The Issue with Commitment


How many times have you heard someone say they were “afraid of commitment?” This phrase is so common because it is a normal part of the human experience. Often, it arises out of relationship issues and might explain why a couple broke up. In addition to relationship patterns, processing commitment is important for themes of recovery from addiction, workplace satisfaction and areas of wellness.

The opposite of commitment is ambivalence. When we talk about ambivalence in addiction terms, it means someone being internally conflicted around substance use. The person simultaneously loves and hates alcohol (this is also why we use Dialectical Behavioral Therapy approaches to help work through ambivalence).

What is the real issue with commitment? Understanding grief and loss will explain the problem. If someone commits to anything, they are actually forced to grieve an alternative.

  • Commitment to sobriety means you are grieving alcohol
  • If you commit to a marriage, you are grieving alternative life partners or freedom
  • Committing to a career path, you are letting go of other paths you might have enjoyed

An economist would describe this problem as one of opportunity cost. This concept describes how spending money or resources on one area prevents the spending on another, overall because of limited resources. The person has to choose the best way to spend, and this choice comes with the implied cost of abandoning the alternative.

The Emotional Pain of Loss

Many people who struggle with addiction have experienced significant amounts of trauma and life stress, and this might play a role in the commitment fears. Profound emotional pain takes a toll on us such that we will go great lengths to avoid future pain.

Our brains are wired to be pain-sensitive. Neurologic research studies have tracked how our brain tends to remember things, and painful experiences are often highly remembered. Do you remember the conversation you had during a difficult romantic breakup? Of all the conversations you had with that partner, isn’t it interesting how much you remember the painful ones?

Because of this pain sensitivity, we also learn to avoid pain. If someone is struggling with significant ambivalence in recovery, what are they avoiding? We use this concept often with our patients, helping them talk about patterns of avoidance, especially if it involves potential or inevitable loss.

Moving Towards Security

Very often, a person feels a greater sense of peace and security once they have reached a place of commitment. They felt better about their marriage once they said internally “We’re going to make it work” or “We’re getting divorced.” They felt a sense of hope once they said “I’m ready to recover from alcohol” or “I’ve made up my mind that I’m quitting smoking!”

The chronic ambivalence comes with a significant cost: insecurity. If we don’t have good commitments, we are constantly moving back and forth in our minds about what we will do in the future. This state of unknown is anxiety-provoking.

Read more CeDAR Education Articles about Life in Recovery

Working through ambivalence is both difficult and reachable. Moving towards life commitments is a worthwhile goal to reflect upon, as we are able to feel greater emotional security, life and relationship satisfaction, and health.