Afraid to Commit? Are You Commitment Phobic?
Sarah was dating Fred for about 2 years. They were both in their mid-30s and were developing careers. Both partners felt pretty comfortable in the relationship.
The comfort level changed however when Sarah had “the conversation” with Fred.
Sarah had felt that it was time for the relationship to get to another level. Fred, afraid to commit, had always been skilled at diverting the conversation in a different direction but this time he was stymied. Sarah had dug in and wanted a commitment!
A Common Plot…Avoidance
This scenario is quite common. In fact you may know of relationships that have been ongoing for more than just 2 years, perhaps as many as 10 years where the fear of commitment causes a partner to sidestep, avoid or stonewall the issue of committing to their significant other in a formal way.
It is often argued by the avoidant or anxious partner that from their point of view there is already an obvious commitment evidenced by the number of years the couple has been together.
That argument or tactic is just another form of sidestepping the fundamental question: “Are you willing to formally commit to me for the long term or are you really commitment phobic?”
Commitment can be defined by the couple any way they choose. It can mean making a statement to friends and family of the couple’s intentions, living together, engagement or marriage or even having a child together. Any of these clearly indicates a step up in commitment.
The Fear of Commitment
Typically, commitment issues occur or become more apparent when a relationship has reached a certain comfort level and one of the partners wants to raise the bar to get to another stage.
It is one thing to have reasonable doubts or be concerned about legitimate differences between the two partners as these issues can be discussed and potentially resolved.
It is quite another to be getting along for quite some time, developing a strong connection and a real fondness for each other and, as the first sign of a serious conversation appears, withdraw, dodge or avoid the issue altogether. That behavior signals a fear of commitment.
What Are the Causes?
What causes commitment phobia? There may be any number of reasons why someone is fearful of making a formal commitment. Here are just some of them.
Fear of failing: You might think everybody is afraid of this possibility when it comes to long-term commitment. That may be true for many but it is especially true for those who have come from and had powerful personal experience with dysfunctional, conflicted families and broken marriages.
Depending on the individual’s personal experience (for example: being the child of a very angry couple who have argued badly for years before breaking up) there can be very unpleasant memories associated with marriage/commitment.
The notion that things can start out well but end badly stays etched in a person’s mind and drives their fear.
Fear of fighting: Someone coming from a family where disagreements resulted in saying ugly things to each other or even becoming physically abusive might consider all relationships potentially explosive.
If a person has never witnessed a marriage or been in a family where conflict got resolved and differences of opinion were actually respected, he may not believe things could be different.
The more dramatic or even traumatic the earlier experience the more vulnerable he will probably feel as he gets closer to being asked to commit.
Feeling unworthy: Having a low opinion of oneself, low self-esteem, can ultimately cause a fear of commitment. One partner can go along for a while hiding their innermost feelings from the other. Sometimes they may feel like a fraud but keep that feeling concealed.
As the conversation of taking the relationship to the next level gets brought up, the fear of exposure, of allowing the other partner to actually know you and how badly you feel about yourself can be terrifying. That fear drives the behavior of avoiding the conversation at all costs.
Fear of missing out: This is the fantasy that something better is out there waiting for you and if you commit long term you will miss the opportunity. This notion is often held by those who don’t fully understand or appreciate the value in what they have and tend to take it for granted.
Fear of repeating the same mistake: If a person has experienced a bad relationship or one that has caused him pain he may become worried he will make the same mistake again. The closer the current relationship gets to becoming more serious and long term the more fearful it becomes for him.
This is a common concern and one that requires an insightful evaluation of the previous relationships so that sound judgment can be applied to the current one.
Trust: One fundamental ingredient in any successful love relationship is the ability for each partner to trust the other. Trust in all things comes down to believing that your partner will do what they say they will do. You feel that they “have your back”, will support you and you can rely on them.
If a partner has been lied to or cheated on in previous relationships or has been made to feel like a fool, she will likely be concerned that it could happen again.
There is a difference between being somewhat cautious about trusting easily again and being so fully guarded that trust is never given. The commitment phobe uses trust as a weapon and wedge to keep from taking the next step.
Ideas about sex: It is a commonly held idea that sex suffers once a couple gets married. Many lovers are concerned about this issue and rightfully so.
However, the commitment phobe will be likely to focus on this issue so as to rationalize his position. He will use it as a way of explaining how good things are sexually at the current time and pointing to the urban myth that sex is terrible in all marriages.
The truth is that the longer partners know each other the more likely they will fall into patterns of behavior that will seem routine and this includes their sexual behavior as well.
However, it is always up to the couple to make the effort to keep things interesting sexually so that this aspect of the relationship stays exciting.
Many couples struggle with a fear of commitment. The models for creating a strong, long term loving relationship are not always present in our personal lives.
There is risk in making a long term commitment but there is also reward. They have to be weighed wisely, one against the other.
About the Author
Dr. Stan Hyman is a licensed psychotherapist and life coach in private practice in Miami, Florida. He works with individuals and couples struggling with fear of commitment as well as other powerful issues.