Three Challenges in Living with Commitment Phobia


“What do I do if my boyfriend has commitment phobia?” This is one of the more common emails I get on this blog.

Relationships or friendships in which one or both parties have commitment phobia can be extremely challenging. The easiest way to deal with this is, of course, to run for your life! It is easier to find someone else who is willing to commit .But if you’ve decided to stay on, here are three recurring patterns to expect, and how to deal with them.

Challenge #1: The sky is always falling

When things get tough, a commitment phobe’s instinct is to call off the relationship. “Let’s break up” is a common refrain during fights. Every argument becomes a crisis of survival for the relationship.

Apart from the emotional roller coaster ride, the practical problem is that it’s almost impossible to plan anything together. A vacation planned together yesterday has to be cancelled because you “broke up” today. But if you do cancel, chances are you’ll get back together tomorrow when things have cooled down.

What to do: Stay calm and carry on

The best thing to do when this happens is: Nothing. Don’t say “Fine, let’s break up”. Don’t write or call or text to try and save the relationship. Don’t change your plans (yet). Any action you take will escalate the already volatile situation.

Be as inert as you can. Understand that this is not your crisis, but the other person’s. Just go about your day(s) and wait for the storm to blow over. Most of the time the relationship will get back on track. And if the break is indeed final, you’re seriously better off with someone else who is not a commitment phobe.

Challenge #2: It feels like an emotional yoyo

Commitment phobes go through a push-pull emotional cycle. When you get close, they will push you away with cruel words and dark actions. Once you distance yourself, they will pull you back with sweetness and light. When you get close again… the cycle continues.

It can be emotionally exhausting because things seem to be either going really well or very badly, and there is no stable middle ground. Worst of all, you are often heavily criticised or otherwise treated badly. This is the commitment phobe’s way of pushing you away.

What to do: Be patient and wait

The criticism is not about any wrongdoing on your part, so just relax instead of taking it personally. Try hearing the fear behind the harsh words. Whatever the actual words, the commitment phobe is really saying “I feel you’re getting too close and I’m afraid of this closeness so I need to push you away now.”

Give the commitment phobe some space and things will usually get better. Once he feels that you’re getting too distant, he will take steps to get closer again. Conversely, when you’re experiencing intimacy, be prepared for him to pull away temporarily. Think of the relationship as happening in waves – enjoy it when the good times flow, and pursue your personal hobbies during the ebbs.

Challenge #3: You feel like you’re going nowhere

Commitmentphobes are unlikely to commit. This seems obvious yet so many people who tell me that their SO has commitment phobia are still waiting for them to commit. They believe that if they only do something right, the other person will be miraculously cured and go down on their knees with a ring.

Women, especially, have a deep seated need for security. We need to know that the relationship is going ‘somewhere’ which usually means marriage. Sadly, that is the last place a commitment-phobe wants to go, as that is the ultimate commitment.

What to do: Learn to live in and appreciate the present

Instead of wanting the relationship for what it could be in future, learn to appreciate what it is now. Instead of mentally planning your wedding, focus on the movie you watched together today and how much fun you had. If you form a habit of wanting more, you will always want more. Marriage won’t solve this problem as you will continue to want more of his time and attention even with a ring on your finger.

Learning not to want is incredibly hard, but truly helps us live more fully. Can you accept that this relationship is all that it will ever be? That you will never get married? That at most you will have companionship without any commitment? If you can, then you can be happy with this person. If you need commitment, your needs won’t be fulfilled here and you’re better off moving on.

The problem is not the other person

When people ask “How do I live with a commitment phobe?” their real, unspoken question is “How do I change him and make him commit?” This is the wrong question because we don’t know the answer and even if we did, we cannot forcibly change another person.

Better questions would be: “Am I the kind of person who can live with a commitment phobe?”, “Can I put up with the roller coaster drama in this relationship?”, “Do I need more or can I be genuinely grateful if this is all there is?”

My heart goes out to all who are asking these questions. If it’s any consolation, challenges exist in all states of life – marriage, singlehood, and uncommitted relationships. We just have to decide which set of challenges we can live with.