Sunday, March 1, 2009

Fear of Commitment

By Russ Hardesty, PhD

Afraid of the water
A young woman conducting interviews with friends and family asked me about my fears. I quickly responded to the written questions indicating “no” each time until one item stopped me. “Please list any other major fears” the questionnaire stated and I listed the fear of being trapped and confined without options. In a moment I had remembered the great fear that had prevented me from learning to swim until 7th grade. When I was very young, supposedly well intentioned adults and ornery boys had thrown me into deep water thinking it would help me learn to swim. The question had awakened a rush of emotion. The fear generated by those events might well have kept me from ever wanting to swim again.

Why men fear commitment
Fear of being trapped and confined without options can be described in other words…loss of freedom. Relationship commitment for some can be like loosing their freedom. Men in particular experience this fear. Loss of personal space and a perception that the partner is putting demands on them can make them feel as if they are losing more than they are gaining. Making a commitment to relationship may seem like having to ask permission to do those things they have always done without asking before. My fear of ‘drowning’ had some basis because of a scary encounter. Because of that encounter I had decided I would only go into water that waist deep. That way when swimming with others I could defend myself because I still had my footing. I had lost a sense of personal safety and was willing to commit myself only to what I could control and was “safe” for me.

Our level of commitment in a relationship can be limited by a need to control everything and everybody. This need to control may well be based on early life experience. For some men it can be associated with the adult women in their family of origin, childhood experiences or a failed “first love”. Adult men who have experienced divorce and loss of custody of their children can exercise only cautious commitment in subsequent relationships, just like staying safe in shallow water.

Why women fear relationship commitment
* (ladies see footnote)
Women generally are more comfortable in making and keeping commitments with their children than with a partner. They are likely to not fear commitment associated with being a mother as much as commitment with a life partner. One of the greatest fears for women is being “used” in relationships and feeling cheapened by an unfaithful partner. Another fear a woman may have is that her devotion to a relationship is not valued. When a woman’s life is uprooted it is difficult to begin anew with thoughts of another relationship. She may wish to avoid the painful emotions leftover from a failed relationship. She may never even venture into the wading pool again.

Married couples fear commitment

Fear of commitment isn’t limited to the unmarried. Being married doesn’t necessarily mean being fully committed. For some it is just a limited contract with expectations that are unspoken and even unconscious. An atmosphere of distrust, dishonesty, and censored communication often emerges in an effort to conform to the cultural expectations of being ‘fully committed’. Unfortunately, individuals in such a situation reach a plateau or comfort zone and the eventual demise of intimacy and passion.

Clinging to the rope
As a 12 year old boy I stood in the shallow end of the pool or clung to the rope dividing the deep and shallow ends. I longed to join in the play and adventure of the other kids and felt a great weight of loneliness. Loneliness is a consequence of limited commitment and the absence of meaningful connection to others. Whether a person is single or in a relationship loneliness can be a result of their fear of commitment. A relationship with limited commitment can be one of the loneliest places!

Understanding and how to deal with fear
The fear of commitment comes from different origins. It may begin in our childhood and often becomes a pattern that crosses every area of our lives, not just relationships. This strong emotion often takes up residence and affects our decision making. The fear of failing, of being rejected or of losing is often found at the seat of the disabling emotion. Emotional patterns that emerge from these deep seated fears permeate our responses to others and our feeling about ourselves.

Often we project our fears onto others rather than accepting ownership and responsibility for repairing the dysfunctional yet important survival response. When our fears are based on a life experience we can change our response. Simply, we can change the story we have been telling ourselves about that experience that keeps the fear alive. The first step is telling the truth. For example, not everyone will use you; not everyone wants your money; not everyone cheats; not everyone leaves. Another step is to change your point of view from seeing things as ‘right or wrong’ to ‘what works’ and ‘what doesn’t work.’ True change begins with self-honesty.

F.E.A.R - False Evidence Appearing Real

Even while clinging to the rope dividing the shallow from the deep end, my intellect told me that I could swim. However, my emotional self chose to feel the fear and remain paralyzed. Those times when I had been thrown into deep water against my will were the source or “false evidence” of my fear. However, I had failed to recognize the most important part, the most emotional part of my fear – “against my will”. When I chose to learn to swim it was in the presence and with the coaching of the men I trusted. The false evidence was couched in a compulsive belief that had before left me a victim. When I changed my thoughts from the compulsive F.E.A.R. to one of choice, I regained my personal power to swim. I was committed.

* Ladies, I have written this post from a male view point. Let me hear from you. What do think are the unique fears of commitment that women experience? Post a comment or email your contribution.


  1. A great analogy - even the visualization of being trapped in a situation, like the deep end, with no options, gives me a touch of anxiety. For me, as a woman, I think my fear of commitment is the feeling of being trapped and loss of freedom. I think for me the feeling of not feeling valued, validated, or cherished made me think, "What's the use? Nothing is ever good enough no matter how hard I try to please. I'm just not good enough." I guess I just got tired of trying. I think I'm not eager to seek out another committed relationship because my experience is that I would have to give up too much of myself. That scares the hell out of me.

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Reader Comments

"...My spouse and I have been married for 32 years and I've experienced our relationship from giggly in bed, to passionate in bed, to mad in bed to "sleeping" in bed...As we grow older the intimacy definition changes for me. Intimacy also for me is just sitting quietly, or driving for miles quietly or walking just hearing our footsteps crunch the leaves, holding hands. My usual struggle in intimacy is in my head - I have to intentionally stop my daily to do list, my past and future stuff and live in the present moment..." Pam

it's ... smaller things to celebrate that create the real passion

“We have found that passion ebbs and flows but we set a goal for our relationship a number of years ago that is working for us. At least every six months we do something that will create a lifetime memory. For us, we love to travel, so it's been pretty easy to find something big to do that will create that lifetime memory, but sometimes it's the finding of smaller things to celebrate that create the real passion.” Steve Rae

What'll arouse passion more than the feeling of being forgiven?

“The "typical beliefs that people have when the “fire” seems to have gone out of a relationship" I believe are a) that you feel your partner should have changed or should not have changed and b) that you feel you should change or that you should not have changed.

Acceptance of yourself and your partner leads to forgiveness. What'll arouse passion more than the feeling of being forgiven?” Brian Massey

A word from Russ Hardesty

The realm of relationship is mysterious; filled with magic, surprise, excitement, passion, intimacy, loss, disappointment and creativity. I am fortunate to have a life partner who is at once a mirror, teacher, lover, nurturer, student and companion. In this place of mystery, I continue to grow into a mature, loving and free man. I welcome feedback, suggestions, and comments – which is a gift to me! Thanks for joining the expedition! Russ