|It's a Saturday afternoon and
a woman from Houston phones me. I met Carla
briefly on a singles retreat I led several months
ago. In one of my talks that weekend I spoke
briefly of the fear of commitment and noted that
many Christians today struggle with it. Her
interest was piqued. She hopes now to talk with
me more than briefly about her own fears, which
threaten to derail her engagement.
"I've dated this wonderful man for
more than two years and have longed to marry
him," she explains. "But since
accepting Allen's proposal two weeks ago, I've
barely slept and haven't been able to take in
much food. My whole system has shut down. I'm so
frightened I'm nearly paralyzed."
I ask for some detail about her
background. I find that Carla comes from a
caring, supportive family and has long been
active in strong evangelical churches. At
twenty-seven, she holds a challenging job
teaching third grade in a public school. After
chatting with her a few minutes, I'm convinced
she is a mature, compassionate Christian dealing
with more than self-centered issues.
At different points I press her
to tell me if she has any reservations about
marrying Allen. Her fears may be signaling
something critical--that underneath she doubts he
would be a good husband. But not once during our
two-hour conversation can she pinpoint a single
problem with Allen or their relationship.
Instead, she describes his many strong points and
does a good job convincing me he would be an
ideal partner for her.
Still, she is plagued with
fears that dumbfound her. I ask about her
experience with other major decisions--have they
been as painful to make as this one? She admits
they have all been traumatic. Choosing a college
and a major, leaving home, deciding where to
work, finding a place to live--these all have
been gut-wrenching steps. Making a binding
decision simply goes against her nature.
Finally, we get to the heart of
her problem. More than any specific doubt, it's
the fear of being penned in that holds her back.
To the extent that a major change is binding, she
feels as jumpy as a cornered animal. Since
marriage, more than any other step, means no
turning back, it brings out her worst fears of
In short, Carla fears
commitment itself. To say she is phobic about
commitment is not to state it too strongly. The
implications are tragic in her case for, without
relief from her panic, she'll break her
engagement to Allen.
Carla's predicament is not in
any way unusual, nor is her example extreme. I
counsel with many who, like her, are excessively
fearful of commitment. While their decision areas
vary greatly, their apprehensions are similar.
Often they feel torn between extremes--longing to
take a step forward yet dreading the thought of
being locked in.
Many break the mold of the
person we would expect to resist commitment. Far
from being lethargic or irresponsible, they are
bright, talented, energetic and spiritually
competent. Many are outgoing individuals, not at
all shy and generally confident. Yet they acutely
fear trusting their own judgment and being drawn
into any obligation that is binding. And like a
chronic disease or disability, their fear forces
a wedge between what they would like to do and
what they feel capable of accomplishing.
When We Fear What We Really
When we look honestly at what
we most want from life, we find that most of us
hold several ambitions in common.
We long for our life to
accomplish something significant. We want to know
that what we do has lasting benefit to others and
that our example is influencing others in
We earnestly desire to be loved
for who we are. We thirst for deep relationships.
We particularly crave the incomparable benefits
of long-term acquaintances.
And we want to grow. We
discover over time that our greatest joy comes
from being in a growth mode. We long to develop
our potential, to be creative, to experience the
stimulation of new adventures.
It might be added that we yearn
for security, which in its most wholesome sense
means having enough stability and comfort in life
to pursue these other goals.
These are worthy aspirations.
They are part of the life-instinct God has put
within us, central to having a healthy will to
live. Our fulfillment and our fruitfulness depend
heavily upon pursuing these goals and pursuing
Yet not one of them can be
realized without extreme patience, enduring
dedication and sacrifice--in short, commitment.
There's the rub: While we relish the benefits of
commitment, we dislike its requirements. It
always means giving up certain freedoms and
taking on new obligations.
Many factors at the end of the
twentieth century dampen our zeal for
commitment--especially for making those
commitments that are needed to realize our
fullest potential for Christ. The unspeakable
materialism of modern life easily lulls us into
complacency. The constant idealizing of
situations in human life by the media causes us
to despise the real-life opportunities we have.
The unprecedented freedom of choice we enjoy
works against us as well. Not only is it dizzying
to weigh the options in any decision. It is
frustrating to let go of the luxury of having all
these wonderful options before us. It is too easy
to become addicted to the freedom of not
So most of us, at this time in
history, feel hesitant to commit--even to good
opportunities for realizing our potential. But
some people, like Carla, face a much more serious
challenge. Beyond the normal hesitations we all
experience, they have an ingrained fear of
commitment. They dread being drawn into any
situation where they will feel locked in.
Their fear of losing freedom is so extreme
that they may even sabotage their own effort to
reach important goals. When resistance to
commitment is this strong, it is more than a
matter of simple laziness: it results from deep,
complex factors. Yet the problem is usually not
well understood by those who haven't experienced
It's often not well understood
even by those who do experience it!
Commitment-fearful people often imagine they are
more capable of forging commitments than they
are. They may even enter them confidently. Yet
soon second-thoughts strike with a vengeance.
They are consumed with regret over what they are
leaving behind and with fear over the new
obligations ahead. At this point they often stun
others and sometimes themselves by reneging on
the pledges they have made.
Of course, many who fear
commitment simply balk at making any commitments
at all. In either case, commitment-fearful people
too often fail to realize their potential and to
accomplish goals they dearly want to reach.
A Puzzling Predicament
While I've long realized that
some people fear commitment, only in recent years
have I recognized how serious the problem can be.
Counseling singles considering marriage, more
than any other factor, has helped me appreciate
just how severely some people fear commitment. In
the late 1980s I began offering a seminar on
choosing a marriage partner. Then I published Should
I Get Married? on the same subject. From this
new focus in my teaching came greater opportunity
to interact with Christians who are trying to
resolve the direction of a relationship.
The response to Should I Get
Married? was a real surprise. When I wrote
that book, I tacked on a short section at the
end--almost as an afterthought--on the fear of
commitment. Since its publication, most of my
contacts from readers have been in regard to that
one section: they want to talk with me about
their own struggles with commitment.
Most of the stories are
similar. They've been in a strong, long-term
relationship with someone they dearly want to
marry. But now it has reached the commitment
stage and they're panicked. They may be
experiencing physical distress. Some are obsessed
with imperfections in their partner which haven't
been issues before. Others, like Carla, cannot
give any clear reason at all for their fear.
Many confess to being puzzled
at their panic and uncertain how it fits with
their belief that God gives perfect peace to
those he leads into marriage. Some are afraid to
admit their anxieties to anyone, fearing they
will be judged unspiritual or out of God's will.
Brad, a twenty-nine-year-old
teacher in a Christian college, drove two hours
to speak with me. He explained that he had been
dating Kelly for nearly two years and often felt
convinced they should marry. Friends and family
agreed they were an ideal match. Every time Brad
and Kelly talked seriously about marriage, he
felt "on the mountaintop" for a day or
two. But then panic set in--a panic so intense
that he was disoriented for several days. "I
feel as though there is a giant bubble in my
chest, pressing against my heart, as though I'm
about to have a heart attack," he confessed.
Only by admitting to Kelly that he needed more
time did he find relief from these episodes.
Mitch, a thirty-year-old pastor
in a small midwestern city, phoned me just six
weeks before his wedding. He explained that he
was engaged to an extraordinary woman he had
known for many years, and he was certain she
would make an excellent wife. "But whenever
I even think about going through with marriage, I
experience a pain in my stomach so piercing I
can't eat," he complained. "I'm
consumed with anxiety about taking this
step." He wondered if God was warning him
through his fear not to go ahead. He added that
there was no one in his church or community with
whom he could unload. Folks in his town wouldn't
think it proper for a pastor to experience such
Susan, a thirty-four-year-old
computer specialist in Newport, Rhode Island, had
meticulously weighed her decision to marry Herb
over the course of a four-year relationship. She
knew he would be a supportive husband, strong
spiritual leader and excellent provider. And she
loved him deeply. She recognized, too, that her
prospects for finding another opportunity at her
age were not good. Besides, few men would be
willing to put up with her erratic mood swings.
Still, in several long conversations this bright,
seasoned Christian explained that Herb fell short
of her ideals in certain ways. Susan wondered if
she could find someone more suitable by waiting
longer. Each time she resolved these issues, they
resurfaced a week or two later. She spoke, too,
of being desperately afraid of going into
marriage. She phoned me just one week before her
wedding, so panic-stricken she was ready to call
I could fill this book with
similar stories. Of course, not everyone who
fears committing to marriage dreads it this
intensely. And fear sometimes indicates one has
legitimate concerns which need to be examined.
Still, in many cases the hesitation to marry
springs from an underlying anxiety about
commitment itself. Commitment fear clouds the
thinking of many who are considering
marriage--and prompts some to turn their back on
Don't Fence Me In
Christians fear commitment in
other areas too. Many who fear committing to
marriage tell me that they fear committing in
other decision areas as well. Their experiences
have deepened my awareness of the difficulties
Christians--married and single--face with
commitment at many points in life. While romantic
relationships provide some of the most dramatic
examples, "they yes anxiety" hinders
people in many other ways.
Marriage and family life.
Some people survive the dating and engagement
stage fine but then panic once married. Now they
feel claustrophobic, like someone trapped in an
elevator. This fallout may occur early in a
marriage, after the birth of a child or at some
later turning point or crisis.
Career. The fear of
being penned in also plagues many in their career
and professional life. Some find the prospect of
success itself unsettling. They may bounce from
job to job or settle for employment well beneath
their potential. Not a few sabotage their own
efforts at success, bailing out of a job
unnecessarily, or behaving in a manner that gets
Church and ministry
commitments. Christians often display strong
avoidance patterns in their commitment to church
and spiritual growth. They may long to grow
spiritually and to have a personal ministry. Yet
they find it hard to stick with any activity long
enough to reap the benefits. They join a Bible
study or agree to teach a Sunday-school class,
then quit a few weeks later when the experience
no longer seems fresh. They change churches
frequently or drop out altogether. In the campus
setting, students hop from Christian group to
group and balk at assuming responsibility.
Other areas. The
commitment-fearful person often has considerable
difficulty sticking with personal disciplines and
resolutions. Whether it's a devotional time, an
exercise routine, a dietary regimen, a moral
pledge, a promise about savings or a decision to
develop a talent, the priority gets quickly
Resolving any decision can be
painful for this kind of person. She vacillates
in choosing where to live, breaking promises to
several roommates along the way. She decides to
rent rather than buy, so she'll be less obligated
if she wants to move. The "buyer's
remorse" reaction is also common. He tries
on three dozen sports coats, finally finds one he
likes and buys it. The next day he returns it,
convinced he's made the mistake of his life.
In many other ways the
commitment-fearful person hedges at being
obligated. If you've tried to pin her down on
weekend or vacation plans, you know what I mean.
His ongoing concern can be stated simply: Keep
the options open.
Commitment fear holds many back
from doing what is in their best interest. Even
when they find the resolve to go ahead, they
still suffer much unnecessary distress. And
valuable time and energy is wasted, fretting over
second thoughts and coming to terms with mood
Steps Toward Healing
For some time I've been
troubled by the moralistic emphasis on commitment
in so much Christian preaching, teaching, writing
and sometimes even counseling. So often the
message is, "Recognize your obligation to
God. Stop evading responsibility. Commit
yourself, even if it hurts." Unfortunately
this message, which appeals more to guilt than
positive motivation, only aggravates the problem
for commitment-fearful Christians, who already
feel guilty enough for their failings. They are
well aware they need to make commitments, be
resolute and take greater initiative with their
life. They know all about the demands of
Christian duty. Yet fears and instincts too often
get the upper hand and hold them back.
If you chronically fear
commitment, you are not likely to reach the point
of committing confidently without going through a
significant personal transformation. For most,
this involves four critical steps.
1. You need to understand
clearly what frightens you about commitment and
why. You need your issues and concerns carefully
addressed. In the areas where commitment
frightens you, you need to learn to reshape your
outlook to more accurately reflect how God sees
the Christian life.
2. You need to learn how to
respond to mood swings and manage runaway
emotions. Chronic commitment fear is always as
much an instinctive reaction as it is a problem
of perspective. Commitment-fearful people often
suffer extreme emotional swings and vacillating
impressions about God's will. You need to
understand how to reduce your vulnerability to
mood shifts and to recognize God's will amid your
maze of feelings. You also need to learn how to
respond effectively to the emotion of fear
itself. Commitment fear often reaches the level
of a phobia, taking on a life of its own.
Understanding practical ways to break the panic
cycle can make a radical difference.
3. You need a fuller
understanding of the benefits of commitment and a
stronger desire for them. While most
commitment-fearful people recognize that
commitment is important, their understanding of how
it will benefit them is limited. They are more
conscious of what they will lose by committing
themselves than of what they will gain. Gaining a
greater appreciation for the benefits of
commitment will strengthen your motivation both
to confront your fear and to take steps of faith
in spite of it.
4. Finally, commitment-fearful
people need moral encouragement to take the steps
which frighten them. The time comes when it's
important to make commitments even though some
fears and doubts remain. You need help in knowing
how to recognize this point and encouragement to
move ahead. You need to be convinced you can
handle any experience of fear involved and come
through it unscathed. You need assurance that you
are capable of sticking with the commitments you
make. And you need stronger confidence that God
desires the best for you, is giving you the grace
to make wise choices and protecting you as you
My hope in this book is to give
as much help as possible along these lines to
commitment-fearful people. In the four sections
which follow, I want to look closely at each of
these areas of need and offer the best insight
and counsel that I can. I write this book with
two strong convictions about emotional healing.
One is that the healing of deep-seated conflicts
is always a process. It takes time, persistence
and dedicated effort. At the same time,
significant progress can be made at each stage of
this effort. Scripture shows consistently that
God is on our side as we confront our emotional
struggles. Once we open ourselves to his help, he
gives us success at many surprising points. From
the moment I decide to take determined steps
toward healing, I move from a position of defeat
to one of victory in dealing with my problem.
For this reason, my approach in
this book is consistently practical. With each
topic my purpose is not merely to analyze the
problem but to suggest changes in outlook and
practical steps you can take to move beyond your
inhibitions. This book is dedicated not merely to
examining the problem of commitment fear but to
helping readers find healing, a process which can
begin with the next chapter.
My primary concern is to help
Christians who suffer from chronic commitment
anxiety. Yet I also want to give encouragement to
those whose struggles are less serious. Perhaps
you are less than comfortable with commitment.
Certain inclinations make it hard for you to
settle decisions--a perfectionist mentality, for
instance, or a tendency toward strong mood
swings. Yet commitment doesn't frighten you to
the point of sweaty palms, palpitations and the
sensation of air bubbles pressing against your
heart. You are generally able to resolve your
choices and move on. Still you would like help in
becoming more resolute and confident about the
commitments you make.
Your situation is much in my
mind throughout this book. You should find plenty
of practical material that addresses your needs.
You may find, too, that some of the book's topics
relate more clearly to your needs than others.
Feel free to begin at any point in the book and
read just those portions which most obviously
help you. The book is designed so you can do
that. Different topics will be the primary areas
of struggle for different readers.
One further point about the
book's contents. Beyond the dread of being penned
in and losing freedom which troubles all who fear
commitment, there are three distinct concerns
which many commitment-anxious people experience:
the fear of making an imperfect decision,
the fear of success, and the fear of losing
ownership of their life. While some
commitment-fearful people experience all of these
anxieties, many experience only one or two. Any
of them is sufficient to trigger serious
commitment-fear reactions. I will examine each of
these concerns in detail.
While I've known many
Christians who have struggled with commitment
fear, it has been a joy to see many overcome
their inhibitions and find the courage to take
the steps which once seemed impossible for them.
Carla, for instance, is now happily married and
eternally grateful she didn't let her
apprehensions hold her back. Examples like hers
inspire me to write and convince me that anyone
who makes the effort can experience significant
healing and substantial victory over commitment
fear. It's with that hope that I offer these
reflections. May God apply the truth where needed
in your own life, and may your commitment to read
this book be rewarded in many ways.
Excerpt taken from The
Yes Anxiety: Taming the Fear of Commitment in Relationships,
Career, Spiritual Life and Daily Decisions by M. Blaine Smith. Copyright
2011 by M. Blaine Smith (Damascus, Md.: SilverCrest Books