Commitment Issues

A young man holds open his arms for an embrace but his female partner looks distantCommitment issues, or a fear of commitment, is a term often used in reference to romantic relationships, but a person who finds it hard to commit may experience this difficulty in other areas of life. Individuals with commitment issues may experience mental distress and emotional difficulty when faced with situations that require dedication to a particular long-term goal. 

When an individual's fear of commitment leads to the development of anxiety or other mental health concerns, a therapist or other mental health professional can often help that person address and work through the issues. Some individuals may also wish to explore strategies to overcome commitment issues, especially when they have an impact on one's relationships and/or daily function. 

Understanding Commitment Issues

Commitment can be defined as a dedication or obligation that binds an individual to a particular person, cause, or course of action. Commitments may be made willingly or unwillingly, and a fear of commitment can affect an individual's life in a variety of ways. Though the term "commitment issues" may be frequently used to characterize an individual who seeks to avoid commitment in romantic relationships, it might also refer to issues at school or in the workplace. 

  • In the workplace, a fear of commitment may lead an individual to avoid or reject long-term projects or assignments. This behavior could have a negative impact on the employee's performance or overall effectiveness.
  • At school, a student who fears commitment might decide not to invest the time or effort needed to reach long-term academic or career goals. For example, a student might worry about the commitment required to succeed at college and decide not to apply.  
  • In a romantic relationship, commitment issues may prompt one or both partners to reject the opportunity to pursue a more stable, intimate arrangement, such as moving in together or getting married. 

Some individuals who fear committing to a long-term romantic relationship might actually desire a long-term partner while still experiencing discomfort at the thought of such a relationship. When this is the case, therapy can often uncover and address any issues that may have contributed to these feelings, and the individual may be able to work through them and achieve the connection desired. 

Commitment issues experienced within the context of an intimate relationship setting may be the result of attachment insecurity, which can manifest with three different thought patterns and behaviors: 

  • Fearful-avoidant: “I want a committed relationship, but I am afraid that I may get hurt.”
  • Dismissive-avoidant: “I do not need you, nor do I need you to depend on me.”
  • Anxious-preoccupied: “I really want to be close to you, but I do not think you want to be close to me.”

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People with commitment issues may agree to a long-term relationship at first and then begin to slowly withdraw from the relationship months, weeks, or even days later. Some individuals may move from one intense attachment to another with little understanding of what went wrong in previous relationships. Others may not desire the emotional entanglement that generally occurs in an intimate relationship and may decide to avoid long-term relationships altogether. Instead, they may decide to engage in “friends with benefits” relationships, short-term sexual flings, or one-night stands. They might also simply eschew intimacy altogether. However, when a person desires connection but fears seeking it out, this may lead to distress. 

Simply preferring short-term relationships is not necessarily indicative of a commitment issue. Many individuals prefer to have connections that are short in duration and have no wish to commit to another individual romantically, and the assumption that all people who avoid committed relationships have a fear of commitment or some other issue may be harmful to some. Deciding to live without commitment is a choice that a person may make, but problems can arise if a person expresses a desire for commitment that is untruthful and misleading or when a person desires a committed relationship but is unable to pursue one, due to commitment issues or fear. In both cases, therapy may be recommended. 

Popular culture often portrays males as being more likely to have commitment issues or to refuse to commit to a relationship, but anyone might be challenged by commitment issues, and no evidence suggests men are more likely than women to experience a fear of commitment.

Commitment Issues within Committed Relationships

Individuals already in a committed relationship may still experience commitment issues. Partners in a long-term relationship may experience one or more of the following: 

  • Personal commitment: This type of commitment describes a circumstance in which one decides to stay in a relationship of one's own volition. The person is committed to the relationship because that person genuinely wants to maintain the relationship. 
  • Moral commitment: Some individuals may choose to commit or remain committed due to strongly held beliefs or values. A person may wish to leave a relationship but still choose to stay, often due to religious or moral values or the belief that remaining committed is the "right" thing to do. While a person may make this decision independently, some couples may come to this conclusion together and attempt to work through it.
  • Structural commitment: An individual may choose not to leave a relationship due to the presence of barriers such as social pressures, lack of a suitable alternative partner, time and effort invested, and so on. Essentially, the individual may believe, "I've come this far, so why give up now?" 

The type of commitment upon which a long-term relationship is grounded may change as time passes. Studies show that attachment anxiety is positively related to structural commitment, and attachment avoidance is negatively linked with personal commitment. Therefore, intimate partners who are both personally committed to their relationship are more likely to be able to come together in order to face any challenges that could have a negative impact on the relationship. Relationships that are based solely on structural commitments, however, may be ended by one or both partners as soon as conditions become more favorable for separation.

Psychological Underpinnings of Commitment Issues

Attachment theory and the investment model can help facilitate understanding of both commitment and security issues. 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.

Research shows those who display avoidant behavior may tend to be more independent, less accommodating, and less forgiving. They are also more likely to prefer relationships with minimal intimacy. In some cases, this behavior may be the result of a past relationship, or multiple past relationships, with a partner who consistently proved to be undependable. Those who had caregivers who were unavailable, unresponsive, or overly intrusive may have learned to take care of their own needs from a young age and might have developed avoidant tendencies as a result. These individuals may see all potential romantic partners as unreliable and thus be unwilling to commit to a long-term relationship. 

The investment model also provides an explanation for relationship commitment. This theory proposes that commitment can be predicted based on three variables: satisfaction with the relationship, alternatives to the relationship, and investments in the relationship. Thus, one's motivation to remain within a relationship is dependent on whether relationship outcomes meet or exceed expectations (satisfaction), if desired outcomes are unavailable from other sources (alternatives), and what would be lost (investments) if the relationship was ended.

Potential Causes of Commitment Issues

Commitment issues might stem from a single traumatic event, early childhood stress, or a series of small events. Factors that may play some part in an individual's fear of commitment include: 

  • Parents' divorce or marital problems
  • Fear of ending up in an unsatisfying relationship
  • Media portrayal of the misery of committed relationships
  • Damaging previous relationships that included infidelity, abuse, or abandonment
  • Attachment issues
  • Difficulty trusting others

Some individuals confuse a person's desire for a non-monogamous or polyamorous relationship with commitment issues, but it is quite possible for a person to commit to a long-term romantic partner in an open relationship and still engage in casual sexual encounters outside the relationship. Polyamorous relationships can exist in many forms, but they generally involve some level of commitment to multiple partners. Although some people who have commitment issues may also be polyamorous or prefer open relationships, one should not assume that all non-monogamous individuals have commitment issues.

Effects of Commitment Issues

While individuals with commitment issues may begin an intimate relationship in search of validation or with the aim of having unfulfilled childhood needs met, they may wish to do so without a partner becoming too involved in their personal lives. Some researchers believe the tendency to remain independent is more of a defense mechanism than an avoidance of intimacy. 

A person with commitment issues may display maladaptive behaviors within romantic relationships, and those who display avoidant tendencies may be less happy, have less satisfying relationships, and be more prone to illness than other individuals. Research shows that individuals with insecure attachments may be at increased risk for developing depression, especially if they experience difficulty accessing social or professional support.

Commitment issues might affect one's performance at school or in the workplace as well as one's romantic relationships. Because this can have a negative impact on a person's ability to succeed, it may be helpful to address this concern in therapy. 

Some individuals who fear commitment may desire a long-term romantic relationship, but as a result of their own fears, engage in self-sabotaging behavior or end the relationship after a point for no real reason. However, this can often lead to mental distress. An individual may feel as if it is impossible to have a successful relationship and develop feelings of worthlessness or depression. 

The partner of a person who has commitment issues may find these issues difficult to understand, especially when the partner who has difficulty with commitment opens up, then pulls away. This behavior can be confusing and may have a negative impact on the other partner's mental and emotional state, and it may lead to a rift in the relationship or to its end. However, when a person is open and honest with a partner, in a serious relationship it may often be possible to work through commitment issues. This can often lead to a stronger relationship, though the fear of commitment may still remain a recurring issue in the relationship.

Treating Commitment Issues in Therapy

One's fear of commitment can often be addressed and treated in therapy. A therapist can often help an individual uncover potential causes of commitment issues and explore ways to work through these issues. When an individual's fear of commitment leads to depression, loneliness, or other concerns, a therapist may be able to help treat these conditions as well. A person in a committed relationship who finds the level of commitment involved to be challenging may also seek the support of a therapist, especially if anxiety, stress, or other conditions develop.

Couples counseling might also help address issues that arise in a committed relationship when the level or type of commitment changes. The support of a therapist may be beneficial as a person attempts to decide on the best course of action within a relationship that is negatively impacted by one or both partners' fear of commitment. 

Some mental health professionals specialize in treating commitment issues, and they may be especially skilled at helping an individual recognize and understand the fear of commitment, whether it developed as a result of recent failed relationships, from events that took place in childhood, or has no clear cause. Therapy can also help a person develop communication skills, which may help one become better able to discuss a fear of commitment and any related issues with potential partners. 

Some individuals may mislead others, intentionally or unintentionally, leading them to believe in the possibility of a long-term relationship. Therapy can be helpful in this case, as a therapist may be able to help individuals understand the reasons behind this type of dishonesty and help them develop the ability to be more truthful about their needs and desires. 

Case Examples

  • Distress and commitment issues after failed relationships: Stefen, 30, enters therapy, reporting symptoms of depression. He tells the therapist he has been feeling lonely and hopeless about his romantic future since his divorce the year before. He and his ex-wife had dated for three years and were married for three, but she left him. Although he has tried to date since then, the relationships have only caused him more distress. He tells the therapist he wants to be in a committed, long-term relationship again, he wants to be married and have a family, but he is afraid he will be hurt again. He has "gotten over" his ex-wife, but he still experiences hurt when thinking of the end of their relationship. The therapist helps him to see that some relationships do end painfully, but that not all relationships will end in such a manner. She encourages him to define for himself what he desires out of a relationship so he can be honest with himself and any potential partners and reminds him that it is all right to take his time when seeking out future connections. They continue meeting for several sessions, and Stefen finds himself able to work through his depression and gain a more positive outlook for his future.
  • Therapy to identify potential commitment issues: Andrea, 28, enters therapy, telling the therapist she has lately been experiencing confusion about her relationships and what it is she wants from them. Andrea has been in a few long-term relationships but does not feel positive about them. She tells the therapist that her friends have told her she simply has not met the right person. She agrees she has never met anyone who she desired to be in a lasting relationship with, but she also believes she never wants to be in a committed relationship. Andrea reports feeling satisfied with her friendships and with the casual flings she engages in and that she has no desire for anything else. Her confusion and distress arise from the fact that this is not considered to be "normal" by most people. The therapist tells Andrea she is not abnormal, and there is nothing wrong with not desiring commitment, marriage, or children. Andrea agrees that when she tries to maintain a long-term relationship, she inevitably ends it as a result of the anxiety and distress she experiences. This causes her to feel further distress as a result of hurting her partner. The therapist helps Andrea to clearly develop and describe her goals so she can be aware of them for herself, also encouraging Andrea to maintain honesty with potential partners about what she wants so there is less possibility of others being hurt. 

References:

  1. Braithwaite, S. R., Aaron, S. C., Dowdle, K. K., Spjut, K. & Fincham, F. D. (2015). Does pornography consumption increase participation in friends with benefits relationships? Sexuality & Culture, 19, 513–532. DOI 10.1007/s12119-015-9275-4
  2. Etcheverry, P. E., Le, B., Wu, T. & Wei, M. (2013). Attachment and the investment model: Predictors of relationship commitment, maintenance, and persistence. Personal Relationships, 20, 546-567. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2012.01423.x
  3. Ho, M. Y., Chen, S. X., Bond, M. H., Hui, C. M., Chan, C. & Friedman, M. (2012). Linking adult attachment styles to relationship satisfaction in Hong Kong and the United States: The mediating role of personal and structural commitment. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13, 565–578. DOI 10.1007/s10902-011-9279-1
  4. Larson, J. H., Taggart-Reedy, M. & Wilson, S. M. (2001). The effects of perceived dysfunctional family-of-origin rules on the dating relationships of young adults. Contemporary Family Therapy, 23(4), 489-512.
  5. Rutherford-Morrison, L. (2015, February 27). 6 Signs You Might Seriously Be a Commitment-Phobe. Retrieved from http://www.bustle.com/articles/66794-6-signs-you-might-seriously-be-a-commitment-phobe

 

Last updated: 11-09-2015

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