When A Love Interest Says ‘I’m Not Ready to Commit,’ What Should You Do?

Jenna Birch
Contributing Writer
Illustration: Hannah Jacobs

The phrase “I’m not ready” is one of the oldest excuses in the book to avoid commitment. It’s very rare to date in your 20s and 30s and not hear it uttered by someone with whom you’re considering a relationship.

Growing up, I remember hearing people say, “If it’s right, there won’t be any reservations” or, “If it’s right, it will be easy.” This made sense at the time. I mean, if you find someone you really want to be with, why wait? Right?

Then I started to date.

And then I heard a ton of “I’m not ready.” Almost every single guy I dated told me this. Ditto my friends’ partners. In all cases, the connection was strong, but there was always some barrier to being “ready” standing in the way of a stable bond — whether it was the start of a young physician’s residency or mechanical engineer’s PhD program, a recent bad breakup, a desire to play the field, or an impending move across the country.

Everyone always asks me how to deal with poor timing, if the person might eventually come around or if they need to cut it off. Answer: It depends on the situation.

Through research for my book, I’ve talked to tons of men and women. Some couples worked through timing issues to achieve great relationships. Some of them broke up and got back together years later. Others stuck it out, investing in the connection, even when the other person wasn’t fully present and “in” from the get-go.

Ultimately, there are two types of timing problems, and the type determines the best course of action.

Type 1: They need to see if it can work, i.e., this person is unsure of a relationship

Some timing issues exist because the other person’s headspace is occupied by major life changes that have nothing to do with relationships. Maybe they’re considering a move. Or maybe they’re about to start a new job that will be particularly time-consuming. Perhaps they’re nursing a family member through a health crisis or need to complete their dissertation.

We all have bumps in our lives, where we become more focused on getting by than falling in love … but, you know. Life still rolls. You don’t choose when you meet someone who makes you feel something deeper. And there might be a time when you come across a great person who isn’t ready to invest at the same rate you are.

If you want to explore the connection, it’s OK to stick it out, take it slow, just have fun and be supportive of his or her needs and goals — even if they share their reservations about starting a relationship with you, or say they can’t date seriously.

Millennials especially tend to have high expectations of themselves when it comes to relationships — just like they want fulfilling careers, friendships, and hobbies. If they pursue something, they want to give it their best effort. Sometimes, preoccupied people just need to see that a great relationship isn’t about the perfect person at the perfect time — it can coexist with their other goals.

Bottom line? You met this person at a bad time. They’re not sure of their emotional bandwidth. If the timing issue has nothing to do with you, you can choose to stick it out get to know the person at the level of commitment they’re comfortable with, and move forward if and when they’re ready. However, if their lack of investment starts stealing your sanity or causing resentment, never forget your agency: You can break it off.

Type 2: They need to see if something better is out there, i.e.  this person is unsure of you

This is another timing issue that pops up frequently in a culture of options where the Paradox of Choice reigns over relationship decision making. Here’s how it typically plays out: You feel a strong connection to a person, and you can tell they really care about you, but they claim to be “not ready.” Maybe you’ve been in this relationship for years, or maybe you just met the person — it doesn’t necessarily matter. All that matters is that they’re unsure.

Usually, this person wants to play the field so they’re certain of their eventual choice in a partner. Maybe a recent breakup or divorce has clouded their vision, and they can’t see you in a level-headed light; they’ve decided to date like crazy, ignoring real connections and any semblance of commitment. Or maybe they’re young, still in school, have a million things going on, and don’t want relationship obligations; they might even shun your spark intentionally, knowing it might lead to that more-serious something that they’ve already decided against.

In this case, it’s best to cut the cord. When the person you’re crazy about has the urge to date others and not settle down, they are basically telling you that you’re replaceable — and yet you deserve to feel special and significant in your relationships.

Bottom line? You met this person at the wrong time. Some people need to play the field, or simply grow up, to determine what they want in a partner — even if you believe the relationship could be an amazing fit.

Until they’re sure of themselves, they can’t be sure of you.

My advice is: Know what you want with each person you encounter. If you want a relationship and they want to entertain endless options, you should cease contact. Draw a line. Move on. Say what you need to say — “I care about you, but I won’t be contacting you” — and let go. Do not leave the door open.

If it’s ever going to work somewhere down the line (and occasionally it does), it’s most likely because you had the guts to walk away. Create a sharp contrast between what life is like with you and what life is like without you.

Trust me. If the person cares, they’ll remember. They’ll feel your loss.

Ultimately, who you invest in is a personal decision; if you feel like you need to pursue a relationship with a specific person, that’s your call. Ask yourself the questions above. If they’re unsure of you and want to check other options, it’s a red light. If they’re unsure of their ability to invest in a relationship right now, it’s a yellow light.

Finally, always remember that relationships born of poor timing lead to higher stakes and a harder road to fulfillment. While it’s always your call, I hope you remember that the positives of being with someone should far outweigh the negatives — and no person is worth the loss of your peace of mind.

Jenna Birch is a journalist, dating coach, and author of The Love Gap (Grand Central Life & Style, January 2018). Her relationship column will appear on Yahoo every Friday. To ask her a question, which may appear in an upcoming post, send an email to jen.birch@sbcglobal.net with YAHOO QUESTION in the subject line.

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