Steven Carter with co-author Julia Sokol has written much about a condition called commitment phobia. Commitment phobia is the inability to create deep, emotionally connected and long-lasting relationships. Commitment phobia can be easy to identify in those people who frequently run from relationship prospects as soon as they get serious. But on the other side of the coin are the people who frequently find themselves involved in with partners who run away. They are also commitment phobics, as are people that withhold in relationships or keep sides of themselves hidden from partners.
"Commitment phobic relationships are unions in which one or both partners are resisting commitment. Often the partner who is running away from love does so by constructing boundaries that may start out with almost instant intimacy and a strong sexual connection, but then one partner refuses to allow further connections to develop. Ultimately the relationship may become heavily lopsided. There are strong emotional bonds of passion and intensity, but the other ties of shared experiences are lacking. The relationship never opens up and grows. Many times we think we have made a powerful connection only to realize later that the connection itself had no teeth. We may think we have experienced a special bonding only to see that the bond was a superficial one, or one based on false information or, worse, fantasies and false hopes.
We are sometimes so anxious to find love that we are seduced by the possibility of a loving connection long before the real connection is made. We often painfully discover that some people simply can't form real connections. They may do a great meeting, or a great phone call, or a great ten minutes. But they can't keep showing up. They can't be real and stay real. It all feels too vulnerable, too raw, too exposed. There are too many chances to get rejected, hurt, misunderstood, or manipulated." - Getting To Commitment, Steven Carter with Julia Sokol
His writing resonated with me particularly as I have personally experienced all sides of the commitment phobic coin. I was either having surface level relationships, running away from people that seemed too normal, or infatuated with men that were intense, distant and defensive. If you asked me what I wanted to find it was always a ‘deep’ relationship and expecting that this would just happen with the right person. Reading books by Carter & Sokol and other authors, opened my eyes to the perspective that my relationship history could not be blamed on other people. I had made the choice of who to invest in, and I had been hiding parts of myself in relationships, unable to risk a deep bond.
So how do we form strong connections? Take responsibility, act accordingly and slowly reveal ourselves with stable partners.
Origins of Commitment phobia
Commitment phobia is the result of fears and unprocessed attachment trauma.
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 - What is Commitment Phobia & Relationship Anxiety, John M. Grohol, Psych Central
This trauma creates fears, like the fear of rejection, fear of abandonment, engulfment, fear of losing control or being controlled. The fear of responsibility, fear of being vulnerable and fear of demands and expectations. These fears if not dealt with will cause low self-confidence, difficulty in making decisions, poor judgement and a need to be in control. This could be wanting to control a partners behavior, how much we are prepared to feel, or wanting to control the outcome of relationships.
How to Take Responsibility
Not picking the path to disappointment – The less we understand our attachment history and emotional needs the more likely we are to pick partners that will lead to disappointment. A good question to consider if whether you attach to partner’s very quickly and ignore early warning signs hoping that it will just work out in the end. Perhaps it’s picking a partner that is already involved, emotionally unavailable or lives long-distance. Maybe you only want partners when they are not interested in you, this evidences that you are more comfortable with distance than closeness. It can feel uncomfortable to ask some of the more revealing questions about a partner’s dating history often because the answer might not be what we want it to be. However, these are the types of questions that help gauge if its safe to invest more in the relationship. Focus on what they have learnt about themselves from past relationships and be wary of anyone that constantly blames ex partners. It’s useful to ask what their views on commitment are and how the usually deal with the end of a relationship. Then focus on really listening to the answers and if their views might fit in with yours.
Believe mixed messages - A person with commitment issues is a person with internal conflict. All humans have the need for love and connection no matter how much it might have been buried or denied. Commitment phobics also have a need to create distance in relationships which creates the conflict. They might even come out and tell you early on that they are not looking for anything serious or that they struggle to make things work. This kind of message you need to pay serious attention to and give it as much attention as you do the positive aspects of them. It’s likely that they will also switch moods very quickly and appear quite volatile. For example, if they are warm and seeking closeness one moment and then cold and withholding the next moment. Being in conflict means being unable to make a decision about what you want which results in a pull-push scenario.
Don't create a fantasy relationship - Consider how happy a potential partner is making you moment by moment. It can be easy in the early stages of a relationship to get swept along with dreams of the future and filling the gaps in your knowledge of the person with your desires. Is a potential partner showing genuine interest in your life through actions and not just words. How does this person make you feel when you are not with them, are they trying to contribute to your happiness or just take from it. Do you find yourself thinking up excuses for their difficult behavior. To be able to prevent falling into the fantasy relationship trap, we need to be willing to ask the deeper more vulnerable questions and really take note of the answers. What does a potential partner want in terms of a relationship. Do you want similar things from life. People with commitment phobia often believe that a fantasy partner will complete them, make life perfect and that they will never have an argument or disappointment again.
Deal with conflict - Being comfortable in a relationship means being comfortable with some conflicts. This could be everyday conflicts or conflicts about your feelings on commitment. Being comfortable with giving up aspects of your freedom to be in a relationship or being comfortable with not knowing how a relationship is going to work out. Staying and resolving conflicts helps you learn more skills to deal with issues as they happen rather than letting them fester and destroy the relationship.
What is the blame game? This is the response I have when someone does something that is triggering to me. A good example in my own life was when my wife was telling me about something that she didn’t feel was cleaned properly. I felt hurt by this and pulled away from her. I started to create the blame game story: “she is so critical, I never do anything right.” My wife checked in noticing that I was pulling away but instead of being honest I told her everything was fine. Finally, after cooling down a bit, I was able to tell to her how how I felt. We processed it through and things were back to normal. If I had stayed in the blame game I could have been disconnected for days.
For me it is creating the new belief that whatever I’m feeling comes from me and not from someone else. This manifests in my life in profound ways. When I’m with my partner and she shuts down emotionally (maybe I said something triggering) I may notice a feeling of hurt inside myself. This is real hurt. And, it is not comfortable. Instead of going to the blame game and projecting my hurt back on to my partner, getting defensive and berating her for her behavior, I acknowledge my hurt and actually feel it. Then I can come from a different place and let my partner know that I’m feeling hurt. Not because of her but because I just feel hurt. The way of saying this is, “when you pulled away from me emotionally, I felt hurt.” Very different than saying, “you hurt my feelings when you pulled away.” - 5 Strategies For Ending The Blame Game And Taking Responsibility, Bryce Mathern, Brassballs Tender Heart
Remember Actions Have Consequences - Human beings are biologically wired to connect and fall in love. If you tell prospective partners that you are not interested in a relationship but continue to spend time with them and do relationship type behaviors its highly likely that they will develop feelings for you. Here your actions are not matching your words and you are not taking responsibility. Don't be surprised if they expect the relationship to develop. Constantly coming in and out of someones life is only going to cause pain for both of you. If you are withholding information as a way to keep someone interested then you are trying to control the relationship. If you are dating many people at once make sure everyone knows so they have the ability to make their own informed choices. Slow down the pursuit of partners, a fast pursuit will magnify commitment anxieties. Only make promises when you know you can keep them.
Stay Grounded - Always monitor if you are on the same page with a prospective partner. Is one partner trying to create distance or do you feel that you are moving at radically different speeds. Are things being withheld, can you have open discussions. Make sure you don't move to quickly and put undue pressure on a relationship. People show you who they truly are later in a relationship. Try to approach your relationships with balance, balancing desires, intense feelings with clear thinking and safe boundaries.
Be Vulnerable - Being brave enough to show a partner who you are, imperfections and all. This means being able to discuss fears, insecurities, ,needs, feelings and hurts. Spending lots of time together doing things but never sharing our inner most selves can create a very lonely relationship. Give partners a chance to be seen by asking the right questions and listening or sharing each others interests. The everyday small moments as well as the big ones. Be more accepting of your own flaws and partners flaws. You cant change someone but you can support their growth. A strong emotional connection comes from both partners being able to reveal themselves through emotions, actions, sharing vulnerabilities and shared experiences.
Steven Carter with Julia Sokol, Getting To Commitment: Overcoming The 8 Greatest Obstacles To Lasting Connection, M. Evans Publishers - https://www.amazon.com/Getting-Commitment-Overcoming-Obstacles-Connection/dp/0871319055
Steven Carter with Julia Sokol, Men Who Can't Love, M. Evans Publishers - https://www.amazon.com/Men-Who-Cant-Love-Commitmentphobic/dp/0871319993
John M. Grohol,What is Commitment Phobia & Relationship Anxiety, Psych Central - https://psychcentral.com/blog/what-is-commitment-phobia-relationship-anxiety/
Bryce Mathern, 5 Strategies For Ending The Blame Game And Taking Responsibility, Brassballs Tender Heart - http://www.brassballstenderheart.com/emotions/5-strategies-taking-responsibility-emotions/