You go on a number of dates, see someone for a few months, but when it comes to the crunch of whether they will commit to an exclusive relationship with you or not, they get cold feet, fade into obscurity and become a ghost of someone you briefly knew – existing only in your memory and the messages you exchanged.
Ask Siri to show you a picture of a commitment-phobe and expect thumbnails of Jack Nicholson to pop up for this is basically every character he’s played in his later career (see As Good As It Gets). But commitment phobia is more than just promiscuous behaviour or a clichéd bachelor-style refusal to settle down on the part of men.
In truth, being a commitment-phobe is a distressing and isolating symptom of a range of complex attachment disorders. It is not quite the gendered response to intimacy that pop culture stereotypes have led us to believe – women struggle to commit, too. We also might start out with good intentions only to disappear as soon as things start to get serious.
Take 32-year-old Rebecca, for example. She’s a successful filmmaker who guards her personal time fiercely. She either avoids dating completely, lest she meet someone she actually likes, or finds every excuse to justify ending a relationship when it does start to develop.
In truth, being a commitment-phobe is a distressing and isolating symptom of a range of complex attachment disorders.
"I get to the point where I want to meet people, and think having a partner would be really nice," she tells Refinery29. "And then I start to feel like I work too much, I think if they stay over it will be too hot, there’s not enough space in my bed, I need room to move and the whole thought of it just makes me feel claustrophobic, like I can’t breathe."
"I’ve been pretty single for a long time," she continues. "About a year ago, I started to like someone, and they liked me too much, and I went completely cold. They suddenly wanted to have access to my life and who I am, and I don’t want to give that to anyone."
"We went out a couple of times, we both spoke about having feelings for each other over the course of a month, but once he actually opened up and spoke to me about having feelings, I was like, 'Okay, bye'. I felt really bad, but I just couldn’t handle it."
It’s a situation that Toni, a 30-year-old marketing consultant, is all too familiar with.
"For me, the real problem seems to happen in the 'seeing' period, not once I’m in a relationship," she says. "I don’t tend to get that far."
"I was in a very toxic relationship for seven years until about five years ago. It took me a long time to escape that, and now I have this all-encompassing fear of going through that experience again.
"As soon as there are any red flags of any kind, I am gone. One of those flags for me is when someone is really needy and messages a lot or wants to see me 24/7. It makes me feel like I’m suffocating. I’m very protective of my own space."
Similarly, 33-year-old Natalie has had a phobic reaction to commitment her entire adult life, choosing to sabotage relationships to avoid intimacy and cut them off prematurely.
"For me, commitment phobia manifests when I start to like someone," she says.
"I start overanalyzing everything they do, looking for reasons not to trust them until I have convinced myself they will hurt me. I end it before they can," she reflects. "I never really date one person either, as it means I can move on from one to the next without a problem."
She puts her fears down to two things: a past boyfriend who was unfaithful to her and the insecurity she felt when her primary caregiver – her mother – walked out on her, her father and her sister when she was 17.
I am quick to cut communication with someone if it doesn't fit what I want and I will obsess over tiny details about them until I am convinced they will hurt me.
"It definitely had a big impact on me," she tells Refinery29. "I am quick to cut communication with someone if it doesn’t fit what I want and I will obsess over tiny details about them until I am convinced they will hurt me."
These descriptions fit what Noel McDermott, a psychotherapist with 25 years experience, describes as commitment phobia. When it comes to women, this issue is so often made light of in films like Runaway Bride but in real life it comes from a very serious place, often one of pain and trauma.
But much like any other phobia, he says that commitment phobia is an extreme and anxious reaction to something an individual has learned through experience to view as frightening.
He cites one of the most talked-about phobias out there: arachnophobia. "In a simplistic way, we get an idea that a spider is frightening and react to that behaviour, so when we see it, we physically react to it and we move away from it," he says.
The point, of course, is not whether or not the spider is actually a threat (many are harmless). The idea that it could be a danger is enough.
"The source of the fear, the feelings and the behaviour get reinforced," Noel explains. "The next time we see the spider, we react in a frightened way and feel the fear even more. And we do this over a period of time, until we have an extreme reaction. It gets worse every time."
"Commitment phobia works very similarly. I would say we are mostly talking about people with attachment disorders, which means there has been some problem somewhere for the individual in forming loving, stable attachments. This could have occurred in adulthood or childhood."
A typical attachment disorder that leads to commitment-phobic behaviour, he continues, could be something called frozen attachment. This manifests when the caregiver – a parent or guardian – is both the source of care and the source of fear.
"We have to go back to them for our survival, but this attachment to them also generates fear," Noel continues.
We're programmed to form loving bonds and relationships with other people. We have that in us innately.
Noel McDermott, Psychotherapist
"We’re programmed to form loving bonds and relationships with other people. We have that in us innately, but if the caregiver is frightening and inconsistent in other ways, we might find ways of avoiding forming loving attachments with others altogether – or feel terrified at the prospect of being emotionally intimate with someone."
So who does it affect more? And is there really a gendered difference to this behaviour?
Noel says it’s complicated. "Commitment phobia is very much prevalent for people who have had traumatic experiences, and there are some gender differences in relation to this," he says.
On the issue of how gender affects feelings about commitment, he explains that while "women experience trauma in relationships such as sexual violence and domestic violence," men experience "other forms of violence and feelings of shame when it comes to needing or wanting love – they are shamed for their emotions in order to conform to masculine ideals."
As Noel sees it, the figure of the male commitment-phobe occupies more space in our culture because "we believe that men are less sensitive than girls and tend to expose them to harsher treatment as a result."
"We see interpersonal relationship trauma in both men and women, but an engendered reaction, which is learned from culture, can affect our response," he adds. "So no, men are not more commitment-phobic than women, but they express themselves in different ways."
All the women we spoke to, however, say that they feel they are treated differently from men because of their behaviour.
"As a single woman in her 30s, I’m continuously asked why I haven’t settled down and had children yet," Toni continues. "I’ve had friends, extended family members, exes, even taxi drivers asking why I haven’t found someone. You can almost feel them pitying you... I wonder whether people would ask my 30-year-old ex-boyfriend the same thing?"
Natalie says that being a woman with multiple partners encourages a very particular response. "If I move on from guy to guy more frequently, I get called a 'slag' for sleeping around." For men, she feels, it’s just seen as normal "lad" behaviour when in reality, it could be stemming from pain and trauma in much the same way as it might for a woman.
"To my coupled friends, me being in a relationship is their primary focus," Rebecca says.
As much as we demonise people who can't commit, being commitment-phobic is not an enjoyable experience for anyone.
"They don’t care about what I’m doing or my work. The only difference is the more time goes on, people have started asking whether I’m going to meet 'a person' rather than 'a man' because they assume I must be a lesbian."
The main thing to remember in all of this, Noel reminds us, is that as much as we demonize people who can’t commit, being commitment-phobic is not an enjoyable experience for anyone. Human beings have an innate need to foster close bonds and feel love for others. However, any phobia is a learned behaviour and therefore with the right time and care, it can be changed.
"A phobic reaction to commitment feels out of their control, it upsets them," he concludes. "This is negative and distressing for them, as much as for anyone who is being rejected."
What can you do if you’re struggling to allow yourself to be vulnerable to other people and form relationships?
"To treat a phobia, we need to do exposure therapy," Noel says. "We need to find out when these decisions started to become frightening and difficult, look at the behavioural responses to those decisions, and then we help them understand how they have reinforced them."
At the end of Runaway Bride we learn that Julia Roberts’ character, Maggie, has been running for a very good reason. It was fight or flight. She was bolting on people who cared about her because she didn’t really understand herself or what she wanted. It was only after taking a break from relationships altogether in order to get to know herself properly, even down to what sort of eggs she actually liked, that she was ready to commit.
"There is nothing biologically wrong with someone who can’t commit," Noel concludes. "We can empower them to understand that."