5 Ways To Tell If You're Actually Afraid Of Commitment

by Claire Lampen
Originally Published: 

From the outside looking in, I probably read as a commitment-phobe: With very few exceptions, I tend to spook as soon as a hookup or casual relationship shows signs of getting serious. Sometimes, I feel badly about this blanket aversion to settling down, but I also have my reasons. For one, my base level of solo satisfaction runs high — I don't tend to feel lonely on my own; indeed, I require a lot of alone time to function, and people who not only understand but also respect that requirement come around only rarely. And then, agreeing to a partnership also means forfeiting some of the personal latitude I value: When a relationship feels right, I do this instinctively and without getting prickly about it, but most don't come that easily. What does come easily, at least for me, is the understanding that the pairing doesn't fit, and once I know that I tend to sever ties. I view all this less as a fear of commitment and more as level-headed respect for my own needs (and others' needs, because dating someone who will never return your feelings is the pits). I trust a number of men I've dated would disagree, though.

But if I am being honest with myself, there is another layer to this. I'll acknowledge that my perspective on relationships could be different, more open to chance, if I had better ones behind me. Baked into this worldview is an understanding that partnerships drain your time, that another person can exist as an obligation. One explanation: I have dated a few people who begrudged my time spent on things that weren't them, made me feel badly about my choices, pushed me toward the outcome they wanted regardless of my own opinions, and before I was comfortable to boot. As a result, I tend to feel a little caged when confronted with commitment. I also monitor prospective partners for signs of a controlling nature, a penchant for manipulation, a competitive streak — and if I get the impression that a new dude resembles the shittier ones I've dated in the past, I bail. Am I a commitment-phobe, or just prudent and discerning?

"There are all sorts of places that a fear or avoidance of commitment can come from," Nicole Richardson, a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Bustle. "It can come from seeing failed relationships with the adults around you as a child. It can come from being burned in romantic relationships of your own. It can also stem from a deep fear of being vulnerable with another person."

If this sounds familiar and you're wondering, "Do I stay single because I'm afraid of being burned like last time I partnered up? Or do I stay single because I enjoy being on my own and that's fine," then let's dig into it. Here's how a person can tell if they're a commitment-phobe, and what they can do to change their skittish ways.


You Have A Hard Time Trusting Your Own Judgment


One deeply dismaying thing about bad relationships is the way they haunt you and, occasionally, sabotage your future happiness. The gift (curse?) that keeps on giving (cursing?), as they say.

"Sometimes commitment phobia comes from prior traumatic experiences," Pricilla Martinez, dating coach, tells Bustle. "These experiences can make someone feel that either their decision making is flawed or that others can’t be trusted or won’t be around long term. With the latter, it makes it difficult to invest if everyone is seen as temporary."

And with the former, if you don't trust yourself to pick a non-toxic partner, you may simply flee as soon as the idea of exclusivity lands on the table.


You Disappear Quickly

Do you find yourself leaving a lot of would-be paramours on read, or canceling plans due to "plans with a friend" you "totally forgot about" when really you're just having a moment of panic because the person you've been casually seeing for three months recently asked you where you saw this going? Commitment-phobes, Richardson says, "Will bolt as soon as commitment is brought up, or they freeze and may even ghost the person who wants more from them."


You're indecisive with new partners

On that same note, you may notice that you feel super jazzed about a new match in the moment, but sense an abstract anxiety growing as the dinner date you agreed to looms. You might find yourself unable to follow through, similarly making up some fictional obligation that slipped your mind as a means of avoiding this person who likes you.

"Inability to make or stick to decisions" can signal a commitment-phobe, says Martinez. "They make and break plans frequently."

Similarly, she notes, they "tend to lose interest in their partner pretty quickly."


You Strategically Nitpick

Or hey, perhaps your waffling comes from a place of genuine uncertainty that this person fits with you. That's fair — I maintain that you should only do monogamy with people currently reading the same page as you — but check in with yourself: Are you vigilant because this person gives you reason to be, or are you creating problems where problems don't exist because you want an out? The difference matters here: Commitment-phobes, Martinez says, often "look for the slightest flaws in others to justify moving on."


You Have A Bunch Of People In Rotation

I'd like to kick this one off with a caveat: It is totally fine to date multiple people at once, as long as everyone practices safe sex and as long as you have all parties' agreement to a non-monogamous relationship, in the case that your relationship status has come up.

But according to Martinez, dating multiple people at once can also sometimes signal an unwillingness to commit.

Maybe the person wants to keep their options open, or maybe having a long roster of partners makes them feel like they don't have to pick just one. A penchant for non-monogamy doesn't necessarily mean you fear commitment, though — there exist plenty of happy, committed couples who enjoy spending time with other people — so honestly assess your motives. Does non-monogamy make you happy, even with a central partnership? Or does the thought of just one person fill you with a sort of nameless dread?


Can Commitment-Phobes Change?

The short answer: Yes. But doing so requires effort, and a genuine desire to do things differently.

"In some cases, although rare, people are truly happy with the way their life is and don’t really want to make the changes that may be necessary to accommodate someone else," Martinez says. And while this line of thinking arguably assumes monogamy as the default preference for everyone — I believe it's eminently possible to feel truly satisfied with a single life — if we're granting that commitment -phobia comes from a place of experience-informed fear, then we are probably not talking about people who simply don't have that drive to partner off. We are probably talking about people who don't love their self-imposed solitude. So if committed relationships make you anxious but you also want to have one, prepare to get very real with yourself.

"Change is difficult," Richardson says. "Real, lasting change happens when you are tired of not getting what you want/need from your life. When commitment-phobes are ready to change, they have to address what scares them about being connected to other people in order to feel good about commitment."


How To Change Your Commitment-Fearing Ways

Baby steps, says Martinez: Keep the stakes low as you move forward, and proceed slowly. "It’s ... important to take your time and make sure you’re comfortable before moving on to each next step," she says, adding that an understanding partner makes all the difference. Take note, however: In order for a partner to understand, you're going to have to talk to them honestly about your internalized anxieties. And in order to do that, you'll first have to be unflinchingly frank with yourself. To help you face your fears, Martinez recommends enlisting a therapist.


Nicole Richardson, licensed professional counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist


Pricilla Martinez, dating coach

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