Relationship commitment phobia

Many people miss opportunities for a meaningful long-term relationship because of misunderstood fears of making an emotional long-term commitment.

Illustrative photo of marriage rings (photo credit: TNS)
Illustrative photo of marriage rings
(photo credit: TNS)
Psychologist John Grohol (2018) writes, “People with a commitment phobia long for and want a long-term connection with another person, but their overwhelming anxiety prevents them from staying in any relationship for too long. If pressed for a commitment, they are far more likely to leave the relationship than to make the commitment. Or they may initially agree to the commitment, then back down days or weeks later, because of their overwhelming anxiety and fears.”
Mimi, in her early 20s, was clearly in love with Mark, 27. Mark had proposed to Mimi and although she loved him and was sure that he was the man that she wanted to spend her life with, she could not say yes. Instead, she panicked and told Mark that she needed time to figure it all out. She felt overwhelmed, but did not understand why. Clearly, her anxiety had risen drastically.
Jerry, a 34-year-old professional had dated many women. Some of the women were prepared to take it to the next level and make a serious commitment. However, Jerry continually broke off every relationship whenever he and his girlfriend got to this point.
Over the years, I have helped many men like Jerry and women like Mimi to overcome the fear of commitment with a three-stage approach. During the initial exploration period, I assess if the individuals are compatible. This first stage is essential before I would even consider exploring the deeper issues that may be blocking one or both people from committing to a long-term relationship.
Stage 1: Compatibility
The following questions shed light on the viability of the relationship. A positive answer to most of these questions indicates that the couple are emotionally and cognitively on the same page. I ask:
• Do you love him/her?
• Are you sexually attracted to this person?
• Does this person excite you and make you feel good about spending time together?
• What does it feel like when you do things together?
• Do you miss the person or think about him/her when you are not together?
• Do you have common interests?
• How do your values stack up concerning money, religion, having children, number of children, parenting children? Have you discussed career issues, where to live, or leisure interests?
• How is the communication? Is it open? Do you and your partner discuss feelings, hopes and worries with each other?
• Do you argue and when you do, are you able to resolve the problem and leave the anger behind?
• How do you fit in with the other person’s family? This question is more important than many often think.
• What about comfort around each other’s friends?
Stage 2: Fear Factors
Fear factors can block commitment even when compatibility exists. When I see that many of the above items stack up, I try to go deeper in exploring the concerns that may block the commitment to a serious relationship. The literature identifies the following issues.
• Parents’ divorce or marital problems
• Fear of ending up in an unsatisfying relationship
• Media portrayal of the misery of committed relationships
• Damaging previous relationships that included infidelity, abuse, or abandonment
• Attachment issues
• Difficulty trusting others
• Early childhood stress and/or trauma, which may include history of physical and/or sexual abuse
• Not knowing enough your feelings and what you value most in a relationship.
Once these issues become clear, I begin to work with my clients using cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
Stage 3: Treatment
I was able to help Mimi understand why she had trouble trusting men. As a teenager, Mimi had learned this fear from witnessing her older sister’s marriage fall apart.
Mimi’s sister, a mother of two young children, had a problematic marriage, found out that her husband was cheating on her, became clinically depressed and was briefly hospitalized.
Mimi believed that men cannot be trusted and that marriage is dangerous to your mental health. Mimi was helped to realize that her negative beliefs about men did not really hold up when thinking about Mark. Mark was deeply in love with Mimi and there was no indication that he would cheat on her. She realized that her underlying anxiety and trust issues were irrational thoughts that took root because of what she saw happen to her sister. CBT helped Mimi modify and correct her beliefs so that she could see her relationship more clearly.
When Jerry first started treatment, his initial complaint was that he feared that he would choose the wrong ‘girl.’ Psychotherapy uncovered that Jerry’s mother was a narcissistic woman and his father was an ineffectual and low-functioning husband. She turned to Jerry to do many of the things that her husband was unable to do including banking, shopping, and taking her to many places (she did not drive). She also gave Jerry the message that no girl would be good enough for him.
Unconsciously, Jerry was afraid that he would be abandoning his mother if he were to marry. Psychotherapy helped him to become aware of this. He began to say “no” to his mother’s demands and after living his entire life at his parents’ home, he moved into his own apartment. Jerry’s irrational belief was that a relationship commitment would put too much pressure on him, and emotionally suffocate him. It was clear that Jerry had developed these beliefs because of his relationship with his controlling and dependent mom. CBT gave Jerry the awareness and tools to overcome his issues.
Many people miss opportunities for a meaningful long-term relationship because of misunderstood fears of making an emotional long-term commitment. Getting some professional guidance can be a game changer for these individuals.
The writer is a marital, child and adult cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana.