Is "I have commitment issues" your go-to line for getting out of relationships when things get too real? Or maybe you've noticed a pattern: you tend to date people who have that go-to line.
The reality is that commitment issues are a cover-up for deeper feelings of fear, distress over losing control, and discomfort with vulnerability. But more on that later!
We've either known those people, or been those people. You know, the ones who can't seem to commit. This isn't limited to relationships either. School, careers, even what to order at a restaurant (I, for one, always regret not getting fries).
However, commitment issues are most commonly discussed in the context of romantic relationships. In nearly every tv show or film, the relationship meanders along until it reaches a pivotal moment: either one of the characters says "I love you" OR realizes that they can't commit to a future with the other person, sometimes in spite of strong feelings towards them.
Have rom coms and pop culture gotten into our heads?
There's a chance we put too much pressure and emphasis on the commitment crossroads. We also can't deny that for a relationship to progress in a long-term direction, both parties do need some degree of commitment.
It's easy to vilify those of us who struggle with commitment in relationships, especially if we have personally been burned by them. However, like most things in life...it's complicated.
In this post we will:
Define what commitment issues are
Look at the connection between attachment styles and commitment in a relationship
Dig deeper into what drives the difficulty in committing to a person
Give some short and sweet advice on what to do if you a) Are in a relationship where your partner can't commit or b) Feel like this post describes you to a tee!
Is Commitment An Issue In Relationships?
The answer to this depends on the type of relationship you are looking at, and the goals of the people involved.
'Commitment issues' involve difficulty committing to a more stable, intimate, and long-term relationship arrangement
People who experience commitment issues in relationships can experience a lot of anxiety, emotional distress, and fear when they are placed in situations where they are asked to dedicate themselves to a long-term outcome.
It's important to note that having a preference for short-term relationships does not necessarily mean you have an issue with commitment! When this is clear from the beginning and the people involved have the same goal, commitment is actually a non-issue.
However, if you desire an emotionally close long-term relationship but experience fear and avoidance when given an opportunity to have this, it may be a sign that you struggle with commitment.
Attachment And Commitment- What's The Connection?
If you haven't read our Ultimate Guide To Attachment Styles in Romantic Relationships, take a quick look to bring yourself up to speed.
Here's a recap:
No matter what your attachment style is, we all possess an attachment system. This is a basic need to form close bonds with other people.
Forming close bonds is such an essential part of our human make up that we have a biological mechanism responsible for creating and regulating our relationship with attachment figures (parents, children, romantic partners).
However, humans are an incredibly diverse species. While we all have a need to form close bonds, the way we go about forming them varies with each person.
This is why we have different attachment styles! An attachment style is essentially our unique way of responding to the innate need to form close bonds.
There are 4 main attachment styles in romantic relationships:
Insecure Attachment and Commitment
The attachment style most associated with commitment issues is avoidant attachment. However, those with anxious attachment can also experience this!
Those with an avoidant attachment style have a tendency to suppress their attachment system, or natural need to form close bonds with other people.
This means they employ deactivating (distancing) strategies in a relationship to keep their partner at arm's length. By finding ways to create mental distance, they consciously or unconsciously avoid intimacy and create an illusion of control in the relationship.
From this lens, difficulty committing is just a deactivating strategy!
It's common for those with an avoidant attachment style to:
- Avoid conversations about the direction of the relationship
- Pull away when intimacy and closeness increases
- Stay in a relationship for a prolonged period of time without committing to it
All of these behaviours are typical of those who often declare they have commitment issues.
People with an anxious attachment style have a sensitive attachment system.
This means they have a heightened ability to sense when their relationship is threatened. The smallest hint that ‘something is off’ (i.e. something that signals abandonment and rejection) will activate their attachment system, leading to activating strategies and protest behaviour.
Activating strategies are the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that we employ to re-establish closeness with a partner.
It's common for someone with an anxious attachment style to want more closeness than their partner does (especially if they are dating someone with an avoidant style).
Commitment issues can show up when anxiously-attached partners develop insecurities about being 'too needy'. If you are worried that your partner does not want to be as close with you, you may duck out before facing that rejection.
Okay, But Let's Go Deeper...What's Underneath The Commitment Issues?
Well, this is a therapy blog, so of course we're going one step further and peeling back the label of 'commitment issues' to reveal the soft underbelly: fear of vulnerability, rejection, loss of independence/control, low self-worth, and more.
Here are a few (good) reasons why people struggle to commit to long-term relationships, or say they do. Once again, if your goal isn't to be in a long-term relationship, this list doesn't apply!
Lack Of Experience With Healthy Relationships
If you have rarely seen examples of healthy, committed relationships (or never been in one yourself) being in a good relationship can actually be terrifying.
There are so many unknowns, and the stable patterns seem unfamiliar if you are more accustomed to high conflict/high intensity relationships. Depending on your tolerance for uncertainty, backing out seems simpler, and even comforting.
"Will They Like The Real Me?"
The early stages of a relationship are usually rosy because we are putting our best selves forward. As partners become closer and more intertwined with each other's lives, it's normal to be afraid that things might change as it gets real. Giving someone a window to the parts of yourself that you are not proud of requires vulnerability- and this can be hard.
Fear of rejection is a powerful drive that can sometimes hijack our need for connection.
We may use the commitment issues card to explain away our issues or to deescalate conflict. Even when it's true, this strategy is not effective because ultimately, lack of commitment is only a symptom of the deeper issues driving the conflict.
Fear Of Letting Others Down/Confrontation
"It's not you, it's me" is not always true!
Sometimes we fear hurting others and letting them down. Instead of being honest about our feelings of dissatisfaction, we are vague about the future of the relationship. This creates a state of limbo where neither partner is hurt/sad, but no one is happy and satisfied either.
In this case, it may be less about commitment and more about people-pleasing and honesty. Telling the truth when you are not interested seems harder, but ultimately it's more satisfying.
What Can I Do If I Am With Someone Who Can't Commit?
While this is not a relationship advice column (should I do one?? comment below and let me know!) here is a general principle to guide you in all relationships:
Your partner is not your project
Harsh? Yes. But it's the truth. They can't just change with your persuasion. Overcoming deep-seated issues takes more work than this.
If you are constantly trying to pin down a future with this person and feel insecure in the relationship, maybe it's time for a conversation about seeking outside help.
Overcoming fear of commitment is about overcoming the deeper reasons driving that fear (see section above). This is often a personal journey that your partner needs to take on themselves, with the help of a therapist and perhaps, if you are willing, your support. A couples therapist can also help with this, however, the individual work is crucial.
As for you...it's important to check in with yourself. How are you being affected by your partner's issues? What parts of your life are being affected? How is your overall wellbeing? Knowing your capacity and boundaries is important.
If you find yourself constantly drawn to partners who have issues with commitment, be curious about what you are hoping for from these relationships. Sometimes, we are comfortable with a repeating pattern because it's familiar, even if it does not serve us. Seeking support for yourself is just as important as looking out for your partner! 💜
What If I'm The One With Commitment Issues?
I would invite you to avoid saying "I have commitment issues".
Frankly, it's a cop out!
You are not a broken human being who doesn't make sense. There are good, solid reasons for why you experience stress and anxiety at the prospect of long-term commitment. Understanding these reasons is important.
Working with a therapist on these specific issues will be helpful. It may not be easy- uncovering things you have avoided thinking about and feeling for a long time never is. However, if you have a desire to be in an emotionally close and long-term relationship, confronting the deeper issues is the only way to overcome them.
It also helps to go back and reflect on past relationship from this lens. Instead of saying "I couldn't commit" see if you can replace that statement with "I was afraid of being rejected"; "I didn't want him to know the real me" etc.
Be kind and honest with yourself 💜
I hope this post provided some clarity on what commitment issues are and most importantly, what they are hiding.
As always, if you have any questions about this topic or need some additional support, flip me an email, or book an appointment with anyone from my awesome team!
Until next time!