Are you or your partner commitment phobic?

The solution to commitment phobia may be traced back to past relationships or experiences

Woman holding man on their wedding day

In spite of being in a relationship for two years, Sheetal never felt secure. Raj was forever postponing discussions on marriage, at times asking for ‘time’ and ‘space’ for him to settle down. He would shower her with gifts and occasional lovey-dovey messages but most of the time he was engrossed in his work. Cancelled weekend plans were a regular affair. Sheetal felt lonely and neglected but at any hint of breaking-up, Raj would return to his romantic best. Sheetal felt puzzled by the dual signs from him. She had started to suspect whether he was cheating on her but she didn’t have any proof to confront him. He seemed elusive and secretive and at the end of two years, he blamed Sheetal’s over-dependence on him for their break-up.

‘Commitmentphobia’, a term coined by Steven Carter and Julia Sokol in the popular book Men Who Can’t Love, refers to a fear of committing to long-term relationships or marriage. Not only men, but also women may be affected by this condition. Commitment phobics have a history of short-lived relationships, often with unlikely partners and are unable to let go of their fear of getting hurt, infidelity and the loss of freedom. They are unable to envision a healthy, committed long-term relationship.

Are you dating a commitment phobe?

The reasons underlying commitment phobia may be numerous but can usually be traced back to unhappy/unfulfilling close relationships, either directly or vicariously. Commitment phobes usually would have been subjected to traumatic experiences of having parents who had been unfaithful partners, or may have been witness to multiple rejection experiences of others. All such trauma leads to the belief that long-term relationships don’t work or that ‘If I commit, I will be hurt some day’. Consciously or otherwise, they recoil at the very thought of commitment. Behaviourally, they may avoid it by postponing decisions and discussions or they may choose partners who can be easily blamed for the separation or incompatibility. Unable to resolve their conflicting thoughts, they seek fulfilment in short-term affairs, especially in ones that may not require them to be in for the long haul. Severe commitment phobes may have difficulty not just in relationships but their tendency to avoid any kind of commitment may also result in other severe personality disorders.

The reasons underlying commitment phobia can usually be traced back to unhappy/unfulfilling close relationships

If your partner shudders at the thought of spending life with only one person, if he or she feels trapped by the thought of marriage, or feels an intense fear of rejection or getting hurt by you, once he or she gives in, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself—is your partner doing this out of a fear of not being able to trust the opposite sex or from the past experiences? Or are you noticing a pattern of a runaway bride/groom? Do watch out for overdiagnosing this condition—get a reality check on the relationship with the help of a professional.

What if, as you read this article, it slowly dawns on you that your partner may have been showing similar signs? Is there a step-by-step approach to solve this puzzle? Possibly yes!

Ask your partner how s/he feels about commitment and especially if that has resulted in postponing discussions on marriage or other long-term commitments. Be understanding to make it easy for him/her to discuss their fears. Sometimes, commitment phobics need a ‘safe’ relationship to be able to let go of their fears. So if you are able to provide that, your partner may come clean. However, do not think that this is the solution. Most commitment phobics would not feel safe to discuss this with their partners and consequently may never admit to their fear of commitment. If you feel your partner is not coming forth to discuss his/her fears in spite of you broaching the topic several times, just give them [and yourself] an ultimatum. Set a date by which s/he needs to respond to your repeated requests for more clarity in the relationship. Be firm and don’t fall for their emotional antics. Explain to them that commitment is an inherent part of love and without it no relationship can be stable or happy.

I’d like to mention here that you will have to, as best as you can, prepare yourself for any unfavourable outcome. Look at the cons of the relationship instead of just clinging on to the pros. Try to visualise the disaster that you could turn your life into, if you went ahead with this relationship. Also, try to envision the life you really want to live—this will help you see the difference between what you want and what you are getting/or will get. When nothing works in this relationship and your partner turns out to be another Raj, just move on. Love and a healthy relationship is not about being your partner’s shrink for the rest of his life.

Sometimes, commitment phobics need a ‘safe’ relationship to be able to let go of their fears

Are you a commitment phobe?

For all the commitment phobics—you are missing out on the warmth and joys of a committed relationship. Here are a few thoughts on how you can helf yourself:

Face it

Try to zero-in upon the thoughts and feelings which come to your mind when you hear the word ‘commitment’—what thoughts get evoked? You may also get disturbing images in your mind—relax your mind and at the same time, bring up the images and thoughts. Note them down. You don’t hold yourself back, but your thoughts do!

Think back

Try and track back to the time in your life from where these thoughts/assumptions came? Perhaps you have vague memories of married adults fighting with their partner? Or violent scenes from the past get raked up in your mind? Perhaps your own hurtful experience of getting rejected by a loved one? It may take you one evening to revisit these painful memories, but it will result in cleaning up your life. It’s really worth all the tears and pain of revisiting.


If possible, talk to the people involved in those memories/experiences you just revisited—it may help clear some misconceptions. Relationships are not always happy, but the bad/unhappy ones eventually die out and should be forgotten. Why should you let those bad relationships prevent you from being in happier ones?


Calm your mind and ask—“Can I forgive myself for not being able to protect myself from this pain?” Your feelings towards the doer is of anger, but help yourself realise that you may be projecting the anger at yourself and consequently punishing yourself by shunning closeness and commitment in all future relationships. Your anger at the person who hurt you is justified, but had you been able to express it to him/her? If yes, then you have expressed yourself. If not, then you can’t keep burning yourself repeatedly. Instead, let go of the anger—write it down in a piece of paper and set it on fire.

Choose and reframe

Now that the slate is clean, reframe your thoughts. Choose what you want to believe about relationships. Do you want to continue believing that long-term relationships are not for you or that marriages don’t work? Or do you want to look around and see thousands of couples living happily ever after? The choice is yours—you can choose what you want in your life—to live happily with a committed partner whom you adore and respect, or indulge in faithless unions where you don’t feel happy or fulfilled.

Love and intimate relationships form a beautiful world of togetherness and help you lead a fulfilling life. You will be rewarded if you choose love; but if you choose past hurt and pain, you are choosing to punish yourself forever by holding back.

A version of this article was first published in the March 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing

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Sukanya Ray
Sukanya Ray is a consultant at Human Dynamic Asia Pacific, Bangalore, providing people management services. She is a clinical psychologist trained from the National Institute of Mental Health And Neuro Sciences [NIMHANS], Bangalore.


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