I’m afraid you will leave me, so I do everything I can to love you at a distance

Your most recent relationship just ended. While you’re upset, you’re not very surprised. Honestly, you could tell from the beginning that it was going to fail. Does this sound familiar? Do you believe that attachments lead to expectations and expectations lead to disappointment? When you start to feel too close in a relationship, do you pull back?

It is likely you’ve experienced similar thoughts to these, or you’ve been in a relationship with somebody who has. These attachment issues go by several names, such as “relationship anxiety” or “commitment phobia.” This struggle often stems from previous poor romantic relationships or negative relationships observed at a young age. However, there are endless other causes that can result in fearing commitment. Stereotypically, people tend to think of men as dominating in commitment issues, but anybody can develop these.

When you have relationship anxiety, you try to keep your partner at a distance. You believe that if you keep yourself from getting too close, it’ll hurt less when the relationship inevitably ends. Unfortunately, that anxiety can be the cause of a failed relationship that may have otherwise survived. A recent study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships[1] sought to understand how attachment security (or lack thereof) affected relationships. Researcher Ashley Cooper and her colleagues discovered that people with relationship fears were more likely to have erratic feelings about their partnerships. Additionally, when women exhibited relationship anxiety, it triggered the men in their relationships to experience similar feelings.

The study found that when one person in a relationship had commitment phobia, both partners began to feel anxious and distrustful, and there were low levels of relationship satisfaction. Researchers determined, “Our findings highlight the importance of being aware of attachment insecurities for both partners, how they manifest, and the different ways in which they impact relationship quality.” You shouldn’t be ashamed of having relationship anxiety, but it’s important to be aware of how it can affect relationships.

According to the study “Rejection Sensitivity and Relationship Satisfaction in Dating Relationships: The Mediating Role of Differentiation of Self”[2], commitment anxiety can cause several problems in relationships. For example, someone fearing rejection might become emotionally distant with their partner, which “might result in fewer opportunities for engaging in shared activities or other intimate acts, further leading the individual to find his or her relationship unsatisfactory.” This emotional distance might also cause the individual to “engage in self-silencing behaviors, whereby they purposely withhold expressing their needs or desires in order to preserve their relationship.” Meanwhile, the person interprets their partner’s ambiguous actions to be negative towards them.

Put more simply, fearing rejection can cause it. Imagine you are in a new relationship and it’s going well. Suddenly, your partner becomes more distant, without any explanation. You can tell that they need something from you, but they aren’t telling you what. As you try to help, they interpret your concern as criticism. Communication is key here. It’s important that both partners in a relationship feel they can be open with each other. When we fear something, our body’s natural response is to shut down, but this is the very time we need to open up. Don’t try to love from a distance. If you’re feeling anxious in a relationship, let your partner know. You can better fight it as a team.

By Carlos Todd, PhD



[1] Ashley N. Cooper et al. Volatility in daily relationship quality, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (2017).

[2] Norona, J. C., & Welsh, D. P. (2016). Rejection sensitivity and relationship satisfaction in dating relationships: The mediating role of differentiation of self. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice

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