Commitment always comes with an element of anxiety. We rarely have a completely clear understanding of what will happen once we fall in love, start living with someone, get married, or have a child. We always feel a little bit anxious about how things are going to turn out. Those who feel ready to move forward do not take the next step because of the absence of fear, but despite it. They do so with enthusiasm or belief that in the end, everything is going to turn out alright. However, for people who are afraid of commitment, these common life events link to or amplify already existing fears. So, if a person you are with is not ready to take the next step that you are, what should you do? In helping a person reach a decision on what to do, I like to start with two questions:
- How important is this next step to you?
- How important is it for you to stay in a relationship with this person?
Why these two questions? I believe that every decision in a relationship should start with a personal reflection:
- How do I feel about this?
- Is this important to me?
- Do I have any dilemmas?
- What does this step mean to me?
- Why am I hesitant to take it?
Is This Step Important? Do I Want to Stay with This Person?
I’ve worked with women who were upset about their partners not wanting to get married. I needed to understand what getting married meant for them. It turns out that these women didn’t care about being married as much as they cared about their partner being ready to commit to them in this way. For them, marriage was a guarantee that they are not wasting their time. They were pushing their partner on getting married when they actually were afraid of not being loved enough. However, they never communicated this to their partner. The only thing their partner would hear is: “Why aren’t we married yet?”
Their partners felt that marriage was something that “had to be done.” Unnecessary paperwork that has nothing to do with love. Something that, in the end, makes the relationship worse, as people start to take each other for granted. For them, the issue was not love.
So, my clients labeled their partners as being “afraid of commitment” when they were in fact just hesitant about the step that didn’t have any value to them. Their partners felt forced to sign something they believed would make their relationship worse. Having a conversation in which they both communicate their fears and desires had more fruitful outcomes than blaming one another for being too pushy or afraid of commitment. The second question is there to help you decide whether you want to invest effort in making the relationship work. If you find yourself struggling to picture yourself with this person in the future, you may want to end things sooner and invest time in meeting someone you may find more compatible.
What If My Partner Changes? What If They Don’t?
There are a few other questions to keep in mind:
1. How probable is it that your partner may change his or her mind?
Your partner’s willingness to reconsider the steps they are hesitant to take or to talk about them with you or a professional is a very important indicator of their readiness to change. If your partner sticks to their attitude to keep things as they are, you may either need to give up on the step you wanted to take or the person. The option of giving up on the step brings us back to the first question: How important is this step to you?
2. How long are you willing to wait?
Change is not always a smooth process and it may take time. If you feel impatient and your partner asks you to be patient, you may have just two options: to find a way to be patient or to end the relationship. Again, how much time you are ready to give to your partner depends on what the answers to the first two questions are.
3. If your partner overcomes their fear and takes the next step, what happens now?
When we are laser-focused on a single step, we tend to miss the big picture. What happens after they decide to move in with you, get married, or have a child? Do you see the same challenges recurring? I’ve worked with people who gave up on the relationship overall because they felt awful to have to be in a position to push their partner to make decisions. For others, one big decision was good enough proof that the relationship is worth investing in.
4. What happens if your partner never changes?
There are people who prolong the fight because the alternative of being single and alone again is too scary. When a person is in a relationship for a long time, it is frightening to think that you may need to start everything all over again with someone new. However, in deciding whether to stay with a partner or not, the fear factor should not be determining the course of action.
*Ana Jovanovic is a psychologist and life coach from Parenting Pod, a resource for parents on mental health and wellbeing.