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Please Don't Ask Me to Say I Love You: An HIV Take on Commitment Phobia

By Dave R.

January 14, 2014

Dave R.

Dave R.

This article originally appeared on, Canada's Online HIV Magazine.

If you're living with HIV, you've already been through stuff; that's a given. You may have seen friends or lovers dying, or being seriously ill and recovering by the skin of their teeth to live on bearing the scars. You may also have had your own brushes with disaster, leading to a well-justified and experience-based fear of the unknown and the future. If you're lucky, you've found a partner along the way to share shit with; someone to lift you up when you're down, just as you do to them. If you're not so lucky, you may be living alone, hoping that a new relationship may turn up; or just getting along, grabbing moments when you can and getting through, happy enough but not looking for wedding bells on the horizon.

So what happens when you do meet someone and there's a click and the fabled "chemistry" kick starts your jaded emotions into gear again? All lights are green. They're either HIV positive, or genuinely HIV-friendly; the sex is great, there's the right amount of passion and tenderness, you just want to touch them at every opportunity, you're smiling when you wake up and the butterflies go into overdrive every time you get ready to meet. You talk for hours, feel relaxed, want to find ways to please them and even let them meet your friends and maybe after a time, the family. All systems go! This could be the one! You're amazed and relieved that it can still happen and it's as if a huge weight has been lifted off your shoulders and then just when the pink cloud seems like an impenetrable fortress ... the bombshell drops and they say they love you! Or if they don't say it, everything points to it being about to be said. What then? Then, for some people, the switch goes off; panic sets in and the end of the relationship, however good it is, comes rushing towards them like an out of control steam train!

You start finding fault with things they do or say. You start looking for reasons why they most definitely are not the one. It was just infatuation, or horniness, or the thrill of the chase and slowly but surely the rot sets in and you just want out as quickly and painlessly as possible.

What's That All About?

It's commitment phobia that's what and it's an agonizing side-effect, or throw back, of many things that have gone on in your life thus far. It can be agonizing for you as well as the poor unsuspecting partner but it's a very powerful reason for many promising relationships to fall at the first hurdle.


So What Is Commitment Phobia and What Issues Are Involved?

It's basically a fear of committing to one person for an indefinite future but it can manifest itself in several ways. Some people start off wanting nothing else than a long-term relationship, then inexplicably start withdrawing from it weeks or months later. These people yo-yo between relationships without really understanding why they go wrong. Others are terrified of becoming emotionally bound up with someone; they see it as drama, or evidence that someone wants to chain them up and take away their freedom. In these cases, they become terminal one-night-standers and avoid monogamy like the plague. Remember that book, He's Just Not That Into You? In that, the case was made that commitment phobes are almost invariably men and gay men may well agree but actually, there's very little evidence that commitment issues are confined to one sex or the other. In general, though, if you are prone to the following types of relationship behavior, you may well find serious commitment a problem:

I love my relationship with my bed. No commitment needed. We just sleep together every night!

-- Unknown quotes

Whatever the causes, commitment issues can be very painful, both for the person with the problem and the person on the receiving end. Both can begin with the best of intentions but it often ends up in a pattern of opening seduction, followed by perceived pulling and pushing as insecurity takes over and erodes the spontaneity of falling for someone. It's a survival thing. The one frightened of commitment ends up doing everything they can to avoid being trapped and possibly hurt and the other does everything they can to hold on to something clearly slipping away through no fault of their own.

The commitment phobe is often a fantastic seducer and romantic at the beginning because he or she knows deep down that they won't be staying around for long. The partner is sucked in by all that attention and ends up appearing desperate when it appears that it was all for nothing. This is where the clichéd "thrill of the chase" comes in. It's probably much more complex than hunting a victim and then discarding him or her when the chase is over -- the obsessive hunter may well have a serious commitment problem but of course that's no comfort for the hunted! The problem is that this sort of person is a bit of a coward; they love the chase but hate the kill. They become expert in the art of sabotage and it can take some time before their dastardly plans end up in separation. They often prefer the other to end it because it justifies what they feared in the first place. It's a diabolical game but remember most of the time this is happening at a subconscious level; they may engineer the relationship's downfall but very few set out to do that deliberately and cause pain and hurt. Unfortunately, this sort of behavior doesn't pre-warn the unsuspecting partner that they'll be special for a short time but then it'll be over!

Another often-used excuse for someone afraid of an emotional relationship is that they are looking for perfection but they're not all vaudeville sons of Jewish mothers; they know there's no such thing as perfection but searching out and exposing their partner's flaws becomes the perfect excuse not to commit. One thing is sure; the commitment phobe is always looking for the back door and ensuring that the way out is clear.

How Does HIV Make It Even Worse?

Now HIV can throw a particularly unique spanner in the works and can ruin the chances of a relationship before a word is spoken. Maybe cancer and other terrible diseases do exactly the same but I would argue that because of its sexual nature, HIV has become an out-and-out relationship wrecker all on its own. Now I don't have to tell anyone how difficult sero-discordant relationships can be. With sex being a vital element, anything that casts doubt in that area is going to put strains on any budding partnership. I'm so full of admiration for those that do make it work and would argue that those people are anything but commitment phobic. However, HIV can turn a commitment phobe into an absolute non-starter because he or she has yet another very strong reason for not committing and can or will use it as an excuse to avoid making long-term plans. If he or she has HIV in their lives, they will claim that there's no point in long-term relationships because what happens if one or the other gets sick? It's a get out of jail card because it's indisputable that HIV can prevent relationships blossoming whether you're a commitment phobe or not. If you're HIV negative, the commitment phobe again has that built-in reason for avoiding a deep emotional relationship but their hopeful positive partner may be unaware of that in the beginning.

If both partners are HIV positive, the commitment phobe surely has less reason to reject love because seriously, what else do they want? However, in the end these people will avoid a partnership whatever their status and that of their partner. HIV will become a non-issue apart from making life in bed much easier because they will put that much more effort into the seduction and love-making but even then, if it starts to get serious, the alarm bells will go off regardless. Even the idea that it will be much more difficult to find another partner doesn't really affect their fears of commitment. They'll convince themselves that they were never looking for love in the first place, just good, uncomplicated sex. If only they would realise that finding a compatible partner, with HIV in the picture is like squeezing blood from a stone, they might realise the value of what they've got. However, commitment phobia is a very deep-seated problem. HIV or not, strong attraction or not; clicks, chemistry and compatibility, they don't make any difference; the drive to run away is just too strong.

Advice: For What It's Worth

Now I'm no psychologist but I've been there in both roles and have read up on the information you can find in the links at the end of the article and one thing seems clear to me: There are no villains or victims here. You can't choose who you fall for; it just happens, whether through pheromones, or any other chemical signals that spark off the emotional maelstrom, it happens. At the beginning you've no idea who the person is or may be; you've fallen for something about them that puts your head into spin cycle mode. Can you avoid being a commitment phobe? With a lot of work maybe. Can you avoid being the victim of a commitment phobe? Well yes but then you won't ever dare to do anything, or take a gamble on someone ever again, and what's the point in that?

The first hurdle is recognising the problem. For most commitment phobes, the truth can hit them like a bombshell. They never knew and never even suspected that the reason why their relationships failed was an in-built fear of maintaining a serious relationship with someone. They often pin the blame on the failings of others because they haven't lived up to their idea of perfection. They may have feared the loss of independence and free thought; or have been terrified that someone was trying to possess them or take them over.

Having realised the real reason behind it all, the answer seems to lie in getting help. Doing research; recognising that what they find fits their profile like a glove; talking to a psychotherapist; looking back at their past to see if there are reasons for their fears and overcoming the hurdle of taking a gamble on someone else. It can be a traumatic experience and the one thing commitment phobes need is time; time to sort themselves out and time to process what they discover.


Even after that, they may be even more reluctant to jump in the deep end: "But I'm scared of making the wrong decision ..." Remember, they've had a lifetime of learning how to avoid emotional bonds and facing certain truths will shake them to their foundations. They may have had troubled childhoods, where they have been totally invested in their father, mother or both and yet have never been able to trust them because of all the family traumas that have happened. This leads to emotional panic in children and the beginnings of wall-building to shut out any further hurt in their lives. How can they commit to anyone new when their past has taught them that commitment has led to pain with people they are supposed to trust and relax with?

This is all very simplistic and although researched, may come over as amateur psychology at its worst but it can't be disputed that people with commitment problems are not going to change overnight. They need to work on themselves in order to be able to trust and place their lives in the hands of others again. Eventually, most people come to the conclusion that any commitment is a risk, even for people who have no problem in that area. Love's a minefield.

The relationship between commitment and doubt is by no means an antagonistic one. Commitment is healthiest when it's not without doubt but in spite of doubt.

-- Dr. Rollo May

However, you can't have any sort of meaningful relationship without some serious input of your own. It'll cost you. You'll have to surrender part of your independence and freedom of action, just as your partner will. You'll have to make choices, when in the past the only choice was to avoid them. That said, doing nothing and moving on when the relationship threatens to become serious, is also an empty existence. You're denying yourself the wonders of love, including the set-backs, the arguments, the differences and the opening up of your emotions but look what you can get in return. Okay, it may not work out in the end but it wasn't going to work out anyway, you wouldn't ever let it, so what do you have to lose by taking a chance? Far from trapping you in someone else's web, commitment actually sets you free!

The biggest battle is taking the first step. When your partner shows signs of falling in love with you; open yourself to it instead of applying your first instinct to reject it out of hand. You don't have to give 100% straight away but if you face up to that first hurdle and get past those first habits of a lifetime, you may find yourself enriching your life with new experiences you never previously thought possible. You can still always exit; that's your safety net but the important thing is realizing that you don't have to. There are no guarantees; never are but there are unknown possibilities of being extraordinarily happy if you let them.

You'll eventually realize that the fear of commitment was what made it so huge but taking that gamble may reveal depths of emotion you only dreamed of as a child. Nobody underestimates how difficult it is to overcome commitment phobia but overcoming it is going to give you opportunities to grow and discover new aspects of yourself, however clichéd that may sound.

C.S. Lewis described it as the "... quieter love ... which surpasses butterflies and gushy feelings, but still has a profound effect on the soul."

So most commentators agree that you shouldn't wait for things to get better by themselves; they won't. You need to accept that something is preventing you from committing and then, for a change, you needn't let it! Embrace the challenge; make a few choices and commit to finding out what the rest of the world already knows, that love may have its drawbacks and may need several tries before it works but when it does it can bring you so many more rewards than the fear that precedes it.

Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes; but no plans.

-- Peter F. Drucker

Much more information can be found in the following links:

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