People who struggle with commitment want the same thing that everyone else does – love, attachment, and commitment, but do things that prevent them from finding that lasting love they crave. Their fear and anxiety surrounding commitment cause them to feel paralyzed and unable to stay in the relationship, regardless of how much they want to. Instead of working through their issues, they do the very thing that reinforces their fear: they run. Yet, truth be told – they experience love like the rest of us, but find they cannot stay in the relationship. The positive and exciting feelings that most of us experience with love are more scary and intense for these individuals. The intensity of their feelings and how they interpret them (scary) eventually, drive the person to end the relationship.
Although there is no one type of person that has commitment issues, their difficulty around commitment issues is the same regardless of the time – a few or more months or even years. When feelings become too overwhelming or in some situations, the issue of commitment is pushed (for example, taking the relationship to another level – moving in together, engagement), the person starts to look for any reason to leave the relationship. Any. Reason. Their deep-rooted fears and anxieties around commitment rise up and bubble over until they do things that either drive the person away or convince themselves their significant other is ‘not the one.’
Yet, commitment issues are nothing new and we all likely know someone who would meet the criteria for commitment fear. John Grohol at PsychCentral, perfectly sums up a number of reasons that have plagued people who cannot commit:
- Fear of, or having had, the relationship end without notice or signs
- Fear of not being in the “right” relationship
- Fear of, or having been in, an unhealthy relationship (characterized by abandonment, infidelity, abuse, etc.)
- Trust issues due to past hurts by those close to the person
- Childhood trauma or abuse
- Unmet childhood needs or attachment issues
- Complicated family dynamics while growing up
John, 38, has been in a relationship for about two and a half years with his girlfriend, Mandy. He has been in three previous relationships, but as he tells it, they ended for legitimate reasons and not because of his fears (too young, drinking became an issue, changed jobs). However, this is the first time that John can say he is in love or that he loves and cares for Mandy. He wishes he could stay in the relationship because Mandy is ‘a catch.’ John’s parents are divorced and his father had an affair. He is one of five siblings, three of which are divorced or going through a divorce. He doesn’t have a lot of faith in long-term relationships even though he does want to be in one. It is here that John finds himself in a conundrum and wondering is it the girl or is it him?
Like John, there are several areas that a person can begin to explore to overcome commitment issues. For John and I, here are a few main areas:
- Address his internal conflict. We have started to tackle his internal conflict around wanting the intimacy that comes with relationships, but also learning that it’s ok (and healthy) to cultivate and maintain his own identity and need for time alone.
- Examine his black and white thinking. John looks at relationships as being ‘trapped’ vs having ‘freedom’ – but relationships are neither. Relationships are more fluid and it is important for him to recognize the need for greater communication around this. He also feels that relationships should never have conflict and that fighting is a bad thing.
- Address his cognitive distortions. John feels he has to have the perfect relationship, be guaranteed that the love will last and will not change, he shouldn’t want time away, and doesn’t feel he should not want to be with her. These expectations should be adjusted so that he realizes this is unrealistic, and that is ok.
- Tackle his fear of communication. Like most people, John wasn’t taught healthy communication skills and, as such, has a tendency to keep things bottled up until he becomes overwhelmed. Fear of disappointment or believing that he has a right to how he feels (for example, wanting to spend time alone), prevents him from communicating how he feels. As a sidebar, Mandy would often say this and want him to be more communicative. It is important to show John that he can communicate rather than leaving it all in until he blows up.
- Define a healthy relationship. For John, he needs to get in describe what a healthy relationship. When asked he admit to never really thinking about it in those terms or that way meaning what a healthy relationship should look like – only what it shouldn’t look like. It’s easy to get caught up in the negativity of relationships, especially if you are around people who are struggling. For John, this was the case not only in his own family but people he works with. It is hard to escape and still think positively about relationships.
- Work on his feelings around sexual intimacy. In the beginning of the relationship, he felt more comfortable with sexual intimacy. However, as time has progressed, things have changed. John’s frustration around this is that he is the one that has backed off from sex more than Mandy; much of this has to do with not being able to communicate some of the things that Mandy does that bothers him. So, instead of addressing those issues, he feels there’s something wrong with him and thus the relationship. This is not necessary and can be fixed with the proper communication. His thoughts and feelings around sexual intimacy tie into all of the above – black and white thinking, cognitive distortions, and fear of communicating how he really feels.
Like most things in life, a fear of commitment can be overcome. But only you can decide to make the necessary changes and invest your time and emotional energy to overcome your fears and anxiety around relationships so that you CAN create a healthy relationship.
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