What Does It Really Mean To Have Commitment Issues? Advice From A Therapist
People often identify "commitment issues" as a problem in their relationships or potential relationships with others, but they don't always know where they originate or how to deal with them effectively. Many others simply ignore all the signs of a partner's fear of commitment (or their own) and then wonder why their relationships continue to be difficult or fail.
You may be the one with commitment issues, or you may be in a relationship where your partner may be experiencing them. Either way, it's important to understand what commitment issues really mean and how to navigate them when they're affecting you.
What does it mean to have "commitment issues"?
Commitment issues—also known as commitment phobia, relationship anxiety, or fear of commitment—are when a person finds it difficult to dedicate themselves to a long-term goal in a relationship or to the relationship itself. This can apply to those already in an intimate relationship or those who may be single and getting to know someone in the dating phase.
For those in relationships, commitment issues might look like a partner rejecting an opportunity to pursue a higher level of investment in the relationship like getting married or moving in together. For people just getting to know someone in the early dating phase, commitment issues might look like having a great time together but noticing the person is reluctant to move to the next level to date seriously.
Commitment is a state or quality of being dedicated to a person, cause, or activity. In the context of the typical monogamous relationship, commitment usually means you are willing to go through the phases of a relationship together. There is a sense of progression. But a person with commitment issues struggles with this sense of dedication and taking the next steps.
Signs that someone has commitment issues.
While commitment issues can be complex, here are a few signs to help you recognize them within yourself or others:
- Avoiding making future plans with your partner
- Avoiding talking or thinking about the future of the relationship
- Serious or long-term relationships are always out of the question
- Lack of emotional attachment
- Delayed response to calls and texts
- Flaky or inconsistent behavior
- Nitpicky about small things
- Poor communication
- A history of short-lived relationships
Importantly, there are many people who just do not want the relationship structure that society pushes onto us, such as being in a long-term relationship, monogamy, marriage, and kids. It is not because they have commitment issues, but it is simply because they choose to live their life on their own terms. (Here are some reasons some people don't want to get married that have nothing to do with commitment issues.)
What causes someone to have commitment issues?
No two people with commitment issues will look the same because they all originate from a different place. Some people with commitment issues have experienced poor romantic relationships firsthand or have observed others in bad relationships.
Here are some possible causes of commitment issues:
Fear of the relationship ending without notice or signs.
If a person has experienced this in the past, they may be more cautious moving forward in relationships because they may be fearful it'll happen again, with some leaving them without notice.
Fear of not being in the "right" relationship.
A person might worry the person they're with is ultimately not "the one." Many people also enter or stay in relationships for reasons like money, children, sex, or convenience, so they don't commit at a higher level because they know this is not someone they want to be with or stay with long term.
Fear of being in an unhealthy relationship.
Relationships end for many reasons. However, the unknown or the fear of something bad happening can push an individual away from commitment. This may be especially true for people who've been in unhealthy relationships in the past, characterized by abandonment, infidelity, abuse, or other hurtful dynamics.
Trust issues because of past hurts by people close to them.
When someone close to you breaks your trust, it can prevent some people from ever trusting anyone else again, including their partner. They may project the last scenario onto their new partner.
Childhood trauma or abuse.
Unresolved trauma and abuse can rear its ugly little head at any time. It is like an open wound. Therefore, being with someone else can be a constant trigger and reopening of the wound, even when you desperately want to heal.
Unmet childhood needs or attachment issues.
Our primary caregivers are supposed to be the ones who met our needs and helped us navigate this world as successfully as possible. But many do not get the love, protection, safety, and care that they need as children, and they grow up projecting those unmet needs in romantic relationships.
Complicated family dynamics while growing up.
Family can be tough, and what we learn from our families sticks with us. Things you no longer value or do not want to uphold can take a long time (if ever) to unlearn, and commitment issues can be one way those dynamics show up in romantic relationships.
How to get over your commitment issues.
Commitment issues aren't something you can just get over overnight. Overcoming commitment issues must be intentional in order for progress to be made. In some cases, this may even be a lifelong journey, depending on the root cause of it. The key, just like with any other issue, is to acknowledge it. Stop running from it, and own the fact that you struggle in this area.
If you wish to improve in this area, you should consider the following:
Talk about it.
Being honest with yourself, your partner, or even someone in your support system is the first step toward improvement. You cannot heal what you are unwilling to acknowledge. Talking to a professional and working through some of your experiences can be helpful.
Learn about your attachment style.
Your attachment style, which stems from your childhood, could be a major eye-opener to the commitment issues. An attachment style is simply how you relate to others in relationships, whether you're anxious, avoidant, or secure. Learning your attachment style is vital because it typically gives you a blueprint of why you behave the way you do in romantic and nonromantic relationships. If you have an avoidant attachment style, then it makes sense that commitment would be an issue for you in general, and learning how to have a secure attachment style might be a starting place for you to heal your commitment issues.
Consider couples' therapy.
If you are already in a relationship and are struggling to commit at a higher level or to a next step such as moving in together or marriage, then speaking to a professional with your partner could help you understand what's holding you back and how to get over the barrier if it's right for you. Here's our full guide to couples therapy for more info.
Practice commitment in other areas of your life.
If a person is struggling with commitment in romantic relationships, they may also struggle in other areas of their life as well, such as in the workplace, at school, or with family and friends. Take notice of how you feel in those situations, and have a candid conversation with your partner.
Then, practice commitment in those other areas of your life! Learn to be more emotionally available by expressing your thoughts and feelings and working through difficult emotions within yourself and others. Keep your word when it comes to the commitments you make with family and friends. Follow through in a timely manner on your assignments at work. And don't forget to make future plans with your partner and other loved ones!
Consider whether monogamy is right for you.
Long-term or monogamous relationships are not for everyone, and that's OK. Take some time to understand what you're really looking for in relationships. Here is mbg’s guide to ethical nonmonogamy, in case you're curious about what else is out there.
What to do if you're dating someone with commitment issues.
Commitment issues are not always a deal-breaker. However, if your partner isn't unwilling to acknowledge the truth and work on overcoming the challenge, it'll be hard for the relationship to last long term.
If you are dealing with someone with commitment issues, the first thing to do is determine if this relationship is for you. No matter how much you love and care about someone, a relationship should be serving your needs and progressing (if that's what you want). Ignoring red flags or deal-breakers is a sure way to end up in an unhappy relationship.
Ask your partner why they have commitment issues in the first place, and seek to understand their anxieties around commitment. Don't focus on forever but on the here and now. In other words, if you are not in the phase of getting married or having kids, then focus on your current situation and the present moment. Watch for improvements. Remember: Slow progress is still progress. If you see they are trying, acknowledge their efforts.
If there isn't any progress and you do not appear to be on the same page about the relationship's future, then this may be a relationship you need to end before one or more parties get deeply hurt.
Kiaundra Jackson, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist, TV personality, award-winning speaker, and the author of Hard Work Or Harmony?. She has appeared on OWN's hit TV show Love Goals and as a recurring expert on The Doctors, and her work has been featured in The New York Times, Oprah Magazine, Essence, VICE, and elsewhere. She was recently featured in HuffPost as one of the "10 Black Female Therapists You Should Know." She has a master's degree in Clinical Psychology from Azusa Pacific University.
As a relationship therapist in private practice at KW Couples Therapy, Jackson helps couples heal their relationship, prevent divorce, and keep families together while increasing sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual intimacy. She has helped countless couples increase their intimacy, learn effective two-way communication, and heal after affairs.