Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Relationship commitment phobia

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Relationship commitment phobia:
What is it and how can it be dealt with?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Twenty-seven year old Emilie enjoys casual dating; however the idea of committing to one person makes her anxious. She meets twenty-five year old Katrina, and they start spending all of their time together. They meet one another’s family and close friends. They support each other at social activities, and they even start to talk about planning a future together. They get along perfectly, sharing many similar interests, and sexually, they are very compatible.

Katrina starts to question Emilie about the possibility of a long-term, committed relationship and Emilie backs away. To Katrina, it looks like Emilie has lost all interest in her. Emilie knows deep down that she loves Katrina, but she can’t get past the anxiety she feels when she thinks about spending the rest of her life with only one person.

Eventually, Emilie decides that if she is ever going to be happy, and have a family of her own, she must seek help to understand the cause of her anxieties. She starts to see a therapist, and engages in two different types of therapy, Systematic Desensitisation, and Mindfulness-based Therapy. After a series of sessions, Emilie realises that her fear of commitment stems from the insecurities she formed around her needs being fulfilled unpredictably by her parents in her early childhood. Eventually, Emilie learns to turn her anxiety into excitement, and feels she can be committed to a stable and loving intimate relationship.

Romantic relationships are an important and natural part of human existence (Talebreza-May, 2019), however there are people who fear commitment in intimate and romantic relationships. This is usually due to trauma and heartbreak in early adulthood, or the attachment styles they have learned as a product of the bonds they shared with their primary caregiver during infancy and early childhood. There are several psychological theories that can help explain relationship commitment phobia, including Attachment Theory by Bowlby and Ainsworth, Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, and Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning.

Figure 1. Metaphoric image for relationship commitment phobia.

What is relationship commitment phobia?[edit | edit source]

The term commitment phobia was made popular in the late 1990s after the release of Steven Carter’s book Men who can’t love. It’s referred to as the avoidance and fear of intimacy and love in long-term relationships (Carter and Sokol, 1996).  Those with fears committing to romantic relationships don’t necessarily fall into a specific category in sexual preference, gender, age, ethnicity or class (Grohol, 2018). However there are certain characteristics such as the relationship and experiences the individual had with their parents and primary caregivers in infancy, and childhood, and also experiences with intimacy and love in early adulthood which are the contributing factors to the development of the phobia.

Most people don’t realise that many emotions have a similar physiological impact on the body (Goldsmith, 2013). Falling in love is often associated with excitement and exhilaration; however these can often be confused with feelings of anxiety, which can deter people from continuing to be intimate with a specific person (Grohol, 2018). The Schachter-Singer Theory, also known as the two-factor theory of emotion, states that physiological arousal of the emotion occurs first, and it is up to the individual to cognitively label the emotion based on what they believe to be the reason for the arousal (Cherry, 2019a). Increased heart rate and clammy palms are just two of the many physiological impacts of anxiety and nervousness; however they can also be interpreted as responses to affection and love.  

Individuals who find themselves hesitant to commit or continue being intimate in the early stages of dating someone might be labelling their feelings of excitement as anxiety, and therefore cease the relationship. These emotions being interpreted and therefore cognitively labelled as anxiety are often the subconscious reactions to past experiences, where the individual has been conditioned to fear and back away from intimate situations and committed relationships.

Relevant psychological theory[edit | edit source]

There is currently limited research on the cause of relationship commitment phobia, however several psychological theories can be applied to define and support the concept.

Attachment theory[edit | edit source]

Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby with the help of Mary Ainsworth in the late 1950s. It attempts to explain the dynamics of interpersonal relationships between humans, particularly long-term (Bretherton, 1992). The theory was developed by observing the reactions and interactions young children had in regards to their primary caregivers. Four main attachment patterns were observed: Secure attachment, insecure-avoidant attachment, insecure-ambivalent attachment, and disorganised attachment (Trickey, 2004).

Secure attachment comes when caregivers are attentive and caring towards their children. A child will feel safe to engage with strangers, explore freely whilst their caregiver is present and trusts that the caregiver will assist in times of need. They will appear visibly distressed or upset when the caregiver departs, and will often appear happy when they return.

Insecure-avoidant attachment is evident when the child appears distant or shows little emotion when the caregiver departs or returns. This is usually a product of the caregiver being unresponsive, and not meeting the needs of the child.

Insecure-ambivalent attachment occurs when the caregiver is unpredictable in response to the child’s needs. The child is often wary of strangers, and explores very little. When the caregiver departs, the child is often highly distressed, and generally shows mixed emotions on their return. A study in the late 1990’s done by McCarthy and Taylor,[grammar?] found that adults who have difficulties in maintaining intimate relationships, often displayed ambivalent attachments as a child (Mccarthy, 1999).

Disorganised attachment is the hardest to categorise, and appears to be a combination of ambivalent and avoidant attachments. The child shows uncertainty or randomness toward the caregiver, and may not seek them out in times of need. Often this occurs when the needs of the child are ignored by the caregiver, or the caregiver is disinterested or abusive towards the child.

Attachment theory in adults was explored in the 1980s by Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver. Similarly to Bowlby and Ainsworth, Hazan and Shaver separated their adaptation of the theory into four main components that roughly correspond to the original theory: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. Adults who indicate fear to romantic relationships, often experience avoidant attachment styles (Nauert, 2018). This can be dismissive-avoidant, (Levy, 2017) corresponding to the aforementioned insecure-ambivalent attachment style. Here, the individual tends to avoid attachment altogether, preferring to opt for high levels of independence. The individual will display trust issues, and be hesitant to receive positive feedback from others, whilst maintaining a positive relationship with their own ego (Carvallo and Gabriel, 2006).

It can also be fearful-avoidant[explain?]. Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) described the fearful-avoidant as characterised by "avoidance of close relationships because of fear of rejection, sense of personal insecurity in relationships, and a distrust of others". It was noticed that adults displaying a fearful-avoidant attachment style also had negative personality attributes such as problems with intimacy, and tend to be destructive with conflict interaction with spouse, such as threatening to leave the relationship (Scharfe and Bartholomew, 1995). This attachment style roughly corresponds to the insecure-avoidant attachment style in the original theory.

Stages of psychosocial development[edit | edit source]

Developed in the 1950s by Erik Erikson, the stages of psychosocial development theory states that personality is ever progressing, from infancy through to adulthood (McLeod, 2018a). He identified eight stages, where an individual must undergo a psychosocial crisis which will shape personality development negatively or positively. Each of the crises will lead to a basic virtue being gained, or not.

The eight stages of psychosocial development are listed in the table below:

Figure 2. Stages of psychosocial development
Approximate Age Psychosocial Crisis Virtue Developed
Infant- 18 months


Trust vs Mistrust Hope
18 months- 3 years

(Early childhood)

Autonomy vs Shame/Doubt Will
3-5 years

(Play age)

Initiative vs Guilt Purpose
5-13 years

(School age)

Industry vs Inferiority Competency
13- 21 years


Identity vs Role Confusion Fidelity
21-39 years

(Early adulthood)

Intimacy vs Isolation Love
40-65 years


Generativity vs Stagnation Care
65 years+

(Old age)

Integrity vs Despair Wisdom

Certain elements in Erikson’s theory can be applied to those who have commitment phobias in romantic relationships during adulthood. In the first stage, Trust and Mistrust,[grammar?] if an infant’s basic needs are not being met by their primary caregiver, they will decide they cannot trust the world,[grammar?] and will show feelings of withdrawal, suspicion and lack of confidence (McLeod, 2018a).  This stage is based upon the work of Bowlby and Ainsworth on Attachment Theory. The individual will turn their attention to activities and objects, as they have learned not to trust, rather than making an effort to connect, or sustaining contact with others.

The sixth stage of Erikson’s theory is based on Intimacy and Isolation. This stage occurs in early adulthood, and will have an impact on whether the individual decides they are capable of loving, and forming meaningful bonds. Important relationships outside of family begin to be explored. If negative experiences arise, the individual is likely to fear commitment, avoid intimate situations, and have feelings of isolation and loneliness for the duration of their life. The outcome of positive experiences are secureness, care, and a sense of commitment and the virtue of love (McLeod, 2018a).

Classical conditioning[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. How classical conditioning works

Childhood experiences are not always the reason behind an individual’s fear of commitment. Sometimes this can be a result of previous dating or relationship experiences in the early stages of adulthood, similar to Erikson’s sixth stage of psychosocial development. This concept is known as classical conditioning. Classical conditioning was developed by Ivan Pavlov in 1897. He discovered that new behaviours can be learned through association (McLeod, 2018b). The framework for this theory centred on his experiment with dogs at feeding time, using a bell to signal that food was about to be served to the dogs, and observing their reaction afterwards.

The unconditioned stimulus in his experiment was the dog food. The neutral stimulus was the sound of the bell, as it did not elicit salivation from the dogs originally. However, the sound of the bell became the conditioned stimulus as the dogs salivated, the conditioned response, when they heard the sound of the bell, regardless of food being presented to them or not (Cherry, 2019c). An adult with a secure attachment style may develop a phobia of commitment due to experiences in early adulthood. If an individual has had an intimate relationship which ended in trauma, heartbreak, isolation or depression, among other negative feelings, the individual becomes less likely to engage in intimate and committed relationships in the future, because they associate the commitment and intimacy to those negative feelings from the failed relationship (Grohol, 2018).

The first known experiment of classical conditioning was the study of Little Albert, conducted in 1920 by John Watson with the assistance of Rosalie Rayner. Watson took a seemingly healthy young child and conditioned a fear into him, using Pavlov's classical conditioning technique. Prior to the conditioning stage, it appeared that "Little Albert" had no fear of small furry/fluffy objects (Beck et al, 2009). He was presented with a variety of small animals, including a white rat, a rabbit, a dog, and various masks. During the conditioning stage, Little Albert was allowed to play with the white rat. At this time, a hammer would be hit against a steel pole. Little Albert would respond by showing visible signs of fear, attempting to crawl away, and crying. After the conditioning stage, it was noted that at the sight of the rat, Little Albert would show those signs of fear, even when the hammer hitting the steel was not present. This fear also expanded to other similar items, such as a rabbit, a dog, and a Santa Claus mask with white cotton balls in the beard.

Case study

In Carol's office, there is a man named Ben. Every day at exactly 12 noon, Ben alerts Carol, and everyone else in the office, that it is lunch time. Carol soon starts to associate her hunger with the sound of Ben's voice.

One day, at 11am, Ben alerts the office that it is lunch time. Carol immediately feels hungry, and does not argue that there is still an hour until their usual lunch time.

This is because Carol has been classically conditioned to associate her lunch time hunger to Ben's voice, rather than the time.

Dealing with relationship commitment phobia[edit | edit source]

Relationship commitment phobia may be a difficult thing for the individual to address, and there isn’t a particular diagnostic manual in dealing with it, it isn’t impossible to cure. There are several ways to assist the individual in understanding their fear of commitment, and further assisting in removing the anxieties they have surrounding long-term, intimate relationships.

Adult attachment interview[edit | edit source]

The Adult Attachment Interview(AAI) was developed by Carol George, Nancy Kaplan and Mary Main in 1984. It was designed as a clinical tool to assist in understanding how one reacts in a variety of intimate situations, by evaluating childhood attachments (De Haas et al., 1994). The AAI is a structured interview where individuals are asked specific questions, in a specific order, although there is ample opportunity for the individual to expand on their own experiences as they like. Duration of the interview usually lasts between one to two hours[grammar?].

Examples of questions in the AAI are given below, however this list is not comprehensive (George et al., 1996):

  1. provide 5 adjectives to describe their relationship with each parent during childhood
  2. supply memories which support each adjective
  3. if they felt closer to one parent, and why
  4. whether they ever felt rejected during childhood
  5. why parents my have behaved as they did during childhood
  6. how experiences may have affected the development of their personality
  7. to describe any experiences with loss

Although partaking in an AAI will not typically assist in relieving the phobia of commitment, it does help indicate where the fears originate from. From there, the individual can look at methods of dealing with their fears, suitable to them.

Systematic desensitisation[edit | edit source]

Systematic desensitisation was developed by Joseph Wolpe in 1947. Originally experimenting on cats, he adapted his method and formulated a treatment for humans to overcome intense fears and anxiety, with his reasoning that if behaviour could be learned, it could be unlearned (Rachman, 2000). Wolpe initially instilled a fear within cats by giving them a mild electric shock, when accompanied by specific audio and visual stimuli. Once the cats were classically conditioned to associate the shock with the stimuli, the fear had been created. To desensitise the cats, Wolpe gradually exposed the cats to the same stimuli. However, in the place of electric shocks, food was given instead. It was observed that the cats had unlearned their fear (Wolpe, 1990).

Systematic desensitisation works as a graded process to slowly expose an individual to their fears. Starting with the least-anxiety provoking stimulus, a fear hierarchy is developed, moving towards the most triggering stimulus. There are three main steps conducted in the desensitisation process. First, the fear hierarchy is developed. This is a list of situations one must encounter to cure their phobia, ranked in order from least to most anxiety triggering. Second, mindfulness and muscle relaxation training will occur, to provide the individual with a coping mechanism to be used when exposed to the triggering stimulus. The third step is to connect the triggering stimulus to the mindfulness training by exposing the individual to the weakest point on their fear hierarchy. The third step is repeated gradually, until the individual is no longer triggered by the stimulus (Stevens, u.d.)

"Little Peter" was a study conducted by Mary Cover, in 1924. After taking interest in the Little Albert experiment, Cover performed an experiment on a 3 year old child named Peter. Peter was chosen for the experiment as he seemed to be a normal child in every aspect besides his unexplained fear of rabbits (Cover, 1924). By supplying Peter with his favourite food whilst simultaneously bringing a rabbit closer to him, it was observed that Peter's fear had been eradicated, and he could eventually allow the rabbit to touch him.

The starting point for commitment phobia, may be having the individual be able to comfortably talk about being in a committed relationship, with the end result being the obvious, have the individual be comfortable in engaging in long-term, committed relationships.

Case study

Carlos has arachnophobia, which is the immense fear of spiders. Even the thought of spiders sends him into a panic. He decides to see a therapist to help overcome his irrational fear.

The therapist suggests that Carlos start a systematic desensitisation process. They come up with a fear hierarchy, starting with the thought that provokes the least amount of fear. For Carlos, that is thinking about a spider. He assigns a fear rating of 10 to the first step.

Together, Carlos and his therapist finish the hierarchy, including things such as letting a spider crawl on his desk, which was assigned a fear rating of 70, letting a spider crawl across the leg of his pants, which was assigned a fear rating of 90, and eventually holding a spider, which was assigned a 100 on the fear rating.

During the systematic desensitisation process, Carlos engages in mindfulness training. He learns how to calm himself, and regulate his breathing, along with how to relieve the tension from his muscles.

After ten sessions, Carlos successfully holds a spider. He feels his arachnophobia has been cured.

Mindfulness based therapy[edit | edit source]

Mindfulness based therapy (MBT) attempts to change the relationship an anxious individual has with their thoughts. Rather than avoiding the anxious feeling, the individual learns to remain present and fully experience the anxiety of their phobia, by focusing on the physiological sensation that arise with the feeling of anxiety. By learning how to respond to disruptive thoughts, and subsequently learning how to let the thoughts go, the individual begins to realise that the anxiety they experience is a reaction to a perceived threat, rather than a threat in itself. Thus allowing them to overcome their phobia (Vollestad, Nielsen & Nielsen, 2011).

Mindfulness based therapy is typically conducted in a group setting, with a two hour session, once a week, for a period of eight weeks. Elements within the sessions may include breathing exercises, such as a three minute breathing space, which focuses on a different element each minute: how the individual is feeling, their breathing, and then the physiological sensations that come with the former. However much of the technique is performed outside of the sessions. Individuals are expected to cultivate mindfulness into their everyday lives by practising meditation and using mindfulness-based cognitive techniques such as paying close attention to what is happening around the individual without self-consciousness, focusing on the present moment without distraction, and following first instinct processes that work, without questioning (Schimelpfening, 2019)

By using mindfulness based therapy to face the anxieties that come with their fear of commitment within a relationship, and allowing themselves to fully realise the elements of intimacy that cause their phobia, an individual can start the treatment process. At the end of a successful treatment, the individual will be able to work past their phobia, and form loving, secure, romantic relationships with others.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Relationship commitment phobia occurs when an individual has anxieties towards intimate and long-term romantic relationships. There are not necessarily common characteristics in those who struggle with the phobia, and can have an impact on any gender, ethnicity, age class, or sexual preference. Attachment styles learned in childhood or experiences with romantic trauma in early adulthood are the two main reasons an individual will develop a fear of commitment. Understanding of the origin of an individual’s commitment phobia can be found by engaging in an adult attachment interview.  Although the research on the cure for commitment phobia is not extensive, treatment can include cognitive behavioural therapy, which is broken down into cognitive restructuring, systematic exposure and mindfulness training.

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1 There are 6 stages in Erik Erikson's Psychosocial Development theory


2 Ivan Pavlov is responsible for the development of Classical Conditioning


3 Fear of commitment can be caused by past relationship trauma


4 Systematic Desensitisation can assist in curing relationship commitment phobia


5 Sigmund Freud developed the theory on Attachment Styles


See Also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. (2019). Attachment styles among young adults: a test of a four-category model. - PubMed - NCBI. Retrieved 14 October 2019, from http://doi:10.1037//0022-3514.61.2.226

Beck HP, Levinson S, Irons G. Finding Little Albert: a journey to John B. Watson's infant laboratory. Am Psychol. 2009;64(7):605-14. doi:10.1037/a0017234

Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 28(5), pp.759-775.

Carter, S. and Sokol, J. (1996). Men who can't love. New York: Berkley Books.

Carvallo, M. and Gabriel, S. (2006). No Man Is an Island: The Need to Belong and Dismissing Avoidant Attachment Style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(5), pp.697-709.

Cherry, K. (2019b). How Classical Conditioning Works: An Overview With Examples. [online] Verywell Mind. Available at:

Cherry, K. (2019a). Overview of the 6 Major Theories of Emotion. [online] Verywell Mind. Available at:

Cover. (1924). A Laboratory Study of Fear: The Case Of Peter. The Pedagogical Seminary And Journal Of Genetic Psychology, 31(4), 308-315. doi: 10.1080/08856559.1924.9944851

De Haas, M., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. and Van Ijzendoorn, M. (1994). The Adult Attachment Interview and Questionnaires for Attachment Style, Temperament, and Memories of Parental Behaviour. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 155(4), pp.471-486.

George, C., Main, M., & Kaplan, N. (1996). Adult Attachment Interview. Department Of Psychology, University Of California, Berkely, 3,4. Retrieved from

Goldsmith, B. (2013). Understanding and Dealing with Commitment-Phobia. [online] Psychology Today. Available at:

Grohol, J. (2018). What is Commitment Phobia & Relationship Anxiety?. [online] World of Psychology. Available at:

Levy, T. (2017). Four styles of adult attachment - Evergreen Psychotherapy Center. [online] Evergreen Psychotherapy Center. Available at:

Nauert, R. (2018). Attachment Style May Factor Into Fear of Commitment. [online] Available at:

Mccarthy, G. (1999). Attachment style and adult love relationships and friendships: A study of a group of women at risk of experiencing relationship difficulties. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 72(3), pp.305-321.

Mcleod, S. (2018a). Erik Erikson | Psychosocial Stages | Simply Psychology. [online] Available at:

Mcleod, S. (2018b). How Classical Conditioning Works: An Overview With Examples. [online] Verywell Mind. Available at:

Rachman, S. (2000). Joseph Wolpe (1915–1997). American Psychologist, 55(4), 431-432.

Scharfe, E., & Bartholomew, K. (1995). Accommodation and attachment representations in young couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 12(3), 389-401.

Schimelpfening, N. (2019). How Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Works. Retrieved 17 October 2019, from

Talebreza-May, J. (2019). The Importance of Human Relationships. [online] Available at:

Trickey, D. (2004). Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research and Clinical Applications Guilford Press (paperback), pp. 925,  ISBN 1-57230-087-6. European Eating Disorders Review, 12(6), pp.398-398.

Vøllestad, J., Nielsen, M., & Nielsen, G. (2011). Mindfulness- and acceptance-based interventions for anxiety disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 51(3), 239-260. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8260.2011.02024.x

Wolpe, J. (1990). Pergamon general psychology series, 1. The practice of behaviour therapy (4th ed.). Elmsford, NY, US: Pergamon Press.

External Links[edit | edit source]