For most people, relationships are fairly easy things. They come as naturally to life as breathing or making a meal.
For some, however, relationships are not so easy. In fact, they present such a challenge to the individual, that a person can be said to have relationship anxiety, a fear of relationships, or suffer from “commitment phobia.”
Commitment issues in relationships are nothing new. But our understanding of how the fear of commitment for some people can be paralyzing has increased. And while you won’t find “commitment phobia” in any diagnostic manual, it is a very real experience of anxiety and fear.
Here’s the lowdown on commitment phobia and relationship anxiety.
People who have commitment issues, commitment phobia or relationship anxiety (I’ll use these terms interchangeably) generally have a serious problem in staying in a relationship for the long-term. While they still experience love like anyone else, the feelings can be more intense and scary than they are for most people. These feelings drive increased anxiety, which builds upon itself and snowballs as the relationship progresses — and the expectation of a commitment looms larger.
People with a commitment phobia long 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.
Some people with relationship anxiety may confuse positive feelings of excitement for another person and the potential of a relationship with the feelings of anxiety. For instance, normal feelings of anticipation or may be misconstrued by the person as a panic reaction, or general negative anxiousness. Some may also just have a difficult time resolving the inherent conflict of romantic relationships — the craving of intimacy while wanting to retain their own individuality and freedom.
People with commitment issues come in all shapes and sizes, and their exact dating and relationship behaviors can vary. Some refuse to have any serious or long-term relationships longer than a week or a month, because of their fears. Others may be able to be involved with one person for a few months, but as the relationship becomes more serious and deeper, their old fears again come to the forefront, driving the person away.
Both men and women can suffer from relationship anxiety and commitment phobia, although traditionally it was thought primarily to be a male problem.
The Causes of Commitment Phobia
The causes of commitment phobia are as varied as the people who suffer from it. Typically, however, many people with commitment issues have complained of having experienced poor romantic relationships, either first-hand or through observation of others (such as their parents’ acrimonious relationship or divorce while growing up). Other common causes of commitment phobia may include:
- 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 because of past hurts by those close to the person
- Childhood trauma or abuse
- Unmet childhood needs or attachment issues
- Complicated family dynamics while growing up
How to Help One’s Fear of Relationships
No matter what the specific cause of commitment phobia, it can be helped. A person who suffers from relationship anxiety doesn’t have to suffer from it their entire lives. There is help, but a person needs to want to change and find a way to overcome their relationship anxiety. It cannot be done by others.
There are many strategies to help someone with commitment phobia, depending on the severity of the anxiety. If it’s so severe it’s preventing one from even considering dating, much less finding the person of their dreams, then it may be time to seek out psychotherapy. A trained therapist who’s experienced in working with people with commitment issues can help a person understand the cognitive distortions they’re telling themselves, and how to turn them around.
Counseling may also be appropriate for anyone who’s gone through a round of serious relationships, only to have them end when the person couldn’t take the relationship to the next step. A therapist will help a person understand there is no “perfect” relationship, and that all relationships need nurturing, care and constant attention. A person will also learn in therapy that open communication with their partner will reduce the likelihood of there being any future surprises or trust issues.
Some people with milder commitment issues may benefit from getting support for their concerns through an online support group for relationship issues. And while self-help books vary in their usefulness and practice advice, these may of particular consideration to check out:
- He’s Scared, She’s Scared: Understanding the Hidden Fears That Sabotage Your Relationships
- Men Who Can’t Love: How to Recognize a Commitmentphobic Man Before He Breaks Your Heart/
- Getting to Commitment: Overcoming the 8 Greatest Obstacles to Lasting Connection (And Finding the Courage to Love)
The fear of commitment can be overcome. The first step is being open to change, and wanting to make the changes in your life and your thinking that can help you be less anxious in future relationships.
For further reading
Attachment Style May Factor Into Fear of Commitment