Marriage and the Fear of Commitment
Many years ago my wife and I were surprised when a friend announced that she and her long time boyfriend broke-up. They were together for fifteen years. During that time, each lived in their own apartment, moving back and forth between apartments as it suited them. She asked that he move in but he never did. During that fifteen year period of time she discussed marriage with him many times. He always reassured her that they would marry but that, for one reason or another, they must wait. Finally, they decided to marry and set a wedding date. He then promptly broke off the relationship and she never saw him again. It was rumored that he married someone else but that was never confirmed.
Commitment phobia or the fear of intimacy is all too real. The rate of divorce in the United States is estimated to be about fifty percent. While there are no statistics on how many of these are due to fear of intimacy, there is no question that at least some are. An interesting article in the Huffington Post explains some of the reasons for divorce.
Stefanie Stahl wrote a book entitled, Yes, No, Maybe: How to Recognize and Overcome the Fear of Commitment, that delves into the reasons why some people fear closeness. Stahl points out that marriage does not mean the absence of fear of commitment and that individuals who are married for years can harbor this fear, ultimately spelling the end of the marriage. She goes on to explain some of the many ways intimacy-phobes escape commitment. Here are just a few:
1. Escape through work: As Americans we respect the work ethic but fail to recognize that it can be easily be used to escape from serious relationships. This happens with some medical doctors, lawyers and other professionals. Simply, life can be filled with so many work and volunteer projects that there is no time for intimacy. It’s a good excuse for putting off dating, coming home early, truly being in a marriage, getting married or even getting to know available people.
2. Escape through infidelity: What better way is to get out of a marriage or a serious relationship than to cheat. In effect, it destroys the relationship. One has to wonder how many divorces happen because of just this strategy.
3. Avoiding any kind of relationship: There are those who never get close to intimacy because they make themselves utterly unavailable. For these people and many other commitment-phobes, being in a committed relationship feels too confining and even claustrophobic.
4. Escaping through illness: The “phobe” suddenly develops a toothache or some other problem when it’s time to meet so that the meeting with the supposed lover never occurs.
5. Escape through the loss in sexual interest: In this scenario the “phobe” starts off a relationship very passionately and then totally loses interest so that the partner becomes extremely frustrated and leaves the relationship.
These are just a few strategies that Stahl discusses in her book.
The Causes of Commitment Phobia:
The causes of commitment-phobia are as varied as the people who suffer from it. Typically, many people with commitment issues have complained of having experienced poor romantic relationships in the past or witnessed, first-hand, disastrous relationships such as their parents’ acrimonious relationship. Other common causes of commitment phobia may include:
Fear of, or having had, the relationship end suddenly, without notice or warning signs.
Fear of not being in the “right” relationship.
Fear of, being in an unhealthy relationship (characterized by abandonment, infidelity, abuse, etc.)
Trust issues because of past hurts inflicted by those close to the person.
Childhood trauma or abuse.
Unmet childhood needs or attachment issues.
Complicated family dynamics while growing up.
One of the most profound reasons for the fear of intimacy is what psychologists refer to as attachment. From the time we are born it is important that we are nurtured, held and caressed by our mothers.
However, there are mothers who bring problems to their infant that go back to when they themselves were infants and how they were treated by their mothers. For example, a mother who has been traumatized or is a very insecure and depressed person may not be able to provide the kind and type of nurturing that will help that infant grow into a secure and confident type of person. What this translate into is that this individual will not be able to attach to a significant other in ways that feel safe and assuring. Another way of stating this is to say that our childhood experiences stemming all the way back to infancy, determines how we interact with others and how well we can enter into committed relationships.
Going back to the situation described at the beginning of this article, it is safe to assume that both of these individuals feared intimacy. The boyfriend could sustain the relationship so long as they had separate apartments and had no final date for marriage. Once it was decided they would marry, fears of intimacy took over, probably having to do with loss of control, being swallowed up by the other, and being stuck in a “forever” situation from which there is no escape.
On the other hand, she also had commitment problems. Her’s were manifested in the fact that she could wait around all of those years in the hope that he would marry. As long as he was nearby, she could tolerate what seemed to be his logical reasons for waiting.
In the interests of being fair to her, many people like her are seduced by the promise of marriage at some time in the future only to discover that the future never comes. There are those people who break-up and come together again, always with the promise that they will make it permanent.