Commitment Phobic, Or Is Single Life a Better Life for You?

When “wrong” choices suggest something very right about how you want to live

Posted Nov 03, 2019

In my decades of studying single people, a question comes up with some regularity: “Do you think I’m commitment-phobic?” I’m a research psychologist, not a therapist, so I cannot offer advice to particular people. And I’m interested in people who want to embrace their single lives, not escape them, so I am rarely interested in stories about dating.

And yet, the stories I end up hearing anyway can be intriguing. The people who wonder if they—or their partner—are commitment-phobic describe all sorts of preferences that seem to suggest the same thing: They don’t really want to be with a romantic partner. They sometimes prefer a romantic partner who lives thousands of miles away. Or who has a job or other obligations that keep them away for long stretches of time. If they do live in the same town with a partner who could easily be around all the time, they don’t want to live with that partner. They prefer staying in their own place, in the arrangement known as “living apart together.”

Then there are the single people who fall for the married people who insist they are going to leave their spouse, they just have to find the right time. In the relevant version of this, the single person is attracted to the married person because they kind of know that their lover isn’t ever going to leave the spouse.

Some of the people I hear from have committed to a romantic partner. Maybe they’ve even moved in together. Some are married. The most intriguing subgroup are those who adore their partners. They love them. They have no complaints. They would not, in a million years, want to hurt them. But they no longer want to be with them. They just want to be single and on their own.

Do You Have Commitment Issues or Are You Single at Heart?

Maybe some people really are “commitment-phobic” or whatever the relevant clinical term might be. If they exist, I think they are the people who really do want to be coupled but can’t seem to do what it takes. They are chronically attracted to unavailable partners. When they do get the romantic relationship they so desired, and maybe even get married, they want to run away. Maybe people like this really do have issues and could benefit from seeing a mental health professional.

But there is another group of people who are attracted to unavailable partners. They are not commitment-phobic. In fact, they don’t have any “issues.” Instead, they are in the process of becoming aware of who they really are. They are the people I call “single at heart.” For them, single life is their best life. Living single is not just better than being in a bad relationship; it is not a default status or a Plan B. Living single is how they live their best, most fulfilling, most authentic, and most meaningful life.

For them, going for the unavailable partner is a way station along the road to realizing that they don’t want a long-term romantic partner at all. When they get into a romantic relationship and it ends, they often feel relieved rather than devastated. If they have somehow ended up in a committed romantic relationship, they are going to want a lot of space. If they don’t have a place of their own, they are probably craving one.

Why Bother Dating If What You Really Want Is to Stay Single?

But if a committed long-term romantic relationship is not what they really want, then why do they even go through the motions of dating? Some simply enjoy dating, even though they don’t want to give up their single life or their own space. More importantly, it can be hard to realize that coupled life is not the life for you. Matrimania is rampant. Popular culture, everyday conversations, and even scholarly writings are drenched with the assumption that everyone wants to find The One and commit to that one.

I have been inviting people who think they are single at heart to answer lots of questions, in their own words, about their life and how they realized they were single at heart. (You can find the questionnaire here if you want to share your stories.) Some have told me that for the longest time, it just never occurred to them that it was fine not to want to be coupled. Some worried that something was wrong with them because they were so drawn to single life. It was a new concept to them that if they are thriving as a single person, then there is nothing wrong with them at all. Single life may well be the best life for them, and it is pointless and even counterproductive to go through the motions of searching for The One. It is a waste of their time and emotional energy, and potentially hurtful to the partners they will most likely end up leaving.

When Single Life Is Recognized as a Good Life, That’s Not Just Good for People Who Want to Be Single

My point is the same one I have been making since I wrote Singled Out. Being single needs to be recognized as a valid, valuable, respectable, meaningful, and fulfilling way to live. Having single life as a genuine option is, of course, good for people who want to be single. But it is also good for those who want to be coupled, because then they can pursue marriage or romantic coupling from a position of strength, as something they are drawn to, rather than as somewhere they end up because they are afraid of being single.