Are You Afraid Of Commitment?

Being successfully single is one thing; fear of intimacy in relationships is quite another. Here, our experts discuss the characteristics of counter-dependency.

By Julie H. Case

t may sound unusual, but it’s true: I’m afraid of commitment. Just the idea of being part of a committed relationship and all its “trappings” (i.e., moving out to the suburbs, getting married, and becoming dependent on another person in my day-to-day life) — makes me shudder. The possibility of being consumed by my passion for someone else? Absolutely terrifying.

Unfortunately, my commitment phobia is now affecting
There are some people who cling and want a closeness.
my relationship with an incredibly wonderful man.

Why is it that making a lifelong commitment, something Hollywood and the media have ingrained into women to be the ultimate goal of relationships, feels so frightening for some of us? Why does building a strong and impenetrable wall around our hearts feel so much safer than appearing vulnerable or needy to the opposite sex? It may be counter-dependency.

Most people are familiar with codependent couples’ clinginess and revolving caretaker roles in relationships, thanks to talk shows, self-help books and the like. Counter-dependents, however, radiate aloofness and are driven to project an image that makes them seem wholly self-sustained. While most of us have probably never even heard of counter-dependency, in reality, it affects a large swath of society, according to Dr. Janae B. Weinhold, counselor and co-author of Counter-Dependency: the Flight from Intimacy and her co-author and psychologist husband, Dr. Barry K. Weinhold.

“There are some people who cling and want a closeness, and then there are other people who push away, who avoid, who are just not comfortable with intimacy,” says Janae.

There is, of course, a difference between being happily single and counter-dependent. It’s a common assumption that all single people would be happier in a coupled state, but in modern society, that simply isn’t true. You can be happily single even when you’re not actively dating.

So, how do you know whether you are counter-dependent or simply someone who is leading your life in a way that works for you? According to Dr. Linda Young, counseling psychologist, if you actively choose to avoid developing romantic relationships and have a list of reasons why it’s never going to work out for you, or find that in relationships your partner always wants more than you’re willing to give, that may be a sign of counter-dependency.

The Weinholds lay out some distinctive counter-dependent traits in their book, such as having trouble getting close to people and difficulty sustaining intimacy in romantic relationships. Other characteristics include:
  • Having limited ability to feel emotions in regards to romantic relationships (such as justified anger or sadness)
  • Having a tendency to say no to new ideas from your partner
  • Feeling anxiety while forming close relationships
  • A need for perfection
  • Being afraid of letting others control you
  • Being consumed by the needs of your partner
  • Refusing to ask for help
  • Becoming easily bored
  • Needing to constantly seek out new thrills
  • Having a tendency to work long hours during the week and on weekends
“In our culture, counter-dependency is actually rewarded,” says Janae. “If you’re a person who has so much trouble with intimacy you’re willing to work 60 or 70 hours a week and are willing to be on the road traveling, it’s like ‘oh, that’s a good employee.’ It’s a socially accepted thing to be successful and that’s part of the trademark of the counter-dependent person. They are more successful ‘out in the world’ but not so successful at intimacy.”

Another hallmark of the counter-dependent, says Young, is an overwhelming desire to control your own destiny: “If you’re a person who pulls yourself up by your bootstraps, who wants to be in as much control over your destiny as possible, you may also be a counter-dependent.”

Sure, but don’t most of us? Yes, say the Weinholds. It’s the old way of
The natural learning style of human beings is to repeat something over and over.
thinking that says we have to lose ourselves in a relationship because true love conquers all. “People often have black-and-white thinking in holding the belief that only one person in the relationship can have his or her needs met,” says Janae. “There is a real need for people to realize that both people can get needs met in a relationship.”

According to the Weinholds, both counter-dependency and codependency are developmental, not medical issues, stemming from the earliest childhood experiences. Perhaps there was some trauma in the family at the age we were supposed to be bonding with our parents, or developing our own independent selves. Whatever growth we didn’t manage to finish in our childhood, we’re obligated to continue to try to play out as adults.

“The natural learning style of human beings is to repeat something over and over until they get it right,” says Barry. “If there’s something that didn’t get completed in your childhood, it’s going to get repeated in adulthood. That’s not bad, it’s just the intent we have as human beings to learn and to grow.”

While many codependents suffered neglect as a child, many counter-dependents suffered abuse. And many people flip back and forth between co- and counter-dependency. Someone might want intimacy — to the point of acting co-dependent — and heavily pursue a partner, but the moment they get that intimacy they turn into being counter-dependent and run the other way, says Janae.

Understanding that dance between counter-dependent and codependent is a big part of getting beyond it, she says, and for many it’s recognizing that moment when they flip that the light bulb turns on.

The good news is that counter-dependency doesn’t have to be a sentence to a life of singlehood.

“I am so counter-dependent, I am always like the elusive guy in a relationship, but I’m a woman,” says Christina Gombar. “I was the ultimate ‘heart of stone’ girl. I wasn’t promiscuous but I was always the remote, cold fish emotionally, with guys sending up their hearts on platters to me. I never understood it. But I think because I was a little tough, I attracted the opposite, emotionally needy guys.” It took a very persistent and communicative man to break down what Gombar’s self-preserving distancing strategies. “I’m ‘recovered’ but only because of my husband,” Gombar says.

Relationships, scary as they may seem to some of us, actually might be the way to healing for counter-dependents. Often, we attract partners who bring with them the things we need — such as the ability to sustain intimacy — to heal.

“It all boils down to ‘can I be me in this relationship, as well as be in partnership with myself,’” says Barry. “Finding a partner that is supportive of you as an individual can be really rewarding.”

Julie H. Case is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Sunset, Alaska Airlines Magazine and Wired.
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