this metrosexual thing way too far. They want to have a discussion about everything. They wait to have sex with you. They don’t understand that if we’re sleeping with them on the first date, we don’t expect the post-sex phone call. We’re doing it because it’s 4 A.M., we’re drunk, and we want to have sex. They shouldn’t complain. They just won the lottery!”

“Women are too romantic about romance; men have a better understanding of commitment.”

It may be only natural that urban professional women are becoming more commitmentphobic when for many of them, marriage doesn’t look so appealing. They have potentially more to sacrifice in the career department than men do, so there’s more to fear. John, 32, realized this when he and his longtime girlfriend broke up. “I’d been with her five years,” he recalls. “I’m Catholic and she’s Jewish, but religion wasn’t an issue and we had decided to get married. We went for couples therapy to talk about what marriage would mean, and after a few weeks the therapist said, ‘Why are you guys even here? You’re obviously so in love, and I’m not sure what I can do for you.’ ”

But at the end of the summer, his fiancée started taking a Hebrew class. One night, she went out for drinks with a guy in the class. Afterward, she told John about the drinks date, and voiced reservations about the relationship. Eventually, they broke up. “All of a sudden, she was afraid to get married,” John says. “It was fear that it wouldn’t work or that we would wind up divorcing after we had kids. I understood how she could meet someone and be attracted to him, but I didn’t think it should mean the end of our relationship.”

He says that the difference between women and men these days is that women are too romantic about romance, while men have a more realistic understanding of what commitment means: “Women, not men, are intimidated by the monotony of monogamous life. They have unrealistic expectations, not of the guy but of the relationship.”

He calls these picky women “Gloria Steinem’s casualties. They’re second- or third-generation feminists who bought the ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’ thing through their twenties. Then as they get into their late twenties, they’re looking around for a bicycle. But they want a really good bicycle. Women think they’re going to find an icon of male perfection, a Sting, and they can be Trudie Styler and they’ll have Tantric sex for twenty hours every day. Guys don’t have those expectations. Guys just want a pretty girl who’s nice to them.”

Women, John says, see marriage as the death of excitement. Men do too, but contrary to pop-cultural stereotypes, they don’t mind: “When we look at our fathers, we know what’s in store. It’s I’m going to work ten hours a day, come home, and it will be this not-idyllic thing when we’re together, but I can deal with it. Women, on the other hand, especially professional metropolitan women, have been inculcated with the idea that that reality was wrong. When they’re confronted with the possibility of stepping into it, they run the other way.”

New Waverers