What are We Afraid of?
The proverbial notion that men fear commitment can be said about women as well. Despite our gender differences, men and women share common concerns about commitment. As you read this segment on commitment fears, recognize these concerns are not unique to either gender or to one particular personality type, but span the gamut of available romantic partners. Though not exhaustive, the following list highlights several universal commitment issues we all struggle with at one time or another in our romantic relationships:
- Higher Priorities
- Right Time, Wrong Person
- Right Person, Wrong Time
- Loss of Freedom
- Loss of Independence
- Rotten Apples
- Mutual Commitment
Some people have a hard time making their relationship needs a priority in their life. Single parenthood, demanding jobs, school, church, hobbies, and life’s surprises often dictate how we prioritize events in our lives. Sometimes higher priority issues simply overburden us. In other instances, our goals and ambitions consume the lion’s share of our personal time. If more important or more time-consuming priorities fill our life, then commitment might not be in the cards for us. This ties directly to the importance of defining our needs and desires. If we don’t make our romantic relationship a high priority need, then other, seemingly more pressing needs, will always overcome it.
A fear of betrayal remains a legitimate concern for anyone who’s ever been deceived in a previous relationship. Fear of betrayal often cuts to the bone of our core values, specifically honesty, trust, and integrity. Some people find it difficult or even impossible to overcome an exposure to infidelity, and unfortunately, romantic relationships don’t come with guarantees. If someone cheated on you once before, it doesn’t mean your next partner will be unfaithful. Then again, it doesn’t guarantee they won’t. A certain element of risk exists with any romantic relationship. And some individuals possess a higher tolerance for risk than others. Some of us are also more forgiving than others or more emotionally equipped to let go of the past and overcome an emotional or psychological obstacle to commitment in a new relationship. When in doubt, go slow in a new relationship and use time to build trust with your new partner.
Right Time, Wrong Person
In certain situations, the desire for commitment exists, but we know in our heart we’re with the wrong person, perhaps someone we’re close friends with but without the romantic chemistry required to sustain an intimate relationship. Maybe the chemistry exists, but our partner’s needs don’t align with our own, and we find ourselves along for the ride without any real interest in sustaining the relationship over time. On other occasions, we select the wrong partner because we don’t know ourselves well enough or haven’t completely defined our needs and desires or the confidence to express them openly.
Right Person, Wrong Time
Sometimes we meet Mr. or Ms. Wonderful and believe we’re ready for a long-term relationship. For a while, everything clicks, and all is well. Then later we discover, for whatever reason, the right circumstances don’t exist. Chalk it up to a rough patch in our career, health issues, age of life, unfulfilled needs, higher priorities, or all of the above. The tired cliché, timing is everything, came about for a reason. A word of caution from my own past experience: don’t give up too soon on someone you share a strong connection with. There’s always a chance the timing issues will resolve themselves. An overly optimistic viewpoint? Perhaps. Then again, sometimes we deceive ourselves into thinking the timing isn’t right, when in reality, the timing couldn’t be any better.
Loss of Freedom
When we’re single and unattached, we often covet our freedom to spend time on our personal interests without compromising on where to go, what to eat, when to sleep, or how we live our lives in general. The thought of melding our little world with someone else’s means relinquishing control of our autonomy to come and go as we please. Some of us have a harder time relinquishing our personal time than others. Again, it all goes back to how we define and prioritize our needs and desires.
Conflict is normal, and inevitable, in any relationship. Even in the most loving and respectful romantic relationships, conflict can demand our attention. Some couples fear conflict because they perceive conflict as something negative, an impediment as opposed to a momentary detour in their relationship. To paraphrase author Steve Carter, the road to commitment begins not when you meet the right person, get engaged, or decide to marry—but when you stop running away from your own conflicts. Too often we focus on the conflict itself and not how best to address the real issue at hand. To argue for the sake of arguing adds no value. Save your breath. Be constructive, not mean. To vent frustration is one thing, but to constantly direct your wrath at a partner entrenched in their position will accomplish nothing.
Sometimes we can only agree to disagree. But more often than not, common ground can be found if two people look for it within the guidelines of open, honest, and constructive communication. Whenever possible, we should always discuss our issues face-to-face at a time when both parties are mentally and emotionally available. Turn off the phone, the TV, the radio, or any other unwelcome distraction like your cell phone or pager. Conflict resolution works best with a give and take philosophy. We each covet our preferred conflict management style, and at times, our styles clash. Explain your position but be willing to make concessions where needed. There’s a difference between concessions and caving. The former implying a willingness to compromise. The latter implying a desire to simply follow the path of least resistance. Don’t let conflict be a crutch to deter commitment in your relationship. Take the time to actively listen, and make your own position clear without serving ultimatums or drowning in an undertow of negative emotions.
No one likes to feel rejected, and this fear usually manifests in the first stage of a relationship. Even as our romantic relationships evolve, the fear of rejection persists for some. The more attached to an individual we become, the greater the emotional impact we stand to suffer from rejection. Somehow we let this fear of losing someone promote our inability to commit ourselves to them. Too often, this fear compels us to do or say almost anything to avoid rejection, even at the cost of ignoring our own core values or dismissing our highest priority needs and desires. Rejection should not be something we fear. I look back on my own life and smile at those who rejected me because I realize how much richer and more fulfilling my life has become without them, and most likely vice versa. I’m not intending to make light of what can be a very painful experience at times. I’m simply trying to point out that a fear of rejection should not dictate our lives or stymie our ability to commit. Think of rejection as part of a natural selection process to weed out those we’re better off without, and who may well be better off without us.
Loss of Independence
The more time we spend alone, the more we grow accustomed to our independence. Relationships threaten this independence by forcing us to shift our individual mindset toward a team approach. And although a team approach isn’t necessarily a bad thing, we sometimes feel like we’re robbed of our personal time and the daily routines we’ve grown accustomed to enjoy.
Sometimes we become dependent on our independence and discard our need for social interaction. Our relationship with ourselves, our work, and our personal interests often takes priority above all else, and when this inner relationship is threatened, we recoil from commitment. Independence constitutes an important core value; one that empowers us to achieve great things in the face of adversity. We attribute our independence to our sense of pride and achievement. A loss of independence can threaten this core value to the point where we would rather pull away from our romantic relationship than risk losing our sense of self and the freedoms we’ve come to expect.
We often compare ourselves to other people. That’s part of human nature. It’s when we begin to doubt ourselves and invoke our fear of a partner comparing us unfavorably to someone else, that we reject commitment. Or as Dr. John Gray wrote, “We reject each other not because we have found that a person is wrong for us, but because we think—mistakenly—there is something wrong with that person.”
In a healthy romantic relationship defined by trust, honesty, and other important core values, our fear of comparison remains unfounded. Your partner enjoys your company because they admire you for who you are. Still, for many of us, the fear of being compared to a former lover, can cause us to pull away. No one likes to play second fiddle to someone we perceive to be cuter, smarter, or in any way better than ourselves. Don’t drive yourself crazy comparing your mind, body, and personal philosophy on life to those who came before you. Chances are, if your partner’s ex was so wonderful, your partner would still be with him or her.
As defined by our courage to reveal our most inner thoughts and emotions with another person, vulnerability means exposing ourselves to mockery or rejection. We all feel vulnerable at one time or another, but when we let our fear of vulnerability consume us, we internalize our doubts and reservations without openly communicating them to our partner. When we purposefully disrupt these lines of communication, we build our relationship on quicksand and watch it sink.
Vulnerability should not be something we fear, for it represents a key to intimacy. With emotional vulnerability, we open ourselves up to one another through verbal and nonverbal communications. Through the sharing of our deepest emotions, we express our needs and desires, which in turn helps create stronger physical and emotional intimacy. And when we express our vulnerability, we learn to relinquish control physically and intellectually. I’m not proposing we get so out of control we forgo all common sense and safety. I’m saying we should be willing to trust our partners to take the reins so to speak on the giving and receiving of sexual pleasure. In Daniel Beaver’s, More than Just Sex, he writes, “In order to experience intimacy, you need to be able to trust your partner, to give up control of your actions and feelings, and to go with what gives you pleasure without hesitation.” Beaver describes this as being sexually uninhibited. When we fear the act of vulnerability, we lessen our commitment, and therefore our trust in our partner and our romantic relationship.
Compromise and commitment go hand in hand since one can’t exist without the other. When we fear compromise, we tug at the thread of our relationship until the fabric comes unraveled. Fear of compromise touches on other fears like loss of freedom and independence, fear of conflict, and fear of vulnerability. We fear compromise because we fear the unknown. Often we fear a negative outcome on our part through something we believe we have to sacrifice in order to sustain our romantic relationship. In many cases, these fears are unfounded and traceable to a lack of conflict management skills. But we don’t have to become shrewd negotiators to effect a positive compromise. As Chapter V demonstrated, we can best achieve compromise through open, honest communication, which involves active listening and an effort to see things from our partner’s perspective. For some of us, a fear of compromise extends to a fear of confrontation, and ultimately, to our fear of commitment. By learning to compromise, we learn to commit. If compromise is something you struggle with, start small and address the less significant issues with your partner like where to eat or what movie to watch. But know that eventually, you’ll have to venture in the deep end as bigger issues come along.
If all else fails, we can always pin our fear of commitment on technology. I say this tongue in cheek, but sadly the statement garners a certain truth. As I described in Chapter IV on Communication, modern technology both helps and hinders our romantic relationships. If you’re struggling with your own communication skills, the overuse of text and email makes it easy to maintain a relationship on a superficial level. In the absence of sufficient face-to-face communication, technology impedes our ability to build trust and connect with someone on a deeper level. Add the impact of social media or online dating to our everyday lives, and perpetual temptation abounds. Suddenly, the grass looks greener everywhere you turn because there’s always another face to fall in love with.
In some ways, technology can become a commitment phobe’s solution for dodging any semblance of commitment. The Internet was down, and I couldn’t see your email. My cell phone battery died. I had my ringer on vibrate and never heard your call come in. I forgot my cell phone at home when I left for work. I couldn’t get a good signal. I have lousy coverage where I live. And so on and so forth. Technology can offer a powerful tool for positive communication when used judiciously; it can also lower the bar and perpetuate a fear of commitment when used irresponsibly.
The world is full of positive, outgoing, respectful people who have nothing but the best intentions at heart. Unfortunately, there are also rotten apples in the mix. Sometimes we call these “players” or people—usually men, although I’ve come across many women who fit this persona as well—looking to score without any real desire for a relationship. Pairing up with one of these individuals gives a legitimate excuse to avoid commitment. Sometimes individuals from either gender can be depressing, aloof, mean, inconsiderate, immature, dangerous, unlawful, or just simply a bad person. If any of these traits describe your current partner, then commitment is the least of your relationship issues. Run, don’t walk to the nearest exit, and find someone worthy of your time and attention.
Commitment from one partner does not guarantee commitment from the other. When one person goes all in and the other stays racked with indecision, the relationship becomes unbalanced. A relationship implies a union. Without mutual commitment to this union, a pervasive fear lingers like a fog.
Will he leave me if I demand a commitment?
If I commit to her, will she remain in this relationship or stray toward someone else?
Questions like these are founded and at times unanswered. Mutual commitment requires faith from both partners and a willingness to trust in the strength of their relationship. Mutual commitment takes time to develop and occurs in overlapping stages where both partners acquiesce to a primary level of commitment before engaging in a deeper, long-term commitment. Often our commitment fears are grounded in how we perceive things to be rather how they really are in our relationship. Communication is key. You won’t know the answer if you don’t ask the question, which leads us to the next segment in this chapter.
What Are We Committed To?
I graduated from Chantilly High School in 1988. At that time, I was obligated to find gainful employment sufficient to cover my small car payment and other living expenses I sustained when I set out to make my mark on the world. For more than two years, my obligation to work odd jobs continued, but I lacked the commitment to further my education. Uninspired by the lackluster path my life was taking, I woke up one day and made a pact with myself to earn a four year degree. Despite many setbacks along the way, my commitment to higher education led me on a five year journey of seemingly endless twists and turns before I finally achieved my goal and earned a B.S. in math.
In 2001, my commitment to fatherhood matured when I first met my wife’s OB/GYN—a well-respected, domineering physician of Lincoln stature with hands the size of grizzly paws and a propensity for awkward humor. A surgeon who specialized in multiple birth deliveries, he once quipped, “Twins are what happens when you have sex two times in one night.” The serial logic of which struck the fear of God in me as I thought, you better check the film again.
Despite a demanding work schedule, which included frequent business travel, a book I was hungry to publish and another I was determined to write, I maintained a commitment to my family, as well as my graduate studies at night. I also remained committed to scratching the outline for what would eventually become my masterful espionage thriller, Enemy Among Us.
Why am I sharing this with you? To emphasize a connection between commitments and needs. My commitments to family, work, school, and writing were tied directly to my highest priority needs, which not surprisingly had a one-to-one correlation with my previously stated commitments. If you recall in Chapter II, I described the importance of conducting your own needs assessment to help you recognize the most important elements in your life. In The Seven Levels of Intimacy, Mathew Kelly writes, “Without a clear understanding of our purpose, it is all but impossible to commit to anything and follow through on that commitment.” As individuals and partners in our relationships, we find our purpose rooted in our core values that describe our fundamental beliefs. We also find our purpose rooted in our needs built upon our core values. Together, our core values and needs support our commitments. If the need is absent, the commitment will fail. We can’t commit to a romantic relationship without a need to support it. We might have a need to be in a relationship, but if we find higher priority needs driving higher priority commitments, our romantic relationship will suffer.
When I think of extraordinary commitments, I think of Dana Reeve, wife of the famous actor, Christopher Reeve, who suffered a life-changing injury when an accident during an equestrian competition in Virginia left him a quadriplegic. In an instant, the athletic, vivacious husband, father, and A-list actor had his life turned upside down with the sudden loss of physical mobility and independence. Despite the tragedy of his condition, his wife Dana remained by his side throughout the physical, emotional, and psychological ordeal. In the words of author, Kristyn Crow, “Dana Reeve was a true example of love and devotion. She stood beside her husband during this frightening reality, with one of the bravest faces I have ever seen.”
In 2008, The Last Lecture told the heartfelt story about Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch. Diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, the award-winning computer science professor, husband, and father of three young children faced a dire predicament with grace and dignity. With only months to live, he made a commitment to teach his children what he would have taught them over the next twenty years by doing what he did best, delivering a lecture entitled, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” In what would be his final lecture, he spoke about honesty, integrity, and gratitude with a vision to “help others find a path to following their own dreams.” In Randy’s words, his lecture was not about dying, but about living. While many people would have crumbled from the pressure of a terminal diagnosis, Randy Pausch made a commitment to himself and to his family to keep his spirit in check and deliver a presentation of a lifetime—one his children would look back on and remember long after his time on earth expired.
More recently, I read about thirty-two-year-old Iram Leon, a man diagnosed with Grade 2 diffuse astrocytoma brain cancer in November 2010. His prognosis: terminal. His outlook: inspiring. Despite the brain cancer, which has already robbed him of his ability to drive, work, or play contact sports, he continues to run. But his commitment to pound the pavement in spite of his medical condition extends far beyond himself, to his four-year-old daughter, Kiana, whom he pushes in a stroller when he jogs. Since Iram’s diagnosis, he and his daughter Kiana have competed in several 10K races and half marathons, culminating in a Texas marathon—which he—or technically, they—won with a time of 3:07:35.
No doubt there are other examples of amazing commitment and loyalty to demonstrate the powerful impact love and dedication can have on different relationships. If you’re currently engaged in a meaningful and lasting romance grounded by the pillars of chemistry, communication, compromise, and commitment, then I congratulate you. If not, or if your existing relationship lacks commitment, I encourage you to ask yourself, “What am I truly committed to?”
A recent study published by UCLA psychologists in 2012 examined a hundred and seventy-two married couples over the first eleven years of their marriage and posed the question, “What does being committed to your marriage really mean?” From the study results, psychologists learned that relationship commitment can mean one of two things. “I like this relationship and I’m committed to it,” or “I’m committed to doing what it takes to make this relationship work.” This latter statement, psychologists reported, provides a better predictor of lower divorce rates and fewer marital problems. Furthermore, the study found that couples who were willing to make sacrifices within their relationships were more effective in solving their problems and significantly more likely to have lasting and happy marriages. Granted, this study derived from a small sample population, but it’s reasonable to extrapolate the results to a larger population of committed couples and to non-married couples in healthy, long-term relationships. Committing to doing what it takes to make the relationship work as opposed to tagging along for the ride, makes logical sense once you recognize and actively promote the need for commitment in your life.