In a panic over love

A reader emailed about an incident involving her long-time boyfriend. Apparently they have been dating for several years and getting along quite well. As their relationship progressed, they began to discuss the possibility of moving-in together and maybe even getting married at some point. It was during those discussions that she began to notice a change in his behavior.

When she finally addressed the cohabitation issue directly, the truth came out. He said that he would love to do it, but that he wanted her to move in next door to his apartment “for a while.” Needless to say, she was taken aback! He went on to explain that he was having panic attacks over sharing his apartment, or any apartment, with anyone (she admits that he’s overly fastidious and controlling). She now faces the prospect of having to move twice for no other reason than his panic over having to share his space with somebody he supposedly loves. The reader asked me to elaborate on the idea of panic attacks and how this might affect their relationship.

The American Psychiatric Association describes a panic attack as a discrete period of intense fear or discomfort in which symptoms develop abruptly, reaching their peak within 10 minutes. Symptoms can include (but aren’t limited to) palpitations, pounding heart, accelerated heart rate, sweating, trembling, sensations of shortness of breath and a feeling of choking and/or chest pain.

Obviously, a panic attack is a perfectly awful thing. Why would someone experience panic attacks over the prospect of living with someone he loves? Isn’t love what everyone is seeking? Well, sure. But love, while pleasurable, also means other things, such as changing your daily habits to accommodate another person. For everybody this is an adjustment. For some people, it’s earth shattering.

People prone to panic attacks usually have a strong desire for control; often more control than is rationally feasible. Imagine a person like that having to give up their independence and personal space by moving in with or marrying someone.

This sort of anxiety over commitment isn’t necessarily an indication that ‘I’m with the wrong person.’ It’s usually an indication that, ‘I feel like I’m not ready to change my lifestyle.’ Note the operative word, ‘feel.’ Just because you feel something doesn’t make it true. Feelings are like the warning lights that come on in your car from time to time. They might be an indication that something’s wrong, but just as often they’re not — at least not anything serious.

Panic attacks don’t always stem from some physical issue. If you’re not suffering from anything that’s medical in origin, then the panic attacks most certainly have their root in irrational thinking; for example, a fear of shutting out or losing other opportunities. I sometimes talk to people who say, ‘I don’t want to choose. If I choose one option, I shut out other options. How can I live with the possibility I might have made the wrong choice?’

That’s probably the issue with the boyfriend who, after years of being with one woman, suddenly develops panic attacks. He didn’t wake up one day and start disliking his girlfriend. The prospect of their moving-in together triggered a recognition that he had made his ‘final choice.’

‘What if it’s the wrong choice?’ he might say to her. She might reply, ‘What, don’t you love me?’ He could honestly answer, ‘I definitely love you. But how do I know you’re the one?’
How does anyone really know that there’s only one true love out there? Don’t get me wrong; I believe in romance, but we also have to be rational. The fact that you found someone you love (and who loves you back) doesn’t mean that neither of you could have ever found someone else you loved (or who loved you) just as much. It just means you’re fortunate that you found each other. It’s irrational to expect to know who the only person is that you’ll ever love. If you’ve actually been fortunate enough to find a great love, that should be more than enough!

Panic attacks can be a symptom of what therapists call ‘commitment phobia.’ According to, commitment phobia is ‘the fear and avoidance of having to commit to anything, relationships in particular. Usually the sufferer will be overly critical of the other partner’. They will set out to annoy or hurt the other person, thus sabotaging the relationship even if it’s thought to be going well.’

Mental health and ethical behavior both require one thing above all else: Self-awareness. If you’re self-aware, you take responsibility for your contradictory feelings rather than taking them out on someone else (intentionally or not). For example, it’s a contradiction to WANT a relationship and, at the same time, to WANT all the advantages of being single and unattached. Contradictions create conflict and discontent in our minds and our emotions. If we take responsibility for discovering what they are, and then correcting them, we’ll spare ourselves, and those we love, a lot of trouble and pain.