Anatomy of a Commitment Issue

In last week’s post, I discussed with you the need everyone has to feel attached. In other words, we all want to feel like we matter to someone. This is a basic biological need that is present at birth and continues throughout life.

I also told you a little bit about some research studies which indicated that the early attachment styles of children proved to be indicative of how someone relates in their later relationships.

A Different Child

One type of child in the study I referred to in last week’s post did not seem to have a problem when Mama left. She didn’t cry upon Mama’s leave-taking, was able to play on her own, didn’t need soothing from the stranger, and didn’t pay attention when Mama returned.

When I teach about this study to my college class, the students will often incorrectly think that this scenario is the one where the child is securely attached. After all, the child seems to display independent behavior rather than needing Mama. But at the age of 12- 18 months, children are supposed to still need their caretaker. A securely- attached child will want closeness to Mama.

In fact, the label that is given to this type of child is insecurely-attached avoidant. Doesn’t sound too good, eh? Here’s what has happened: an infant is totally dependent on her parents/caregivers. And although no one can be perfect, when a parent is pretty much responsive and available to the child, she feels secure and safe. A secure attachment is formed.

But when a parent is not responsive, not caring, not available, a child will shut down. A child doesn’t have too many tools available to her. She can’t discuss her needs with her parents. But how often can she feel the pain of an unmet need? So, eventually, she shuts the need down — she becomes avoidant.

But here’s the catch … the need for attachment is still there! Remember it’s a basic biological need to feel like you matter.

Years Later

The way this all translates into an adult relationship is as someone having a commitment problem. The desire to be attached to someone is there. But as the relationship becomes too close, the fear takes over that there will be hurt (as was experienced in childhood). To avoid this, the person moves away. Once there is distance, the fear subsides and the yearning for the attachment is more present. The person comes back into the relationship.

And so this dance continues — back and forth, back and forth … making a commitment and then pulling back.

This, of course, is maddening to the partner who is ready to be involved. The trick is to help the person with the commitment problem see what is happening and realize that this concern is really from the past. Sometimes, it is enough to show concrete examples of how the present relationship has been loving and consistent. For others, there will be a need for some professional help.

By no means does this kind of issue mean doom and gloom. It is a challenge. But by realizing what is going on and offering a loving, understanding heart to the person who has been hurt, it will certainly help to heal.