How Can I Help My Girlfriend With Her Fear of Commitment?

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Reader’s Question

I’m trying to help my girlfriend of 4 months overcome a fear of commitment. She has had this with the other two relationships she has had. As soon as she has noticed it getting serious, she has either cheated or pushed the person away, but the persistence in the other relationships has pushed her to overcome this. She is a 30-year old Iranian girl and has had intimacy issues since she was young with her parents. She has assured me she hasn’t cheated on me. But some days she will tell me she doesn’t want a relationship, and other days she tells me I am ‘the one’ and has a look of pure love. We have both invested a lot of emotion in this so far, so I ideally don’t want to lose this. I don’t believe she does either. I have tried to take a step back and have spoken to her as a friend to help with this issue. It worked for a few days, however then comes a hormonal day where she is back to her destructive self. When we spoke of this, she said this behavior of pushing, cheating, etc., is like a defense mechanism against relationships.

I have tried:

  • talking her through her emotional past,
  • asking her questions to lead her to question the correlation of her parents and destructive relationship past, and
  • leading her to question the idea that different relationships are different and not all have the same result.

When we are together she acts as if the only thing that matters to her is me. But we only see each other once a week, as her family is very important to her and her job and success in it is very important. She works as a civil engineer and cops a lot of slack from contractors and colleagues due to being in a male driven place of work as well as her age. As a bit of background info, we are very similar logically and socially. We spent hours on the phone. Before we met we were both on a path of just dating many people as a social experiment (she was trying to achieve a goal of 40 dates but mine was 13). Her background and culture are very strong, as she has been here for four years. Sex doesn’t have to be an emotional thing for her; it can be purely just a release, and she doesn’t see an issue with this.

I have tried everything I can think of and read up about psychology online to see how I can help. Would you have any idea of how I can help further if not for this relationship, to help as a friend to any future relationship, as I feel she is on a destructive path?

Psychologist’s Reply

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It is clear from your post that you have done quite a bit of thinking about your partner, her choices, her life, and her fear of commitment, as you see it. You must really care for her and want this relationship to work. I am not sure what you meant by destructive, but if you consider her or yourself to be in any danger physically, I hope you will consult with a professional that you can speak with in person. My online answers are purely informational and are not meant to provide advice, especially if safety is a concern.

I noticed in your post that I did not hear much about who you are, with the exception of how you are similar to her. My opinion is that most relationship problems are best described in terms of two people, rather than one. I found myself wondering about you, your needs, and how this relationship (or the lack of commitment) is affecting you. You are in the difficult position of wanting more from someone than what she is giving. It sounds to me like your girlfriend has some ambivalence about the relationship, given your description of switching from saying you are “the one” to saying she does not want a relationship. Ambivalence in a partner is so difficult, because it can be tempting to want to persuade, cajole, or convince someone to commit. Or in your case, it sounds as if you want to fix your girlfriend’s problems, as you perceive them, in order to have her commit to you.

In some cases, a “fear of commitment” is a fear of choosing one person at the risk of missing out on out other potential options or partners. In other cases, the fear of commitment is related to a fear of intimacy, which could be described as a fear of knowing someone and/or being known deeply. Finally, sometimes people use a fear of commitment to avoid discussing actual dissatisfaction or problems within a particular relationship.

When someone truly fears commitment or intimacy, he or she usually has to arrive at a place of understanding and coping with these fears through exploration and healing. I do not know if your girlfriend is in a place in her life where she wants to or is ready to do that. In any case, it is not something that one person can do for another.

You mentioned that you would like to help her as a friend, regardless of the outcome of this relationship. I believe (maybe because I am a therapist!), that one of the greatest gifts we can give someone is our deepest, most compassionate listening and understanding. If your girlfriend wants to talk about her culture, her experiences, her family, or her fears around relationships, you could potentially be helpful by offering to listen without judgment (or with as little as possible).

The thing is, it is a rare person who can listen non-judgmentally when his or her own relationship is at stake! It would make sense to me if you were to feel unable to simultaneously be both a helpful friend and a committed boyfriend who strongly desires an exclusive, close relationship with this woman.

So with that in mind, in some ways it seems as if you can either be her boyfriend, or you can be her helper/friend, but probably not both. If you are her boyfriend, you might find that it energizes the relationship if you focus on what you are bringing to the relationship and how you are feeling about all of this. If you want to be a helper/friend, my suggestion would be to express this intention and ask her what she would find most helpful.

In either case, my hope for you is that you will find yourself soon in a relationship with a woman who is as sure about you as you are about her.

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