Commitment Phobia: When Relationship Avoidance Isn’t Dumb

(Image/datingadvice.com)

(Image/datingadvice.com)

I have commitment issues.

The classic kind, like when it’s easy to choose between Chicken, Seafood or Vegetarian at the wedding reception or business luncheon, and hard to choose a meal when perusing massive restaurant menus.

I struggle with committing to future events on my calendar, or choosing which movie to watch, or even committing hypothetically to whether my perfect home is in a city or the peaceful countryside.

Maybe that’s why I live in the suburbs.

I think these commitment issues are unhealthy and neurotic, and do little to help me live my best-possible life.

But there are other kinds of commitment issues, and they often revolve around dating and relationships.

Because I’m single and spend a lot of time discussing relationships due to my writing here, this subject has come up a few times recently, and I think it’s important.

Men often get stereotyped as being afraid of commitment. There are several reasons why—some more noble than others.

But people—especially ones who have suffered emotional trauma from divorce or failed relationships—frequently express fear of commitment because they don’t want to ever feel that hurt again.

It makes sense to me. It’s irrational and joy-robbing, but I get it. We might die from choking or food poisoning when we eat. We might contract the flu from shaking hands with strangers. We might get killed in a car accident during our work commutes.

We fear losing good things ALL THE TIME.

Poor people can lament not having money OR they can feel grateful that they don’t have something they’re afraid to lose or that makes them some kind of target.

Rich people can lament having so much to lose, being targets, and having valuable things to protect OR they can feel grateful for their wealth of resources.

It’s always about perspective.

People who can see and hear and walk could go blind and deaf and become paralyzed from the waist down. Blind, deaf and paraplegic people don’t have those fears.

Parents fear for the safety and wellbeing of their children in profound ways. People without kids rarely think about that at all.

Having something of value in our lives, whether it’s intangible human connection and love, or material possession, often brings with it the burden of being afraid to lose it.

Every moment of our lives involves some kind of tradeoff. To be irrationally afraid of scary future scenarios we totally make up in our heads seems counterproductive.

Therapy. Good discussion. Writing. Deep thinking. All are good tools for overcoming our various neuroses.

But—and I’m admittedly biased—I think there are times when “fearing” commitment is wise and prudent.

People Who Love Hard Should Be ‘Afraid’

Fear is rarely useful outside of prompting us to run from scary things like a fire, or an attacker, or like, a mountain lion or something.

“Cautious” is probably a better word.

Sometimes people tell me they’re surprised I’m still single more than three and a half years after my marriage ended.

But the truth is, I haven’t come particularly close to not being single. Some of that is circumstantial. Some of that is logistical.

But most of it?

It’s because I think I understand what it takes for two individuals to merge their lives into one thing and give it a good chance to go the distance. I think I know what people need to give because I spent a nine-year marriage NOT giving it which predictably ended in ways impossible for me to recognize in the thick of it.

And I haven’t been shy about saying that I’ve been unwilling to give it.

My parenting, life and job responsibilities, and writing pursuits are already more than I can handle. When the day comes, I’ll have to abandon or reshape some of those things in order to give what’s required.

“What’s required?”

Giving more than I take. That’s what. And until a person can do that, I don’t think they’re ready.

I don’t think I’m ready.

This last part is important to me. Because I think it’s—tragically—a big part of what destroyed my marriage and is likely affecting others’ as well.

My friend said it today. She was talking about some of these same relationship fears. She said “I love hard.”

She means she invests a lot of herself into the other person and into her relationships. In the past, that might have caused her to not maintain and enforce personal boundaries as vigilantly as she would today. And when you don’t enforce boundaries, you can find yourself miles down the road with someone and wake up one day like: “Holy shit. I guess we’re, like, boyfriend-girlfriend or whatever.”

And when you love hard in those scenarios, months turn into years, and Like turns into Love.

And when you didn’t enforce compatibility and/or behavioral boundaries early in the process, the relationship suffers, often breaks, and often hurts.

She felt the hurt. And now she’s afraid. But it’s not because she doesn’t get it that she’s afraid. It’s because she does.

I love hard. Or at least, I aspire to.

I loved my girlfriend before she was my fiancée/wife/ex-wife. And because I loved her, I didn’t understand where the fear was coming from regarding my having not proposed after just a year or so together.

We were too young to say the right words. We were too scared to tell the whole truth. She probably felt pressure to get married because some of her friends were, or maybe because of childhood expectations that it should be by a certain age. Maybe she was too afraid to say that she wanted to know whether I was going to propose, because if not, she was going to break up and find someone who would and not waste her time.

Who knows what I was afraid to say. Probably everything.

But I think I was “right”—if there is such a thing—about feeling fear and hesitancy regarding marriage proposal, or even just giving the idea of a future proposal a bunch of lip service.

When you love hard, and Love = Forever, then tell me the difference between promising a proposal and actually proposing. Tell me the difference between proposing and being married.

Divorce was never on my to-do list. I always believed Marriage = Forever.

I would never commit to someone with whom I couldn’t imagine achieving Forever with.

By virtue of BEING in the committed relationship, I was working toward that goal. And when your brain works that way and you love someone with that level of matter-of-factness, it creates the family and marriage-jeopardizing scenario of totally dismissing anyone who tells you they sometimes feel as if you don’t love them.

You start writing them off as “crazy” or “emotional.” Since you think and feel Love, maybe you don’t feel the need to show it. Maybe that seems dumb to you.

I think that’s why many people get divorced. Different interpretations of verbal and non-verbal cues. It seems too subtle to be the reason everything turns to shit. But it doesn’t make it any less true.

Relationships have phases.

“Just dating” morphs into commitment.

Committed dating evolves into engagement or cohabitation.

And engagement/cohabitation often transitions to marriage.

Do you see?

When Marriage = Forever in your mind and heart, THEN engagement ALSO = Forever. And if committed dating = engagement, then you’re left in the funny little place I, along with many who love hard, or have lost much, find themselves.

If committing to dating someone feels essentially the same as engagement, and engagement is essentially the same as marriage, then—as insane as it might sound to some—committing to dating can FEEL pretty close to promising someone Forever.

After divorce? Children? Hard-earned wisdom?

That manifests as commitment phobia. As being “afraid,” or again, “cautious.”

Maybe some people will tell you that’s irrational. That you’re being “dumb.”

But when our hearts and minds are in the right place, I don’t think so.

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17 thoughts on “Commitment Phobia: When Relationship Avoidance Isn’t Dumb

  1. zombiedrew2 says:

    I never expected to find myself in the world of dating again. And although it’s a long ways off, I do accept that it’s likely part of my future.

    Not because I have any “need” to have someone else in my life – I’m quite happy on my own, doing my own thing. At the same time though, it’s always nice to have someone to share moments with.

    It’s hard though, because a lot of the little “red flags” and things that show whether or not you are a good match are things you won’t be able to tell up front (when people are on their best behavior). A relationships needs to have a few challenges, because I think those challenges are what really show what it’s made out of.

    In the past, when I got to that point I was already “committed” enough that I would stick with it, even if those challenges raised some red flags.

    In the future though? I think it’s important to know when to walk away.

    Liked by 1 person

    • linds01 says:

      Drew :”It’s important to know when to walk away”…
      This is something I am still learning.
      A lot of times I think it is right to stick things out. Sometimes it is right to learn and grow in circumstances that aren’t what you would chose.
      For someone like me- whose strengths are things like endurance and tenacity, it is almost easier to continue to bear the burden. But then, when you are ready to let go, you can find things that ARE better for you.
      I am not a hedonist, but I do believe that we HAVE TO derive enjoyment and fulfillment out of life to be mentally and emotionally healthy and whole.
      Cheering for you!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. marilyn sims says:

    Hi Drew,

    I’m so glad you’ve found your way back. Carry on and…trust your gut!!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. erika says:

    Commitment issues? You?

    No way. ;)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “By virtue of BEING in the committed relationship, I was working toward that goal. And when your brain works that way and you love someone with that level of matter-of-factness, it creates the family and marriage-jeopardizing scenario of totally dismissing anyone who tells you they sometimes feel as if you don’t love them. You start writing them off as “crazy” or “emotional.” Since you think and feel Love, maybe you don’t feel the need to show it. Maybe that seems dumb to you.”

    Once again you nailed it – best explanation of why I struggle to express my unhappiness to a man who I believe loves me more than anything just has no understanding that I don’t need what he thinks I need, I need what I ask for. Learning the language to communicate effectively without hurting while also establishing and enforcing boundaries is my current project. He is truly puzzled by what hurts me. I’m a lot more fun as a partner when I’m not wondering why he doesn’t care about my feelings. I want to be married to the father of my children and it saddens him that I was happier when we were separated for a brief time. He likes happy me – so do I. Your blog is helping me frame my conversations with him and I thank you 🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hmmm. Well, I would suggest that there is a huge difference between being driven by fear and simply being disinterested in a relationship right now. Fear can be crippling,it;’s not freedom. On the other hand,simply making a sensible decision that you don’t desire a relationship doesn’t mean you suffer from commitment-phobia.

    “I think that’s why many people get divorced. Different interpretations of verbal and non-verbal cues. It seems too subtle to be the reason everything turns to shit. But it doesn’t make it any less true.”

    No, Matt, because in marriage we overlook one another’s flaws,we stop judging. We stop working at trying to divine secret intentions and verbal and non verbal clues, and we just accept people the way they are. We stop trying to control it and fix it.

    Like

    • We can overlook to a point. And then things happen like betrayal and secrets. And then (if we can do it) better things happen like really understanding root causes that ultimately have nothing to do with our partner and are about us. Then we dig in and work hard at understanding ourselves and our partners and have a big dose of grownup. On both sides.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. Fantastic post. I “loved hard”, putting 100% into my marriage and partner. The pain at losing that relationship after all my commitment was simply awful.
    Consequently, (now five years after the break-up) I am really enjoying being single at age 62 and the freedom of not having to put in all that hard work (into a relationship). It is not the fear of commitment I am now afraid of. It is the fear of losing my freedom. I never thought I would ever say that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nights7 says:

      Yes, exactly!
      At first, when I tried post-divorce dating, I was scared of commitment, of falling into the same bad relationship I struggled to leave. That’s something worth being scared of. But now (also almost five years after the break down of the marriage) my hesitation to date comes from an unwillingness to give up my personal freedom. Maybe that’s a type of fear too. But someone will have to show me they’re worth the risk before I even think about investing and commitment because for me that would be giving up a lot right now. I truly value my freedom and independence so if/when I do decide to invest myself in a relationship it’ll be a conscious choice.
      In the meantime, I don’t feel like I’m robbing myself of any joy by not attaching. I thoroughly enjoy my crazy single life.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Masqued says:

    I am from the camp who once felt Marriage=Forever… and thus Engagement=Forever. I felt committed with no return possible once I said yes to my Ex’s proposal. That’s when all the really tough stuff started coming out. But at that point, I felt like I was invested, that if I was going to be married, I had already said yes to sticking through all the hard stuff.

    So much Yes to all this post. And it’s helping me find the vocabulary to talk through things that I will need to with the guy I have been dating for a little while now. I really wasn’t looking for a relationship, and it’s been hard work to identify commitment-phobia due to red flags, and commitment-phobia due to irrational fears. Most of it has been the latter.

    Thanks for your posts, and your honesty. I appreciate how relatable they are.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Matt, you are definitely not alone. It sounds like we got divorced at about the same time, and I spent the first three years desperately wanting to find someone while at the same time not being ready to. I realize everyone moves at a different pace, but it constantly blows my mind how many people get right back on the bicycle, so to speak. My ex started dating someone new within weeks of announcing our marriage was over (it didn’t last).

    Around the time of the three year mark, I finally realized — even though we were divorced — I no longer missed being married to him. Does this mean I’m ready for a relationship? Well, I have started seeing someone who is kind, nice, and listens to me, but I am still taking it one day at a time. But, as my therapist says, my shields are still at 20%. I’m not sure I will ever be ready for a full-on relationship again; the damage may be too great, but without trying, I won’t know for sure.

    Take the time you need to be comfortable with you before you try to find someone you can be comfortable with. Keeping up with your parenting, life and job responsibilities, and writing pursuits is nothing to sneeze at.

    And sometimes they can be enough.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. S Ward says:

    Men are afraid of committment. And when they make promises, they dont keep them. They dont take initiative, they are irresponsible and take forever to grow up. If men acted like adults at age 21, the world would be a better place. It all starts with the men.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow. As a woman I have to say I didn’t start acting like a grownup until my thirties. I also didn’t even try to have a “long term” relationship in my 20’s – knew I wasn’t prepared to do the work. I was responsible for that. Never held the men responsible.

      Liked by 1 person

    • OKRickety says:

      If the problems all start with men, then maybe women should keep that in mind and never get into relationships. That should stop most of the problems with relationships.

      Of course, if you consider it a “problem” that women can’t find a good man and have a good marriage, then you’ll have to find a way to get men to buy into changing. For now, it seems there is not enough incentive to motivate men to change.

      For what it’s worth, there are probably lots of people who think relationship and marriage problems all start with women.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. “Of course, if you consider it a “problem” that women can’t find a good man and have a good marriage, then you’ll have to find a way to get men to buy into changing. For now, it seems there is not enough incentive to motivate men to change.”

    Step one ladies, avoid any man who believes he must be incentivized into behaving like a decent person. If he hasn’t got the manhood and the strength of character within himself to understand that acting like a human being is a basic requirement, than leave him behind and shake the dust from your feet.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I loved so hard in my first marriage that I lost myself completely. And, admittedly, I blamed him for it.

    Looking back, I wasn’t faultless. I set the ball and he sort of had to spike it. (Not that he gets off scot-free from the responsibility train….but that isn’t the point here.) :)

    Liked by 1 person

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