THE COMMITMENT-PHOBIC: HOW TO SPOT ONE AND PROTECT YOUR HEART
Making commitment's is one of the most intimidating aspects of adulthood. Signing a lease, choosing a new job, choosing a place to live, buying a house and finding a partner to build your life with, these things are stressful and they make a big difference in the direction of our lives.
However, for some people, the fear of commitment is so strong that it literally feels like they are "trapped" and unable to escape. It creates such a high level of stress and anxiety that it can trigger the fight or flight response and lead a person to flee.
Commitment phobia stems from unresolved childhood trauma and is an unconscious re-enactment of an internal conflict. Part of the psyche yearns for closeness, companionship, and love, while the other part is terrified of the responsibilities that come with a relationship. Being in a relationship with a commitment phobic is extremely emotionally draining and creates a confusing "push and pull" for anyone involved.
These types of people are difficult to spot because they are extremely loving, caring and charming- especially at the beginning of relationships, when there is distance or when they haven't fully won you over yet. The most interesting thing about commitment phobia is that these people are not pretending to be this way!
A phobic truly wants the intimacy and connection that comes from a commitment, but once they have it or if there is any pressure and expectation placed on them or the relationship to grow- they immediately back off and begin self-sabotaging the relationship.
I had never heard of commitment phobia before until I myself went through a confusing relationship that felt like a rollercoaster ride. One moment my ex-partner was talking about our future children, buying a house together and loving me and the next he was telling me to leave the apartment, criticizing and rejecting me. As a therapist it was so frustrating to me, I could not figure out this person, even after years of being in a relationship, living together and knowing him since a young age.
It wasn't until I began pressuring for a formal commitment, that he was honest with me, after spending months thinking we would get engaged. Finally, the truth came out. It wasn't going to happen and he wasn't ready. I must admit, deep down I think that I knew the truth but did not want to face it myself. I had invested 10-years of my life, I love this person, built a life with and imagined my future with him.
As I began the journey of rebuilding my life and myself, I began to connect with women going through the exact same situation. I was shocked at how many people reached out to me sharing the same story. Over and over again. That's when I realized I wasn't alone and I had to find answers to this phenomenon. For myself, other women and to become a better therapist for my clients who come in for therapy. I became curious and started searching for information, which lead me to an article about commitment phobia.
I was stunned. It literally described every emotion, experience, and feeling that I felt and never understood. It even used the same words that my ex would use to describe how he felt, "trapped, dying inside, can't breathe." It was hard to read, but it gave me an answer. It finally helped me understand what happened. Why he had to run away. This realization turned into a week long binge of doing as much research as possible, reading and listening to podcasts to learn more about commitment phobia, how it develops, and what to do about it.
I decided that it was important for me to share what I learned, especially after hearing how many people go through this.
*Side note: Commitment phobia is more common in men but it is also a growing problem for women as well.
How To Spot A Commitment Phobe:
These people crave love so much that at the beginning of a relationship they give 110% and literally can "sweep you off of your feet." They open up emotionally very quickly, act like they want to care for you and make you feel special. They feel connected and passionate about you and make it seem like they want to build a future with you. All these emotions are real for them.
This is probably the hardest truth to face. People with a fear of commitment also have an extreme need for stability, safety, and emotional connection. Yet, the thing that they long for the most is also their worst fear. Can you imagine the intensity of the internal pain and confusion that they live with? It sounds like torture. Many times they themselves don't understand why they run away from amazing opportunities, jobs, stability and the people that they love.
However, there are a few warning signs even early on that you can spot that may save you from being hurt in the long run.
- Does the person have a history of moving often, unstable employment, changing jobs frequently?
- Do they express a desire to "work for themselves" or avoid the standard 9-5 job?
- When they talk about their relationship history, do they blame the failed relationship on their partners or do they take some responsibility?
- Are they vague about their future plans?
- Do they express a desire to travel or not have "roots"?
- Are they sending mixed messages (talking about having a family and settling down and then saying they want to travel)?
- Did they pursue you, open up emotionally quickly and express interest very early on?
- Do they always keep their options opened and look for the "next best thing" with jobs, material things or in general?
- Do they include your input in their decisions and future plans or do they just play by their own rules?
- Are they hesitant to introduce you to family, friends or compartmentalize different areas of their life?
These are just a few things that may indicate that you are with someone who has a fear of commitment. You can read about more signs here.
What Happens In The Relationship:
A relationship with a commitment phobic is literally a "whirlwind" romance. It's intense, passionate and then all the sudden it's over and you have no idea what happened. How can the guy that said he wanted to marry me suddenly be so cold? How could he just vanish or stop talking to me? He chased me so hard and then when he got me how could he just loose interest?
It's extremely painful to love, be in a relationship or committed to responsibilities with this type of person. They often leave a trail of confusion, pain, and heartbreak.
Yet, it's important to remember that they are also in a lot of pain themselves. They do not enter relationships or commitments with the intention to disappoint or hurt anyone- that is not what they want. However, they are operating in "survival mode" and the moment they sense that their freedom is being threatened- their body, mind, and emotions react like an animal stuck in a cage. This internal battle within themselves is so traumatizing that they will often try to do anything possible to avoid being the one who "hurt you."
They do this by withdrawing from the relationship literally (just not talking to you at all) or emotionally (acting distant, withdrawing sexual interest, picking apart qualities of you that they used to like or knew about when they were chasing you). It can feel a total 180-degree change in their behavior that comes out of nowhere. The purpose of this is to make YOU be the person who ends the relationship- they are too fearful of hurting you, taking responsibility or making the COMMITMENT to the decision of ending the relationship.
Essentially, it has to be something OTHER than THEMSELVES that is the reason they have to "get out." When they leave they will often blame it on you, the environment, things outside of your control or qualities that they knew you had when they met you but conveniently choose to ignore. That is if they even take the time to explain their reasons- many times they will just vanish or ignore you.
This can really mess with you emotionally because suddenly the whole situation seems like it is your fault and you begin to think "could I have done anything differently?!"
Remember one thing: You couldn't have.
They would have found some other way out.
Commitment phobic people often grew up in unstable families or broken homes and have been hurt in the past by a figure that was also fearful of commitment. This causes a lot of pain, cognitive dissonance and shame whenever they replicate this pattern in their own lives. Yet, they can't help it. It's important to stay empathetic and realize that they are operating with the only coping skills that they know.
Things To Remember:
- It doesn't mean that they don't love you or didn't mean what they said.
- You couldn't have done anything differently.
- It wasn't all your fault.
- You may have responded in negative ways to them but it's because they unconsciously wanted you too- so they could have a way out.
- Their fear of commitment is stronger than their need for love and connection when they are in "fight or flight" mode.
- This won't change unless they become aware of this pattern and seek intensive therapy, make a conscious effort to work through their issues and process unresolved relationship conflicts from childhood.
- Sometimes commitment phobic DO commit, they might even get married, but they always create a sense of distance in the relationship either emotionally or physically (a clear message that you take care of "you" and I take care of "me").
- You might have been feeling alone in the relationship for a while, even when you are physically together.
- Trust your gut. If you are feeling like your partner is disengaging... They probably are.
- If you are acting distant, critical or checked out of the relationship and that is out of character for you, take a moment to reflect on WHY you are feeling that way... Is it you or is it your partner?
What To Do:
If you are going through the confusion of a relationship like this or you feel like you may be a commitment phobic yourself, it is important to seek help.
For The Partner of the Commitment Phobic:
- Seek help from a professional, especially if you keep blaming yourself or have low self-esteem following the end of the relationship.
- Surround yourself with supportive friends and family.
- Get busy and stay independent.
- Don't bank on the commitment-phobe changing without insight, personal motivation and years of intensive therapy.
- Begin to identify how your own passive commitment fears attract you to emotionally unavailable partners.
- Identify the qualities that you want in a partner that makes you feel safe, supported and cherished.
For The Commitment Phobe:
- Notice if you keep blaming your failed relationships, job changes and lack of direction on others- begin looking at how YOU may be contributing to destructive patterns and take responsibility.
- Seek help from a professional- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help you look at some of the irrational thoughts and feelings that you have around commitment, while Psychodynamic Therapy can help you address unconscious enactments, explore childhood trauma and teach you new ways of relating to others.
- Realize that making these changes is a COMMITMENT! Beginning this type of work on yourself may lead to similar feelings of fear- challenge yourself to push through them anyway.
- Meditate and become more aware of your body, emotional reactions and times that you feel "triggered" or "trapped."
- Be honest with your relationship partners from the beginning- if you are not looking for something serious... Tell them right away, don't lead them on or use them as an emotional crutch.
- Reflect on your family of origin, was there anyone else in your life who was affected by commitment phobia?
- Find ways that work for you to hold yourself accountable.