It's a Saturday afternoon and a woman from Houston phones me. I met Peggy briefly on a singles retreat I led several months ago. In one of my talks that weekend I spoke briefly of the fear of commitment and noted that many Christians today struggle with it. Her interest was piqued. She hopes now to talk with me more than briefly about her own fears, which threaten to derail her engagement.
"I've dated this wonderful man for more than two years and have longed to marry him," she explains. "But since accepting Oscar's proposal two weeks ago, I've barely slept and haven't been able to take in much food. My whole system has shut down. I'm so frightened I'm nearly paralyzed."
I ask for some detail about her background. I find that Peggy comes from a caring, supportive family and has long been active in strong evangelical churches. At twenty-seven, she holds a challenging job teaching third grade in a public school. After chatting with her a few minutes, I'm convinced she is a mature, compassionate Christian dealing with more than self-centered issues.
At different points I press her to tell me if she has any reservations about marrying Oscar. Her fears may be signaling something critical--that underneath she doubts he would be a good husband. But not once during our two-hour conversation can she pinpoint a single problem with Oscar or their relationship. Instead, she describes his many strong points and does a good job convincing me he would be an ideal partner for her.
Still, she is plagued with fears that dumbfound her. I ask about her experience with other major decisions--have they been as painful to make as this one? She admits they have all been traumatic. Choosing a college and a major, leaving home, deciding where to work, finding a place to live--these all have been gut-wrenching steps. Making a binding decision simply goes against her nature.
Finally, we get to the heart of her problem. More than any specific doubt, it's the fear of being penned in that holds her back. To the extent that a major change is binding, she feels as jumpy as a cornered animal. Since marriage, more than any other step, means no turning back, it brings out her worst fears of being trapped.
In short, Peggy fears commitment itself. To say she is phobic about commitment is not to state it too strongly. The implications are tragic in her case for, without relief from her panic, she'll break her engagement to Oscar.
Peggy's predicament is not in any way unusual, nor is her example extreme. I counsel with many who, like her, are excessively fearful of commitment. While their decision areas vary greatly, their apprehensions are similar. Often they feel torn between extremes--longing to take a step forward yet dreading the thought of being locked in.
Many break the mold of the person we would expect to resist commitment. Far from being lethargic or irresponsible, they are bright, talented, energetic and spiritually competent. Many are outgoing individuals, not at all shy and generally confident. Yet they acutely fear trusting their own judgment and being drawn into any obligation that is binding. And like a chronic disease or disability, their fear forces a wedge between what they would like to do and what they feel capable of accomplishing.
When We Fear What We Really Want
When we look honestly at what we most want from life, we find that most of us hold several ambitions in common. We long for our life to accomplish something significant. We want to know that what we do has lasting benefit to others and that our example is influencing others in positive ways.
We earnestly desire to be loved for who we are. We thirst for deep relationships. We particularly crave the incomparable benefits of long-term acquaintances. And we want to grow. We discover over time that our greatest joy comes from being in a growth mode. We long to develop our potential, to be creative, to experience the stimulation of new adventures.
It might be added that we yearn for security, which in its most wholesome sense means having enough stability and comfort in life to pursue these other goals.
These are worthy aspirations. They are part of the life-instinct God has put within us, central to having a healthy will to live. Our fulfillment and our fruitfulness depend heavily upon pursuing these goals and pursuing them passionately.
Yet not one of them can be realized without extreme patience, enduring dedication and sacrifice--in short, commitment. There's the rub: While we relish the benefits of commitment, we dislike its requirements. It always means giving up certain freedoms and taking on new obligations.
Many factors at the end of the twentieth century dampen our zeal for commitment--especially for making those commitments that are needed to realize our fullest potential for Christ. The unspeakable materialism of modern life easily lulls us into complacency. The constant idealizing of situations in human life by the media causes us to despise the real-life opportunities we have. The unprecedented freedom of choice we enjoy works against us as well. Not only is it dizzying to weigh the options in any decision. It is frustrating to let go of the luxury of having all these wonderful options before us. It is too easy to become addicted to the freedom of not committing ourselves.
So most of us, at this time in history, feel hesitant to commit--even to good opportunities for realizing our potential. But some people, like Peggy, face a much more serious challenge. Beyond the normal hesitations we all experience, they have an ingrained fear of commitment. They dread being drawn into any situation where they will feel locked in. Their fear of losing freedom is so extreme that they may even sabotage their own effort to reach important goals. When resistance to commitment is this strong, it is more than a matter of simple laziness: it results from deep, complex factors. Yet the problem is usually not well understood by those who haven't experienced it.
It's often not well understood even by those who do experience it! Commitment-fearful people often imagine they are more capable of forging commitments than they are. They may even enter them confidently. Yet soon second-thoughts strike with a vengeance. They are consumed with regret over what they are leaving behind and with fear over the new obligations ahead. At this point they often stun others and sometimes themselves by reneging on the pledges they have made.
Of course, many who fear commitment simply balk at making any commitments at all. In either case, commitment-fearful people too often fail to realize their potential and to accomplish goals they dearly want to reach.
A Puzzling Predicament
While I've long realized that some people fear commitment, only in recent years have I recognized how serious the problem can be. Counseling singles considering marriage, more than any other factor, has helped me appreciate just how severely some people fear commitment. In the late 1980s I began offering a seminar on choosing a marriage partner. Then I published Should I Get Married? on the same subject. From this new focus in my teaching came greater opportunity to interact with Christians who are trying to resolve the direction of a relationship.
The response to Should I Get Married? was a real surprise. When I wrote that book, I tacked on a short section at the end--almost as an afterthought--on the fear of commitment. Since its publication, most of my contacts from readers have been in regard to that one section: they want to talk with me about their own struggles with commitment.
Most of the stories are similar. They've been in a strong, long-term relationship with someone they dearly want to marry. But now it has reached the commitment stage and they're panicked. They may be experiencing physical distress. Some are obsessed with imperfections in their partner which haven't been issues before. Others, like Peggy, cannot give any clear reason at all for their fear.
Many confess to being puzzled at their panic and uncertain how it fits with their belief that God gives perfect peace to those he leads into marriage. Some are afraid to admit their anxieties to anyone, fearing they will be judged unspiritual or out of God's will.
Brad, a twenty-nine-year-old teacher in a Christian college, drove two hours to speak with me. He explained that he had been dating Kelly for nearly two years and often felt convinced they should marry. Friends and family agreed they were an ideal match. Every time Brad and Kelly talked seriously about marriage, he felt "on the mountaintop" for a day or two. But then panic set in--a panic so intense that he was disoriented for several days. "I feel as though there is a giant bubble in my chest, pressing against my heart, as though I'm about to have a heart attack," he confessed. Only by admitting to Kelly that he needed more time did he find relief from these episodes.
Mitch, a thirty-year-old pastor in a small midwestern city, phoned me just six weeks before his wedding. He explained that he was engaged to an extraordinary woman he had known for many years, and he was certain she would make an excellent wife. "But whenever I even think about going through with marriage, I experience a pain in my stomach so piercing I can't eat," he complained. "I'm consumed with anxiety about taking this step." He wondered if God was warning him through his fear not to go ahead. He added that there was no one in his church or community with whom he could unload. Folks in his town wouldn't think it proper for a pastor to experience such fears.
Susan, a thirty-four-year-old computer specialist in Newport, Rhode Island, had meticulously weighed her decision to marry Herb over the course of a four-year relationship. She knew he would be a supportive husband, strong spiritual leader and excellent provider. And she loved him deeply. She recognized, too, that her prospects for finding another opportunity at her age were not good. Besides, few men would be willing to put up with her erratic mood swings. Still, in several long conversations this bright, seasoned Christian explained that Herb fell short of her ideals in certain ways. Susan wondered if she could find someone more suitable by waiting longer. Each time she resolved these issues, they resurfaced a week or two later. She spoke, too, of being desperately afraid of going into marriage. She phoned me just one week before her wedding, so panic-stricken she was ready to call it off.
I could fill this book with similar stories. Of course, not everyone who fears committing to marriage dreads it this intensely. And fear sometimes indicates one has legitimate concerns which need to be examined. Still, in many cases the hesitation to marry springs from an underlying anxiety about commitment itself. Commitment fear clouds the thinking of many who are considering marriage--and prompts some to turn their back on golden opportunities.
Don't Fence Me In
Christians fear commitment in other areas too. Many who fear committing to marriage tell me that they fear committing in other decision areas as well. Their experiences have deepened my awareness of the difficulties Christians--married and single--face with commitment at many points in life. While romantic relationships provide some of the most dramatic examples, "they yes anxiety" hinders people in many other ways.
Marriage and family life. Some people survive the dating and engagement stage fine but then panic once married. Now they feel claustrophobic, like someone trapped in an elevator. This fallout may occur early in a marriage, after the birth of a child or at some later turning point or crisis.
The fear of being penned in also plagues many in their career and professional life. Some find the prospect of success itself unsettling. They may bounce from job to job or settle for employment well beneath their potential. Not a few sabotage their own efforts at success, bailing out of a job unnecessarily, or behaving in a manner that gets them fired.
Church and ministry commitments. Christians often display strong avoidance patterns in their commitment to church and spiritual growth. They may long to grow spiritually and to have a personal ministry. Yet they find it hard to stick with any activity long enough to reap the benefits. They join a Bible study or agree to teach a Sunday-school class, then quit a few weeks later when the experience no longer seems fresh. They change churches frequently or drop out altogether. In the campus setting, students hop from Christian group to group and balk at assuming responsibility.
The commitment-fearful person often has considerable difficulty sticking with personal disciplines and resolutions. Whether it's a devotional time, an exercise routine, a dietary regimen, a moral pledge, a promise about savings or a decision to develop a talent, the priority gets quickly shelved.
Resolving any decision can be painful for this kind of person. She vacillates in choosing where to live, breaking promises to several roommates along the way. She decides to rent rather than buy, so she'll be less obligated if she wants to move. The "buyer's remorse" reaction is also common. He tries on three dozen sports coats, finally finds one he likes and buys it. The next day he returns it, convinced he's made the mistake of his life. In many other ways the commitment-fearful person hedges at being obligated. If you've tried to pin her down on weekend or vacation plans, you know what I mean. His ongoing concern can be stated simply: Keep the options open.
Commitment fear holds many back from doing what is in their best interest. Even when they find the resolve to go ahead, they still suffer much unnecessary distress. And valuable time and energy is wasted, fretting over second thoughts and coming to terms with mood swings.
Steps Toward Healing
For some time I've been troubled by the moralistic emphasis on commitment in so much Christian preaching, teaching, writing and sometimes even counseling. So often the message is, "Recognize your obligation to God. Stop evading responsibility. Commit yourself, even if it hurts." Unfortunately this message, which appeals more to guilt than positive motivation, only aggravates the problem for commitment-fearful Christians, who already feel guilty enough for their failings. They are well aware they need to make commitments, be resolute and take greater initiative with their life. They know all about the demands of Christian duty. Yet fears and instincts too often get the upper hand and hold them back.
If you chronically fear commitment, you are not likely to reach the point of committing confidently without going through a significant personal transformation. For most, this involves four critical steps.
You need to understand clearly what frightens you about commitment and why. You need your issues and concerns carefully addressed. In the areas where commitment frightens you, you need to learn to reshape your outlook to more accurately reflect how God sees the Christian life.
You need to learn how to respond to mood swings and manage runaway emotions. Chronic commitment fear is always as much an instinctive reaction as it is a problem of perspective. Commitment-fearful people often suffer extreme emotional swings and vacillating impressions about God's will. You need to understand how to reduce your vulnerability to mood shifts and to recognize God's will amid your maze of feelings. You also need to learn how to respond effectively to the emotion of fear itself. Commitment fear often reaches the level of a phobia, taking on a life of its own. Understanding practical ways to break the panic cycle can make a radical difference.
You need a fuller understanding of the benefits of commitment and a stronger desire for them. While most commitment-fearful people recognize that commitment is important, their understanding of how it will benefit them is limited. They are more conscious of what they will lose by committing themselves than of what they will gain. Gaining a greater appreciation for the benefits of commitment will strengthen your motivation both to confront your fear and to take steps of faith in spite of it.
Finally, commitment-fearful people need moral encouragement to take the steps which frighten them. The time comes when it's important to make commitments even though some fears and doubts remain. You need help in knowing how to recognize this point and encouragement to move ahead. You need to be convinced you can handle any experience of fear involved and come through it unscathed. You need assurance that you are capable of sticking with the commitments you make. And you need stronger confidence that God desires the best for you, is giving you the grace to make wise choices and protecting you as you move forward.
My hope in this book is to give as much help as possible along these lines to commitment-fearful people. In the four sections which follow, I want to look closely at each of these areas of need and offer the best insight and counsel that I can. I write this book with two strong convictions about emotional healing. One is that the healing of deep-seated conflicts is always a process. It takes time, persistence and dedicated effort. At the same time, significant progress can be made at each stage of this effort. Scripture shows consistently that God is on our side as we confront our emotional struggles. Once we open ourselves to his help, he gives us success at many surprising points. From the moment I decide to take determined steps toward healing, I move from a position of defeat to one of victory in dealing with my problem.
For this reason, my approach in this book is consistently practical. With each topic my purpose is not merely to analyze the problem but to suggest changes in outlook and practical steps you can take to move beyond your inhibitions.
My primary concern is to help Christians who suffer from chronic commitment anxiety. Yet I also want to give encouragement to those whose struggles are less serious. Perhaps you are less than comfortable with commitment. Certain inclinations make it hard for you to settle decisions--a perfectionist mentality, for instance, or a tendency toward strong mood swings. Yet commitment doesn't frighten you to the point of sweaty palms, palpitations and the sensation of air bubbles pressing against your heart. You are generally able to resolve your choices and move on. Still you would like help in becoming more resolute and confident about the commitments you make.
Your situation is much in my mind throughout this book. You should find plenty of practical material that addresses your needs. You may find, too, that some of the book's topics relate more clearly to your needs than others. Feel free to begin at any point in the book and read just those portions which most obviously help you. The book is designed so you can do that. Different topics will be the primary areas of struggle for different readers.
One further point about the book's contents. Beyond the dread of being penned in and losing freedom which troubles all who fear commitment, there are three distinct concerns which many commitment-anxious people experience: the fear of making an imperfect decision, the fear of success, and the fear of losing ownership of their life. While some commitment-fearful people experience all of these anxieties, many experience only one or two. Any of them is sufficient to trigger serious commitment-fear reactions. I will examine each of these concerns in detail.
While I've known many Christians who have struggled with commitment fear, it has been a joy to see many overcome their inhibitions and find the courage to take the steps which once seemed impossible for them. Peggy, for instance, is now happily married and eternally grateful she didn't let her apprehensions hold her back. Examples like hers inspire me to write and convince me that anyone who makes the effort can experience significant healing and substantial victory over commitment fear. It's with that hope that I offer these reflections. May God apply the truth where needed in your own life, and may your commitment to read this book be rewarded in many ways.
Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at MetroSexual LA