With Valentine’s Day approaching, many of my therapy clients are focusing on romance, relationships and finding love.
Many single adults initiate therapy when a break up or romantic disappointment forces them to wonder why their relationships don’t work out.
It is common to develop the idea that bad relationship karma is to blame, like the graduate student I am working with who describes:
“It feels like a curse – I want to be in love and have a relationship more than anything, but no matter how hard I try to make it happen, I’m destined to be with Mr. Wrong.”
A public relations executive in her late twenties laments:
“Every time I start dating someone new, I am filled with energy and optimism that he’s the one. But I’m disappointed each and every time. There’s no shortage of guys to date, but each promising beginning leads to a horrible ending, and I get hurt each and every time.”
A recently divorced single dad echoes similar dating woes:
“I should have known my marriage was doomed – she was unfaithful during our engagement and then again soon after the honeymoon. But I kept hoping things would change.”
Timing and chance certainly play a role in relationships, but individual choice is a far more relevant factor with respect to the likelihood of finding love.
Why, then, do so many people struggle with a pattern of falling for unsuitable partners?
Fear of being alone and fear of commitment are the most common underlying causes discovered in my practice. While they may sound paradoxical, they are thematically related and sometimes work in tandum.
FEAR OF BEING ALONE:
For some, the search for love becomes consuming and rises to the top of the priority list. Unfortunately, this is rarely a recipe for cultivating a fulfilling relationship.
If the desire for a romantic partner feels driven by a sense of urgency, an underlying fear of being alone is often fueling the flames of desire.
And those who are not able to feel fulfilled and content on their own are likely to select their partners from a place of desperation rather than a place of strength.
Desperate choices are often substandard ones.
For people caught in this pattern of fearing aloneness, it is quite common to interpret a speedy progression towards sex and spending lots of time together as a sign that the relationship is a good one.
It is equally common to look back after the break up and fondly remember enjoying the early stages of the relationship. This generates confusion about what went wrong.
Often, this initial pleasure was more about capturing momentary relief from an underlying fear of loneliness than a genuine sense of well being inspired by getting to know someone new.
A super speedy progression was often similarly driven by a desire to avoid being alone.
FEAR OF COMMITMENT:
Another reason for frequent disappointment with a choice of romantic partners is a conscious or unconscious fear of commitment.
Fear of commitment is often more psychologically complicated than a conscious decision to take a healthy relationship to the next level.
Instead, fear of commitment can also be expressed through a pattern of choosing unsuitable or otherwise unavailable partners.
If you ask a person lodged in this pattern if they ever meet suitable partners, they will typically mention close friends or colleagues with several positive qualities.
Or they will admit that a super smart classmate is interested in being more than just friends. But they will insist that these feelings are not mutual.
Often they have trouble explaining why. Yeas ago, a brilliant surgeon I worked with explained fear of commitment with such candor I can still hear her startling description:
“When I date a nice guy, I literally feel the walls closing in on me. I can barely breathe.”
The great news is that fear of being alone AND fear of commitment are both patterns that can change.
With either scenario, the important first step is acknowledging your role in choosing substandard relationships.
A willingness to admit that spending time on our own is problematic is major first step toward teaching yourself to enjoy your own company.
Becoming more confortable with aloneness often involves learning to take better care of yourself.
Make time for the activities you enjoy. Take yourself to the movies, or out to dinner. Practice ways to spend a Saturday evening at home and feel positive about the experience.
Once being alone feels less daunting, you are likely to choose the people you date from a position of strength and can expect to make healthier, more satisfying relationship choices.
Similarly, once you acknowledge the possibility of an underlying fear of commitment, you are in a strong position practice giving suitable partners a chance.
Pretend you are an athlete training for your first marathon. Start slow, and approach each date as practice strengthening and developing a new skill.
Learning to date and feel more at ease with romantic partners who are available and kind takes time, self-awareness, and practice but it is entirely doable.
Individuals who are willing to admit that to fearing being alone or fearing commitment often experience a sense of relief.
It feels empowering to discover that a string of unsatisfying relationships is not random, and that there are ways to change.
Often, working with a trained therapist can be instrumental in developing the ability being alone or working through underlying fear of commitment.
Valentines Day without a date is rough, but the holiday can be a meaningful one if you use it as a catalyst to work on yourself, enjoy your own company, and celebrate the human potential for growth and change.
About The Author: Elisabeth LaMotte
Through founding and working with the DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center, I have the privilege of working with individuals and couples to strengthen their relationships, increase intimacy, and build happier, more meaningful lives.