In last week's blog post I introduced the notion that  so-called 'commitment anxiety' can actually be a fear of intimacy masquerading as being picky, and that this fear of intimacy stems from the roles we played growing up in our family of origin. I referred frequently to the newly released book, Learning to Commit: The Best Time to Work on Your Marriage is When You're Single, by my friend and former colleague, Avrum Nadigel.

To briefly recap, many of our intimacy issues can be explained by the concept of 'differentiation,' a fundamental tenet of Bowen's Family Systems Therapy. Differentiation refers to how evolved our sense of self is; essentially, how successfully we have been able to develop our own wants, needs, interests, and emotional life separate from the ones with which we grew up.  While experiencing some anxiety as we build intimate relationships in adulthood is normal, those of us with lower levels of differentiation are guided by an 'invisible hand' when searching for a mate, as though an underlying family narrative stealthily leads your dating process. What looks on the surface like "It always starts off so well, but then things fall apart," may be an indication that your sense of self is still lodged within the crucible of your original family (for a more complete version of how this plays out, take a few minutes to read last week's post).

Avrum's book is peppered with honest and entertaining anecdotes about his own tribulations as a low-differentiation dater, and his personal trajectory from despondent commitment-phobe to embracing the 'full catastrophe' of marriage and parenthood. It's clear that his inspiration for this book was spawned both by the patterns he noticed in his clients and his own personal experiences learning to commit. Avrum humorously (and, I should say, bravely) takes us through his own process, which is marked by longing for closeness and intimacy, but reflexively becoming repelled by prospective partners when they showed the earliest signs of needing him. He astutely calls himself out on the source of this pattern, which in turn will lead any thoughtful reader to scratch the surface on their own romantic history and relationship dynamics.

I know better, but I can't resist pestering Avrum:

"Sometimes, isn't it true that you just haven't met the right person? When is it "low differentiation," and when is it just plain bad luck?" 

I see Avrum patiently purse his lips on the grainy resolution Skype window.

He agrees readily that sure: sometimes it's just not a good fit. True to his dogged nature, though, Avrum stays his family systems oriented course. The litmus test, he suggests, is performed by stepping back and taking a look at one's overall pattern of dating and intimacy, rather than just the person they happen to be considering at the moment. If you have a history of dismissing people before there is really an opportunity to allow the intimacy to grow, this could well be an issue of commitment anxiety, rather than goodness of fit.

As Avrum is explaining this to me, it dawns on me why the whole scope of his book is directed towards people who are between relationships. Being single provides us with a golden opportunity to "strike while the iron's cold." In other words, when we're in a relationship or dating, we get so caught up in the excitement and anxiety of that person and the ensuing dynamics that it can be hard to possess the neutrality and objectivity to step back and see our patterns clearly. Because we're not under the gun to make something work out, it allows us to take a slower, more big picture approach to overcoming the hang-ups that stand in our way of experiencing a long term relationship that is both deeply intimate while still preserving our autonomy and sense of self. 

And if you want a little teaser, here are some of the ways we go about investigating our patterns, differentiating ourselves, and, ultimately, getting out of our own way:

  • Avrum suggests drawing a timeline of all your intimate relationships: when they started, how long they lasted, and why they ended.
  • To be Shakespearean for a moment, it is crucial to know thyself, and to thine own self be true. In other words: take careful stock of your values, what you want out of life, and what characteristics are important to you in a partner. This helps you be more nuanced and clear headed when going through the (already potentially awkward) process of dating and building intimacy
  • Talk to your parents or even your grandparents about their own struggles  - with intimacy, with their marriages, and with their parents. This allows you to take a more macro and systemic view of your own personal struggles.
  • Be honest with yourself about when your commitment anxiety is being triggered. Develop enough insight to be able to tell the difference between your stuff and your date or partner's stuff

As a therapist specialising in relationships (isn't all therapy about relationships, really?), I love to see my clients being able to ride out anxiety provoking situations, particularly with regards to intimacy and connection. Becoming truly close to another person inevitably requires taking HUGE emotional risks, and when we are aware of our hang-ups (not a clinical term), we are so much more likely to catch ourselves in the act of ducking for cover. Once we identify our fear-based patterns, we can't "un-know" them: it then behooves us to guide ourselves (hopefully patiently, kindly) through the sometimes uncomfortable process of being in relationship.