Friendship psychology: how commitment phobia is affecting our friendships, and how to tackle it

Friendship psychology: how commitment phobia is affecting our friendships, and how we can tackle it

 Got a friend who never seems to be 100% ‘in’? Psychologists explain how commitment phobia is affecting our friendships, and how to spot it. 

When it comes to our closest friends, maintaining healthy boundaries is the key to a successful and mutually fulfilling relationship.

Of course, in an ideal world we’d want to be available for every emotional 1am drunk dial, after-work rant or post-break-up movie night, but there is also a fine line to be walked between availability and exhaustion.

And even though we try to fill our lives with friends that we know would be there if we needed them, most of us will also have those ‘friends’ that just don’t seem to have the time for us. You can’t seem to pin them down to do anything in the future and you always feel like they’re one foot in and one foot out of the relationship.

They may be historic friendships that could do with a little nurturing, but every time you text them they leave you on read for days. Or they could be the chronically flaky friend, who always changes the plans or cancels at the last minute.

But when this happens time and time again, it becomes more than just an annoying habit. It could be an indication of “commitment phobia”, something which, according to psychologists, doesn’t just happen in romantic relationships.

“Commitment phobia is the fear and anxiety when getting close to people, or making relationship decisions that have a long-lasting effect,” Tahura Adil, MSc, the psychologist behind the @mindovermoon Instagram account explains. 

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“It’s natural for many people to feel anxious when making big life choices. But for some, the idea of committing – whether it be to a new job or a new relationship – brings on intense feelings of anxiety and an urge for avoidance.”

In an Instagram post, Adil and Dr Jenn Anders shared that commitment phobia can actually include fear of commitment across several dimensions, not just romantic relationships.

What does commitment phobia look like?

The post details the different manifestations of commitment phobia in different scenarios, from being overly picky in preference – in both friendships and romantically –, to being overly independent and self-reliant.

The psychologists explain that having a large group of casual friends but no close friends can also be a sign that an individual is struggling to commit, as well as a tendency to only stick around for the ‘honeymoon’ phase of a relationship, jumping ship when the shine starts to wear off.

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They also acknowledge that poor communication and being difficult to get in touch with are defensive mechanisms that help someone maintain a distance between them and another.

However, it’s important to note that a fear or rejection of commitment is not the same thing as commitment phobia. As Psych Central notes, a phobia is a persistent, intense, and sometimes irrational fear of something that leads you to organise your life around it in order to avoid what you fear.

What causes commitment phobia?

The post identifies some of the main causes as having experienced damaging previous relationships that included infidelity, abuse or abandonment.

Those that suffer from attachment issues and have difficulty trusting others are also more likely to indicate commitment phobia in their behaviour.

If your friend has a fear of commitment or commitment phobia, it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t value you, don’t want to spend time with you or are rejecting you.

These unaddressed fears and unhealed traumas create a fear of ending up in a satisfying relationship in case the individual feels trapped or burdened, even if they crave intimacy at the same time.

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How to overcome commitment phobia

For many people, the idea of something being “long term” can feel daunting, but for individuals experiencing commitment phobia, the post suggests acknowledging that you do want a close relationship.

“You may not want one right now, and that is OK. But when you do decide it’s time, start by acknowledging this is something you want. Recognising this change takes time, energy and effort, so adjust your expectations and it will help you in the long run.”

The psychologists also advise admitting and coming to terms with your fears plays a key step in combating commitment phobia. “It’s hard to make lasting change happen when you operate from a place of denial,” they explain. “Admit what is causing you fear and commit to making small changes every day.”

This could be setting aside allotted time to reply to all your messages from friends or challenging yourself to reach out first to one person in your contacts list a week and tell them you’re thinking of them.

Cognitive reframing – a psychological technique used to shift your mindset so you’re able to look at a situation, person, or relationship from a slightly different perspective – can also be useful in these instances. Rather than looking at close relationships as demanding and painful, try to see them as adventures or nourishing.

Having a friend text you randomly throughout the week can be reframed as thoughtful and caring, as opposed to invasive or checking up on you. Wanting to invite you round for dinner is a testament to how much they enjoy your company, not clingy.

“Rather than building your relationship on fear, pivot and start to build on hope, excitement and fun,” Adil suggests.

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