I Wanted Love, but Feared Intimacy: The Paradox of Commitment Phobia

Tara Blair Ball

CommitmentPhoto byKelly SikkemaonUnsplash

Looking at my past history, you’d think I was the exact opposite of a commitment-phobe. Prior to dating my ex-husband when I was 23, I had one long-term relationship that lasted more than a year. I was then with my ex-husband for ten.

But being phobic about commitment can display itself in a lot of ways beyond just avoiding commitment altogether. It can also be about avoiding intimacy, keeping people at a physical or emotional distance, and living in panic and dread anytime a relationship reaches a new level of commitment.

“Commitment phobic” individuals generally have a serious problem in staying in a relationship for the long-term. Dr. John Grohol in “What is Commitment Phobia & Relationship Anxiety?” says: “While they still experience love like anyone else, the feelings can be more intense and scary than they are for most people. These feelings drive increased anxiety, which builds upon itself and snowballs as the relationship progresses — and the expectation of a commitment looms larger.”

When I started dating the man who is now my husband, I found these feelings coming back hardcore, and I had to rein things back in to try to assuage my fear and stay in the present.

The book He’s Scared, She’s Scared by Steven Carter, which I got as a recommendation from my coach, helped me work through this time in my life.

When my husband and I first started dating, I literally felt short of breath being around him. Sometimes I had literally had to leave wherever he was, so I could get away from him. He was doing absolutely nothing wrong, and I felt terrible that I felt this way.

The same feeling was even happening when we were in the car together and he was telling me how beautiful he finds me, and I wanted to jump out of the car.

Yup. My partner was telling me he finds me attractive, a perfectly wonderful thing to be told, and I wanted to run.

And I didn’t know what to do. My feelings were so…unreasonable and irrational. Who doesn’t want their partner to tell them they’re attractive? Who doesn’t want their partner to be kind? And supportive? And loving? Yet here I was, getting exactly what I’d always wanted, and I couldn’t stand it.

I had to, one day, say, “You’re being too nice to me. I can’t take it right now. Please change the subject.”
He asked me, “Do you…want me to be mean to you?”

“Well, no,” I said, “I can just only take you being nice for so long.”

Which is weird. I admit it.

But feelings are feelings, and I needed to do something about them. I wouldn’t ever have a healthy relationship if I ran at the first sign of one, so I did some work and read a book and learned what I needed to.

Commitment phobes can reveal themselves in two ways: as active avoiders AND passive avoiders.
Active avoiders are the ones fleeing. Passive avoiders are the ones chasing after them.

Here are some questions to ask yourself if you’re unsure whether you have commitment issues:

  • Do you find that you prefer idealized fantasies to flawed human partners?
  • Do you consistently commit to inappropriate or unavailable partners?
  • Are you are very “picky” or have a pattern of fault-finding?
  • Are you are unable to recover from a failed love relationship?
  • Does something about your attitude and lifestyle discourage potential partners?

Throughout most of my life, I had been the active avoider. I fled at the first sign of intimacy, often panicking whenever the relationship progressed.

I also often chose people who were inappropriate from the get-go: like the man eight years my senior who had a three year old daughter I started dating when I was 19, the guy who was super into jiu-jitsu and bored me to death and whose mother hated me, the dudes (yup, plural) who had just gotten out of relationships, the substance abuser who was about to serve time in jail for his third DUI, the man eighteen years my senior who was physically repulsive to me.

I chose these men specifically because I knew a long-term relationship with them was not possible.
My commitment fears have stemmed a lot from my childhood. My mother, who should have protected me and cared for me, was extremely abusive. When a young child is abused, they can’t make sense of it, so they internalize messages like, “I’m bad or unworthy,” and I felt that way my entire life.

My parents also seemed to be in a loveless, stifling marriage. Theirs seemed like a prison, like you sign up for it, give up your rights, and stay forever, despite how bad it gets.

My own first marriage was nearly that. I felt trapped and neglected in a marriage to a self-centered active drug addict, and I would have stayed with him and continued to be in that awful marriage for likely forever if I hadn’t made the discoveries I did.

Thus, marriage also felt like a place where I was likely to get duped.

When I left him, I felt freeeeeeeeeee! But I also felt lonely, and after several months, I started dating again. I met my current partner.

He was everything I’d wanted: motivated, passionate, interesting, inspiring, kind, self-aware. Yet anytime there was even a glimmer of further commitment, I’d literally start sweating.

But I also loved the idea of further commitment, especially with him. I’d always wanted a healthy supportive romantic relationship, yet they also terrified me.

When I knew he was going to propose, I panicked. I started fault-finding. I started picking fights. I started doing everything I could to stave off the impending doom, the ball and chain, the handcuff, that would be that beautiful engagement ring. Which would seem ridiculous to some women. Who doesn’t want a pretty ring?!?

When I finally got honest with him, it was hard and painful: “I don’t want to get engaged yet,” I had to say.

“And I don’t want to get married anytime soon,” I also had to say.

His response was so assuring. “Honey, that’s fine. We don’t ever have to get married if you don’t want to. We can wait however long. It’s no big deal.”

And I could breathe again.

Communicating how you feel with your partner is so important when you're trying to change.

If you're in this place with your current partner, here are steps you should take:

Ask yourself if your partner is actually appropriate for you to be with.

There might be actual reasons why you’re now ambivalent. The honeymoon phase has ended, and you’re realizing that you have nothing in common and completely different plans for the future. If this is the case, then you’re right in feeling panicky and should leave the relationship, maturely and with an explanation.

You could also have a perfectly appropriate partner, but you’re wanting to run away from your own expectations, fears, and projections about long-term commitment.

Get help.

See an experienced therapist or coach. I saw one, and it was invaluable to me, and it's why I became a coach myself.

Stay in the present.

If my thought processes unnecessarily jumped from not even engaged yet to signing divorce papers, then I'd just freak myself out. Better to stay in the moment and enjoy that.

Get honest.

Just like I did, it’s important to get honest about how you’re feeling. You don’t want your partner to think that you don’t want to be with them at all if you actually just want to go about things more slowly.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

Unreliable behavior is confusing and crazy-making for your partner, so if you don’t want to do something, you shouldn’t promise that you will. You also have to work through your fear of whatever expectations you think your partner will have around them.

Don’t create unreasonable boundaries.

It’s not fair for you to say “I want to see you only once a week” after seeing them nearly everyday or by withdrawing completely and just communicating over the phone. You have to make boundaries that are fair and reasonable and help you work through your stuff in the meantime.

Don’t focus on your partner’s negative characteristics.

It’s easy to want to pick apart your partner to justify a need for a break-up, but that’s not fair. The only reason why those things might bother you now is because you’re frightened, so you need to work on dealing with your stuff before you unnecessarily pick apart and thus hurt your partner.

Don’t try to get your partner to break up with you.

Now isn’t the time to cheat or pick fights so you aren’t responsible for the end of the relationship and can play the victim. You have to work through YOUR issues, not make your partner so miserable that they finally give up.

Don’t say you need something if you actually don’t know what you need.

If you’re confused and don’t know what you need right now, tell your partner that. Then give yourself time to figure out what you actually need. If you say you need more time, but you actually need to practice self-care, you’re not being clear or fair to your partner or yourself. Wait until you’re certain, and then ask.

Taken from here:

“In a good relationship you push each other’s buttons. We tend to pick mates who have many of the same qualities — positive and negative — as our parents. The unconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between past, present, and future and is always trying to heal old wounds in current time. As a result, in relationships, we tend to trigger each other’s old wounds.”

We are all rough drafts when it comes to relationships. I personally am constantly revising based on new information. I was, for a long time, a mess. I'm so much better today.

If you're in this place, be gentle with yourself. It should help you to know too that it’s a sign of progress when you make NEW mistakes, instead of just repeating the same old ones over and over again.

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Tara Blair Ball is a Certified Relationship Coach and author of Grateful in Love: A Daily Gratitude Journal for Couples, A Couples Goals Journal, and Reclaim & Recover: Heal from Toxic Relationships with a 7-Step Guided Journal. She has a Master's from the University of Memphis and is accredited by CTAA. You can find her on Tiktok, Instagram, or YouTube at @tara.relationshipcoach.

Memphis, TN

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