Leaving Love Behind


So, are you ready to talk about what you’re afraid of?

Last month, as a part of our multi-part series about what keeps us from marriage, we kicked off a “multi-part within a multi part” series about commitment-phobia. While anyone with two brain cells to slap together knows that marriage should be approached with a healthy dose of respect, it would appear that some people are so conflicted about it that they, knowingly or not, sabotage their relationships so as to avoid that long walk down the aisle.
The hallmark of active commitment phobics is that, in the early part of a relationship, they all about the pursuit. Smitten, they’re doing what they can to win the affection of their beloved. But once they realize that they’ve succeeded, and that in return they are now expected to function in some sort of committed relationship, they panic. Often they actually experience physical symptoms – racing heart, queasy stomach, anxiety attacks. They may not realize that what they’re experiencing is fear of commitment, but they do know this much: they want out.
So the next logical questions is: what exactly is it that they’re afraid of? What do they believe, consciously or subconsciously, is going to happen to them if they keep going down this road?

According to Steven Carter and Julia Sokol, authors of He’s Scared, She’s Scared, those fears fall into four different categories. First, there are circumstantial commitment issues. Maybe someone is already having a lot of problems and is afraid of adding one more. Maybe they’re afraid of the financial or practical implications of a permanent commitment. Maybe they’ve already made a mistake and are afraid of making another one.

Then there are universal commitment issues – the kind everyone has to one degree or another. Fear of depending on another person, fear of having to grow up and face adult responsibilities, fear of giving up options in the future – these are realities implicit in a permanent commitment, and everyone has to come to grips with them. It’s just harder for some people than for others.

The final two categories are more interesting. First among them are the claustrophobic commitment issues.

In my parents’ generation, getting married meant “growing up.” It’s what earned them the freedom to do adult things. But today life is different. “Freedom” is perceived as being able to do whatever we want, whenever we want. And marriage inhibits that. Particularly for those who are accustomed to sexual “freedom”, tying oneself down to a single spouse is experienced as limitation, not liberation.

We’re all single for longer these days. We’re used to making our own decisions, controlling our own lives, selecting our own furniture. Giving up that control is difficult for anyone. But for someone with control issues – someone who always needs to be calling the shots – that fear can be paralyzing.

And then, finally, there are the narcissistic commitment issues.

Narcissism in dating is about perfection – our own perfection, and the perfection of those we pursue. Obviously, no one is really perfect, so to the extent that we expect it in ourselves or in our beloved, we’re setting ourselves up for some serious stress.

For some people, that narcissism takes the form of seeking the perfect mate. These people say that “of course” they want to get married. They’re living for it, preparing for it every day. They just need the “right” person. They’ll swear up and down that they understand nobody is perfect. But then they’ll end every relationship as soon as they discover something they don’t like, something that contradicts the fantasy of what they picture their married life to be. And so they remain single, continuing the search for that elusive “right” someone while everyone around them ties the knot.

Oddly, understanding my shopping habits can help here. I used to shop for clothes by going to the mall and feeling completely overwhelmed by the stores and stores full of racks and racks of options. I’d try on a ton of stuff, but rarely bought anything because I was always wondering if the next store would have something even better. I had too many choices. But then, I started hosting home clothing parties. A consultant brings in a line of clothing, my friends come over, we try stuff on while drinking wine and munching on appetizers, and I buy a lot of clothes. Fewer options, but I buy more stuff and I wind up like it more.

It occurred to me that there’s probably a correlation to dating. People who believe they have a lot of options, who believe that they are really extra wonderful and thus could have anybody they want, probably have a more difficult time settling on a mate than people who believe that their options are somewhat limited. Not that anyone should “settle” on the issues that really matter, but I think sometimes the nagging “maybe I could do even better” cripples those with narcissistic tendencies. Meanwhile their more realistic friends date people who meet the important criteria, figure “I may not find this again” and go on to build happy marriages.

The other side of the narcissistic coin is about men and women who expect perfection in themselves. They’re often very invested in “image” they project. They see their value largely in the external characteristics they present to the world – their physical attractiveness, the way they dress. And so, when someone gets too close, they begin to fear that they’ll be “found out” – that they won’t be able to hide their various flaws and imperfections.

Some people’s self worth is tied up in the idea that they will in some way be the perfect partner – the perfect giving husband, the perfect nurturing wife, the perfect provider, whatever. Which is lovely as long as it’s a fantasy projected into the future. But whenever anybody gets too close and the time draws near where they’ll have to actually make good on that promise, they panic.

This is obviously not a happy way to live. Narcissistic tendencies make us believe that all eyes are on us, and that we have to worry at all times about what people think of us. It leads to a weird kind of flip-flop where, when the pursuer is pursuing, all of his self-doubts are activated and he wants to “get” her to prove that he has the qualities that can win her love. But then when she responds, suddenly he fears he may be too good for her.

Of course it’s important to point out that not every single person is a narcissist or a control freak or even generally afraid of commitment. Sometimes, especially in this faithless world, the right person really is elusive. But I also think it’s important to examine our part in it, and to see if our unconscious fears might be playing a role in our continuing single-ness. As Carter and Sokol say, that fear can allow us “to look at a perfectly suitable person and resist exploring the possibility of a real connection. It can automatically reject some pretty terrific possible people for a wide variety of reasons, most of the superficial and some of them downright silly.”

Which, of course, leads to the next question: what do we do about it?

Which, of course, gives me a topic for next month.



  1. Tom-461745 September 3, 2010 Reply

    All good points. Still should we all be looking for this thing you call relationship. Isnt a relationship with god first in our lives, did you mention that. Of course our longing for each other is paramount in our consciousness, allowing nothing to expand in our minds and then reflecting on those we love and acting how to express that love requires thought first then action. I would be very careful in expressing action before thought, for the battle may begin but the victory is always within.

  2. Diana-563505 August 31, 2010 Reply

    My last relationship was something like this … dont know if it was me or him with this fear but I think we had different fears though. I was more afraid of settling and that there's someone else or there too many conflicts/contradictions like with morals or beliefs. Another fear I had was that since he was Protestant, I felt like that would cause a separation/divorce somewhere in the future… I dont know and maybe how he was grilled by my father ever so often was another fear that he wouldnt like my family or parents not accept him … Gave me new perspective on relationships though ..Thanks!

  3. Jane-619063 August 31, 2010 Reply

    This is a very well written article. Narcissistic persons have a hard time making decisions and are into themselves too much. Thanks.

  4. Gloria-487377 August 29, 2010 Reply

    How true. Thanks for the words of wisdom.

  5. Tara-609604 August 24, 2010 Reply

    thank you for this.

  6. Valerie-124949 August 22, 2010 Reply

    Hmmm … very enlightening … in an "Apparently I need therapy worse than I thought" kind of way! Can't wait for next month's words of wisdom on fixing it. Thanks for the article!

  7. Pete-22641 August 17, 2010 Reply

    This article really hits home for me , and really feel rotten for not opening up when it comes to relationships . it seems that every time some person would make me the indirect focal point of jokes and other forms of harassment, but in most social setting i would be friendly, courteous and help full but when the topic of dating and relationships would be brought up i catch myself trying to slide out the side or back door trying to avoid the topic . I felt lost in many ways when my older brother got married a day after i graduated high school . To explain my relationship with my brother when i was in high school , he went out gallivanting having a good and fun time with his friends and i was at home in my bedroom just like a recluse and hidden away from most all of his co-workers and friends , and when i did meet them i got treated worst than a mouse dose after getting caught in a mouse trap. I admit i do not know what a relationship would feel like .

  8. Devon-611892 August 11, 2010 Reply

    This article really hit home for me Mary Beth. I've finally been opening up to people and telling them about these exact things that are going on in my mind, hoping and praying that I can get over this problem. I'm glad to know however that I'm not alone in this internal struggle with myself. Thank you for the wonderful article.

  9. Racquel-600125 August 1, 2010 Reply

    I 'm very enlightened by Mary Beth's article…. 'quite an eye opener for someone who's having enormous reservation of losing one's freedom to another person… Maybe, I should give it a shot after being single for a long time?!!!…My hat's off to you, Ms. Mary Beth

  10. Ann-608016 July 31, 2010 Reply

    Hi Marybeth, I agree with you by the article you've written down line.

  11. Elizabeth-475820 July 28, 2010 Reply

    Excellent article and, of course, I want to know what to do about it since I have been trying for years to rid myself of this phobia. Please help!

  12. Philip-600116 July 28, 2010 Reply

    Thirty five years ago I was out of work with 7 children and I met my wife, Connie and in 5 weeks we ran away and got married. Our union was blessed and we fought cancer for 23 years. I lost her 3 years ago and the one thing that I feel is the most destructive element in any relationship is "Ego" Get rid of that and all is possible. Our union was most sacred and full of absolute joy and happiness. God love all of you and I pray you all be blessed as I have been Philip

  13. Kathy-555815 July 22, 2010 Reply

    Its hard to leave someone you love behind. It takes time for me. But you have to move forward and love your family and friends.

  14. Nneka-445935 July 20, 2010 Reply

    Great one there, Mary Beth! Many are guilty of all these above. May God help us do away with these fears

  15. Jan-576212 July 17, 2010 Reply

    Just got out of a relationship with a man who I clearly believe is commitment phobic – it's pretty painful because I really liked him, but couldn't deal with the "crazy." In answering your question Mary Beth, I think the answer for me is to just get back out there and realize I can't let this experience cause me to be jaded or afraid, fully knowing that at 50 I am ready for a healthy long-term relationship for the first time in my life (hmmmm possible issues myself prior to now:)) – I'm ready and just need to remember to enjoy meeting new people.

  16. Angela-559424 July 17, 2010 Reply


  17. Nekeisha-386546 July 15, 2010 Reply

    Fear is very real, we are putting ourselves in another human beings hands, opening ourselves to being hurt or loved. But I believe if we love the person enough and we allow God to guide we can get there.

  18. Maria-444645 July 8, 2010 Reply

    this is good~ thanks Mary Beth

  19. MaryBeth-382377 June 23, 2010 Reply

    So what is the solution to some of the above issues?

  20. David-587806 June 23, 2010 Reply

    Thank you for this article. It hits home because I think I am be in this very situation with a wonderful woman. It would be great if we could get past this. We have had so many wonderful times but once we reached an uncomfortable situation, everything changed. I would love to get back to having fun but she may have run for the hills and its too late. I would be interested to know how handle someone who is worth dealing with the commitment issues and get past them to have a great future/life with that person.

  21. Jule-566228 June 21, 2010 Reply

    Great insight and I agree. What has been my issue is getting men to slow down with me. Work on friendship, communication and understanding. I recently did not want to extend, just yet, a relationship that could have blossomed into greatness because,I was trying to help him after a visit to the hospital, he had told me to "shut the ****up" and the only time he was mean or sarcastic was when he drank, and the only time he didn't was when he was on the job. I loved this person but I was afraid to say that because I did not want to be vulnerable again. I had to cut ties with this person, and of course he couldn't see my point of view. I worked on a friendship for six months and by saying that to me and by doing other "mean" things that were just not in the definition of friendship.To say I love you opens you up to being the "bunny" and all the dogs of the world go into a feeding frenzy. I cannot withstand another devastation of my heart. I am not afraid of commitment. In my marriages I was the committed one. I am afraid that the damage is so great…I wear 4mm body Kevlar at all times…that is so sad…I want to be committed to my best-friend to laugh, love, play in the garden, get in water/mud fights and dance peacefully in each others arms…Thank-you

  22. Lisa-357780 June 19, 2010 Reply

    This is beautiful, and exactly what I innervertly feel but am to ashame to admit it. I have been divorce for 18 years and seperated for 20 years. I date and have meat 3 different men that was interested in a committed relationship,and spoke of marriage, but I too had to have excuses for it to end or for me to sabotage the dating scenerio, of course with experience and getting older in age I can admit this now and pray that God will allow me to be Blessed in Holy Matrimony, with His Blessings and Love, Laughter and complete friendship. This I Pray and this I air into the Universe. "In The Sweet Holy Name Of Jesus" Thank you posting and sharing what we as people know is true 🙂

  23. Cristina-510210 June 7, 2010 Reply

    This is so true! I feel that I am afraid to commit and I always end up finding a flaw in any relationship I'm in. I might just be too picky about who the right man should be.

  24. David-586621 June 3, 2010 Reply

    Thanks for another wonderful article with such useful insite.

  25. Victoria-576666 June 2, 2010 Reply

    Thank you for a realistic critique of a narcissist. I was once told that a narcissist surrounds himself with people who mirror themselves. How ultimately boring would that be? Perhaps their avoidance of commitment is a blessing to others…

  26. Richard-465733 May 29, 2010 Reply

    As John mentionned "…we can admit we are afraid to commit." I don't know of too many women who would respond favoritively to this type of statement. I would hope and pray the woman does understand where we are coming from.
    In my last marriage (yes, I will admit it was my second) I was afraid only because she had been married 4x previously. I took a chance because we knew each other in HS and I had a crush on her and we had good communication. But, even that could not outdo the fact that I felt she had more of a need for going out with her friends … I was invited; but I felt like a fifth wheel – something perhaps I need work on… but, in anycase, our marriage failed. I wish to feel like a married person to my spouse as opposed to her married to her friends…
    God bless her as she has since moved on and I do the same.

  27. Grace-583851 May 29, 2010 Reply

    yes is true,thank you

  28. Lillian-535174 May 29, 2010 Reply

    Thank you!

  29. Matthew-442025 May 25, 2010 Reply

    🙂 Lots of truth. But maybe one bit could be a little more balanced…
    'For some people, that narcissism takes the form of seeking the perfect mate. These people say that “of course” they want to get married. They’re living for it, preparing for it every day. They just need the “right” person' etc…
    True, but at the same time, choosing not to marry the "wong" person is certainly a positive choice. As is continuing to wait/look for the "right" person – something which often requires a fair amount of courage. Sure, we want to be marrried, but if you haven't (yet) found someone you REALLY want to marry, then why get married? 🙂 It's not a problem not being married while "everyone around [you] ties the knot". Thinking about it, I'm not sure that the criteria "I may not find this again” should play ANY role here – its just not "personal" enough… The choice of and for the other must be positive, "personal" and deeply desired (and, needless to say, free from a misguided search for unrealistic perfection – something which our culture definitely struggles with) – as you said, it's 'not that anyone should “settle” on the issues that really matter'. If I'm frequently on the receiving end of other people's waiting, well (and I know it hurts to entertain this thought) maybe Im just not desirable as a marriage partner for many people … which doesn't mean Im not loveable or precious – it just means that i haven't yet met anyone who wants to marry me with all that that entails… 🙂 Maybe I will never meet such a person. But that's cool because it helps me to remember/realise (in a bitter-sweet but somehow liberating kind of way) that my life doesn't derive its ultimate meaning and satisfaction from other people or another person anyway. That would be God's role… and, after all, it's his world, not mine 🙂

  30. Rebecca-502526 May 24, 2010 Reply

    This is so accurate. Thanks for the write up. I hope this is read by those that really need it!

  31. John-143853 May 23, 2010 Reply

    I enjoyed this article because it raised a question in me. I am divorced and having married out of the church was provided with an anullment. I aquired the annullment after I returned to the church after being away for 40 years. The strange thing is that return has created this question in me. If I believe as I do now that marriage is forever as God intended then I failed to do that in my marriage. How can I marry with this in my thoughts? Should I even date someone? I have found out that love is so great and so vast that maybe marriage in not where I will be again one day. For now many friends have taken the place of the one human being. Is that bad? Yes, commitment is a fear that sets itself against us. As I started this post, the article is really great. Mary Beth has always been on target in all that I have read from her. Hey guys, we can admit we are afraid to commit.

  32. Kristina-579061 May 17, 2010 Reply

    Very well thought-out and articulate.

  33. Shigale-556167 May 10, 2010 Reply

    Truly enjoying reading your articles Mary Beth…great to reflect on. 😉

  34. Anne-445674 May 9, 2010 Reply

    Great article! It makes a great topic of discussion between a close CM friend & myself. There's always something new to learn in our relationships!

  35. Chely-492082 May 8, 2010 Reply

    Excellent article Mary Beth! I think anyone ready to be deeply honset with them selves will take a serious look at this article and use it for prayerful reflection! Thanks for going beneath the catch-all phrase of "commitment phobic", discussing the undercurrents of this kind of thinking / behavior, and putting forth the challenge for all of us to reflect on it. I think this especially applies to those of us that are older and have been outside of a committed relationship most of the time.

  36. Roslyn-80300 May 6, 2010 Reply

    Wonderful insights! Can't wait for the next article.

  37. Patrick-440063 May 6, 2010 Reply

    Good article. I like your comments on narcissistic tendencies. I think us Catholics tend to be even worse in this area than others. Wanting that perfect flawless person.

  38. Thanks for sharing.Great iinsigthts into things we don't even realise we are doing.Looking forward to the next artice.

  39. Stephani-531106 May 2, 2010 Reply

    Looking forward to the next installment, great insight.

  40. Kathy-355103 May 1, 2010 Reply

    Very good points and food for thought once again! Looking forward to next month's article as well!

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