Written by Jayne Flaherty
You see, dealing with breakups had never been my strong suit.
The second I started seeing someone, I’d start fantasising about how I’d get out. Things shifted by the time I hit my early 20s when, instead of just imagining exit strategies, I actually started planning and executing them.
One poor bloke didn’t even last an evening. After relentlessly pursuing him and instructing all my friends to keep their paws off – “This one is mine girls”, I convinced myself that poor Pete, despite being super attractive and attentive to my drinking needs, was not going to cut the mustard.
It was somewhere between the Rundle Mall and Rundle Street, that I became convinced that his (perfectly normal) arm hair was not what I wanted to keep me warm at night.
Of course, this was a defense mechanism – a by-product of my commitment phobia – carefully crafted to protect me from heartbreak. I knew that, at the first whiff of smoke, I could simply follow the evacuation instructions that I had practiced over and over in my head, and – poof! – crisis (or arm hair) averted.
Compounding this clever exit strategy was the fact that I had an intense fear of settling down (yep, women feel that too). I was convinced that I’d be inviting into my life the kind of vulnerability I’d always dreaded and cursed in others.
And then I was met with a new challenge that arrived in the form of a man named Chris.
Chris was a nice guy, which made me all the more suspicious. Moreover, he wanted the real thing – marriage, commitment, stability, old-fashioned love – which, like a spray of Mortein, made me want to fly as far away as possible.
Somehow I resisted the urge to sabotage the whole thing and, before I knew it, we’d been dating for a year.
Ever the cynic, I kept searching for a sign that he was a fraud. Could he actually be a moral, loyal guy, who was good looking, in his prime and single?
Was it possible that he loved going to the theatre, yet never missed a Crows game? Did he have nothing more than the garden variety of problems that I could handle?
Even though we got along like a house on fire, my fortress was still up. Whenever things got a little rough, I’d scroll through the old numbers in my phone and think, ‘No matter what, the perpetually drunk, Port Power-fanatic will take me back, right? Maybe even hairy-armed Pete?’
Call it pessimistic, paranoid and pathological – or see it as I did: an intelligent approach based on experience. Why set yourself up for a whole new disappointment when you can be disappointed in a way that’s familiar?
Things came to a head in November when Chris and I planned a quick holiday to America together.
Chris would fly to Connecticut for a week of work, while I would explore New York on my own. We’d then meet up and continue on to Washington DC together.
As my train left Grand Central in New York, I began to feel pretty excited at the thought of seeing Chris again. By the time I rolled into the two-bit train station in Mystic River, I was positively beside myself with joy.
It took a Hollywood movie moment of me, running down the train platform into Chris’s open arms, which finally forced me to let go of my defence mechanism. A moment, I might add, that put Sleepless in Seattle to shame, and that prompted an epiphany that would impact my relationship and change my entire approach toward commitment.
It was time to stop wasting energy searching for unrequited arm hair, and have a little faith in what I had, for once.
The only way to find out if this thing was going to work was to free myself of the cavalier identity I’d so carefully cultivated. It was time to dump my exit strategy and actually invest in the relationship – knowing full well that I might get my heart broken. Badly.
I didn’t expect it to be easy. But, at that moment I’d made a decision, and I was determined to stick with it. So, I pulled out my phone and started deleting a few phone numbers.
Wait, is that alarm bells I’m hearing? Perhaps you can identify with some of these typical traits akin with commitment phobia:
- You love the chase but not the catch.
- You have a history of flings and short relationships, yet always make out it’s the ex’s fault that you split.
- You are charming, seductive and attentive.
- You are not easy to pin down. You like to plan at the last minute and ‘go with the flow’, and often say “sounds great” or “I will get back to you” and then cancel at the last minute.
- You twist things when confronted by turning nasty and accusing others of being overly sensitive.
- You’re attractive and successful, yet come up with lots of reasons why you haven’t been married, lived with anyone or had a long term commitment.
- If your partner complains about not seeing you enough, you say that they’re too clingy or needy.
- You like to control everything by picking time frames that are convenient for you.
- You often date people who live far away or are married, and then when you want ‘out’, you have a great excuse to end the relationship.
- You pull away when your partner gets close, but then chase when they pull away.
- You are often unfaithful and favour affairs and flings over long term relationships.
- You often compartmentalise elements of your life.
It’s not too late to turn your phobia on its head, but perhaps there are perfectly good reasons why you’re shackled with commitment issues.
According to psychologist Moira Shanahan, a person suffering from commitment phobia may have gone through a number of painful relationships and dreads ‘getting involved’ again.
As a result, the person shies away from commitments to long term relationships because they fear the act of committing themselves rules out their options, or they simply don’t have any experience making commitments.
“Some people simply don’t know how to make a commitment. They don’t know how to stick with a commitment – they quit when they feel down, overwhelmed, when obstacles appear, or they pursue something that temporarily ‘feels better’,” says Moira.
“I’ve also seen cases where people suffer from relationship claustrophobia when they are about to commit. These persons will announce that they ‘need space’ and feel trapped, suffocated and locked-in when the possibility of a committed relationship is near.
“Usually these people are traumatised by previous painful relationships.”
Moira advises that the best way to overcome commitment phobia is by actually making a commitment and following through with it.
“Of course, anxieties and fears will naturally arise,” says Moira. “But they will be desensitised the more someone stays in the committed relationship and fully feels those feelings as they arise.”
Now, I’m not telling you to latch on to every hairy-armed bloke you come across, but there are rewards to overcoming commitment phobia. For me, I celebrate that cold November night on the train platform every time I hold my children.
And, as I think about my ‘Hollywood moment’, I give them an extra squeeze.