Modern Intimacy: Explaining Commitment Phobia

COLUMN: In the second of a series of columns on relationships, psychiatrist Dr. Mark Banschick explains the fear of commitment and provides tips for building mutually fulfilling relationships.
Modern Intimacy: Explaining Commitment Phobia

This post is the second in a four-part series written by Dr. Mark Banschick, a Greatist Expert, practicing psychiatrist, author of The Intelligent Divorce, and creator of The Online Family Stabilization Course. The views expressed herein are his and his alone. Read his first piece here and third piece here.

Ah, commitment. It's the talk of many a dating article, and the bane of anyone who's tried to date a person who won’t stop dragging their heels. Anyone who’s spent time in the dating arena has likely experienced what I call "Hot and Cold Intimacy": You meet a person, things start off well, and they continue that way for a while. And then — for reasons that are often unclear — things start to change. Hot becomes cold. How does this come to be?

To explore the ins and outs of hot and cold intimacy, we’ll be looking at two case studies which will help us understand how our childhood affects the way we act as adults, the importance of working through our personal issues with intimacy, and what a loving, committed relationship truly looks like. I’ll present two stereotypical dating scenarios, and then provide my professional assessment as a practicing psychiatrist. We’ll also explore some general reasons why people may have a hard time getting (and staying) close to other people, and what it takes to make love really work.

Case Study #1

At 23, "Kelli" enjoys the company of men, but keeps them at arm’s length. "Anthony" is her latest lover, a good-looking law student who’s never had trouble dating women. At first, it was just fun for both of them. But Kelli is magnetic. She excels in school, stays fit, and seems to be in charge of her life. People are drawn to her. Sure enough, Anthony quickly finds himself wanting to spend more and more time with her.

Soon, Anthony discovers Kelli is unlike anyone else he’s dated. He’s surprised that she rarely texts him, or that it will take her hours, maybe even days, to respond to a cute email. Unused to what he perceives as small rejections, Anthony responds by getting needier. He wants Kelli more, and begins to think about her all the time.

But the more he calls, texts, and emails, the more withdrawn Kelli becomes. Soon, she’s annoyed by all these shows of affection. Anthony is fixated on a woman who will not (or cannot) give him the love he wants.

Kelli’s Perspective There are many explanations for intimacy issues. In this case, Kelli’s own discomfort with intimacy can be traced back to a difficult childhood. Her mother left early on, and she was raised by a depressed father who rarely had the emotional energy to tend to the needs of Kelli or her siblings, whom Kelli took care of throughout her childhood. She felt anger about her situation, but stuffed it down in order to focus on being “responsible.” Now, at 23, Kelli’s the only real adult in her life. What makes her seem "heartless" or self-centered is really the result of having to focus on responsibility to the exclusion of all else.

Case Study #2

"Aubrey" is Ivy League-educated and not very impressed with the men she meets. Despite their efforts, she just doesn’t bite. Pretty, smart, and 26, Aubrey’s beginning to wonder if she'll ever find someone with whom it seems worth settling down.

Enter "Michael." He’s fun, bright, playful, and imaginative. He’s got a great job and makes Aubrey laugh. They meet each other’s families and eventually Aubrey moves in. The months turn into years, and Aubrey begins to worry about the future as her 29th birthday approaches.

Eventually, Aubrey decides to bring up the idea of commitment and a future together — and a funny thing happens: Michael shuts down. He becomes visibly anxious, stammers, and repeats that he’s not ready. He pleads to talk about this “a few months down the line.”

Michael’s Perspective Michael himself isn’t even aware of how frightened he is of commitment. It’s totally unconscious. And just like Kelli, his issues can be traced back to childhood. Unlike Kelli, Michael came from a stable, intact family. But looks can be deceiving. His father devoted all his energies to a successful supermarket business and hardly paid attention to his kids, leaving Michael at home with two younger siblings and a demanding mother. To escape his mother's tirades, Michael devoted himself to pleasing her, but he now carries a deeply ingrained fear of serious intimacy.

Michael doesn’t want to be his father, and in many ways, he’s not. He’s intuitive and loving — but he still can’t commit. He’s been in an intensely committed relationship before — with his mother — and he doesn’t want to be trapped again. Commitment feels dangerous.

From the Couch: Digging Deeper

What can we learn from the experiences of Kelli and Michael? There are three big takeaways, which I’ll detail below.

What Happens to Us in Childhood Affects Our Adulthood

It’s easy to condemn Michael and Kelli for having “commitment issues,” but what they’re actually struggling with is attachment. When we’re young, our parents or parent figures supply a more or less stable, nurturing environment for us. Most of us learn (subconsciously or not) that we will always be loved. We understand that if a parent leaves, they’ll eventually return. We sense that if we rebel, we’ll still be welcomed back. Parents don’t have to be perfect for kids to internalize these attachments.

But when damage is done early on, it can resonate into adulthood. Let’s take Kelli as an example. Kelli was an over-functioning kid — what psychologists call a Parentified Child. As a consequence, Kelli is now an adult who needs control in order to feel safe, because that’s how she coped during her childhood.

Now let’s take another look at Michael. Sadly, Michael’s father didn’t care much about his son; after all, the business was his kingdom. As a little boy, Michael learned he couldn’t interest his dad in his schoolwork or extracurriculars. But just like any child, Michael needed love and safety. So he learned to make his mother happy (so that she would love him) by being the sensitive person his father could never be.

Many therapists would label Kelli a narcissist because her confidence has its source in feeling unloved and because she projects confidence, fails to attach, and seems to use people. Therapists might label Michael as passive aggressive, commitment phobic, or even a heart breaker.

Personally, I prefer the reader to view Kelli and Michael as complex people who are larger than any label, but who could certainly benefit from some outside help. Both are victims of abandonment who are trying to create worlds that feel safe. They both have attachment issues, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad people or even that they don’t care. It’s just evidence of the fact that childhood has a purpose, and when we experience trauma as kids or have to grow up too fast, the consequences extend into our adulthood.

Something Has to Change

Even though Kelli and Michael’s issues are understandable, that doesn’t mean these issues should continue to dictate their relationships. Both of them need to learn how to work through their personal issues, or else they’ll keep repeating the same mistakes.

If you think you fit the Kelli prototype, it may be a good idea to find a quality therapist. It will be important to come to terms with injuries from your childhood — and to develop the willingness to risk being hurt in the future. It takes guts to grow, because real love is not about being in control.

If you see some of Michael in yourself, it may be painful (but ultimately helpful) to recognize that you might not be as “nice” as you think. People like Michael need intimacy with other people, but won’t offer them commitment in return. To address this trait, it may be helpful to find a quality therapist. It will be important to work on your need to please people (even your therapist!). You will need to find your own voice, which will help you find your power and confidence. And this, in turn, will give you the courage to commit.

Love is About Mutuality, Not Control

We all want to be in control. It’s natural. It’s just that good relationships are about mutuality. It’s about give and take, and accommodating each other. Sometimes partners will be on an equal emotional plain. Sometimes one of them will be hurting and they’ll need their partner to be strong — and sometimes, vice versa. It’s all about meeting each other where you are, in any given moment and on any given day.

In order to enjoy mutuality with another person, Kelli and Michael need to feel safe — but that’s got to come from within. They’ve got work to do. Love is worth the effort.

How do you cope with fears of commitment? Share your experiences and leave questions for Dr. Banschick

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