When it comes to understanding dating issues, it is about looking for patterns. If something happens once, there may be a reason for it, and it is not worth even trying to figure it out. Assume it is nothing, and get on with your life. But if the same thing happens more than once, and especially if it keeps repeating itself, then it is time to see that this pattern suggests there is an underlying problem. This is important because there is a pattern, it stands a good (should that be bad?) chance of reoccurring. Of all the many patterns that can emerge during dating, one of the most common patterns relates to the final stretch in the process.
Backing off when things get serious?
Some people are fine dating. Everything generally goes great. They are confident, at ease, engaging, open – all the right qualities needed to begin a connection with another person. This will go on until the point where the dating turns “serious.” But then, as soon as they sense that they have crossed over into “commitment territory,” all kinds of strange things start happening. Issues that were played down before now become important. Things that before were allowed to be ignored are now starting to bother them. Questions about compatibility that were thought to have been already settled are now raised.
Basic issues are reopened and reexamined – usually not from the most positive perspective. The one doing the rethinking and reevaluating thinks this is completely understandable. In their mind, as you get to know someone better, you see things you did not see before. As you spend more time with them, you realize that certain things bother you more than you expect. And so on.
The other person, who most likely is not experiencing this “dating replay” is bewildered in the extreme. Why are we going backward instead of forwards? It feels to them like a game of snakes and ladders. No sooner had they reached a decent level in the game, than the whole thing takes a major tumble. The person on the other side of the equation has no idea what has caused the dating to return to what feels to them like “square one.” As one can imagine, this confusion can itself cause the relationship to unravel. Both parties have no clue what is going on. This is the blind leading the blind. While all this drama is going on, no one has any idea why.
People have a term for people who keep doing this: “commitment-phobic.” This label is based on a (false) assumption that the reason for the repeated pulling back once things get serious is because the person is trying to avoid making a commitment. This is not only wrong, as we shall see, but it patently foolish. This person may have dated, say, thirty people. Each time, he or she began this process with every intention of marrying the date if things “worked out.” The person creating all this drama is desperately trying to make a commitment – they are not avoiding making a commitment. If they were truly commitment-phobic (such a condition actually does exist), they would not be dating as much or trying so hard to succeed. So, if this is not about being commitment-phobic, what is going on?
Avoidant Attachment Orientation
There is a huge body of research about an avoidant or a fearful attachment orientation. In a different article, we provide find a more detailed explanation about attachment orientations. For the sake of simplicity, here is the short version. Most people learn that being close to people feels good and leads to positive outcomes. From their very first moments of life, humans discover that being closely attached leads to nourishment and security. This gets reinforced millions of times during our early years, as we enjoy the benefits of a close and supportive family.
If all goes well, we take this deeply to heart and desire to ensure we always have this intimacy in our lives. As we get older and establish ourselves as an adult, we crave to recreate in our own relationship the cocoon we experienced growing up. We desire to have this incredibly bonded relationship with our spouse like we had with our closest caregivers as a child. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, many people have the process above disrupted. There are many reasons why this could happen. The most obvious is if the caregiver (usually our mother) was not very good at nurturing that sense of closeness during our early childhood. It is possible that the marriage was unstable, or the caregiver had health or psychological problems. Tragically, violence at home – verbal or physical – can greatly disrupt a healthy bonding and attachment, as well as death or disasters in the family. Any form of child abuse would also greatly harm the internalizing process described above, as is obvious.
People also have their own character, and for reasons we shall never know, sometimes naturally struggle with bonding and attachment. Whatever the cause, the ability to bond with another person is harmed by poor experiences long ago in childhood or whilst growing up. Sometimes, people have traumatic relationship experiences, and this too can cause a person to become avoidant and fearful. The evidence shows that, with varying degrees of intensity, up to a fifth of all people are affected by this phenomenon, to some degree at least.
Tiger Bares its Teeth
The net result is that instead of basking in the affection and attention of one’s date, a sense of foreboding takes over. Fear kicks in. Rather than blissfully waltzing into the marriage, a primitive sense of self-protection takes control. All the negative associations stored deep in the recesses of our brain come to the fore and cause mayhem. Without having any awareness of this whatsoever, we begin to enter into a state of panic. What happens if I make a mistake? What if he turns out not to be loyal? What if I end up not liking her? Maybe I am convincing myself that I really want to be with her?
A kind of mild paranoia begins, where every far-fetched concern seems very real. All these concerns are spiked with the deep-seated worries that permeated the person’s early years. Now, they come back to bite. In this situation, such a person will find a reason to worry about anything. The dating process hits a brick wall, and in many cases with sufficient force to bounce back several stages. As said, it is debilitating for the person experiencing this, but it is equally distressing for the one dating this person.
When the avoidance takes over, in place of warm feelings towards their date, they are terrified by them. It is as they imagine their date as a growling tiger baring its teeth. The terror in their mind can be so intense that no space remains for any positive feelings. The prospect of proposing marriage in that state seem ludicrous to them. Who would propose marriage to a dangerous wild animal?
So, what does someone do if they are naturally avoidant and find that all or part of what is presented here reflecting their reality? Here are a few helpful insights.
The first thing you could do to help yourself you have already done, namely familiarize yourself with the way it is experienced and the impact it has. Self-awareness is vital. Once we understand what is happening, we are in a position to make smart choices. Left in the dark, we can only flail around and stagger our way blindly.
Secondly, please understand that you are fine. This is not an illness. It can have significant negative effects, but it is usually nothing that cannot be dealt with. You most likely do not need therapy, and therapy most likely will not help you. You do not need to change, nor can you. This is you, so learn to live with it.
Thirdly, you can date and you can get married. You are not crippled by this. Even if you have had a string of bad dating experiences, now that you are looking to approach things in light of this new knowledge things could be very different. So, chin up and soldier on; you will be fine.
Fourth, do not go it alone. An avoidant orientation messes with the mind. You are going to be a whole lot better off having a trusted sounding board. If you have a tendency to be avoidant to a substantial degree, it is very difficult to perceive what is happening in an objective manner. You need to take advantage of the expertise of someone who understands these things.
Finally, if you hit a roadblock, do not panic. That is the worst reaction. Your avoidance orientation makes you prone to over-react; it is important to stay calm. Life is rarely smooth, and dating is for sure capable of experiencing turbulence. A bump here or there – as unpleasant as it is – is not a reason to take far-reaching decisions. Usually, the fears you are experiencing and worries that preoccupy you can be cleared up.
Rather than leave your date mightily confused by your backing away, it is better to explain to him or her about the avoidant orientation and how this can trigger an adverse reaction. Your date is most likely going to be supportive and keep the relationship on track.