Emily and Eric had been dating for one year, and they’d had several conversations about getting married, but Eric hadn’t popped the question yet. Emily’s friends asked her regularly when they were planning on getting married because she had often talked about wanting to be a wife and thinking that Eric was the one.
Everything seemed to be going well. Emily and Eric’s friends liked the relationship, and their families thought they seemed very compatible. So Eric was shocked when after two years of dating, Emily turned his marriage proposal down.
That night, Emily’s mom called. Through tears, Emily told her mom, “I wasn’t ready yet. I love Eric, and I want to be his wife, but when I saw him kneeling there with the ring, I just couldn’t say yes. I feel like I’m going to be trapped if I say yes.”
Maybe you’ve never turned down a marriage proposal, but have you ever been flooded with fear before making a big decision? It can be so much more comfortable to linger in uncertainty instead of choosing a course of action, knowing you can’t go back.
The fear of commitment can surface in other areas of your life besides romantic relationships. It might prevent you from settling on a career path, moving to a new area, or choosing a major in college. Any decision that limits your future can seem daunting and frightening. It’s too hard to deal with the overwhelming fear, so you end up avoiding these decisions or putting them off as long as possible.
What causes an unreasonable fear of commitment? How can you overcome it, and how can you know if and when your fears are justified? If you’ve realized that your commitment phobia is affecting your life, you’re probably ready to do whatever you can to overcome it. Or maybe it’s your partner who has a fear of commitment and you’re feeling hurt that they are keeping you at arm’s length.
Keep reading to find out more about the fear of commitment and how you can work through it in your relationships and your life.
What is Fear of Commitment?
How can you tell if you just have “normal” cold feet in your relationship, vs. allowing a dysfunctional fear to wreak havoc? Don’t most people feel kind of afraid to commit? When does it cross a line into something you might need help overcoming?
If you’re reading this article, you probably recognize that the fear of commitment is causing problems in your relationship, whether it’s you or your partner who is fearful. So let’s break it down a little more. The word commitment means “an engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action.”
A commitment restricts your freedom. Isn’t that the root of your fear? When you keep your options open, you still feel free. But there’s a problem with this kind of freedom. When we always keep our options open, we never get to enjoy the rewards of commitment – a fulfilling marriage, for example, or a rewarding career.
A fear of commitment can also be known as commitment phobia or relationship anxiety. These terms aren’t an official diagnosis; they’re just used to a sense of extreme anxiety in a relationship that prevents the relationship from moving forward naturally. According to Psych Central:
“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.”
As you can see, relationship anxiety prevents you from having what you really want. You might desire to be in a long-term relationship, to get married, to trust your partner and enjoy your life with them. But you’re held back from this ultimate goal by your own overwhelming fear.
If this describes you, don’t lose hope – you can overcome the fear of commitment. It doesn’t have to prevent you from having the relationship or life you desire.
Commitment and Attachment Theory
Psychologists offer a few explanations for the root of commitment phobia, and one of the explanations stems from attachment theory. Good Therapy explains:
“According to attachment theory, the quality of the relationship will depend on an attachment figure’s alertness,responsiveness,and availability to meet the individual’s personal needs. Additionally, attachment theory suggests that prior social interactions – particularly those experienced in childhood – can also influence a person’s behavior and may have a significant impact on the way an individual perceives relationships in adulthood.” [emphasis added]
So, if you experienced an insecure attachment with your caregiver(s) as a child, you might struggle to have a healthy attachment in adult relationships. You might be afraid to trust them and make a long-term commitment.
Or you might have experienced an insecure adult relationship that has led to fears of committing to someone else. Your partner may not have been emotionally available or responsive to your needs. Here are a few more possible causes of the fear of commitment (Psych Central):
- Dysfunctional environment in the family of origin
- Experience of trauma or abuse in childhood
- A past unhealthy relationship
- Specific fears: of the relationship ending without prior notice, of someone hurting you unexpectedly, etc.
Many experiences can act as triggers for a fear of commitment, causing you to struggle with ongoing anxiety.
Symptoms of the Fear of Commitment
Here are some behaviors that you or your partner might display if you are afraid to commit:
- Feelings of anxiety or uneasiness when your partner brings up plans or talks about commitment
- Avoiding planning for the future or discussing where the relationship is headed
- Avoiding emotional vulnerability and closeness
- Engaging in a series of short-term relationships that lack depth; moving on before things get too serious
- Ghosting the other person for days at a time, especially once you’re past the very early stages of a relationship
Every relationship moves at its own pace, and it takes some people longer than others to make a decision to commit. That’s normal. But a chronic fear of commitment can prevent you from moving forward even when you really want to. It can become an inner battle to allow yourself to commit to someone. This struggle can prevent you from enjoying a fulfilling relationship.
Is a Fear of Commitment Ever Justified?
It’s crucial to listen to your intuition in every relationship, not just romantic ones, but especially before you make a lifetime commitment to someone. A fear of commitment and a sense that something is wrong or unhealthy are two different things.
If you are in a relationship and you are hesitating about commitment, ask yourself whether this fear is a pervasive pattern or whether it’s specific to this relationship. The younger and more inexperienced you are, the harder it can be to tell the difference.
Get advice from your family, friends, or a qualified Christian counselor if you need help discerning whether you’re dealing with an unhealthy relationship. Don’t ignore red flags, warning signs, or the fact that you and this person may not be compatible. Taking your time, praying, and using discernment are all healthy behaviors that partners should respect in each other.
But allowing a chronic fear of commitment to prevent you from forming an emotional attachment is something altogether different. Don’t feel bad about taking time to commit, but don’t let fear control you, either.
Overcoming a Fear of Commitment
Anxiety isn’t a rational thing; it’s a stress response to a perceived threat. So you can’t just reason yourself out of your fear of commitment. But you can start gradually teaching your brain and emotions that you’re safe and it’s okay to let your guard down little by little, and eventually make a long-term commitment.
You can start by taking small steps in the right direction. Commit to short-term plans. Commit to plans a few months away. Gradually increase your capacity to make a commitment for your future.
Recognize that regret is part of life. None of us have perfect foresight and unrestricted freedom. Every choice we make to do one thing is a choice not to do something else. None of us will choose perfectly. Our realities will always be limited by our own decisions.
Trust God’s plan for your life and that he can and will work all things together for your good (Romans 8:28). Commitment and responsibility are inextricably linked. Once you’ve committed to a course of action, you now have responsibilities related to it, and that’s okay. Living up to your responsibilities and commitments will make you a healthier, stronger person.
If you or your partner is struggling with a fear of commitment, don’t be afraid to talk about it together. The individual struggling may choose to get individual counseling for fear of commitment, where he or she can work through possible attachment issues, childhood experiences, and past relationships. Couples counseling can also help you work through these issues together.
The fear of commitment doesn’t have to stop you from having a fulfilling life and relationship. Reach out for a risk-free initial appointment with one of our Christian counselors today so you can take the next steps towards living in freedom.
“Dilemma”, Courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Do I Love Him?”, Courtesy of Jonathan Andrew, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Holding Hands”, Courtesy of TranStudios Photography Video, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Bonds of Love”, Courtesy of Pixabay, Pexels.com, CC0 License