Over the years as a clinical psychologist and researcher, I’ve found that guys have eight common fears of commitment, all of which have their roots in childhood and adolescence. The process of picking, projecting and provoking these fears can lead men to recreate their negative relationship scenarios and sabotage themselves when it comes to romance and love. Unfortunately, if a man is not growing and working on his issues, he will often follow these same patterns over and over again with woman after woman—sinking his possibilities of committed love into the netherworld.
I know you may be all too familiar with men’s fears in this department, but bear with me. I want you to have a much deeper understanding of the minds of men. Remember, there is a matter of degree of difficulty: some men are truly mired in their issues, while others are growing and working on themselves. You want to determine if your prospective partner is in the mired-in-quicksand category so that you can get out quickly and cut your losses. But if he is moving forward with developing himself, understanding these self-sabotaging patterns will help you know how to key into his psychology.
1. Fear of Rejection
This is a man who is afraid a woman will suddenly lose interest and abandon him. Because of this, he has a hard time having honest straight talk and is very afraid of conflict. When the inevitable disagreements and differences come up in a relationship, he stuffs his feelings and drifts away. He prefers email or texts when dealing with uncomfortable issues. He doesn’t have the courage to stand up to his partner, so problems fester and blow up. When tension reaches the boiling point, he doesn’t have the cajones to break up. Instead he becomes passive-aggressive, gently slipping away as his texts and calls fade out—or he quickly dumps you before you can dump him. Above all, he fears rejection, a feeling so painful, that it is almost like annihilation, like being completely destroyed. So he slithers around any direct conflict.
Many men suffer from some degree of this conflict-avoidant pattern. That’s because guys tend to have much more difficulty in dealing with stress. Research shows that after an argument, men’s heart rates and blood pressure readings get more elevated than women’s[i]. And they stay elevated. Why? Because men, unlike women, have a more difficult time soothing and quieting themselves down after any kind of upset. So they may pull away and distance themselves emotionally in order to calm down.
Fear of Rejection: The Story of Emmett
Emmett, one of my therapy clients, was a computer security expert who had a history of falling for gorgeous Asian women whom he believed were “out of his league.” Emmett met Riko, a much younger Japanese woman, online. He was awestruck by her delicate beauty. Riko looked up to Emmett and his great intelligence. Nonetheless, he told me in numerous sessions how he was sure she would get disenchanted and leave him. After several months, Emmett was very unhappy with Riko’s passivity during sex. He shared his unhappiness with me but even after my prodding, he refused to tell his lover. Eventually, Emmett agreed to a joint session with Riko. He was very nervous that when he was straight with Riko she would storm out (like his mother, who had a difficult personality). But with support, he was able to speak his truth. Riko was fine about it. She had her own issues about Emmett’s lack of support for her work as a graphic designer. Whenever she brought this up, Emmett tended to clam up and withdraw. But he was committed to therapy and over time the couple worked together and to Emmett’s great relief, became engaged.
Fear of Rejection Warning Signs: He avoids angry exchanges like the plague. If there is a disagreement, he tends to pull away and use text/email or simply does not respond to your messages.
2. Fear of Being Controlled and Smothered
Because of the strong mothering pressure that most men experience growing up, fear of being controlled is also a common pattern. In my experience, men value their independence and freedom even more greatly than women. Remember that in order to define their own separate identities, they really had to pull away from their mother early on in their lives. This battle for a separate identity is, according to some scholars on gender differences, harder for men than women.[ii] As a result, many men grow up with a view of women as weights that hold them down or as controlling objects that won’t let them go. You can hear these fears echoed in the phrases men use, like, “the ball and chain,” and “she had me by the balls.” It’s easy to see then how marriage becomes the definite marker of an imbalance of power—where the woman-as-wife simply takes over the man’s life.
When the fear of smothering is very strong, it leads to classic commitment phobia. Talk of a future makes this guy quiet, nervous, upset or angry. He may be reluctant to act like he’s in a couple when you are with friends or out in public. He may only speak in the first person, saying “I” instead of “we” or “me” instead of “us.” He may keep you away from his friends and family. Guys who are afraid of smothering may be in an on-again-off-again relationship for years—where he always seems to want you when you break up because he then feels free and unencumbered—yet he just cannot pull the trigger and commit when you are together because it feels like he is losing his independence.
If the relationship has progressed to having regular sex, he may need to make an escape by asking you to leave or going home instead of spending the night. He may feel distant and emotionally unavailable to you. He may say he is not sure what love really is or that he is incapable of experiencing love. This is the guy who comes right out and says that he does not believe in love and marriage or getting serious and settling down with one person.
No matter how much love he feels, this is a man who is terrified of jumping fully into a long-term relationship. Bottom line: he believes he can’t be himself and fully be with a woman. In his view, he has to give up the lead role in his own life if he is stuck in a supporting role with you and/or the children. It seems like his golf, buddies, bar days, sports, even the Super Bowl are going to be ripped away by the all-powerful, all-controlling vortex of the couple. For this man, commitment, love and marriage mean being trapped in a cage from which there is no escape.
Fear of Being Controlled: The Story of Jon
Jon, a 40-year old businessman had a series of relationships each lasting around six months to a year. He fell madly in love with brunette after brunette and pursued each of them vigorously until the moment things became serious and “her thoughts of marriage” were in the air. At that moment everything would reverse and he would feel like the hunted one instead of the hunter. Jon would become anxious, agitated and feel like he had to get away from each woman at all costs, as if his very life depended on it. In his last relationship, Jon claimed that he was forced into an actual engagement. But he was saved by an unlikely ally. He told me that right after he gave her the ring, he started having full-blown panic attacks. Jon described them as attacks in which he couldn’t breathe and his chest became so tight and painful that he thought he was having a heart attack. With these frightening symptoms, Jon felt like he had the excuse he needed. He told his girlfriend that something was really wrong with him and he broke up with her.
During therapy, Jon came to realize that his fear of being smothered had destroyed his last relationship and would prevent him from any chance at real love. Only then did he begin working seriously on facing and overcoming his severe commitment fears.
Fear Of Being Controlled Warning Signs: He may act like a super confident captain of industry until he has to say the three magic words or you want a definite date or commitment. Then he turns and runs for cover. Or he may act like your knight in shining armor where he takes orders from you, always looking to please you in a way that feels like he is one-down in the relationship. Until he balks when it comes to moving in together or getting engaged. Only then do you realize that his cooperation was an illusion.
3. Fear of Not Being Lovable
Because of not being prized and validated growing up, a man may have a core unconscious fear that he is simply not lovable. He feels insecure and not-good-enough. This type of guy is looking to you for approval, asking what you think, before he makes decisions. In the beginning, he tries hard and works overtime to make you happy. His feelings depend on what you think and feel. If you are sad, disappointed, afraid, he is really upset and takes it as a measure of his fundamental lack of worth.
The net effect is that he feels emotionally uncomfortable in the relationship, like it is not a good fit for him. He may feel like the woman is out of his league. So when it comes time to take that next step to commitment, to say the "L" word or talk about a future, he is passive, quiet and tends to pull away from you.
Another sign of this particular type is the man that cannot tolerate your innocent flirting with guys or talking about your ex. He gets depressed, moody and withdraws. If you cheat, forget about it: this man will not fight to win you back. Instead he will collapse internally under a mountain of self-hate.
Fear of Not Being Lovable: The Story of Jason
Jason, a 31-year-old internet marketer, suffered from a fear of not being lovable, or worthy. At a local bar, he met Felicia, a sloe-eyed and beautiful Pilates trainer. Jason was tipsy and confident as he swept Felicia away with his quick wit. They wound up sharing that first night together. Felicia pursued Jason, asking him to join her at various parties and events. Jason came along, but usually had a few drinks to loosen up. A few “good” months went by. One night, Felicia met her ex at a party and flirted with him. Seeing this, Jason sulked and withdrew from her. He was not responsive to any of her attempts to reconnect, even refusing to come over for “make-up” sex. A few weeks later, he called the whole thing off, rejecting Felicia apparently before she could reject him.
Fear of Not Being Lovable Warning Signs: He may be very quiet or shy. Or he seeks approval by doing things that are helpful or giving. He finds it hard to talk about his own wants and needs. He is more passive and tends to enjoy solitary activities including sports or computer games. He cannot handle any competition from other guys—it usually spells the end of the relationship.
4. Fear of Not Measuring Up
While the fear of not measuring up is closely related to the fear of not being lovable, it has its roots in men’s biology and in our culture. Men are biologically wired to perform and produce. Plus they have been taught by this materialistic culture that the measure of a man’s worth is how successful he is in terms of power and money. Men often feel they must succeed at everything they do: in school; sports; video games; relationships; as lovers; as parents; and, as breadwinners. Some men feel that if they fail in any of these arenas, that they are losers.
The fear of not measuring up also has its origins in families where boys are driven to be perfect; to get all “A”s, to excel on the football field or by their mothers (often single or divorced) to be the “men of the house.” It’s very difficult if not impossible for a boy or even an 18- or 21-year-old to feel like a man. So you can understand how he might still feel like he isn’t man enough or that he doesn’t measure up.
This particular fear can make it very difficult to move forward into a committed relationship with a partner, no matter how terrific she is. At his core, this type of man is terrified that he can’t give a woman what she deserves or needs. His anxiety can be magnified if he is really smitten with her—so the more he is into her, the faster he thinks he will fail in some irretrievable way.
Often this type of guy needs a “trophy” girlfriend who is sexy and over-the-top beautiful to “prove” that he is measuring up as a successful man. He may or may not have real feelings for her, even if they are together for years.
Fear of Not Measuring Up: The Story of Wayne
Wayne, a 29-year-old event promoter had a strong fear of not measuring up. He grew up with a “Great Santini” father, a career military man who constantly pushed Wayne but rarely praised him. Yet, Wayne turned out to be very successful at a relatively young age winning over club owners with his brash can-do attitude. On top of that, Wayne had managed to win the heart of the stunning Li, a 30-year-old Broadway dancer, who had her choice of suitors. They had been together for two years, but as she pressed to move into his place, he nervously told her he was not sure, that he did not know what love really was. When Wayne’s business slowed down, he began withdrawing from Li so that they were down to seeing each other about once a week. Then, at one of his events, Wayne met a young model and took her right to bed. He began courting the new girlfriend while still maintaining some contact with Li. Finally, Li confronted Wayne and he confessed. Wayne tried to make it up to her but he refused to make a commitment for the future. After a few torturous months, Li told him that she was done. Li packed up the things she had left at Wayne’s apartment and slammed the door while he watched helplessly. That’s when Wayne came to see me.
After a few months of therapy, Wayne realized how he had self-destructed when his business started to fail. His fears of not measuring up had grabbed him by the throat and to make himself feel like a man again he went after the model. Unfortunately, that only worked for a short period of time. Wayne told me that he was ashamed that his fears had driven away the only woman he had ever loved.
With my encouragement, Wayne asked Li to come back. Actually, he begged her. Wayne also invited her to join him in a few therapy sessions. When Li saw that Wayne had true remorse and after he asked her to marry him (with a ring) she did forgive him. They continued in couple’s therapy until after they were married.
Fear of Not Measuring Up Warning Signs: He brags and may exaggerate his accomplishments to the point of lying about them. Winning at work or with women is critical to his feeling OK. If this type of guy experiences a setback in work, he may slink away in shame or like Wayne find another woman to boost his ego.
5. Fear of Being Found Out
As a man gets closer to a woman, he may fear that he will become exposed, because he has to reveal fears or feelings that are “unmanly” or a shameful family secret. This is especially true if he had difficult, demanding parents that shamed him when he cried or acted like a “wuss.” A similar fear of commitment can also develop when a man is ashamed about his history or family. He may harbor secrets about relatives who are in mental hospitals, in jail or just poor.
You may have seen this type of guy depicted on film or TV as the man who can only get married if he completely hides his past. On the award-winning series Mad Men, the super successful hunky lead, ad executive Don Draper, has completely hidden his background and even changed his identity including his name. For a long time on the show, no one, including his beleaguered upper-middle-class wife, knows his true history. Draper’s whole life is about keeping secrets, all driven by the fear of being found out. For this type of guy, opening up and expressing his deeper feelings is impossible because he will have to come clean. And in his world, confession is definitely not good for the soul.
Another variation of this fear has to do with an inner sense of having some horrible and unfix-able flaw. It might be a perceived physical defect like his height or the size of his “package.” Or it might be a feeling of intellectual inferiority, a sense of being a “B” player who’s not good enough to be an “A.” This type of man works harder, tries harder and puts down competitors with sarcasm or contempt.
In relationships, he will often project onto his partner by being super critical and judgmental and looking for her fatal flaw. Unconsciously, he doesn’t want to be with anyone who would be in a club that would have him. In therapy, he says that there are no great women out there and that he is super picky because he deserves “the perfect woman.” As he makes progress in therapy or some other growth process, he will admit that the truth is that he is afraid to commit because he’s afraid he will be found out as the imperfect man.
Fear of Being Found Out: The Story of Guy, the Little Napoleon
Guy was a lawyer who was somewhat short in stature, something that had bothered him since he stopped growing at 14. His brutal father, a big and burly Italian pizza restaurant owner, frequently beat him when he was a child. But Guy was tenacious, studied hard and made it into one of the top law schools. Years went by and with his hard work ethic and pitbull attitude, he became one of the top litigators in Philadelphia.
When I first met him, he was dressed impeccably in head-to-toe Armani. He had dated Sherri, a quiet social worker for three years. She looked up to Guy and was very shy socially. Guy complained that even though Sherri was kind and beautiful, that she was boring, especially in bed. According to Guy, his friends really liked her because Sherri had humanized him, that he was “tolerable to be with.” Guy told me all this with a smirk as if he gave a crap about “being more human.” I wanted to meet Sherri but Guy refused because then “we would gang up on him.” Despite my jokes about how he wanted two women to gang up on him, Guy really was afraid for Sherri to find out the truth about him: that he came from a brutal and humble family of modest means.
Finally, as Guy continued to waffle, Sherri got the courage to have “the talk.” Faced with what he saw as an ultimatum, Guy broke up with her. It was only then that Guy’s progress in therapy really began. He lost a great gal but the next woman he really liked learned about his sad but true history.
Fear of Being Found Out Warning Signs: He denies having any needy-type feelings, like being anxious, insecure, or lonely. He may not be able to use the "L" word. He is extremely judgmental about others, especially if they make demands of him.
6. Fear of Trusting A Woman
If a man had an erratic or manipulative mother and a history of being cheated on, used or disappointed by women, he may have major trust issues when it comes to making a commitment. Mistrusting all women, he vows never to be vulnerable again--because if he is, he will just be hurt. If he took a hit financially in a divorce and/or is wealthy, he may be afraid that women just want him for his money. He may fear that all women are mean, manipulative and exploitative.
Sometimes this fear can develop when a guy is stuck struggling to extricate himself from an ugly divorce or an angry battle with his ex over their children. He may come right out and say that he will never marry again.
Fear of Trusting a Woman: The Story of Kai
Kai was a flight attendant who navigated a difficult divorce from a very nasty alcoholic woman, who was very much like his raging mother. In order to get out, he basically caved in and gave his wife the house that he loved and “most” of his money. When he met Saidah, an earthy warm woman on one of his flights, he was entranced. They had a delightful six months together. But when she started asking about a future, he started to experience her as pushy, just like his ex. He said he didn’t think he would ever be able to live with a woman again—and definitely would never marry.
Saidah was patient and kind. She felt Kai would come around, especially if she nurtured him. But after two years went by with very little movement on Kai’s part, she gave him an ultimatum: move in together or break up. Kai felt put upon and abused. He went MIA, finally writing her a long goodbye letter. Saidah, on the other hand, learned her lesson and went to one of my trained love Mentors. She started dating guys who were more open to creating a committed love relationship.
Fear of Trusting a Woman Warning Signs: He talks negatively about his mother and/or exes. He feels like he has been victimized by women. He may come right out and say he doesn’t believe in love or will never marry.
7. Fear of Growing Up
A man may not feel like he is an adult who is ready to take on the responsibilities of a relationship, children and family life. This so-called Peter Pan syndrome may have its roots in various types of family dysfunction. He may have been coddled by his parents who protected him from the real world, from the possibility of failure. Any difficulty or trial at school might have been dismissed as someone else’s problem and never his responsibility. Or he may have never been encouraged to try something really hard like a competitive sport or an accelerated school subject where trying and not winning or getting a high grade is a real possibility. Or he may have been sickly and had overprotective parents who wouldn’t allow him to play with other kids and compete in sports. Other Peter Pan guys were just ignored by a divorced or missing father and an overworked Mom.
As a result of any of these dynamics, the young man fails to build up his identity as a competent and solid adult male. Internally, he feels like a child, a kid who wants to play, get high, sleep late and work menial jobs with little no responsibility. No wonder then that our Peter Pan is boyish in his leisure activities. He may be a video game addict, who is glued to his game console at all times. Or he may spend many hours watching or playing sports. Or he worries about his health while smoking pot every day. He may be still living at home into his 30s. This is a guy who wants to date and have fun, but balks when it comes to having a committed ongoing and serious relationship.
Fear of Growing Up: The Story of Jermaine
Jermaine was an eternal student, with a master's degree and not a pot to pee in. He worked at Starbucks and lived with his single mom, who was a teacher. His main passion was writing and although he had never published anything, he was always starting a new novel—“his big breakthrough." When Shelly, a frustrated nurse whose dream was also to be a wife and mom, first met Jermaine in a graduate course, she was drawn to his creativity and over-the-top ability to spin yarns. He had a childish air about him that Shelly found endearing. Thus began an on-again-off-again relationship that lasted 10 years. During that time, Shelly would leave Jermaine because the relationship and his career were “going nowhere.” He would then pull his act together and get a full-time job. They would reunite, but never in a serious fulfilling way. Eventually, Shelly met with me and decided to end the relationship for good. Once she was finally free, she began dating men who actually had their own places and real careers that were also looking to be in permanent relationships. Eventually, through an on-line service, she met the “nerdy guy” of her dreams, a man who was successful and crazy about her. They are married and have adorable twin rascals.
Fear of Growing Up Warning Signs: He acts juvenile, makes ridiculous jokes or even burps or farts like a little boy. In a conflict, he tends to either quickly back down or have a tantrum to get his way. He may be very concerned with his bodily functions or getting ill.
8. Fear That He Can’t Make The “Right “Decision
This type of man has a very hard time making up his mind or trusting his own judgment. When he picks one movie to see, he immediately regrets not choosing another. He is not sure that the company he works at is really the best one for him. This guy is afraid of making a decision that forecloses on all his other options including choosing you. Every time he does so, he has a burst of anxiety and thoughts about other, “better” women.
Fear He Can’t Make the “Right” Decision: The Story of George
Leeza, a 40-something cosmetics manager at a department store, was a stunning blonde who met George online. George was a community college professor who was close to 50 and yet had never been married. Leeza was drawn to George’s brilliant mind and loved the fact that he didn’t have an ex or kids. George took her out for dinner and bought her expensive gifts at high-end department stores. At first, Leeza was blown away. But as the months wore on, she noticed that George was really very depressed and never seemed to enjoy the fantastic activities they shared. He was always worrying about work, reading his “Crackberry,” or quipping that the service or the meal wasn’t good enough.
After about nine months, Leeza wanted to know where things were heading in the relationship. George said that he just didn’t know for sure if marriage was for him, although he thought it was time and Leeza was really terrific. Leeza asked him to figure out where she stood but all he could say was that he was afraid of making a mistake. With the encouragement of her Love Mentor (see Chapter Five), Leeza finally left him and started dating other guys. George begged her to come back. After he went into therapy and attended some growth courses with her, Leeza did take him back, under the condition that they get engaged. George says it was the best decision he ever made.
Fear He Can’t Make the “Right” Decision Warning Signs: He is very intellectual. He tends to overly think things through and obsess. He is always second-guessing himself. Often this type of guy needs to be left to realize what he’s lost.
You can think of the Fear-O-Meter as a continuum of intensity of the eight fears. They can occur at normal level, where they are being faced and overcome or they can be exaggerated to the point that the man is so neurotic as to be unable to move into a committed relationship.
Signs of Extreme Commitment Fears
When men’s fears of commitment are extreme, they can play out in many different ways. Some men become addicts: compulsive video game-players, eaters, drinkers, or workaholics. Others become argumentative, contemptuous, critical or domineering. Still others may act extremely passive or shy or withdraw from any meaningful conversations about the future. Some act more like hypochondriacs or child-like. Others disappear on you. Still others cheat. When fears are extreme and the guy is acting out in response to those fears there is often nothing that can be done. Their fear is operating at an unconscious level and therefore controls the outcome of any love relationship. In other words, it goes nowhere.
Once the deeper fear is triggered, whether it is by the prospect of seeing each other more regularly, discussing a future together, moving in or getting engaged, a man with extreme fear will at a fundamental level do all he can to pull back. He is not willing to examine himself, his motives or his fears. Here’s what you need to get: this type of guy is fundamentally happy with the status quo of his love life and does not want to change. Therefore, it’s best to get out quickly and cut your losses. No matter how hard or unfair it seems. You’re better off leaving because if you stay, all you will end up with is a lot of wasted years you can never get back, not to mention bitter disappointment and heartache.
All of us are faced with two conflicting urges: to merge and become one vs. being independent and free. When a man and woman fall in love and come together, it is normal and common to have fears come up about losing one’s separate sense of self, one’s space, one’s own identity, and unique pursuits and interests. Both men and women experience these fears. This is reasonable—compromises have to be made in order to have a relationship. Time needs to be set aside. After all, how many times has it happened that you get involved with some guy and wind up having little time for your girlfriends?
It is normal in the development of a new relationship for your boyfriend to have doubts, to have some measure of virtually all the fears we have been talking about. The key variable here is this: If a man’s fears are at the normal level, they do not stop him from moving forward over time into increasing intimacy and commitment.
Sometimes it is hard to tell if a guy has an unworkable commitment phobia or more normal fears that he is willing to work on. You have to examine whether your boyfriend is trying to be self-reflective and willing to grow. Is he taking growth courses, on a spiritual path, or in therapy? In the last several months or year, is he making progress in his ability to move forward with you? In opening his social world of friends and family to you? In sharing his physical space? In his ability to discuss what he wants for the future? In his willingness to express love for you? Is he growing more open to taking the next step in moving forward together, i.e., moving in together or getting engaged? If he is moving forward in many of these ways, it shows that his fears are more manageable and in the normal range.
Helping Him Overcome Normal Fears
If a guy is truly into you and willing to grow, he will face down his fears and make it work with you. Especially if you accept his need for space and independence, validate his worth and continue to nurture yourself. Remember, he will tend to project his fears and negative expectations onto you and even unconsciously provoke you into being angry, critical or distant. If you understand this, you can practice loving kindness and not engage in that negative pattern from his past. You can show him that love is possible. You can gently let him know that, as James Baldwin says, To defend oneself against a fear is simply to ensure that one will, one day, be conquered by it; fears must be faced.[iii]
Helping a guy face his demons is not so easy to do. Especially when you have your own issues about love and commitment, as well as your own needs, as we all do. In my newly revised book, Love in 90 Days, I show you how to handle the baggage from your pastiv that will allow you the freedom to not drag old wounds or bitterness into your future. So you will be able to love from your best and highest perspective of self and, in so doing, inspire your beloved to find his strength and courage.
[i] J. M. Gottman, The Marriage Clinic, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999), pp.83-84.
[ii] See for example, Irene Fast, Gender Identity: A Differentiation Model. (London: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers, 1984), pp.67-69.
[iii] J. Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), pg. 27.
[iv] D.A. Kirschner, Love in 90 Days (New York: Center Street, The Hachette Group, 2019) pp. 46-75.