We have all heard the saying: “Once a cheater, always a cheater”. Commitment issues can come in many forms. For some, they avoid intimacy by breaking things off before the relationship’s honeymoon phase ends. Some only date and hookup casually and make that known on their Tinder accounts. Others have simultaneous affairs once married. According to renowned sex and relationship therapist Esther Perel, affairs are more common than one might think: one third of marriages end in divorce because of an affair. As harsh as these figures may seem, how many of us take the time to understand what causes these commitment issues? As a culture we are quick to write these people off as “monsters”; but what if the problem is much more complex than that? Esther Perel writes that an affair is “a window into the crevices of the human heart”. As we all know, each human heart is unique, and understanding the nuance in each affair takes a willingness to listen and understand for which most individuals do not have the patience. The same is true for the commitment-phobic; we write them off as “players” or “f*ckboys” for men, and the ever popular “slut” for women. People are so much more than the labels we ascribe to them. As it turns out, trauma is often the answer for the plethora of human behaviors that cause us to scratch our heads.
In childhood, we gain much of our understanding about love from observing our parents. Our minds are little sponges soaking in information such as: Will my needs get met? Who is responsible for taking care of me? Are my parents happy? What is love? Do my parents love me? Do my parents love each other? Am I safe? Are Mom and Dad safe? From a young age, our minds are creating a template of the answers to these questions. How these questions are answered determine how we view love as adults.
If we experienced emotional neglect, our needs for love, protection, guidance, affection, and so on were not met. We either take a detached view such as: “Whatever. I can fend for myself. This is just how it is.” This view is commonly seen in those with avoidant attachment styles. In these individuals, the need for connection is still there; however, avoidantly attached individuals downplay the importance of these connections and play up the importance of independence. Alternatively, some people become anxious as a result of their upbringing, with views like: “What if I’m forever alone? What if my relationship becomes like what I saw with Mom and Dad? What if my partner neglects me or doesn’t meet my needs and I get stuck in an unhappy marriage?” Anxiously attached individuals become preoccupied with making sure that their needs get met. They are sensitive to the slightest change in their connection to others, and they magnify their dependence on their partners. Some individuals have what is called anxious-avoidant attachment. These individuals are rare, and the combination of these two attachment styles can cause the afflicted to lash out violently against their partners. For a good example of how this plays out, watch the scene in “Good Will Hunting” with Robin Williams and Matt Damon where Will (Damon) lashes out at his girlfriend (played by Minnie Driver) for asking him to move cross country with her. She declares her love, and Damon shoves her violently against the wall and yells in her face. He sabotages the relationship because he wants to prove to his girlfriend (and to himself) how unworthy of love he is. While not all examples are as extreme as Will’s these are some of the questions and attitudes that prevail amongst the unfaithful and the commitment phobic, and they are a direct result of how we were raised, if our needs were met, and if we saw our parents’ needs being met.
It is possible to fear being loved. We fear what we do not understand, and if we were severely neglected in childhood, being loved is so unfamiliar that it can seem scary. While not everyone reacts in as extreme of a fashion as Will (Damon) when they fear being loved, people do sabotage relationships in a number of ways. In addition to the examples I listed in the first paragraph, people self-sabotage by only being the most attracted to partners who are unavailable or uninterested in them. This insures that they never have to face the fear of the closeness they desire. Some will become anxious and leave a relationship when it seems too similar to their parents’ marriage. Others will stay locked in a marriage where it is clear that they will never get their needs met; “It’s just how relationships are” they will tell themselves.
While what I am writing may seem quite bleak, there are a number of solutions for individuals who seek to rectify this problem for themselves and their loved ones. Experiencing a positive and empathetic relationship with a therapist can be the first step in healing some of these childhood wounds. From there, individuals are free to explore what relationship structures might work for them. Some are able, with much trepidation, to commit to a secure and loving relationship with their partners, while talking through their fears first with a therapist, and then with their loved one. Others choose a more open-structured relationship while working through these fears in therapy. One of my greatest joys is helping individuals and couples find the love they truly seek and deserve. Over time, I have seen individuals learn to embrace intimacy and vulnerability with all the messy things that entails. People eventually learn different messages from those they were raised to believe. They learn: I am worthy of love. I can have the love I seek. Connection is important. Vulnerability is strength. There are people who will meet my needs if only I am brave enough to discover what those are and ask.
If you or a loved one struggles to form and maintain secure attachments, shoot me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to hear your story! From there we can schedule an initial appointment to see how therapy can help you find the love you seek. Alternatively, I am offering an e-course on all things relationship (click here). If you struggle with commitment, I highly recommend the Early Stages of Dating and Next Level mini courses. These courses will help you attract healthy partners, build trust with others, have vulnerable conversations, and help you learn set boundaries.