The 1969 hit song “Worst That Could Happen” by Jimmy Webb poignantly captures the perspective of a man still in love with an ex-partner who left him because of his unwillingness to settle down. As she prepares to marry someone else, he accepts it as “the worst (thing) that could happen to (him).”1 The song provides a window into the mindset of commitment-avoidant individuals who struggle to transition from passionate love to stable, committed relationships.

The psychology of commitment avoidance

Commitment avoidance is a well-documented phenomenon in psychology. Research suggests that fear of commitment often stems from attachment insecurities rooted in early childhood experiences.2 Those with an avoidant attachment style tend to suppress their emotions, value independence over intimacy, and struggle with commitment.3

Commitment-phobic individuals may genuinely believe they are in love, but the idea of settling down with one person triggers deeply-held fears. These fears can manifest as worries about loss of freedom, fear of dependency, or concern that their partner’s flaws will become intolerable over time.4

Gender differences do exist when it comes to commitment resistance. Historically, societal norms have encouraged men to avoid commitment and “sow their wild oats” before settling down.5 However, research indicates that problematic commitment avoidance transcends gender. Both men and women with avoidant attachment styles exhibit similar commitment-sabotaging behaviors in relationships.6

Real-world relationship dynamics

In practical terms, avoidant partners in relationships often send mixed signals. They may express love and act caring at times, but then pull away when their partner tries to deepen the commitment.7 This push-pull dynamic can be confusing and emotionally taxing for the partner desiring more stability.

Avoidant individuals frequently cite a need for “space” or “freedom,” triggering insecurities in their partner. They may avoid making long-term plans or defining the relationship. Some use work, hobbies, or other distractions to limit quality time together. At the extreme, some avoidant partners engage in infidelity as a means of sabotaging commitment.8

How long to wait for an avoidant partner

While every relationship is unique, research suggests that waiting indefinitely for a commitment-avoidant partner to “come around” is rarely productive. In a study of couples seeking therapy, those who were still together after 5 years had significantly higher commitment levels from both partners at the start of therapy compared to those who separated.9 This suggests that a strong, mutual commitment is necessary for long-term relationship success.

Experts advise that if a partner has expressed a clear desire for commitment and the avoidant partner remains ambivalent after a reasonable period of time (e.g., 6 months to 2 years), it may be necessary to end the relationship to avoid further heartache.10 Continuing to wait for someone who consistently avoids commitment can lead to frustration, resentment, and wasted time.

Average cohabitation and dating timelines before marriage

The average length of cohabitation and dating before marriage has increased in recent decades. In the United States, the average engagement is about 12-18 months.11 Couples typically date for 2-5 years before getting engaged.12

Research on premarital cohabitation has found that couples who live together before marriage tend to have longer courtships overall. A 2018 study found that couples who cohabited before marriage dated for an average of 33 months before getting married, compared to 18 months for couples who did not live together prior to marriage.13

However, the optimal length of courtship varies widely depending on age, culture, and individual circumstances. Some couples have successful marriages after short courtships, while others benefit from longer periods of dating to build a solid foundation.14

The key is that both partners are on the same page about commitment and are actively working towards a shared vision of the future. If one partner consistently avoids taking steps towards commitment, it may be a sign that the relationship has an expiration date regardless of timeline.

Treatment and growth

Commitment avoidance is a deeply ingrained defense mechanism, but it can be overcome with self-awareness and psychological work. Therapy can help avoidant individuals understand the roots of their fears and develop more secure relationship patterns.15

Couples counseling can also facilitate better communication and compromise between an avoidant partner and a commitment-seeking one. The avoidant partner must be willing to step outside their comfort zone and gradually take on more intimacy and responsibility. The commitment-seeking partner may need to provide more reassurance and dial back pressure for reciprocal engagement.16


“Worst That Could Happen” captures a common romantic struggle: one partner desires a committed, stable relationship while the other shies away out of fear. Commitment avoidance has psychological roots but can be overcome with insight, effort, and mutual empathy between partners. With work, even the most diehard “free spirit” can grow into a loving, reliable partner.


  1. Webb, J. (1969). Worst that could happen [Song]. On The Yard Went on Forever. Epic Records.
  2. Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2016). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
  3. Pietromonaco, P. R., & Beck, L. A. (2019). Adult attachment and physical and mental health. Current Opinion in Psychology, 25, 115-120.
  4. Joel, S., Macdonald, G., & Page-Gould, E. (2018). Wanting to stay and wanting to go: Unpacking the content and structure of relationship stay/leave decision processes. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 9(6), 631–644. 
  5. Schmitt, D.P., Shackelford, T.K., & Buss, D.M. (2001). Are men really more oriented toward short-term mating than women? A critical review of theory and research. Psychology, Evolution & Gender, 3(3), 211-239.
  6. Winterheld, H. A., & Simpson, J. A. (2011). Seeking security or growth: A regulatory focus perspective on motivations in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 935–954. 
  7. Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2011). Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find – and keep – love. TarcherPerigee.
  8. Moors, A. C., Conley, T. D., Edelstein, R. S., & Chopik, W. J. (2015). Attached to monogamy? Avoidance predicts willingness to engage (but not actual engagement) in consensual non-monogamy. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32(2), 222-240.
  9. Zinbarg, R. E., Uliaszek, A. A., & Adler, J. M. (2008). The role of personality in psychotherapy for anxiety and depression. Journal of Personality, 76(6), 1649-1688. 
  10. Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Scott, S. B., Kelmer, G., Markman, H. J., & Fincham, F. D. (2016). Asymmetrically committed relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33(8), 1163-1182.
  11. Ogletree, S. M. (2010). With this ring, I thee wed: Relating gender roles and love styles to attitudes towards engagement rings and weddings. Gender Issues, 27(1-2), 67-77.
  12. Sassler, S., & Lichter, D. T. (2020). Cohabitation and marriage: Complexity and diversity in union-formation patterns. Journal of Marriage and Family, 82(1), 35-61. 
  13. Rosenfeld, M. J., & Roesler, K. (2019). Cohabitation experience and cohabitation’s association with marital dissolution. Journal of Marriage and Family, 81(1), 42-58. h
  14. Joel, S., Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2017). Is romantic desire predictable? Machine learning applied to initial romantic attraction. Psychological Science, 28(10), 1478-1489.
  15. Park, Y., Impett, E. A., MacDonald, G., & Lemay, E. P., Jr. (2019). Saying “thank you”: Partners’ expressions of gratitude protect relationship satisfaction and commitment from the harmful effects of attachment insecurity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(4), 773–806.
  16. Jacobson, E. H., Rogge, R. D., Fissette, C. L., & Snyder, D. K. (2020). Integrative behavioral couple therapy. In B. H. Fiese, M. Celano, K. DeaterDeckard, M. N. Jouriles, & M. A. Whisman (Eds.), APA handbook of contemporary family psychology: Family therapy and training (pp. 359-377). American Psychological Association.