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Living What He's Learned: Origins of Commitment-Phobia

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins The Relationship Doctor
  • Published Apr 06, 2006
Living What He's Learned:  Origins of Commitment-Phobia

We live what we learn. Men who can’t commit often come from backgrounds that may explain their difficulties with commitment phobia. Many times those who were raised in broken homes in a society fraught with commitment issues, seem to expect fragmented relationships.

Jim sat quietly across from me, blankly staring out the office window. A tall, burly man, he was fit from throwing 100-pound bags of grain around at the local feed store. He wore stained Carhartt overalls and a baseball cap with a curled brim covering a full head of jet-black hair.

Jim did not want to be in my office. He was angry about his circumstances – his second wife had told him to get help or their marriage was over. He felt blackmailed, cornered and judged.

Jim and his wife, Tina, had come to see me several months earlier. Tired of his profanity, angry outbursts, and volatile temper with her young daughter, as well as with his sons, she insisted they get some counseling to try to save their five-year marriage.

“I am so tired of telling him how to behave,” she  said sadly. “I already have a child to raise – I don’t need another. I want to be with a man I can respect, and it’s hard to respect a man who can’t manage his own moods.”

Jim and Tina shared how their marriage had started out wonderfully. Both thirty years old and recovering from failed marriages, they were immediately attracted to each other. Both were ready for another chance at love, marriage and family.

Jim seemed demanding, uptight, and tense much of the time. He ran the family like he ran the feed store – methodically, practically, failing to take Tina’s parenting requests into consideration.

Jim now sat expressionless before me. I was surprised at his apparent detached manner.

“Tina is thinking about a separation,” he said gruffly. ” I don’t like it, but I guess that’s how it’s going to be.”

 “Do you have any sense of why she has decided on a separation?” I asked. I wondered if he could see that his critical, detached attitude was pushing her away from him.

“Tina wants things to be perfect,” he blurted angrily. “She wants me to come home from the store, smile when I walk in the door and tell everyone what a wonderful day I’ve had. I work hard and I’m tired when I get home.”

“Tina says you are moody,” I said.

“Sure, I’m moody. Who wouldn’t be? My wife is threatening me with a separation, and I won’t put my boys through that again. They’ve been through one divorce, and I swore they’d never experience that again. I don’t want it, but I can live with it.”

 “Are you sad at all about what is happening to you and Tina?” I asked. “You told me you were hoping this would be a second chance for both of you. How do you feel now?”

“I’m sad. But, I’ve been through it before. I know what to expect. The boys and I will set up home , and we’ll do just fine. If divorce is what she wants, that’s what she’ll get. I’ll be fine.”

“Jim,” I stated. “You don’t sound committed. You seem ready to call it quits.”

“Sometimes it seems hopeless. Just like my parents, nothing worked for them, so why should it work for me??”

“Let’s talk about the early years of your life, Jim. Sounds like that might have something to do with your reaction to Tina right now.”

Jim’s mood shifted abruptly when I brought up his past. He started to fidget and his eyes filled with tears he could barely contain. I struck a nerve.

“I still hate my parents for what they did to us kids.”

Jim wiped a tear from his eyes, looked over at me, and continued.

“My mom and dad divorced when I was ten. I lived with my mom and saw my dad every other weekend. He meant a lot to me, but instead of being with him, I watched Mom parade one man after another through the house. She wasn’t close to any of the men -- and they didn’t seem to really care about me. I learned pretty quick to keep my bags packed because nobody was going to take care of me but me. ”

“Kids need and deserve stability in their lives,” I said.

“I got short-changed, that’s for sure. So Doc, you can see why this latest episode with Tina doesn’t faze me. I handled it before and I can handle it now.”

As I watched Jim, I pictured a thirty-year-old man packing around a damaged boy inside. The fragile heart that had been wounded long ago was facing another loss. Once again, he would be alone with nothing to guide him but an entrenched view of a hostile, uncommitted, detached world.

Fragmented society.

Broken homes.


Men who will not commit.

Jim is an apt example of what happens to people who are wounded at a young age and the impact it has on the rest of their lives. His parents’ divorce was a critical turning point. He was wounded badly as a child and now experiences serious problems with attachment, commitment, and intimacy as a result.

With all of the conflict and fragmentation in our society, not to mention all of the dangers that can befall a relationship, it is understandable that we might hesitate when faced with making a lasting commitment. We look around and see marriages failing at a precipitous rate. Friends we thought would stay together forever are simply giving up on their relationships. Young people are rethinking their options – including whether they want to make a commitment to one person given what they have seen in their parents’ generation. Even long-term marriages are failing at horrific rates.

Sam Keen, in his book "To Love and Be Loved," provides valuable counsel about this topic.

“The specter of binding ourselves to cherish and care for a friend, a child, a lover, a mate, in an unknown future arouses our fears of being imprisoned within a space too small for our spirit. Making a commitment involves self-sacrifice, voluntary self-limitation, and cutting off future possibilities” (New York:  Bantam Books, 1997, p. 175).

Keen, however, is not promoting the uncommitted life.

“Certainly it is risky to promise that we will continue to care for our children, our friends, our mates, to bind ourselves to conditions we cannot predict. But consider what will become of us if we do not! To cobble together a life without commitments, a life of one-night stands, tentative relationships, and limited engagements is a guarantee of superficiality and loneliness.”

Perhaps you find yourself in a relationship where he has a superficial approach to commitment. Perhaps you have even abandoned the “forever” idea yourself, partially in response to his timidity. Listen once again to Keen on this topic.

“The taking of vows lifts commitment from the private to the public, from the tentative to the absolute, from the secular to the sacred. Traditionally, marriage vows are not between two individuals but are promises made in the presence of family and community. That we pledge fidelity in a formal and public ceremony is a recognition that a marriage between a couple can thrive only within a context of family, friends, and community.”

Not surprisingly, the Bible teaches that commitments are important. God wants us to be committed to whatever good we undertake – and He wants us to be committed to one another. Consider the illustration of how the early Christians conducted their lives in regards to fellowship and commitment to one another.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and of prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone who has need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all people” (Acts 2:42-47).

This is a picture of a loving, committed community. Where do you stand on commitment? Have early wounds made you reluctant to put both feet in the circle?

Cick here to read Part 1 in this series.

David Hawkins, PhD., has worked with couples and families to improve the quality of their lives by resolving personal issues for the last 30 years. 

He is the author of over 18 books, including
  "Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage," "Saying It So He'll Listen," and  "When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You." His newest book is titled "When the Man in Your Life Can’t Commit."  Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on Puget Sound, where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.