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Commitment is a developmental milestone. 

Consider it similar to successfully graduating high school, or even getting on the bus for the first time when you were little. If you get through it, new doors open. That is what milestones are all about. For some, commitment is never achieved. And, some doors, like family and kids may stay closed. 

For others, it’s a milestone they’d like to achieve. 

Here is a look at what can get in the way.

Case One – Max: 

Meet Max, a 36-year-old all-around-great-guy.  He’s successful and good looking, but more importantly, he’s warm and giving. Courtney’s been seeing him for three years and they live together. He is the smartest, most decent man she’s ever dated. Courtney feels that she’s found a keeper.

Max makes Courtney feel safe and secure. He listens, he’s gentle, but he’s his own man. With a ticking clock, Courtney feels that the time is right to move this relationship to something more permanent. After all, they have both met each other’s parents and it all feels good.

Courtney: We need to think about getting more serious.

  • With those words, something strange happens. Max has a panic attack

Max: Let’s ta…talk about this tomorrow.

Commitment talk triggers panic. Max starts to sweat and can’t think clearly. He knows that he has a wonderful woman in his life, but it doesn’t matter. He’s got to escape.

  • Courtney’s friends tell her that she should have seen it coming. 

Case Two – Talia: 

Then there’s Talia; twenty-something, beautiful and smart. She’s got a great job and everything going for her. And guys want her. She’s like a magnet. You know people like Talia. She’s the one who gets the boys. She enjoys great sex and magical nights out. But, have you noticed? Nobody stays for too long.

Enter Scott, a capable person in his own right, working at a successful start up. He sees Talia and “sees” a great night out. And he gets it. 

The next day he texts Talia – no answer.  

A few hours later he texts her again – no answer.  

He lets some time go by and calls her – she answers and they go out; it’s another fabulous night. Talia is so much fun - so desirable - so together. 

A few days go by and Scott is enamored with Talia. He puts up with her unavailability and cherishes the time they have. Feelings heat up and he’s hoping for more. He knows that Talia is into him. The sex is too good and the time together is too sweet. Yet, whenever he tries to reach Talia, she’s often not available or chooses to ignore him. She goes to parties with girlfriends or stays home with her dog. 

Scott is surprised at how needy he’s becoming. But he won’t give up.

Weeks become months, and Scott asks Talia to move in. She won’t do it, even though she’s got a small wardrobe at his place. 

Talia: I’m not ready.

Scott’s disappointed but accepts. Talia directs this relationship. She’s in control. And she likes it exciting, close but… no commitments. 

Talia: You’re trying to control me. 

Scott eventually takes a stand. The more he pushes the colder Talia gets.

Eventually, they break up.

Back Stories: 

If you dig into their back stories, both Max and Talia have attachment issues. They are not borderlines who create intensely powerful bonds and break them at the first whiff of disappointment. 

Max and Talia can get close, but they are terrified of being trapped. 

Talia was always a high energy kid. She was curious and adventurous almost from the start. She was the dream child for healthy parents. But, sadly, this was not the case. Her dad was a classic narcissist, who cared more for Talia’s athletic brother and his law practice than for his creative daughter. Narcissists often have trouble raising kids who are not like them. Talia’s mom had terrible self-esteem and was often overwhelmed trying to raise two kids without much help or love

Family was not a great place for Talia. Yet, she found lots of admiration outside the family; with teachers who recognized her talents, with girlfriends who loved to be around her energy, and with boys who couldn’t get enough of her. 

Max came from a depressed home. His dad was ineffective in the face of a volatile and anxious mother. For reasons beyond the scope of this piece, Max’s father was under control of his wife’s moods. 

You never knew what you were coming home to. 

So, Max adjusted. He learned to sense his mother’s mood each day – each moment. He became exquisitely attuned to what she needed, when she needed it. And this way, Max learned to survive. His two older siblings found themselves fighting for emotional survival. His father was lost – and Max maneuvered through, doing well in school and finding his way to a good livelihood. 

Attachment Issues Are Not Uncommon: 

Max and Talia are both great people with a foundational flaw in their personalities. Both enjoy relationships greatly – until it’s time to commit.

Max is the perfect boyfriend. He makes you feel safe and secure. His attachment fears go back to being dependent on a volatile mother. Unconsciously, he fears being trapped again. And when Courtney upped the ante and demanded commitment, Max panicked. All of a sudden, he was no longer the capable 36-year-old professional and in an instant, he became a frightened boy who was helpless in the face of a dangerous mother. 

Talia enjoys the energy of falling in love and playing the love game. It’s her strength. But deep inside her personality sits a little girl who can’t trust commitment. She saw a narcissistic father mistreat her mom. She felt excluded from his inner circle, no matter how wonderful she was. 

And in truth, she identifies with him, and has taken on some of his narcissistic characteristics in order to protect herself from rejection. Better be the “reject-er” than the “reject-ee". 

Not good for Scott.

Healing Attachment Wounds: 

  1. First, acknowledge you’ve got an attachment problem. It’s very easy to blame all your problems on your boyfriend or girlfriend. You can find a thousand flaws in anyone you date. But are you in a pattern of leaving – or getting into a relationship ending fight – just as you are nearing commitment? You simply can’t solve a problem that you don’t see.
  2. Blaming is for the birds. We get one chance in life. Talia with her narcissistic father and overwhelmed mother. Max with his castrated father and scary mother. What counts in life is what we do with the life we’ve been given. Both Max and Talia adapted well to their home environment. They have real strengths. But now that they’ve reached the developmental stage of commitment, what worked in the past will not work going forward. They have to accept what’s happened to them and do the work to move on.
  3. Individual therapy helps. There are many roads to attachment problems. Talia and Max are just two examples. Some kids are constitutionally anxious and have difficulty attaching, no matter how good a parent may be. Some kids are constitutionally stable, and have inconsistent or unavailable parenting that leaves them feeling unsafe. Most attachment issues fall somewhere in the middle.
  4. Couple’s counseling helps. Most of us really want love in our lives. And many of us push love away, like Max and Talia. After you’ve done good individual therapy and have healed some of your hurt, you need to make things work in a real relationship. You don’t want to settle for less than a healthy mutually satisfying relationship. Couple’s therapy can help you both see the hazards and work them through. Trust is built through experience. With help, Max and Talia can connect and build something special with another person. It just won’t come from free.
  5. Stay optimistic. We are blessed to be living. And yes, there are many obstacles along the way. But if you think of commitment as a developmental issue, it takes the pathology out of it and places your life in perspective. You passed many developmental milestones in the past — getting onto a school bus, graduating high school, leaving home, getting a job. This is just a tough one. 

And the effort is worth it.

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