Is the prospect of taking the next step wrecking your relationship? Here’s how to approach fear of commitment. By Rebekah Kendal
Things are great. Really, they are. Except when you try to define what things are and where they are headed. If you so much as hint at that dreaded ‘C’ word, your significant other shuts down. Or they change the subject. Or they accuse you of trying to ruin a good thing.
So, let’s talk about commitment
In 1987, the term ‘commitment phobia’ was coined in a self-help book called Men Who Can’t Love. Since then, it has become a widely accepted concept that applies to both men and women. But what exactly does it mean?
Janet Winterbourne, a relationship counsellor, points out that this term can mean different things to different people. ‘Some consider not committing to an exclusive relationship to be a type of commitment phobia, whereas others consider an unwillingness to marry to be commitment phobia. It has a broad spectrum – we all come from our own frame of reference. We first need to understand what commitment means to us as individuals, so that we can then look at our relationships from
our partner’s perspective and decide whether we are actually on the same page as them.’
Part of a pattern
While ‘commitment phobia’ is often used in the context of relationships, it isn’t necessarily limited to this facet of a person’s life. Certain individuals may also be afraid of committing to hobbies, social engagements, or even a career.
‘Avoidant or indecisive personalities may well struggle and procrastinate in other areas of their lives,’ explains Janet. ‘They may find decision-making difficult on a day-to-day basis. It could be that this is part of their personality.’
However, in cases where individuals have no difficulty with commitment in other areas of their lives, the problem may lie specifically with relationships. The reasons why someone may have difficulty committing to a relationship are varied. It could be that they were hurt in a past relationship, or that they grew up in an environment of many dysfunctional relationships. They may believe that the cost of commitment is a loss of independence or freedom. It could also simply be that they are just uncomfortable taking certain risks that come with further commitment.
‘If the person is not ready to commit yet, it may be a timing issue, where it genuinely doesn’t feel right for them,’ suggests Janet. ‘It may also be that the person’s belief system doesn’t see the need for commitment, or it could be a fear of the implications of their decision if they make the wrong one.’
How committed are you?
Before you try to delve into the reasons behind your partner’s perceived fear of commitment, it’s useful to first establish what your own feelings are:
• What type of relationship do I want?
• Is marriage a prerequisite for me or am I happy to cohabit?
• How much importance do I place on independence and freedom?
• Am I happy being part of a team or do I prefer to fly solo?
• What are my beliefs when it comes to monogamy?
• Do I think I will get hurt?
• What is it that I’m really afraid of?
• Do I want to keep my options open in case something better comes along?
Have that conversation
While you or your partner may want to avoid talking about commitment, doing so does not make the issue disappear. ‘Communication,’ advises Janet, ‘is the key to any successful relationship. Talk to your partner and try to ascertain where they stand. How far apart are the two of you? Are you willing to make a compromises to make it work?
‘Some degree of negotiation may be useful, and you can try to meet each other halfway, but if you are at opposite ends of the spectrum, you could find yourself in a dissatisfying position that becomes unsustainable.
‘Relationships flourish when partners have hopes and dreams for the future. But in order for them to achieve those hopes and dreams, they need to have similar outlooks on where they’re going. If their outlooks are very different, they will most likely find themselves at odds with each other, which will make their relationship difficult.’
There is little you can do if you’re in a relationship with someone who won’t or can’t make the commitment you need. Your best bet is to just end it. However, if you are the one who usually bails on relationships once things get serious, there is something you can do about it.
‘If you’re someone who knows they have fears about commitment, then you will also know that you’re really holding yourself back. My suggestion would be to seek help to understand those fears. Free yourself up to make choices that will not sabotage what could be a very happy life with your partner,’ says Janet.
Signs of commitment phobia
Someone with commitment phobia may behave as follows:
• Becomes anxious when the topic of commitment comes up
• Tries to change the subject or shuts it down completely
• Promises to talk about it at a future, undetermined time
• Blames you for ruining things
• Responds with: ‘Aren’t we just fine as we are?’
• Avoids labelling the relationship as much as possible
• Makes a commitment, but then backs out of it
• Pulls away – physically or emotionally – when things start to get serious.
Things aren’t going well with my girlfriend. In our first year of dating, we were in a long-distance relationship. I was the one doing all the calling. Now we’re closer, but she still does not make any effort. She often forgets our dates, never does anything nice for me and is just full of excuses. Her phone has been off for weeks now and I can’t get hold of her. I really love her, but does she love me?
First I’ll get the practical issue out of the way: is she physically all right? I am curious as to why you don’t go to her house or work to find out if she is okay. At least contact one of her friends or her family to hear if there is some terrible reason she is not answering your calls, because – unless she has been hospitalised or is no longer with us – I’m sorry to tell you that you have most probably been ghosted. In other words, she has dumped you without having the courage to tell you face to face. I think if you look back honestly at the way she used to treat you, this might not come as a surprise. And why did you stick around so long and put up with someone who does not treat you very well?
A healthy partnership means there is equal emotional investment from both people. That means both people make an effort, engage and keep in touch, and both do what needs tobe done to be together. It may be hard to accept that it is over, especially with no explanation from her, but I suggest you move on and find someone who treats you with love and respect.