“The most painful thing is losing yourself in the process of loving someone too much and forgetting that you are special too.” ~Ernest Hemingway
At Eagle Point Elementary, where I went for third grade, there was one very cute boy. Jason was the object of affection for seemingly every third-grade girl. He would make a list each day of the five girls he thought were the cutest. The list changed every day. Whoever took the top spot for the day was the girl Jason decided he was “going with.” (Was “going with” a thing in everyone’s elementary school or just in suburban Minnesota? What did that even mean?)
I still remember the elation when I edged out my friend Caroline for the top spot. It was short-lived. Caroline was tough to beat. My dad got wind of this top five system and sat me down to say, “Never wait to be in somebody’s top spot. If you have to convince someone of how great you are, they shouldn’t be in your top spot.” I opted out of the competition the next day.
Adults are subtler than Jason was, but my father’s “top spot” lesson was a valuable one.
In my twenties, I dated a guy who ran cold and hot with me, leaving me insecure and obsessing over the relationship. Heeding my dad’s warning, I ended things abruptly.
It was initially very painful, and I questioned if I had pulled the plug too quickly. But within a few months, I realized there was no happy future with this person—he either didn’t care enough about me or was incapable of a secure intimate relationship. Either way, I had dodged a bullet.
Here is a scenario I see play out often in my psychotherapy practice: You meet someone and fall in love. After about a year of dating, you’re eager to marry and have children. Your partner is happy in the relationship, but not ready to move forward.
Initially, you’re patient and sympathetic. But by the end of year two, you’re frustrated about putting your life on hold while your partner is “figuring things out.”
Frequently, when you seem to have reached the end of your rope and appear ready to walk away, your partner begs for more time.
By year four, you’re vacillating between rage and panic, but you feel like this has to work out because you can’t bear the thought of starting over with someone new.
During year five, your partner announces they might never want to get married or have kids. In fact, they’d like to start seeing other people.
If you’ve ever found yourself in love with a commitment-avoidant person, you know it can be hard to tell when to be patient and when to pull the plug. Do you walk away from someone you love just because you have different timelines? How much time do you give your partner to decide whether they are in or out? In other words, should you stay or should you go?
Does any of this sound familiar?
“He won’t commit because he’s still getting over his first marriage, but if I can hang in, he’s going to see how good I am for him.”
“She had a traumatic childhood and doesn’t trust men, so it’s tough for her to be faithful. But she’s working on it.”
“We’ve been together for five years, but he’s still not sure. He says he’ll know when he knows.”
If so, let’s look at how you got here, why you stay, and what you can do next.
Your parents give you your first example of how to give and receive love. Unfortunately, sometimes they’re not the best role models, especially when it comes to relationships.
Did one parent prioritize work above everything and never make time for you? Or did you feel valued as long as you followed the rules and were easy-going, but shunned when you were struggling or needed extra attention?
This treatment teaches you that the people you love aren’t reliable, that you’re ‘too much’ for people to love consistently, or that you aren’t valued as much as their work, their hobbies, or the other people in their lives.
But what if you had terrific, consistent, loving parents? Maybe you even really admire their relationship and dream of having a similar one yourself. Then what?
Look at your early romantic relationships. These can provide a prototype, for better or worse, for your future connections.
Say, for example, that your high school boyfriend told you he loved you but blew you off to hang out with his friends at every opportunity. Or your first girlfriend cheated on you repeatedly. Our brains can lock into the idea that this is how love is supposed to feel.
A different but equally tricky scenario is that you had no early romantic life to speak of. You feel like you’ve never been chosen as the special one. In this case, you might feel like you’re lucky to get any attention at all, and that you’d better not be too demanding.
If this sounds like you, you may have an “anxious attachment” style. Someone healthily attached may strongly prefer to be in a relationship and may feel they are at their best when coupled up, but would rather be alone than stay in a relationship where their needs are not met.
If you are anxiously attached, any relationship, no matter how unsatisfying, is better than being alone.
In his 2012 book Attached, psychiatrist and neuroscientist Amir Levine writes, “Basically, secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving; anxious people crave intimacy, are often preoccupied with their relationships, and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back; avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and constantly try to minimize closeness.”
I wish I could tell you that if you do everything right and handle yourself correctly, the scales will drop from your lover’s eyes, and you’ll be in the top spot. But that’s probably what you’re already doing, and it’s not working. There’s no magic formula for getting someone off the fence, but here are some ideas to keep in mind:
1. Don’t bet your future on someone else’s potential.
People do grow and change throughout a relationship. However, after the first year or so, a desire to share one’s life, the depth of one’s feelings, and enthusiasm about committing to you probably won’t grow exponentially.
Is what you are getting now enough for you?
In her bestselling book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, a writer who has extensively chronicled her own relationships, writes “I have fallen in love more times than I care to count with the highest potential of a man, rather than with the man himself, and I have hung on to the relationship for a long time (sometimes far too long) waiting for the man to ascend to his own greatness. Many times in romance I have been a victim of my own optimism.”
Be realistic. Is the person in front of you who you really want? Or are you waiting for them to conform to your fantasy of who they could be?
2. Sometimes you have to make clear what you can or cannot accept.
Ultimatums have gotten a reputation of being akin to bullying, manipulating, or otherwise strong-arming someone into bending to your will.
Ambivalent partners often feel victimized when faced with an ultimatum. They don’t want to want to be pressured to change the status quo and to risk either stepping up or losing the relationship. But often that’s precisely what needs to happen.
Everyone should have a bottom line regarding what they want from a partner in a relationship. If you communicate your wants and your partner ignores them or can’t meet them, you should leave. Honoring what’s non-negotiable for you is the cornerstone of healthy self-esteem.
A long-married couple I know likes to tell a story about the first night they were married. As they settled into bed that night, the man confided, as he had many times before, that he was having doubts; maybe they’d married too quickly.
This time, his new wife looked him dead in the eye and said, “Why don’t you get out right now and you come back once you’ve figured it out.”
It wasn’t the first time he had expressed ambivalence about the relationship, but it was the last. “That night straightened me out,” says the man, laughing.
3. Is there any hope at all?
Sometimes the person having trouble committing recognizes that they have a problem and wants to work toward change. They might feel that the issue is their anxiety, trauma, or relationship history.
If they are genuinely working to figure it out, that might be a reason to hang on to a relationship somewhat longer. But there should be a time limit on how long you’re willing to orient your life around someone while your own needs are not being met. Talking this through with a trusted third party, like a therapist, can be very helpful in this scenario.
Commitment Isn’t the Finish Line—It’s the Starting Gate
Do you want to stake your future on someone who you have to convince to be with you? It’s important to note that a healthily attached person can become anxiously attached if they spend too long with an avoidant partner. The worst-case scenario isn’t a break-up; it’s spending years of your life with someone incapable of being ‘all in’ a relationship.
Say your partner doesn’t want to lose you but isn’t interested in changing the underlying dynamics of the relationship, either. Then you’ll find yourself tethered to someone incapable of real intimacy, who sulks in the face any expectations, and who is incapable of prioritizing you and your happiness. You will (sort of) have the commitment, but no closeness or trust. This is the worst outcome.
How is your story going to end? The answer depends on your tolerance for speaking up for yourself, and your willingness to risk being on your own. Don’t let your partner leach away your time, self-esteem, and happiness. Our lives are determined by the quality of our relationships. Hold out for the partner who unequivocally puts you at the top of their list.