A Different Look At Commitment Issues

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why can't I commit in a relationship

Do you or your partner struggle with commitment? Have you been looking for the reason why you or they can’t commit in relationship?

Or do you have difficulty committing fully in other areas of your life, to a dream or a goal? Commitment is not just about romantic relationships; it can be relevant in all aspects of your life. In this post, we’ll offer you a different approach to looking at commitment and commitment issues.

Commitment is a big topic

Commitment is a huge topic. It covers anything from having one foot out the door in a relationship to celebrating a big achievement at work that took some real commitment.

When we speak to clients, it can be about finding the commitment to take on an important project, like a career change or achieving a financial goal.

Not surprisingly, though, it’s often about lack of commitment in a relationship. Just last week, a young man called our office after reading our post, Why Can’t I Commit In A Relationship? His girlfriend had broken up with him after an indiscretion which he freely admitted to. She was angry and hurt, and he was heartbroken and shameful about his behavior, wishing desperately he could undo the damage.

His biggest conundrum was his own inability to commit. He kept saying, “Why is it so hard for me to commit? … Why can’t I just commit?” as if hoping an answer would materialize if he only repeated the question enough times. This is indeed one of the painful “side effects” of commitment issues: the constant stress-inducing questioning of yourself, your partner or your relationship.

Before we continue, also check out our mini-workshop To Commit Or Not To Commit. Because commitment is such a big topic in relationship, we designed this short course to address it directly and give you a process to follow to explore commitment and find your own clarity around it.

WHY can’t you commit?

It’s natural to inquire as to why you or your partner can’t commit (we offer four possible reasons in the post I mentioned). But the quest to discover why is also risky because it often evokes answers that aren’t helpful to you. In fact, the questions you ask dictate the answers you get, so it’s useful to ask the right questions.

For instance, if your partner won’t commit to you, you might inquire about yourself, “Why am I so bad at relationships? Why can’t I find someone committed?” Your mind will then spit out a list of reasons, such as …

  • I don’t care enough
  • I don’t pay attention
  • I’m not smart enough
  • I’m not exactly charismatic, etc…

It’s a list of reasons to feel shitty about yourself and will likely just get you further down. It is much more useful to ask questions that elicit useful responses, such as …

  • What could I do to foster deeper connection?
  • How could I make it safe for my partner to trust me?
  • How could I trust my partner more?
  • How could we move towards a more committed situation?

These questions will elicit actionable responses that will help move you in the right direction.

What are you committed to?

Back to the commitment issue. What if instead of asking, “Why can’t I commit in a relationship?”, you asked yourself, “What AM I committed to?

When clients bring up commitment in relationship, they commonly assume commitment is missing. They focus on what their partner is not committing to, on what they aren’t doing, can’t do, or won’t do.

This way of thinking gets you stuck in a negative spiral and completely misses that fact that when you’re not committing to a relationship, you ARE committing to something else. In fact, we’d even say you are always committed to something (we know, ‘always’ is a dangerous word:-).

Think about it … If you’re unwilling or unable to commit to your partner, what ARE you committed to? We’ve heard clients say the are committed to:

  • Keeping their freedom.
  • Taking care of themselves.
  • Taking the time they need before they say yes.
  • Enjoying the moment without concern for the future

She was committed and didn’t want to live together

I had a client in just that situation recently. She loved her boyfriend of two years deeply. They didn’t live together, but spent lots of time in each other’s houses and on trips. She had long ago begun leaving clothes and toiletries at his house, and vice versa. They were generally open and honest with one another. But before they met, she’d come out of an arduous divorce and she was cherishing the freedom of having her own place and control of her own time. Her boyfriend was pressing for deeper commitment; he wanted to move in together and eventually get married.

Because she wasn’t up for marriage or moving in together, she appeared as the one who wouldn’t – or couldn’t – commit. She looked like someone with commitment issues. But when I said, “Ok, I hear that … and what ARE you committed to?”, she had a long list. She was deeply committed to:

  • Being honest with her partner, not withholding anything.
  • Working out conflicts openly and kindly.
  • Spending lots of time together.
  • Enjoying each other’s families.
  • Having rich sex and intimacy.
  • Using conflicts to become a stronger couple.
  • And much more.

In other words, she was strongly committed to the relationship, even though she wasn’t ready to get married and move in together. Painting her as someone who “couldn’t commit” (as often happened in their discussions) was not doing her justice. She had even begun to think of herself as someone with commitment issues. But upon reflection, she realized she was very committed – she just felt entirely clear-headed about what she was, and wasn’t, ready for in the relationship.

Negative Commitments

When you’re looking at what you are committed to, you can also consider “negative commitments”. These are unconscious commitments, meaning you often don’t know you have them until you deliberately look for them. But make no mistake, they are still strong commitments.

A negative commitment is often about avoiding something you deem unpleasant, unsafe, or undesirable. For example, I had a client who often found himself with partners who wouldn’t commit to him or seemed to be only halfheartedly in their relationship. As a result, he felt unwanted and hopeless. After we discussed negative commitments, he realized he’d been unconsciously committed to:

  • Staying in a victim role to avoid taking responsibility for his life.
  • Blaming his partners for being “commitment phobics”.
  • Avoiding deep intimacy so his partner wouldn’t see how unworthy he felt.
  • “Keeping it light”, i.e. not engaging in difficult conversations or hard conflicts (he admittedly hated conflicts).

Looking at negative or unconscious commitments can be confronting. They reveal a side of yourself that might not seem very cool or powerful. But it’s crucial to have the courage to “look in the mirror” at this side of commitment, because if you don’t, you’ll keep being baffled about the results you’re getting. Like the man described above – he didn’t particularly like seeing this side of himself, but he also realized it gave him a newfound power and vastly increased his chances of making the changes he desired.

To say it simply, negative/unconscious commitments are a driving force behind self-sabotage. To stop the sabotage, they must be brought out in the open and changed.

Get Help With Commitment Issues

No one is deliberately difficult

We take the stand in relationship that neither you or your partner is wrong, ill-willed, or deliberately difficult (sure, there are exceptions). This is true whether you easily commit or have challenges with commitment. This was true for both the client and her boyfriend in the story above. Neither of them were bad or wrong, they just needed a different way to look at the issue.

Please note that commitment is not only relevant in intimate relationships, but in your life as a whole. Commitment, or lack of it, shows up in your work life, in your mental and physical health, and in your pursuit of your life’s purpose.

For instance, I coached a woman who initially thought her challenge was simply to get out of a bad relationship. As our coaching progressed it became clear the main issue was her difficulty committing to 1) her physical health, and 2) her career goals. It was as if she had one foot in and one foot out when it came to health and career and it caused her a lot of anxiety.

As part of the coaching process, I would ask her, “What are you committed to?” That unearthed a collection of both positive and negative commitments that she could then work with.

In summary, whenever you or your partner are having difficulties with commitment in your relationship, or exploring commitments in other areas of your life, include this question in your explorations:

What AM I committed to? What ARE we committed to?

Once you have answers to what you are committed to, individually and together, you have something to work with and build on!

Commitment is such a common challenge for both individuals and couples that we’ve designed a short mini-workshop to help you with it, To Commit Or Not To Commit. It’s a lighthearted, non-judgmental discovery process where you get clarity about your own relationship to commitment. We walk you step-by-step through the process that you can do by yourself or with your partner, from anywhere you like.

commitment issues in a relationship

LoveWorks: We believe relationships are meant to be an empowering, fun, passionate, safe place to grow, love, and learn. Where we get to be more of who we are, not less. We know it’s not always easy, but it can definitely be easier! With our unique and practical approach to relationship, you learn how to resolve conflicts quickly and enjoy fulfilling intimacy for the rest of your life. To learn more or contact us, visit www.loveworkssolution.com.

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Christian Pedersen

Sonika Tinker, MSW & Christian Pedersen

We are a married couple, husband/wife team, who have devoted our lives to studying and teaching love and relationship, and we are still happy and in love after many years of being together (we walk our talk).

Our clients say we are wise, experienced relationship master trainers and relationship experts – we like to think of ourselves as “relationship awesome-izers”.

We are the co-owners of LoveWorks, a leading-edge transformational relationship training company, where we daily delight in empowering couples and singles to transform their relationships from stuck to soaring in a fun, positive, and practically useful way.