The Psychology of Commitment Phobia
Here’s what it means if the idea of being in a relationship freaks you out.
Eugenio Marongiu/Getty Images
My last relationship broke down after four months and I don’t have to ask if it was due, partially, to my ex’s commitment issues. She told me. “I chose the wrong person and it cost me six years,” said Emily*, a divorcee. “I don’t want to make the same mistake.”
Our relationship had started to feel more like we were negotiators than lovers. We had argued about abstract stuff: emotional space, being “present” when I was with her, communication styles. I had walked her off the edge a few times, convinced her the relationship was worth salvaging, but that had started to feel demeaning: Why should I have to plead with someone to accept my love and devotion? I was exhausted and had no distance left to run, in the words of a Britpop song. I reinstalled Tinder that day.
The concepts of “commitment phobia” and “commitment readiness” have been useful for clinical psychologists—who view them as motivators for partners to exit relationships or impede intimacy. “My experience is that people are not aware of their behavior, and how they act is a symptom of their true feelings about commitment,” says Racine Henry, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Sankofa Marriage and Family Therapy in New York City. “Their hesitance is [often] fear of being abandoned or trauma in their family of origin.”
The internal battles of “commitment phobes” are often complicated or agitated by the stigma over gravitating towards a single life or casual relationship in a society that has preferred—and until very recently insisted on—loving, long-term monogamy as the only happy ending. “I think it can be embarrassing to say ‘I don’t want a commitment.’” Henry says. “I don’t know if there’s space in our relationship models to say that. I think there a lot of ways to have a relationship, [and] a lot of people who don’t need to be in a relationship.”
If commitment-averse people have a hunch that they’d do just as well alone, however, there is evidence to support that, as well as a growing need to study the subfield of commitment phobia given the growing single population of Western countries, says Yuthika Girme, a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada.
Americans, for instance, are increasingly putting off marrying to prioritize personal and career aspirations. Casual sex is becoming more normative, and increases in divorce rates through the 20th century has meant a growing population of older single people.
“I think the trends speak for themselves,” Girme says. “More people are seeking to advance their careers than in other generations and there’s a need to [avoid getting] tied down.” This area of study has required psychologists to parse out who is averse to commitment and who embraces it, and to separate those with “avoidance goals” and “approach goals.” For this, they rely on an old tool: the survey.
For a 2016 study, Girme and several co-authors set out to discover if people who express anxiety about relationship issues were happier solo or partnered. The subjects took surveys and agreed or disagreed with statements that indicated they had “avoidance goals”— statements like, “I try to avoid disagreements and conflicts with people close to me” and “I try to make sure that nothing bad happens to my close relationships.” The researchers also included statements that would indicate a subject has “approach goals”—like, “I try to enhance bonding and intimacy in my close relationships.” Through this process, they separated their sample into those who had “avoidance personality” and those with an “approaching personality.”
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Studies like these have shown some acute differences in how “avoidant” and “approaching” types interpret their emotions and relationships. For instance, research shows that attachment-avoidant people tend to overestimate the intensity of their partners’ negative emotions. In one study, they showed greater bodily discomfort in response to an emotionally intense video clip. Some researchers have suggested that attachment-avoidant people respond better to “soft” displays of security and affection, like listening and showing dependability, than grand displays of love. Calling after a difficult work day or a providing a ride to the airport may position a partner better than an epic Valentine’s Day surprise.
Willingness to commit, however, is not tested in the early stages of a relationship or even in the decision to be exclusive. It’s tested when conflict arises, when romantic partners have to decide how the relationship should proceed or one takes issue with another’s communication style. People with aversion to commitment “get angry and overreact,” Henry says. “They don’t like having accountability. They get defensive when [their partner] makes a point.”
Those dedicated to the relationship will throw their partner a lifeline, even if they’re upset. “They will tell their partners what they need,” Henry says, “and say, ‘I need x, y and z to repair this.’” More commitment-averse ones will remain stunned and not offer a way forward, she says.
“Commitment phobes” are often acting, either consciously or unconsciously, out of trauma from past relationships, either romantic or familial. “Their parents might have been neglectful or not around,” says Benjamin Hadden, an assistant professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University, who has studied attachment avoidance. “Many relationships may have let them down. They’ve learned that others can’t be relied on. Being close to other people is hazardous.”
Commitment-averse people tend to have had many short-term or casual relationships and overstate the flaws of their partners, Henry says. They tend not to see themselves as the problem. “They might say, ‘Oh, I’ve had bad luck in relationships.’” While some are quick to break off relationships, others let them stagnate or never deepen emotional bonds. They avoid natural “next steps,” like cohabitation or marriage. Commitment-averse people who stay in shallow relationships tend “not to grow in the relationship,” Henry says. “They are just together in perpetuity.”
If an avoidant type decides that effort doesn’t seem worth it, they might be right: In Girme’s study, she and her coauthors used surveys of daily life satisfaction to determine which personality types were happier, in and outside of a relationship. The people who reported the greatest daily life satisfaction were the ones high in attachment goals and in a committed relationship. Notably, however, for people high in avoidance goals, happiness was not tied, positively or negatively, to being in a relationship. Girme says this indicates people with anxiety in relationships are just as happy without one. “For single people, there is a lot of pressure to ‘fix the situation,’” she says, “particularly among people who are older.”
Ideas about “settling down” and “happily ever after,” of course, have been peddled for centuries—from the Cinderella archetype to Jim and Pam on “The Office” to your mom nagging about grandkids. Staying single is even discouraged in US tax laws and healthcare policy, which offer perks to married couples. Singleness stigmatization can create internal conflict for “commitment phobes.” But norms are changing.
Coupling permanently and raising a family used to be the only idea of a successful life, says David Ezell, clinical director of Darien Wellness, a psychology clinic in Connecticut. “That was the only future people perceived for themselves, [but] now that’s not true. There are some options besides dependency,” Ezell says. Those options can be dizzying, even. While choosing between a relationship and a career may be a cliché (especially to women), Ezell says his clients do it and feel conflicted about it. In a hurried world, you pick what to prioritize. There’s also cohabitation, casual sex, and polyamory as alternatives to the Phil and Claire Dunfy life.
If you’re looking—even tacitly—for a partner, dating apps create the perception that limitless choices of partners exist locally. If one has more exotic interests, those are also enabled by a hyper-connected world. “People who were furries used to keep [those thoughts] to themselves,” Ezell says. “Now, they can go online and join up with the other furries.” Committing to the person you’re with no longer seems like an inevitable path or the best option.
Another way is being willfully without a partner. Glynnis MacNicol, a writer in New York City, says she felt dread leading up to her 40th birthday, particularly as longtime friends got married and were raptured away from the tightknit group and into lives where their partners and children occupied much of their time. She looked back on her recent dating history as a series of mistakes: “There are no narratives for women, outside of marrying and having kids,” MacNicol says. “Forty is supposed to be a deadline. You’re supposed to shrivel up and die.”
She details her own evolving relationship with mid-life singleness in her recently published memoir, No One Tells You. (Spoiler alert: She found that she is okay with a life outside of coupled partnership.) MacNicol wouldn’t call herself “alone,” she says. She lives upstairs from a friend she’s known since college and has a wide circle of other friends. Pictures of them and their children adorn her fridge. But as for a committed partner? She can do without one. “I quite enjoy being by myself,” she says.
Hadden, the Florida Atlantic psychology professor, co-authored a study on the self-reported relationship readiness of college-age adults, and the impact of that “readiness factor” on whether or not they sought out or entered a relationship in a period of four-to-seven months.
“It was to test out the idea that ‘it just happens,’” he says. The conclusion: It doesn’t, they found. Subjects kept diaries of their behavior. Those who said they were “ready” and had attachment goals acted differently than those who said they weren’t ready and had avoidance goals. They engaged potential partners in conversation more often, dressed and groomed more consciously, and were more likely to initiate dates.
“People can meaningfully judge whether or not they’re ready,” Hadden says. “It may not be completely accurate, but it has real implications.” Self-esteem and positive feelings towards intimacy, not surprisingly, were traits associated with relationship-seeking behavior, but the greatest predictor was fear of being alone, Hadden says. People who agreed with statements like, “It scares me to think that there might not be anyone out there for me” and “I feel anxious when I think about being single forever” showed high levels of partner-seeking behavior and satisfaction with relationships once they found them. Attachment-avoidant people may get pegged as “commitment phobes,” but fear drives both personality types.
This hits home for me. Emily and I seemed pretty good on paper: We were interested in each other’s work. We hiked and cooked together, and we had memorized the same dialogue in Buffy episodes. But had a misalignment of fears: I am petrified of being alone and she was anxious about being with the wrong person. We sought different assurances—me that the relationship would continue, and she that it would always be safe and tranquil. I had an “approaching personality” and she had an “avoidance personality.” We batted other issues back and forth trying to avoid that essential disconnect.
“I think we talk about qualities of the person we want,” Henry told me later. “We talk about wanting someone educated, someone who wants to travel, but we don’t talk about what we want from a partner.”
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