Many have experienced the devastating and emotional rollercoaster of loving a person who is afraid to commit. Hopes of togetherness can drag on for years, bruising our heart, and tiring our souls. Along with commitment failure there is often other damaging characteristics—dishonesty, hidden agendas, and unhealed emotional wounds. Then, again, it may be us that fears closeness. We enjoy the relationship but remain near the door, ready to retreat. Our childhood hurts and fears, intertwined with biological givens work together creating an adult deeply desiring for the security of love but unable to commit. The child, now an adult, with a prevention focus often develops commitment issues. Driven to protect over desires for intimacy.
If past relationships have not lasted, were unfulfilling or quickly turned abusive, we may blame the repeating failure on our stupid partners. We muse, “a better partner would solve everything.” Perhaps, you are right (the partner is to blame). Side-stepping responsibility protects the ego and avoids the raw emotion associated with personal flaws; we all have blemishes.
Personal examination may irritate, but our honest explorations and subsequent improvements lay a foundation for healthier connections—avoiding the gamble of simply taking a weakly committed attempt with another lover. We desperately hope a new relationship will last, but keep exit routes open just in case.
What Is Relationship Commitment?
In the most basic form, relationship commitment refers to a persons desire to stay in a relationship. When the desire to stay in the relationship is strong, the person is willing to make sacrifices through compromise to keep the bonds strong. Weak commitment is expressed through abandoning relationships when encountering the slightest pressure or request for sacrifice for the sake of the relationship.
Amy Strachman and Shelly L. Gable suggest commitment is created by a desired end state goal (2006). This is in line with regulatory focus theory where we may have a prevention or promotion focus. Some individuals are motivated by fears of being hurt. This prevention focus limits willingness to commit. The desired end state of a secure intimate relationship motivates those who are promotion focused.
Commitment Issues refers to inability to make long-term promises to others—particularly intimate partners. Typically, this involves a traumatic past, where commitment is frightens. The person with commitment issues maintains the protective option of fleeing the relationship before relationship forms emotional ties.
Commitments Grow Over Time
Most relationships develop slowly; the structural defects aren’t immediately evident. We may invest several months (or years) into a relationship before realizing that the relationship has the same problems as the last one. Disappointed again, we begin longing for the allusive prince (or princess) looming somewhere in the darkness, waiting to swoop down and save us from our repeating relationship ills.
Relationship commitment isn’t an all or nothing venture. During early dating, healthy participants should engage in open discussion of expectations. Open communication is the foundation for trust and commitment. For a bond to develop, early commitments of honesty must be made.
Why are Commitments Important?
Carly E. Rusbult, known for her work in social psychology as a professor at Chapel Hill University, wrote that, “commitment describes an individual’s intention to persist in a relationship” (1983, location 683). For new relationships to bloom into intimate connections that provide security and fulfill needs of belonging, a commitment must be made.
Commitment is necessary for relationship building behaviors. When committed, behaviors are considered against their impact to the relationship. Commitment, Rusbult explains “brings a sense of an emotional linkage to a partner and a tendency to think about long term circumstances in a relationship, both of which increase people’s willingness to engage in costly or effortful behaviors for the good of the relationship” (1983, location 687).
What Does Commitment Issues Look like?
Commitment issues often become a problem when only one person in the relationship has them. They are experienced differently depending on whether we are the one with the fear of commitment or it is our partner.
1. If We Are the One With Fear of Commitment
At first, you may not notice the feelings. Often new relationships are enjoyable while lacking a strong commitment to the future or demanding significant resources. But, surprisingly for many, the words, “I love you,” spark fear. A sickening feeling of disgust, anger, or regret overshadow the tenderness of connection. Instead of closeness, endearing moments bring fear.
Feelings of being trapped shouldn’t be ignored. They may signal the relationship is wrong. Then, again, the feelings may be from our own brokenness and all relationships may eventually feel wrong.
See Engulfment for more on this topic.
You Don’t Think About the Future of the Relationship
When you daydream about the future, like most of us do, your dreams do not include your partner. In a committed relationship, there is a spoken or unspoken intention to continue in the relationship. The uncommitted “let’s see where this goes,” changes with commitment to “let’s make this work.” When hopes and dreams don’t include our partner, commitment is lacking.
You Don’t Feel Emotionally Connected
When we lack emotional connection, we spend little time worrying about losing our partner, or, worse, fantasize about life after the relationship.
See Emotional Intimacy for more on emotional connection.
2. When Our Partner Has Commitment Issues
They Don’t Invest in the Relationship
Even the closest of intimate relationships, partners retain autonomy. They maintain their own passions and engagements. However, relationships also require some sacrifice. When committed, we find a healthy balance. When the relationship is just something done in the spare time, after the other obligations and enjoyments are done, there is lack of commitment.
They Don’t Talk About the Future of the Relationship
When you mention plans for the relationship, the air gets thick, the conversation stalls, or the topic quickly is switched. Plans suggest commitment.
Actions Speak Louder than Words
Narcissists and sociopaths learn quickly. They are adept at saying the right things. Yet, over and over, their action tell a different story. They keep doing the things they say they have sacrificed. They sacrifice nothing and demand everything.
See Dark Triad Personalities for more on these personality traits.
When Commitment Issues are Present
We must carefully examine the root of our relationship problems; first examining ourselves. Carefully begin by asking: “Why do my relationships repeatedly follow the same unhealthy patterns, ending in heartbreak?” The answer typically isn’t immediately available. With superficial glances and subjective speculations, we avoid the more wrenching answers of personal flaws. Our attitudes, fears, and emotions usually play contributing roles to the failures.
Ego protecting mechanisms conceal uncomfortable truths. We deceive ourselves, burying evidence, passing over facts, and denying patterns. Perhaps, we think, “If I’m convinced it’s not my fault, I can trick my partner into taking full responsibility—and they will change.” Interestingly, most people believe themselves above average in relationship skills—statistically impossible. Many of us are lacking and don’t know it. If we experience relationship struggles, multiple painful endings, or are habitually unfulfilled, perhaps the relationship shortcomings were more than a faulty partner. Maybe it is us that falls below average in skills of relating, gasp!
“If we experience relationship struggles, multiple painful endings, or are habitually unfulfilled, perhaps the relationship shortcomings were more than a faulty partner.”~T. Franklin Murphy
To courageously take responsibility for flaws by exposing hidden elements, we must graciously accept imperfection as normal, lessening the fear of rejection. Only with willingness to know can we discover the good, bad and ugly—a little darkness lurks within all. We may discover that we quickly pass judgment, viciously defend wrongs, or quietly disconnect. We may discover failures to communicate, keeping protective secrets, or tendencies to emotionally erupt at the slightest surprises. Small blemishes can be smoothed and artfully woven into intimate relationships when they are known and considered during interactions.
The commitment issues may reside in us. We fear, so we protect. Or, perhaps, the issue lies in our partner. They endured previous hurts and connection is frightening. Another possibility is we project a “lack of commitment” on a committed partner. By blaming them, we quietly slip away without guilt, oblivious to our own lack of commitment.
Becoming a skilled artisan at building intimate relationships may take decades to develop—perhaps a lifetime. But when we carelessly push off hurts, emotional arousal, or loss of connection, without personal examination, we set ourselves up for repeated failures. We draw great wisdom from failed relationships. Yet, if we refuse to take personal responsibility, each succeeding relationship just goes through the same motions, without necessary commitments, and then inevitably encounter the same disappointments, and repeated dreaded ending.
Books on Relationship Commitments:
Outside help from a trained professional or unbiased friend can help us navigate these challenging waters.
Through personal acceptance, we may encounter hidden weaknesses without debilitating shame. By recognizing our contribution to the painful relationship dances, we empower ourselves to embark on helpful adjustments.
This merry-go-round must stop; kick off hoodlum thoughts and create healthier committed connections. Only from acceptance of our role in the unfolding drama can we make change, invite intimacy, and build security. We can be a more loving, committed partner—skilled in relationships. New insights provide direction, allowing the searching gazes of introspection to discover flaws impeding commitments. Instead of running to the unknown, with our heavy baggage in tote, commit, stay, and love.
Adapted from earlier article A New Partner.
Rusbult, C. E. (2004). Close Relationships: Key Readings (Key Readings in Social Psychology). Psychology Press; 1st edition.
Strachman, Amy & Gable, Shelly L. (2006). Approach and Avoidance Relationship Commitment. Motivation and Emotion, 30(2), 117-126.