How to Handle Being a Commitment-Phobe in a Long-Term Relationship

How to Handle Being a Commitment-Phobe in a Long-Term Relationship

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

Looking at my past history, you’d think I was the exact opposite of a commitment-phobe. Prior to dating my ex-husband when I was 23, I had one long-term relationship that lasted more than a year. I was then with my ex-husband for ten.

But being phobic about commitment can display itself in a lot of ways beyond just avoiding commitment altogether. It can also be about avoiding intimacy, keeping people at a physical or emotional distance, and living in panic and dread anytime a relationship reaches a new level of commitment.

“Commitment phobic” individuals generally have a serious problem in staying in a relationship for the long-term. Dr. John Grohol in “What is Commitment Phobia & Relationship Anxiety?” says: “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.”

With my current partner, I’ve found it coming back hardcore, and I’ve had to rein things back in to try to assuage my fear and stay in the present.

I’ve written before about my relationship with my current partner. Most notably here:

Some of the commenters on that article have rightly been like, “what the fuck are you doing, lady? Are you insane?”

And the answer to that is, “yeah, I’m a little…maybe…a LOT insane.”

Which is okay.

I’m a rough draft when it comes to relationships. I am constantly revising based on new information. I’m a mess, and I’m messy. I make plenty of mistakes, but I’m learning everyday. And, you know what? It’s a sign of progress that I am making NEW mistakes, instead of just repeating the same old ones over and over again.

I recently read He’s Scared, She’s Scared: Understanding the Hidden Fears That Sabotage Your Relationships by Steven Carter because I did not understand why I’ve been feeling so suffocated in my current relationship.

My partner is wonderful. He’s open and honest and provides me all of the emotional intimacy and support I could ask for.

Yet sometimes I literally feel short of breath being around him. Sometimes I have literally had to leave wherever he was, so I could get away from him. He was doing absolutely nothing wrong, and I felt terrible that I felt this way.

The same feeling was even happening when we were in the car together and he was telling me how beautiful he finds me, and I wanted to jump out of the car.

Yup. My partner was telling me he finds me attractive, a perfectly wonderful thing to be told, and I wanted to fucking run.

And I didn’t know what to do. My feelings were so…unreasonable and irrational. Who doesn’t want their partner to tell them they’re attractive? Who doesn’t want their partner to be kind? And supportive? And loving? Yet here I was, getting exactly what I’d always wanted, and I couldn’t stand it.

I had to, one day, say, “You’re being too nice to me. I can’t take it right now. Please change the subject.”

He asked me, “Do you…want me to be mean to you?”

“Well, no,” I said, “I can just only take you being nice for so long.”

Which is fucking weird. I admit it.

I’m a grown ass woman in a grown ass adult relationship with a good dude, and I could “should” myself to death over that. You should be grateful. You should be happy. You should be eating this shit up after being with that neglectful ex-husband of yours for so long.

But feelings are feelings, and I needed to do something about them. I won’t ever have a healthy relationship if I run at the first sign of one, so I read a book and it was eye-opening.

Commitment phobes can reveal themselves in two ways: as active avoiders AND passive avoiders.

Active avoiders are the ones fleeing.

Passive avoiders are the ones chasing after them.

Here are some questions to ask yourself if you’re unsure whether you have commitment issues:

  • Do you find that you prefer idealized fantasies to flawed human partners
  • Do you consistently commit to inappropriate or unavailable partners?
  • Are you are very “picky” or have a pattern of fault-finding?
  • Are you are unable to recover from a failed love relationship?
  • Does something about your attitude and lifestyle discourage potential partners?

Throughout most of my life, I’ve been the active avoider. I’ve fled at the first sign of intimacy, often panicking whenever the relationship progressed. I also often chose people who were inappropriate from the get-go: like the man eight years my senior who had a three year old daughter I started dating when I was 19, the guy who was super into jiu-jitsu and bored me to death and whose mother hated me, the dudes (yup, plural) who had just gotten out of relationships, the drug addict who was about to serve time in jail for his third DUI, the man eighteen years my senior who was physically repulsive to me. I chose these men specifically because I knew a long-term relationship was not possible.

My commitment fears have stemmed a lot from my childhood. My mother, who should have protected me and cared for me, was extremely abusive. When a young child is abused, they can’t make sense of it, so they internalize messages like, “I’m bad or unworthy,” and I have felt that way my entire life.

My parents are also in a loveless, stifling marriage. They are both so obviously miserable. They sleep on separate floors of the same home, they never celebrate anniversaries, and I rarely ever remember them being affectionate.

Marriage has always seemed like a prison, like you sign up for it, give up your rights, and stay forever, despite how bad it gets. My own marriage was nearly that. I felt trapped and neglected in a marriage to a self-centered active drug addict, and I would have stayed with him and continued to be in that fucking awful marriage for likely forever if I hadn’t made the discoveries I did. Thus, marriage also feels like a place where I am likely to get duped.

When I left him, I felt freeeeeeeeeee! But I also felt lonely, and after several months, I started dating again, and I met my current partner. I was in a place where if my date with him didn’t work out, I was just going to take a break. The holidays were coming up, and I was getting tired of the scene, getting tired of dressing up, and getting disappointed. But then I met him, and he was everything I’d wanted: motivated, passionate, interesting, inspiring, kind, self-aware.

And we started dating, and because we were both sure this was a good thing, things moved quickly. Too quickly at times, and my partner was aware of how this had an effect on me. He’d sometimes text me something and then follow it up with a reminder to breathe. I’d literally start sweating at the the thought of further commitment.

But I also loved the idea of further commitment, especially with him. I’ve always wanted a healthy supportive romantic relationship, yet they have also terrified me.

And everything was well and good until last week.

I knew my partner was going to propose to me before June. I had a strong suspicion though, that it’d be earlier. I knew he was getting a large bonus in April. I also knew that he’d told me he had a clear two week period when he’d plan to propose. I was guessing that he’d purchase the ring after he got his bonus, and that the “two weeks” he was talking about were the last two weeks of April.

And I panicked. I started fault-finding. I started picking fights. I started doing everything I could to stave off the impending doom, the ball and chain, the handcuff, that would be that beautiful engagement ring. Which would seem ridiculous to some women. Who doesn’t want a pretty ring?!?

When I finally got honest with him, it was hard and painful:

“I don’t want to get engaged yet,” I had to say.

“And I don’t want to get married anytime soon,” I also had to say.

His response was so assuring. “Honey, that’s fine. We don’t ever have to get married if you don’t want to. We can wait however long. It’s no big deal.”

And I could breathe again.

Now I am in this space of trying to work through my panic and assess what I need. The book has clear ways of dealing with the space I’m currently in:

Ask yourself if your partner is actually appropriate for you to be with.

There might be actual reasons why you’re now ambivalent. The honeymoon phase has ended, and you’re realizing that you have nothing in common and completely different plans for the future. If this is the case, then you’re right in feeling panicky and should leave the relationship, maturely and with an explanation.

You could also have a perfectly appropriate partner, but you’re wanting to run away from your own expectations, fears, and projections about long-term commitment.

Get help.

See an experienced therapist. I am currently seeing one, and now she gets more to work on with me. yayyyyyy

Stay in the present.

I’m just going to unnecessarily freak myself out if I jump from where we are now to being in a suffocating marriage to signing the divorce papers.

Get honest.

Just like I did, it’s important to get honest about how you’re feeling. You don’t want your partner to think that you don’t want to be with them at all if you actually just want to go about things more slowly.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

Unreliable behavior is confusing and crazy-making for your partner, so if you don’t want to do something, you shouldn’t promise that I will. You also have to work through you fear of whatever expectations you think your partner will have around them.

Don’t create unreasonable boundaries.

It’s not fair for you to say “I want to see you only once a week” after seeing them nearly everyday or by withdrawing completely and just communicating over the phone. You have to make boundaries that are fair and reasonable and help you work through your shit in the meantime.

Don’t focus on your partner’s negative characteristics.

It’s easy to want to pick apart your partner to justify a need for a break-up, but that’s not fair. The only reason why those things might bother you now is because you’re frightened, so you need to work on dealing with your stuff before you unnecessarily pick apart and thus hurt your partner.

Don’t try to get your partner to break up with you.

Now isn’t the time to cheat or pick fights so you aren’t responsible for the end of the relationship and can play the victim. You have to work through YOUR issues, not make your partner so miserable that they finally give up.

Don’t say you need something if you actually don’t know what you need.

If you’re confused and don’t know what you need, give yourself time to figure out what you actually need before asking for it. If you say you need more time, but you actually need to practice your own self-care, you’re not being clear or fair to your partner or yourself. Wait until you’re certain and then ask.

I’m far from being “cured.” I’m far from being in a place of knowing that it’s certain that my partner and I will be together forever. I’m mostly in a place of journeying.

I also know this to be true, taken from here:

“In a good relationship you push each other’s buttons. We tend to pick mates who have many of the same qualities — positive and negative — as our parents. The unconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between past, present, and future and is always trying to heal old wounds in current time. As a result, in relationships, we tend to trigger each other’s old wounds.”

I am just trying to heal. One day at a time.