It’s a familiar narrative in the dating scene: You’ve been seeing someone for a while now. You enjoy spending time together and getting to know each other; things seems to be moving in the right direction. But when you try to define the relationship in any way, the mood changes. The person you’re seeing becomes evasive and less responsive to your texts. If you try to make future plans, they dodge the subject.
When you two sit down to discuss what the heck happened ― things were going so well! ― you’ll probably receive some version of the following: “I have commitment issues,” “I’m a commitment-phobe,” or “I’m afraid of commitment.”
Sometimes, this conversation happens further down the road, once you’re already in a relationship. Once things get even more serious, your partner starts to pull away. They tell you they want to make things more casual or, worse, break things off altogether. You’re left thinking: What gives?
The slippery term “commitment issues” gets tossed around quite a bit, but what does it actually mean? We turned to relationship experts to gain some insight.
If someone brings up their “commitment issues,” they’re probably uncomfortable with intimacy.
And they’re probably also uncomfortable with how fast things are moving in the relationship.
“They like you, or may even love you, but they are concerned that they will not be able to meet your needs and expectations for commitment,” psychologist Samantha Rodman told HuffPost.
These issues could be rooted in a number of different fears, beliefs or negative experiences a person has had in romance or family life (such as parents who went through a tough divorce).
It’s also important to remember that not everyone’s endgame is a committed, monogamous relationship.
“It could mean they have fears of being stuck or feeling suffocated in a relationship, or that they struggle with ambivalence and doubt major decisions, including their relationships,” said psychologist Ryan Howes. “Or they are polyamorous and have great difficulty with monogamy.”
“Or maybe they have a tendency to gravitate toward people who are a poor match and the relationships quickly disintegrate,” Howes continued. “Or they so deeply fear feeling rejected that they end relationships prematurely with a pre-emptive strike.”
In a nutshell: “It typically means there is something about long-term, intimate relationships that brings up fear, and historically the fear causes the relationship to end,” he added.
It’s also possible the person has lost interest in you and is using “commitment issues” as some kind of cop-out. But whether the reason is being sincere or not, take it as a sign that this person is not ready to (or interested in) pursuing a relationship with you.
“If someone tells you they have commitment issues, the best path forward is to take them at their word,” Rodman said. “So many people view it as a challenge, and then become extremely disappointed and resentful when it turns out, after a few years, that the person did not, in fact, want to ever commit to monogamy, living together, or marriage.”
People with commitment issues may give you mixed signals and try to create distance in the relationship.
Someone with commitment issues may be hot and cold toward their partner and avoid conversations about the status of the relationship or next steps like moving in or getting engaged. They probably won’t be planning a vacation with you for the following year, because making concrete plans that far in advance is a no-go. They may even limit the amount of time you spend around their friends and family so you don’t get too attached in case things end.
“They’re conflicted,” Howes said. “Part of them wants the relationship and doesn’t want to argue, so they stick around, hoping the issue will resolve on its own. Another part is so scared of the commitment that they have one foot out the door. It can feel like they’re halfway in and halfway out of the relationship most of the time.”
Often, people who are fearful of commitment have an avoidant attachment style ― meaning they are uncomfortable with too much closeness in a relationship and try to keep partners at arm’s length.
“They learned not to rely on anyone, and to be very independent and self-sufficient,” Rodman said. “Often, they have difficulty being vulnerable with partners and like to play their emotional cards close to the chest. This can be frustrating for partners who want a closer, more emotionally open relationship.”
So, should you stick it out with a commitment-phobe?
You can try to help your partner work through some of their issues ― perhaps offer to attend couples counseling with them, if they’re open to it, or support them if they want to go alone. But remember: You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves.
“You can make some efforts to help your partner work through it by being a consistent and reliable partner yourself,” said Marni Feuerman, author of the upcoming book Ghosted and Breadcrumbed: Stop Falling for Unavailable Men and Get Smart about Healthy Relationships. “You can also open up some deeper discussions around the topic to see where you get. If you find that this person is highly avoidant and doesn’t want to confront this fear or have such talks, you have to realize when to stop.”
At the end of the day, you want to find a partner who desires the same level of intimacy and commitment that you do ― not someone you feel you have to convince.
“Relationships happen when two people want the same thing at the same time,” Feuerman added. “If your commitment goals are not aligned, it’s going to cause a serious problem. Therefore, it’s better to move on to someone who values commitment too if you do.”