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Diagnosing Commitment Phobia

Moving a relationship from the “just dating” phase to the next level can feel like a round of “Whack-a-mole.”

That’s a popular arcade game in which the player stands in front of a machine with a flat top the size of a small kitchen table. Periodically, automated moles pop their heads out of one of half a dozen holes in the surface. The object of the game is to bop them on the head with an oversized mallet before they disappear again. The faster you swing, the more they pop up and down. Sounds easy enough; but moles are quick little rodents. Just when you think you’ve got one in your sights—you don’t.

If this reminds you of your romantic relationship—a constant game of “catch-me-if-you-can”—then you may be involved with someone who suffers from commitment phobia. Maybe you are that person. Whether you’re hiding in the holes or holding the hammer wishing your partner would just stand still for a second, this article is for you. Here are four things you need to know:

Commitment phobia is often misdiagnosed. “Phobia” is a word that carries a negative connotation, implying irrational, even neurotic, fear. But you should be careful before accusing your partner, or yourself, of being “afraid” to commit. Cautious deliberation when making a decision with life-long implications is not necessarily irrational or fearful. Sometimes it is the most prudent thing to do. Does double-checking your parachute before jumping out of a plane make you acrophobic? Certainly not.

Commitment phobia flares up when “what next?” comes up too soon. If you or your partner feel unsettled at the idea of settling down, it may signal nothing more than the need to let more time go by before considering an exclusive relationship. Rushing to nail down your future together may paradoxically poison it—if the time is not yet right. Remember, just because one of you feels ready now doesn’t mean the other should as well. Each of us must arrive at life-changing decisions in our own time.

Commitment phobia can signal unresolved pain in a person’s past. When a relationship takes longer to develop than we’d like, we often respond in frustration, swinging the hammer harder than ever. That is unlikely to help, especially when the reason for reluctance is a still-tender emotional wound one of you is shielding from further injury. If a previous commitment went bad, it may take an extra helping of compassion and understanding—easy on the accusations—before you are ready to try again.

Commitment phobia is sometimes exactly what it seems—a dodge. When all other options have been considered and discarded, what’s left may be an unpleasant truth—that your partner is dragging his or her feet to keep options open in case someone better comes along. Usually, there are other obvious warning signs as well. If so, call it like it is and move on.

What’s the best antidote to confusion over commitment phobia? Patience . . . discernment . . . and communication — lots of it.