5 common signs of commitment issues and how to work through them, according to psychologists
- If you or your partner(s) are conflict-averse or frequently cancel plans, you may have commitment issues.
- Commitment issues can make it difficult to pursue a healthy long term relationship.
It is important for folks in committed relationships to be committed. However, commitment doesn't necessarily mean you're committed to one person or that all good relationships are committed ones.
That said, if commitment is important to you and you or your partner(s) have commitment issues, then all of you will need to understand how to identify those issues and work through them for the health of the relationship. A lack of commitment in a relationship could mean that you or a partner are no longer interested in keeping the relationship.
In fact, according to one 2014 study, a lack of commitment is the most common reason couples divorce.
Past negative experiences can cause folks to have difficulties committing to a relationship, says Susan McClanahan, a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Spring Source Psychological Center.
If you're worried you or your partner(s) may have commitment issues, read on to learn more about signs you can look out for and how you can overcome a fear of commitment.
1. Consistent canceling
Someone with commitment issues might abruptly cancel anything from dinner dates to a weekend getaway.
"Once or twice [if] somebody's like, my dog got sick, or my mom or dad or sister or brother needed something – that happens to everybody," McClanahan says. "But if it's a repeated thing, it's a sign that the person isn't emotionally available."
Regardless of whether it's because they're anxious about the date or simply aren't interested, this behavior is disrespectful, McClanahan says.
You can typically spot a cancellation in advance if the person is vague about dates or times – like saying "Let's meet up on Saturday," but refusing to set a specific time.
2. Sending mixed signals
Someone who's giving off mixed signals might be unsure of their own interest in a relationship – and that might stem from commitment issues.
"There's a part of the person that's interested and committed," says Ron Samarian, the chief of psychiatry at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, "but not fully willing to commit for fear of, what if I commit, I will possibly get hurt, possibly lose out on a better situation." As a result of this confusion within themselves, their interest may appear to change over time.
Appearing uninterested can also be a way for someone with commitment issues to remain in a position of power in the relationship. Committing to showing your interest in someone makes you vulnerable and opens you up to rejection, McClanahan says. So someone with commitment issues might pull away as things start to get more serious as a way of trying to protect themselves from rejection
This can be tough for the other partner(s) in the relationship. When your partner(s) seems interested, it makes you feel good – and when they become more distant, it may feel like you've been deemed "not good enough," McClanahan says.
3. Conflict aversion
If you and your partner(s) never argue, it might be because they're not interested in doing the necessary work to establish a long-term relationship, says Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist and author of "Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist."
A 2020 study on relationship dissatisfaction found that conflict aversion is connected to feeling unsatisfied in relationships. The study stresses the importance of couples understanding that "disagreement in romantic relationships is normal, and not the sign that there is something fundamentally wrong with the relationship."
Conflict aversion can indicate that one or all partners aren't committed to having uncomfortable conversations and working through them, or that they're struggling to commit to the relationship as a whole.
McClanahan says she sees conflict aversion most often in romantic relationships, but it can pop up in friendships, too.
4. They avoid thinking or talking about the future
A classic sign of commitment issues is when a partner won't talk about the future.
"There's an appropriate level of not wanting to commit to the future," McClanahan says. "You wouldn't want to be with someone for a month and saying, I can imagine my future with you in 5 years."
But within 3 to 6 months of dating, if all parties are interested in continuing the relationship long-term, you should be able to start imagining being with someone longer term, she says.
You can want to commit while also being afraid that by doing so, you'll be making a big mistake. As a result, a person with commitment issues may simply avoid locking in any future plans.
But Samarian says this is ultimately a bad strategy. "If you avoid that long enough, the relationship's gonna break," he says. "You're making a decision by not committing. It will end in failure if you don't eventually talk about future issues."
It's also important to be flexible with hopes or promises made earlier in a relationship. Re-negotiating shared hopes and dreams is normal in long term relationships.
5. They don't seem fully present
Lots of things can cause a partner to be unengaged, including feeling stressed or depressed, Durvasula says.
But it can also be a sign of commitment issues, according to McClanahan. For example, a partner may be distant because they're thinking about something else they're more invested in, she says. But other times, their distance is a sort of defense mechanism that they use to avoid making themselves vulnerable.
This kind of distance can make it hard for people to connect intimately and advance their relationship. And it's often especially hard for those without commitment issues, because it's "hard not to take that personally, even though it might not be personal," McClanahan says. They may feel devalued, which can be especially worrying if a person already has self-esteem issues.
Causes of commitment issues
Many commitment issues result from intimacy and attachment problems. For instance, if someone has had bad relationships in the past, they might be afraid the same thing will happen again, so they avoid committing entirely.
A lack of positive role models for relationships in childhood can also lead to commitment issues, Samarian says.
But sometimes, someone's personality is the cause for their commitment fears. For them, avoiding commitment is like "shopping for someone or something better," Samarian says.
It's also entirely valid for someone to not want to be in a committed relationship simply because this is not what they're looking for in their partner(s). Whether or not a relationship is committed does not define the worth of the relationship, but if all parties intend for the relationship to be committed, then it's important that everyone involved show their interest.
How to overcome commitment issues
Is it possible to move past your commitment issues?
"I definitely feel like it's something people can overcome," McClanahan says. "But it's a little bit like, you can bring a horse to water but you can't make it drink."
The person with commitment issues has to recognize their problems and actively want to overcome them for treatment to work, she says.
If all partners are on board, couples therapy can be a great way to start addressing commitment issues, Samarian says. Therapy is often helpful for folks in relationships to learn how to be vulnerable with each other and safely commit to each other more deeply.
But know that oftentimes, couples therapy can lead to a mutual breakup when a couple realizes they aren't well-suited for each other.
If someone's commitment fears are rooted in anxiety or trauma, individual therapy might be more appropriate. A person with a history of trauma could try a trauma-informed therapy, like psychodynamic oriented therapies, says Durvasula. Cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy can also be useful.
Other tips for someone working through commitment issues include:
- Practice planning small things in advance, like planning to go to a concert in a few weeks
- Work on discussing your emotions with your partner
- Spend more time with your partner
There's no single telltale sign that indicates commitment issues, but subtle signs like frequent canceling, mixed signals, and an unwillingness to discuss the future can indicate a hesitance to commit. Commitment issues can be treated, but only if someone wants to change.
It's also worth reiterating here that relationships can still be healthy without commitment — if it's not an important component to any involved. Moreover, commitment doesn't necessarily mean to a single person.
Overall, if you're trying to figure out if you or your partner(s) may have commitment issues, McClanahan says you should ask yourself, "Does it feel like it's 50/50 or does it feel like you're carrying the weight of the relationship? That would be [a warning sign] that you're giving a lot more to sustain a relationship than the other person is."
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