6 Signs of Commitment Issues, From Psychology Experts
Many psychology experts consider commitment the key to satisfying, lasting relationships. Learn how to spot signs someone is afraid to commit—and what it takes to get past the roadblocks.
Do you know someone with a fear of commitment?
Commitment may be the most critical component of successful long-term relationships. After all, says Lawrence Josephs, PhD, a professor at the Derner School of Psychology at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York: The more committed you are, the more stable, successful relationship you’ll have.
Commitment is a decision, Dr. Josephs says. It moves you and your partner beyond the initial chemistry that propelled you into the relationship in the first place to stay bonded after the initial period of bliss diffuses.
John Lydon, PhD, a professor of psychology at McGill University in Montreal, explains: “Commitment is the general motivation to maintain one’s relationship.”
Know somebody who seems like they could be lacking that motivation? Here are some tell-tell ways to recognize a fear of commitment—even in yourself.
Why does someone fear commitment?
Jessy Levin, PhD, senior psychologist at Northwell Health in Lake Success, New York says the reasons an individual is averse to commitment can vary, and some commitment-avoidant people may have more than just one of these reasons. Dr. Levin adds that some people just don’t want to be in a long-term monogamous relationship ever.
But how come? Well, says Dr. Josephs, some people fear commitment because it implies responsibilities. Those may be financial: Maybe they’re not so keen on the idea of paying for two at dinner, the thought of buying gifts for holidays or birthdays, or they’re not interested in the thought of one day raising children (which typically demands financial stability and investment). Maybe they just loathe the idea of having to be somewhere on time for plans you’ve made.
Other times, it may be a question of becoming more mature; more willing to shift one’s time and focus away from solely their own interests.
You may have also had a brush with a case when an individual’s unwillingness to commit has been rooted in their childhood. Early family dynamics and previous trauma can play a role, says Matt Cohen, PhD, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina. “We are driven by a such a rich tapestry of our own histories,” Dr. Cohen observes. “So many things impact how we show up in a relationship.” Gain more understanding on this with 11 Steps You Should Take to Heal from a Traumatic Experience.
Signs your partner won’t commit
Our experts offer a list of potential clues that you or someone you’re with has trouble with commitment:
1. Inability to compromise
Relationships, especially long-term ones, require give and take. Your partner hates musicals. You counted down weeks to the premiere of tick, tick…BOOM! In a healthy, balanced relationship, they’d need to be willing to subject themselves, at least sometimes, to your interests that they don’t particularly share.
But what signifies actual commitment phobia? “A commitment is a willingness to sacrifice for the team,” says Dr. Josephs. “Pay attention to how your partner deals with not getting his or her own way.” Put simply: If someone is consistently unwilling to compromise, that’s a sign they might not be prime long-term partner material.
In that case, you might be called to decide: Is an inability to compromise one of your relationship deal breakers?
2. Being self-centered
Dr. Josephs says being overly self-focused goes hand-in-hand with a unwillingness to compromise. “People who are high in narcissism have problems with commitment,” says Dr. Josephs. “They’re more likely to feel that the grass is greener in other places. They put their own needs ahead of others.”
Ever known anybody like that? It’s possible identity was also part of the issue. Dr. Lydon explains: “When people define themselves in terms of their relationship, they are motivated to think and behave in ways that help sustain the relationship.” If you’d prefer a commitment, a suitable partner is likely someone who doesn’t just show the occasional behavior that they care—instead, their love for you is a practice; a way of being for them every day. You’re an intrinsic part of their world, of their days—something so obvious that you’d barely think to question it.
3. Angering easily
At times, anger can be productive and even healthy for the relationship if it’s expressed appropriately, according to the American Psychological Association. The APA states: […A]nger tells others that it is important to listen to us,” just as the Albert Elis Institute reminds us that keeping the lines of communication open is necessary to maintain intimacy. (Looking for more understanding on whether your romance is a good one? Read up on the characteristics of a healthy relationship.)
Still, it might be a sign of wavering commitment if a person’s concern with their own self-interests leads to anger or frustration whenever they don’t get their way. “Some people are hypersensitive to rejection and abandonment, and if they’re disappointed, might respond in an angry retaliatory way,” says Dr. Josephs. Tolerating abusive or violent words or behavior? That’s a no.
4. Problems dealing with adversity
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Adversity is sometimes the “stress test” for commitment, says Dr. Lydon. “A person may say they are committed because they are highly satisfied and everything is going wonderfully, but will they stick with it when life presents some challenges to the relationship?” says Dr. Lydon.
Committed people stick with you through the good times and the bad. In fact, some couples find their partner shines—and even grows more lovable—when times are tough, and they weather through together.
5. Prior history of troubled relationships
Relationship history can provide clues about a person’s ability to stay in a long-term relationship. This can include past family relationships, lovers, or even platonic friends.
There is often an association between a history of trauma and difficulty with intimacy and commitment. However, because some people with traumatic pasts still experience stable personal relationships, this factor alone doesn’t indicate a lack of commitment, according to Dr. Cohen.
(Here are what the experts, and science, say about red flags in a relationship.)
6. Being distracted
A seemingly distracted partner could signal someone who is not committed, says Dr. Levin. An example might be observing that they back off from physical and sexual contact, not making dates in advance, or being emotionally withdrawn. “If a person is going through the motions in a lackluster way, that’s a pretty good clue that they haven’t come to a place where they’re committed,” says Dr. Josephs.
These are also potential signs of a situationship, too. (Totally worth a read.)
What to do if your love interest seems non-commital
Don’t lose heart if all these signs point to the likelihood that you or your partner lacks a desire to commit. If you’re in a dating situation and this is the case, clarifying that you’re on two different pages may offer the opportunity to allow each other to pursue the life you each truly crave. “A relationship has to meet the needs of each person,” Dr. Levin says.
And if you’re the one who’s not big on coupling up but you’d like to work on allowing a loving partnership into your life, therapy can be a great place to start. Fortunately, anyone who can get online can seek out the right therapist these days—here’s how to find the best therapy app for you, according to experts.
Can you make someone commit?
The ultimate question for many dating people: Can you get someone to commit? Dr. Levin suggests that in some cases, it may be possible for two people to commit equally to the relationship, even if one hasn’t been fully onboard. He alludes that it takes a mutual willingness to wade gently together out of the non-committal partner’s comfort zone, but a heads-up: This requires each person to communicate their needs, and to support the other.
- John Lydon, PhD, professor of psychology, McGill University, Montreal
- Lawrence Josephs, PhD, professor, Derner School of Psychology, Adelphi University, Garden City, NY
- Matt Cohen, PhD, clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
- Jessy Levin, PhD, senior psychologist, Northwell Health, Lake Success, NY
- The Albert Ellis Institute: "Dealing with your partner's fear of intimacy."
- American Psychological Association: "How to recognize and deal with anger."