Boris Thomas, JD, PhD

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Commitment Phobic?

We hear people diagnosing themselves and others as "commitment phobic."  What does it mean?  Do commitment phobes all share the same characteristics? Does commitment phobia stem from one specific set of sources?  

Determine What Commitment Means To You

The fear of being committed (however defined) to another in a romantic relationship can stem from any number of sources.  It's important for each individual to determine what commitment means to him/her.  Does it signal  

  • a loss of freedom, growth, creativity and autonomy?  
  • the risk of emotional vulnerability?
  • buying into predetermined societal roles and obligations like those associated with marriage or children?

And commitment phobia doesn’t relate only to romantic relationships.  In the case of a business partnership, does commitment to working together and running ideas past a partner  sound a death knell for spontaneity or the “thrill of the deal”?

 Expand Your Relationship Definition

Relationships are not monolithic.  Many have an idea that the rules and boundaries of relationships were set in stone ages ago and can never be changed.  Here’s the good news:  There are many different types of committed relationships out there.  Common to the most long-lasting and satisfying relationships is the ability of the relationship to expand and hold the continued growth and change of each individual partner. Research shows that many successful relationships are actually successful negotiations.  Of course, it's always easier to come to a satisfactory and mutually pleasing outcome if we start the negotiation from positions that are relatively close together rather than far apart.  

Be and Become Yourself in Your Relationship

In a romantic relationship the individual self has to make room for the shared identity of the couple.  When I work with individuals and with couples, I am interested in knowing whether the individuals feel that they are self actualized.  Does the individual have a sense of who he or she is?  For the person who does not know him or herself, a committed relationship can appear two different ways.  For the commitment phobic individual, it can appear to be a trap--the end of self actualization.  For others, a committed relationship is a way to avoid the hard work of determining a strong sense of self and realizing personal goals and dreams.  

Acknowledge/Transcend Old Relationship Models

What kind of relationships did your parents or other caregivers have?  Were they close, long-lasting, short-lived, healthy, unhealthy, calm, conflictual, etc?  Just because an individual was raised in a family where there were unhealthy relationships, it doesn't mean that the individual will not want or be successful in a committed relationship.  The experience of having parents who demonstrated problematic partnership spurs some individuals on to work extra hard in a committed relationship so as to avoid the mistakes that they saw their parents make. The individual's view of early relationships is only one part of the equation.  Also important is what has been going on for the individual in his/her own relationships.  Not surprisingly, painful breakups resulting from a profound breach of trust or what is perceived as a betrayal, tend to make people less willing to commit to a new partner.  It's always valuable to look at the patterns of relationships.  If someone constantly finds himself in a relationship with the same flavor of problematic partner, there likely is something worth exploring as to why that type of partner is so appealing.  

Manage Your Expectations

I've worked with married couples who were surprised to find that all the conflicts--sometimes fundamental--that they had while they were dating did not disappear when they said "I do."  Unrealistic expectations lead to hurt, disappointment and, often, failed relationships, which frequently make individuals afraid to try again.  Ask yourself if what you are seeking from your partner is realistic.  If you enter a relationship with the plan to radically change the other person or yourself so the relationship will work, you are setting yourself up to be disappointed.  

Take the Time to Understand What You Need

If you think that you are commitment phobic, you need to take a look at the past (your family history, your past relationships), your current identity and sense of self (your goals and where are you on the path to achieving them), and what you think being in a relationship is about.  Also, not everyone wants to be in a committed relationship.  Friendships, family, pets and other opportunities for closeness and connection may very well trump the desire for the intensity of a paired relationship.  Everyone is different with different needs

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