Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Commitment Phobia

It should not have come as that much of a surprise. Nevertheless, I remember reading Aaron Beck’s book about anxiety disorders and phobias and being surprised by Beck’s observation that phobics tend to become excessively afraid of objects or situations that are intrinsically dangerous.

If you, as I, had suffered Freudian training, you would have been conditioned to think of anxieties and phobias as irrational fears, having little to do with everyday life, and having everything to do with repressed childhood fantasies.

By offering a simple and direct observation, Beck showed me that phobics are not phobic about nothing, and that they are phobic about situations that really contain the potential to threaten life and limb. 
It is normal to be afraid of snakes or heights. They are potentially dangerous. When you become phobic about snakes or heights, you are being excessively well-adapted or overly cautious.

Traditionally, people become phobic about snakes, spiders, rodents, heights, airplanes, crowds, blood, enclosed spaces, etc. All of these are potentially dangerous.

For a phobic, their benign presence can seem like a clear and present danger, thus producing a psychosomatic response that is most appropriate to situations of actual danger.

Phobias exist. They are real. Of that there appears to be little doubt.

Yet, the therapy culture has applied the term promiscuously to just about anything that anyone has ever been afraid of. We all feel worry and anxiety and fear; often these involve threats and dangers. And yet, they rarely rise to the ranks of the phobias. Or, they rarely did until the therapy culture decided that people who are not making a certain kind of commitment are commitment phobic. .

As opposed to spiders and rats, commitment does not potentially pose a threat to life or limb.  

Making and honoring commitments are moral imperatives, signs of good character, things that we should all embrace.

Culturally speaking, we have fallen into the trap of pathologizing character flaws. Thereby we seem to be encouraging people to fear commitment because then they can have a problem that will land them in a therapist’s office.

You will not overcome your failure to commit by accumulating insights about why you cannot commit.

The way to overcome your inability to make commitments is to make commitments and to keep them.

As you know, the term commitment phobic is context-driven. It does not apply to just any old commitment. It has been invented to denounce a man who refuses to make a formal commitment to marriage.

Now, when a man fails to propose marriage, he can be diagnosed as commitment phobic and packed off to a therapist so he can discover the deeper underlying root cause of his illness.  

In our over-therapied age, a man who is hesitating about commitment is labeled sick and in need of treatment.

But, what if a man has some good reasons for not committing. Perhaps he does not even know what they are.

What if the woman in in his life does not honor her own commitments? Surely that will make him less likely to commit.

You would hesitate to commit to a woman who did not return your messages, who was often late for appointments, who dressed inappropriately, and who otherwise demonstrated bad character.

Exchanging vows means that both parties to the exchange are sufficiently trustworthy to be assumed to honor their commitments.

Of course, one partner might have noted character flaws whose presence makes marriage a bad choice. Often he or she may see these flaws and still feel love for the other person. It’s almost as though they cannot live together and cannot live apart. The conflict might express itself as a fear of commitment.

Evidently, the man in question has no business leading a woman along when he is not intending to marry her. He might be afraid of the consequences of his breaking up with her, or he may simply not want to hurt her, but the fact is, his problem has nothing to do with a fear of commitment.

In today’s culture, marriage is a diminished institution. I regret having to say it, but it is certainly true.

The reasons are too complicated for a single post, but I would point out that our therapy culture, in its yearning to spare people psychological pain, has mandated that divorce be destigmatized.

Since divorce tends to be bad for women in particular, feminists groups have also worked long and hard to destigmatize it.

It is sad to have to say it, but for most marriages today, divorce is a clear and present danger.  Since we have reduced the shame that used to be associated with divorce, the only sanction preventing divorce today is the horror of divorce proceedings. You will have noticed that it is not a very effective sanction.

Instead of having to worry about community judgments, people today can persuade themselves to stay married because they do not want to deal with divorce lawyers.

Other men have decided that the better part of valor is not to risk divorce at all. The only way you can guarantee never to get divorced is never to get married. No one can betray a commitment if there is no commitment. The logic is unimpeachable.

Unfortunately, a union between two people that was vowed at poolside after the fourth Margarita is not as important or as binding as the vows taken in front of friends, family, and civil authorities. Thus, in the interest of avoiding pain and trauma, one is more likely to incur pain and trauma.

It may feel like a bit of a triviality, but I should mention that the physiological reactions to commitment phobia rarely have anything in common with what happens to an agoraphobic when he finds himself caught in the middle of a crowd.

And then there is the ethical issue. Some people cannot make commitments, because they feel that commitments restrict their freedoms. Others make commitments but do not feel bound to keep them.

Both, of course, are character flaws. It is possible to correct these flaws, but only by making and keeping any and all commitments.

Commitments involve giving and keeping your word.

The first step toward getting someone to commit to you is to honor your commitments. Not just to him or her, but to everyone.

If you have not been the most reliable and trustworthy friend, then most people will probably not want to make appointments to see you. If you are conspicuously trustworthy to your true love but fail to honor commitments to other people, then you are suffering from weak character.

If those words fit you, then you need to go to work to restore your reputation. Your goal should be to become the kind of person about whom one can say that if he or she says it will be done, then you can count on it being done.

When you erase all doubts about your own commitments, and show yourself to be honor-bound to keep them, regardless of the cost or the effort required, then others will start treating you accordingly.

And then, there’s the culture. If you live in a culture that pathologizes character flaws, that does not feel that one’s word need be one’s bond, that does not believe that people should be judged for the content of their character, and that thinks that people who go back on their word need treatment,  then why should you commit.

In an excessively litigious culture, giving your word, making a solemn vow, does not seem to matter unless it is contained in a written contract. We are all the poorer for it.

However sincere you are when you commit, if you live in a culture that teaches that such basic virtues are trivial and that failure to manifest them is an illness requiring psychiatric or psychological treatment, you know that both of you might very well succumb to its influence.


www.muebles-en-zaragoza.com said...

Gosh, there is a lot of useful material here!

Anonymous said...

It seems that what you want to talk about is the of morals in not keeping one's word. That's fine. But Commitment Phobia is about the fear of getting intimate and involved in a close relationship. Although the latter can unfortunately lead you to do the former, they are two separate things.

Commitment Phobia is indeed a severe psychological problem. You can indeed sweat and shake at the very thought of intimacy, as in a "normal" phobia. Intimacy CAN be dangerous (e.g. if you were raped by your parents, or neglected as a baby). Intimacy can pose a real threat to your physical and psychological life. Commitment Phobia is a psychological problem that should be recognized and addressed.

I would suggest anyone who ended up in this page looking for information about Commitment Phobia to look it up somewhere else.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I would recommend that you open your mind and think a little. You cannot commit to someone at any level if that the person is not trustworthy. If you know that someone does not keep his or her word, it's best not to commit. When someone fails to honor small or large commitments intimacy will eventually disappear.

No one is going to be intimate for very long with someone they cannot trust.

Lyssa Menard said...
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Anita Morgan said...
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Stranger said...
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