8 Simple Steps to Help You Conquer Your Fear of Commitment

If you're commitment phobic, these tips from licensed professionals will help you get over your fear.

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"Am I with the right person?" is a question most of us have asked ourselves at one point in a relationship. For you, it might sound like: "Will this last?" "Am I settling?" or "Is one person enough for a lifetime?" However you phrase it, committing to someone for life may seem like one of the scariest and most daunting aspects of "adulting." A 2018 survey by eHarmony found that the top three reasons why millennials in particular have a fear of commitment are: uncertainty over whether a partner was right for them (39 percent), fear of opening up and potentially being hurt again (38 percent), and a lack of confidence in their own ability to maintain a successful relationship (35 percent).

Old, young, male, female, or anyone in between may have a fear of commitment. However, men in particular report worrying at higher rates. Men fear that committing to one person means saying no to future seemingly "better" options around the corner. The fear of settling and removing the opportunity to be with the next best thing can keep men feeling stagnant, disconnected, and paralyzed with anxiety.

That's because men are socialized to "deliver," so the idea of making a vow and breaking it, is equated with unacceptable failure. Many people come to couples therapy because the man won't commit, and yet the guilt he feels about not being able to meet his partner's request instigates fear and the desire to retreat: self-protect, doubt, pull back. In essence, the more guilt men generate by not being "able" to commit, the more they fear the commitment.

Research from The Gottman Institute shows that the majority of men are withdrawers, retreating to feel safe in conflict. Meanwhile, the majority of women are pursuers, criticizing or fault-finding to protect against vulnerability in conflict. Herein lies the challenging game of cat and mouse that makes commitment hard and scary for so many of us.

As modern love therapists who support heterosexual and LGBTQ individuals and couples who want to commit for life, myself and couples therapist and artist Benjamin Seaman, LCSW, have developed a guide for working through these challenges in a way that breeds possibility rather than limitation.

How to Get Over Your Fear of Commitment

1. Take responsibility for your relationship anxiety.

It's important to differentiate between relationship anxiety and intuition. Fear of being with the so-called "wrong person" can be an intuition or an omen. If you hold fast to the belief that you wouldn't be struggling if you were with another person, you may be trying to relieve yourself of taking responsibility.

Therapist and relationship anxiety expert Sheryl Paul, MA, reminds us that at the root of the questions, "Is my partner good enough, attractive enough, smart enough, witty enough, is: "Am I enough?" Instead of looking at doubt as a red flag, she recommends asking yourself: "How do I feel about my partner when my heart is open and I am not in an anxious state?"

2. Redefine monogamy.

The meaning we make of something impacts how we feel about it. Consider this definition of monogamy: a really deep surrender to what each of you is.

Those who believe that there is so much to discover about who they can be together with their partner report a higher level of relationship satisfaction and may find the idea of being with someone else uninteresting. If there is a need that isn't being fulfilled in your relationship, is this something you can commit to addressing with him/her/them, even if it's difficult? How can you create a safe zone so that neither one of you wants to go outside of it?

3. Don't think of committing as "settling."

There is widespread misperception that settling means taking less than you deserve. In reality, settling just means that you accepted something you didn't like and didn't say anything about it. It's not settling if you're in a relationship where you can talk about the longings you have that aren't met and have these yearnings recognized and discussed in a constructive way.

4. Have realistic expectations.

It's important to make room for ambivalence. The choir doesn't have to sing one tune in order to make and live with a decision in peace of mind. Know that people rarely feel 100 percent about anything. It is normal to feel uncertain and contemplative about a decision, but this doesn't necessarily mean there is something wrong in the relationship.

5. Understand where your fear of commitment comes from.

Fear of commitment may really be about fear of the unknown. Do a self-inventory to see how you have handled unfamiliar territory in the past. Most likely you will find you have many experiences of facing a challenge and drawing on core strengths to carry on.

6. Don't assume your relationship or partner will meet all your needs.

One person is not capable of meeting each of our needs. In fact, in all relationships there are always three sets of needs that may not be fulfilled at the same time: your needs, your partner's needs, and the relationship's needs. The most successful couples aren't necessarily the ones with the most in common, but the ones who broker their differences with respect.

Ask yourself: Can my wants and needs be seen and recognized by my partner, while being met outside of the partnership? For example, if your partner doesn't like to exercise, it may suit you to find a workout buddy rather than interpret this difference as a sign of incompatibility.

7. Don't be defensive.

Address each other's imperfections without trying to fix them. In the words of mindfulness expert Tara Brach, "Imperfection is not our personal problem—it is a natural part of existing." Here are three steps to implement non-defensive communication to feel seen, heard, and more connected:

  • State an observation without placing blame by using "I" statements and avoid "always" and "never" statements. (Try "I see the bathroom hasn't been cleaned" instead of "You never clean the bathroom!")
  • State how the other person's action or inaction made you feel. (Try "I feel frustrated and I don't know what to do" instead of "You make me so angry!")
  • Make a specific request instead of a criticism. (Try "Can you agree to putting your phone down when we are discussing things that are important to me?" instead of "You never listen to me!")

8. Commit to the process, not just the person.

Remember that you are not committing to the person in front of you for life, but committing to being in the process of working through things together. To believe that a person will never change is impossible. The question can shift from "Are they the one?" to "Is this someone that I believe I can work things out with?"

As writer Paulo Coehlo said, "[My wife] is a completely different person, physically, and mentally, from the person I married 35 years ago. So am I… everybody's going to change. So accepting that changes are part of our lives makes marriage a blessing and not a curse."

Lia Love Avellino
Lia Avellino, LCSW, is a relational psychotherapist specializing in women's issues and modern love. Read more
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