by Todd Creager
You have been waiting for him to pop the question and no matter how long you wait, there is always a reason that he will propose later.
Or maybe he says, “Let me do it on my time; don’t push me.” The only problem is you have been dating or living with each other for years and you wonder if his time will always be ‘later.’ So then, you express your frustration and he uses that as an excuse why he cannot ask you until you become less controlling.
If this or a similar story is happening to you or someone you know, this article may shed some light on what I see as the most common factor that contributes to this “pursuer/distancer” dance.
My disclaimer is that there may be other reasons and I don’t want to oversimplify complex human behavior and motivation. However, after almost 30 years of sitting in my therapy office chair, I have seen one major theme that can lead to this commitment problem. Having this understanding, the more committed partner can begin to feel less crazy, confused and inadequate.
We all have two conflicting and powerful urges, the desire to attach to another person (I call this the urge to merge) as well as the urge to be our own individual, unique selves, separate from others and free to follow our own inner promptings.
Think of babies who as they become toddlers, express this dual urge.
They definitely want to be close to their mothers and fathers and when separated will show some signs of distress. At the same time, they enjoy their newfound development such as crawling, walking and speaking, and they also will defy and resist your requests to do what they want you to do. This is all normal and psart of their process of healthy development. Adults also demonstrate this in developing relationships.
In the beginning of relationships, the need to be individuals seems to go away for a while. It is all about the “we” and not about the “I”. “I cannot stand to be away from you.” “I can’t stop thinking about you.”
Eventually that can turn into, “I have given up seeing my friends since being with you.” “I need my space!” This is normal as well. In some couples, these are all natural stages that partners go through as they strike a balance between their urge to merge and their urge to be their own unique selves.
It is not always that smooth or easy. Some people reach a level of togetherness and stay stuck in their need for space. They seem unable to tolerate any more closeness or a step up in commitment.
This is what I have seen in the history of these commitment phobic people. The commitment phobic person grew up in a home where their primary caretaker or caretakers did not allow for his own unique self expression. And this is often an extreme. Possibly, there was a mother who was very needy and needed her little boy to be what SHE needed him to be.
This boy learns as he grows up to subordinate his needs to those of his mother and that when he does that, he gets some reward from her. As time goes on, he expresses less and less of his true self and as the famous British psychologist Donald Winnicott says, he develops a false self.
He learns to do and be what others want him to be. However deeper down, he is angry and distrustful. His urge to individuate and be his own person has not totally disappeared; it is just submerged under his habits to make himself feel accepted and loved through pleasing others.
As he gets involved with a new woman, these submerged tendencies remain at bay and he experiences the excitement of a new person that can accept him, love him and let him know how attractive and wonderful he is. However, as the relationship continues and the need to be more committed increases, his submerged fear, anger and distrust (especially of women in this example) starts to appear.
Yet, it does not appear in a straightforward honest way. It may appear in a host of complaints he has about you or in his emotional and/or physical withdrawal. Then you are left with a feeling of “What did I do?” or “What is wrong with ME?”
In this example, there is nothing you can do to change him. Losing more weight, having more sex, being less negative about his lack of commitment- none of that will get him to commit to you. There is only two ways this should go- either he gets help and faces his earlier issues of feeling smothered by his mother’s needs or you have to get the heck out of that relationship.
If he is willing to get help and face his conflicts, it could be worth the wait. I have seen men (and women) make strides and increase their capacity for commitment. If he is unwilling to go see a therapist, I do not see any hope. As long as he does not get help, he will see you as a threat to his selfhood and his urge to be his own individual will far outduel his urge to merge. Merging to him means the dissolution of his self and he will not go for that.
This article explains what I see as the major reason people have a hard time committing and as I said before, that is not always the reason or the only reason. However, often it is.
If this story resembles something you or someone you know has experienced, there are qualified therapists such as myself who can help. With help, people can often tolerate the dual urges discussed and be able to merge and make a commitment and at the same time live their own lives expressing who they are.
The best of relationships are those that allow both the fulfilling experience of merging and the fulfilling experience of expression of one’s true self.
From Sarah: Todd Creager is an accomplished Speaker, Therapist, Consultant and Author. At his website: The Todd Creager Center for Successful Relationships, you can find out more about how to have a successful relationship.