I’ve heard endless versions of the same story. Two people meet, they date for some number of months, maybe they even become exclusive and then — boom — one person says they have a “fear of commitment,” and it all comes to a screeching halt. It’s happened to almost every one of my friends. It’s happened to me twice. Yet when we sit down to discuss what happened, the conclusion we draw is always the same: They must not have liked us enough. Sure, they might have enjoyed spending time with us. But not enough to overcome this long-standing fear of commitment they claim to have. If they had real feelings for us, wouldn’t that trump anything else?
Take 26-year-old Arabella*, who, after four months of casually dating, was recently dumped by a guy who was afraid of commitment. “He went on about everything that was great about me and said he’s never liked someone this much before, but he realized he doesn’t want a serious relationship,” Arabella recalls. On the one hand, Arabella genuinely believes he was telling the truth. On the other hand, she feels as though he “obviously” would have just continued dating her if he liked her enough.
The latter feeling is often correct, according to Niloo Dardashti, Psy.D, a psychologist and relationship expert in New York City. “A lot of the time when people say that they just don’t want something serious, it’s actually that person isn’t right for them,” she says. The fear of commitment would have to be “really strong in order for that to be the true reason why something doesn’t happen.”
But, Dardashti explains, we all have a fear of commitment to some degree. “Everybody has intimacy issues,” she says. “It’s really just a spectrum. In other words, how strong is it? How much does it present an inability to give something a real try?” When the fear is presenting itself more strongly, the key to overcoming it in understanding why it’s there.
Fear Of Rejection
It may seem counterintuitive, but people are sometimes afraid to commit because they’re afraid of eventually being rejected by the person they committed to. That being said, Dardashti warns avoiding commitment altogether isn’t doing anything to make the situation better. “The more that you avoid something because of a fear of rejection, the more you’re reinforcing that fear,” she says.“
As someone who didn’t enter her first relationship until 23, I was always slightly afraid of commitment. When I look back on it, it was most definitely because I was afraid of being the one who got rejected in the end. Taking baby steps toward commitment allowed me to simultaneously overcome my fear and show my now-boyfriend I cared. For example, when I hung out with his friends for the first time. I brought one of my friends with me so it would be less intimidating. In that small act, I was able to get to know him on another level and get one step closer to overcoming my fear. I had taken a step forward and it was totally fine — there was something extremely reassuring about that, something that motivated me to continue to push forward.
Fear Of Distraction
Allison*, 30, a fashion publicist and press officer based in Italy, said no to the self-proclaimed love of her life when he proposed, because she was afraid a long-term commitment like marriage would stand in the way of her professional aspirations. “I grew up knowing exactly what I wanted in life,” she says. “My dream was to grow up and become someone who was, at the very least, wealthy.” Five years after that breakup, she still struggles with this fear. “[My current partner] is very serious in this and wants to move in together, and I just feel like my life would be over if I move in with him.”
“The more that you avoid something because of a fear of rejection, the more you’re reinforcing that fear.”
A Gen Z study Tinder conducted with Protein Agency found that Allison’s ideology isn’t unique; 72% of Gen-Z’ers have made a conscious decision to remain single. Of that 72%, 81% say their choice to stay single benefits their professional lives.
If the need to focus on your career is resulting in fear of commitment, Dardashti recommends taking a look inward. “Reflect on whether that’s the real issue,” she says. In other words, are you really committed to work right now or are you just using work as an excuse because you don’t like them enough? “Because, if you really care about someone and they really care about you, you can find a way,” says Dardashti.
That being said, Dardashti and psychotherapist Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., agree that there are times in life when it really is too difficult to juggle both a career and a relationship simultaneously. In those times, you don’t need anyone’s permission to devote your time solely to work. But long-term, we all need some kind of balance between work, friends, family, and dating. Obviously, that’s easier said than done — when you’re really passionate about work, it can be difficult to shift the focus over to your romantic life and vice versa. But, since humans are rarely fulfilled by checking off only one box in their lives, try to be cognizant of an ever-elusive quest for balance.
Fear Of Giving Up Your Independence
This fear usually stems from past experience or an innate knowledge that you’re the type of person who might struggle with maintaining your identity and independence. In order to feel more prepared to dive into a committed relationship, Dardashti suggests enlisting help. “Ask your friends to nudge you if they find that you’re [becoming too dependent on your partner],” she says, adding that you can make it clear to them early on that any of their critiques of your relationship will be welcomed, so they shouldn’t hold back.
In addition to having friends help you out, Smerling advocates being honest about your hesitations with your potential partner. Tell them how much autonomy and how much togetherness you require in a relationship before diving in so that you both know what you’re signing up for. “This is a discussion that all couples should have,” Smerling says.
Fear Of Moving On
Teo, 20, recently dumped a woman he was dating for months because, while everything was going great, he had just gotten out of a seven-month-long relationship “so it was just too much emotionally and mentally.” Since he really liked this woman, he tried to set his hesitations aside and give the relationship a fair shot, but eventually, it became too much.
It’s important to remember that commitment doesn’t need to be — and often isn’t — forever.
In cases like this, Dardashti says it’s not necessarily a bad idea to give in to your fear of commitment a bit. “If you’re not over another relationship, then maybe it’s not time yet for you to completely commit to somebody new,” she says. In order to figure out whether or not you’re ready to get more serious with someone new, consider why you’re not over your ex. Do you still love them? Do you worry that your next relationship will end in a similar manner? Do you still feel hurt by them? No matter what your reasoning, Dardashti highlights the importance of working through any and all unresolved feelings for your ex. A great place to do that, according to Smerling, is therapy.
Fear Of Missing Out
Shay, 27, broke up with her most recent boyfriend because he started talking about the future. In fact, she’s broken up with every guy who’s ever even tried to get serious with her. “I think I just like having options, or [maybe I] haven’t met someone that makes me want to commit,” she says. Similarly, Teo finds it hard to “trust” people around his age because “everyone has so many mixed feelings and too many options.”
To Smerling, this line of thought is nothing more than a cop-out for most people. “I think that they just aren’t ready,” she says. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as far as she’s concerned, so long as you’re honest with yourself and others about it.
However, if you are eager to commit but are being held back by your fear of closing other doors, Dardashti suggests looking to the future. When you envision yourself six months or a year down the line, can you see yourself with this person? If the answer is yes, that’s a clear-cut sign they could be worth committing to.
But she also notes that it’s important to remember that commitment doesn’t need to be — and often isn’t — forever. Rather than thinking of entering a relationship as something you’ll never be able to get out of, try framing it as something you’re giving a real shot for the time being. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, that’s OK, too.
Fear Of Something Else
If none of the above sounds vaguely applicable to you, Dardashti suggests asking yourself what it is you’re afraid of happening once you commit to someone. The best place to explore this question is therapy, she says. In therapy, you have the opportunity to get to dig deeper and learn strategies to overcome whatever it is you are afraid will happen. If traditional therapy isn’t for you, Smerling suggests trying a social anxiety group. These groups work to teach their members how to have relationships within a safe and structured environment. “It’s a great place to start for someone at any age,” she says.