The method of finding a life partner relationship progresses through various stages. At one crucial point, a couple will choose to become “exclusive,” accepting not to date anyone else. While being exclusive has its advantages, it is only the first stop on the journey to a life partnership. That’s because building a lifetime relationship requires taking the ultimate step of committing.
This is the time in relationships when I often hear a lot of complaints, such as “She’s concerned about being only with me,” or “He has commitment phobia’.”
The term “commitment phobia” is a relatively new addition to the English language. The original use of the word “phobia” comes from classical psychoanalysis and is defined as “a persistent, obsessive, unrealistic intense fear of a situation or an object.” Common phobias are claustrophobia, the fear of closed spaces; acrophobia, the fear of heights; and agoraphobia, fear of open spaces.
Modern behavioral psychologists say phobias result from traumatic and painful events. For instance, being stuck in a subway train or crowded elevator for a long time can cause fearful (phobic) reactions to, and avoidance of, subways and elevators, i.e., claustrophobia future.
Defining the word “commitment” is a bit easier. It is a pledge, a promise, or a vow. Making a promise or commitment is essential when pursuing a goal. For example, an athlete who wants to win a gold medal must commit to doing everything it takes to win. However, as it pertains to creating a life partner relationship, the commitment requires being trustworthy, loyal and devoted to another person.
Putting these two words together, the phrase “commitment phobia” becomes “a silly fear of a pledge, making a promise, or a vow to be a loyal and faithful partner to another person.”
It will be understandable if a person has relationship fears because of some painful, direct experiences. A common precipitator is the relationship failure experience, either that of one’s own or of a close loved one. Here’s a real-life example —
Megan’s parents divorced when she was nine. While she lived with her now-single mother and older brother, Jimmy had regular visits with her father in his new house. Her mother remarried a man whom Jimmy felt was rude and vulgar, and her dad remarried a woman who Jimmy felt took advantage of her father’s good nature. As an adult and teenager, Jimmy had relationship failures of his own and finally realized that he had no role-models for a working, healthy marriage. He entered psychotherapy and worked on clarifying what he wanted and needed in a relationship. He hung out with couples he respected and got closer to attaining the kind of relationship he wanted by the time he met Kimberly on an online dating website.
Kimberly and Jimmy hit it off relatively well, sharing many exciting interests and future goals. They agreed to become happily exclusive after a couple of months, and within 11 months, they talked about marriage. This was when Jimmy found himself worrying and obsessing about his future, losing sleep, crying and sweating restlessly whenever the topic of marriage came up. He knew he loved Kimberly and wanted to marry her, but her fears were so intense that he refused to talk about it with her anymore.
Psychotherapy helped Jimmy to see that he was not his father or his mother, that he had the abilities and skills to be in a loyal partnership, and that Kimberly was nothing like his father (a pushover) or her stepfather (overbearing and crude). Once Jimmy got a handle on the realities, he moved forward with his wedding plans and married Kimberly around two years later.
Jimmy’s experience of her parent’s divorce, coupled with his own relationship failures, set the scene for his sensitive reactions to committing to Kimberly. With U.S. divorce rates floating around 41%, seeing dysfunctional relationships is quite commonplace, so it’s not difficult to know why many singles might experience commitment phobia.
Sadly, I see another sign of commitment phobia today with singles who experience perfectionism. They fear having to negotiate their vision of an ideal mate, thinking that there will always be someone better around the corner, they keep rejecting dates after dates. Leaving suitable partners then becomes a practice they become experts at, and their “pickiness” masks their real “commitment phobia.”
Expecting perfection is an unattainable and unrealistic goal, yet fears of making an error can be paralyzing. Singles need to learn how to focus more on the quality of the connections they are making with their dates, rather than judging them based on the specifics. If singles are unable to change this approach, then their inability to commit is beyond coaching.
However, for most singles, conquering the fear of commitment, or “commitment phobia,” involves managing the dangers inherent in attempting any new endeavor. For many, this “risk-management” can be accomplished by ensuring that you are genuinely ready, willing, and able to be in an independent, committed relationship.
But for the real “commitment-phobes,” more help might be needed to defeat the paralyzing fears blocking them from achieving their final goal of a committed and loving life partner relationship. But it can be really worth it.