The process of creating a life partner relationship typically progresses through various stages. At one important point, a couple will decide to become "exclusive," agreeing not to date anyone else. While being exclusive has its benefits, it is really only one stop on the road to a life partnership. That's because creating a life partner relationship requires taking the ultimate step of making a commitment.
This is the point in relationships when I frequently hear a lot of complaints, such as "She's worried about being only with me," or "He's got 'commitment phobia'." The term "commitment phobia" is a rather new addition to the English language. The original use of the term "phobia" comes from classical psychoanalysis, and is defined as "an obsessive, persistent, unrealistic intense fear of an object or situation." Common phobias are acrophobia, the fear of heights; claustrophobia, the fear of closed spaces; and agoraphobia, fear of open spaces. These unrealistic fears are thought to stem from "the displacement of an internal (unconscious) conflict to an external object symbolically related to the conflict." (A Psychiatric Glossary, Fourth Revised Edition, American Psychiatric Association.)
However, modern behavioral psychologists say phobias result from painful and / or traumatic events. For example, being stuck in a crowded elevator or subway train for a long period of time can cause phobic (fearful) reactions to, and avoidance of, elevators and subways, ie, claustrophobia, in the future.
Defining the term "commitment" is a bit easier. It is a promise, a pledge or a vow. Making a commitment or a promise is essential when pursuing a goal. For example, an athlete wanting to win a gold medal in the Olympics must make a commitment to do everything it takes to win. As it pertains to the goal of creating a life partner relationship however, the commitment requires being loyal, trustworthy and faithful to another person.
Putting the two words together, the term "commitment phobia" becomes "an unrealistic fear of making a promise, a pledge or a vow to be a faithful and loyal partner to another person."
It would be understandable if a person has relationship fears because of some direct, painful experiences. A common precipitator is the experience of relationship failure, either that of one's own or of a close loved one. Here's an example –
Janet's parents divorced when she was 8 years old. While she lived with her mother and older sister, Jan had regular visits with her father in his new home. Her mother remarried a man whom Jan felt was vulgar and rude, and her father remarried a woman who Jan felt took advantage of her father's good nature. As a teenager and adult, Jan had relationship failures of her own, and eventually realized that she had no role-models for a healthy, working marriage. She entered psychotherapy and worked on clarifying what she wanted and needed in a relationship. She hung out with couples she respected, and got closer to attaining the kind of relationship she wanted by the time she met Mark on an online dating website.
Jan and Mark hit it off quite well, sharing many interests and life goals. They agreed to become exclusive after a couple of months, and within 7 months they were talking about marriage. This was when Jan found herself obsessing and worrying about her future, crying, losing sleep and sweating nervously whenever the topic of marriage came up. She knew she loved Mark and wanted to marry him, but her fears were so strong that she refused to discuss it with him anymore.
Psychotherapy helped Jan to see that she was not her mother or her father, that she had the skills and abilities to be in a loyal partnership, and that Mark was nothing like her father (a pushover) or her stepfather (crude and overbearing). Once Jan got a handle on the realities, she was able to move forward with wedding plans and married Mark one year to the date they met.
Janet's experience of her parent's divorce, coupled with her own relationship failures, set the stage for her fearful reactions to committing to Mark. With US divorce rates hovering around 50%, witnessing dysfunctional relationships is quite commonplace, so it's not difficult to understand why many singles might experience commitment phobia.
Unfortunately, I see another manifestation of commitment phobia today with singles who suffer from perfectionism. They fear having to compromise their vision of an ideal mate, and believing that there will always be someone better around the corner, they reject date after date after date. Rejecting suitable partners then becomes a habit they become experts at, and their "pickiness" masks their true "commitment phobia."
Sam is a successful stock broker in his early forties. He says he has been dating for the purpose of marriage since his mid-twenties, and has dated almost 200 women. He says that he is capable of commitment, pointing to the exclusive relationships he has had, some of them lasting for over a year. Sam almost got engaged twice, but the first woman was not as educated as he, and the second woman's mother was overweight. He claims that the reason he's not married is because he "has not found the right woman yet."
Expecting perfection is an unrealistic and unattainable goal, yet fears of making a mistake can be paralyzing. Sam needs to learn how to focus more on the quality of the connections he's making with his dates, rather than continue to judge them based on the specifics. If he's unable to change his approach, then his inability to make a commitment is beyond coaching, and would require the deeper introspection that psychotherapy offers.
For most singles, however, conquering the fear of commitment, or "commitment phobia," involves managing the risks inherent in attempting any new endeavor. For many, this "risk-management" can be accomplished by making sure that you are truly ready, willing and able to be in an exclusive, committed relationship.
But for the true "commitment phobes," more help might be needed to overcome the paralyzing fears preventing them from attaining their ultimate goal of a loving and committed life partner relationship. But it can be worth it.
© Copyright 2006 Janice D. Bennett, Ph.D.