WHY WE EXIT RELATIONSHIPS
AND HOW TO GET THE LOVE WE WANT
"I can't seem to meet the right person"
"I'm not feeling what I should feel"
"No one compares to my ex"
"My relationship's making me feel trapped"
"My partners are too needy"
"I've gone off them"
"They're being emotional, it's too much drama"
"I keep thinking about other options"
"My entire life, I was convinced that there was something wrong with me. That I was broken. That I was unable to love. Relationship after relationship, I struggled to reciprocate the affection of my partners. It seemed the more they opened up to me, the more it shut me down. The more they moved towards me, the more I pulled away. Where my heart was supposed to be, I just felt a cold numbness.
I looked around and it felt like everyone else was falling in love with ease. Opening their hearts. Living out their fairy-tale romances. But try as I might, that realm seemed locked off to me. Nope, I was broken. Fucked up. Alone. And there was nothing I could do about it. Until I came across the concept that changed everything."
- The relationship theory that melted my cold heart
You want that perfect partnership and get into a relationship with great intentions - this time it's going to work out!
But then the doubts start creeping in. Your partner doesn't live up to your expectations. You often feel the need to get away, but don’t understand why. When you get that feeling you assume you’re beginning to be less attracted to your partner, even irritated by them - so why prolong the agony?
But then you find yourself in one failed relationship after another, repeating the same cycle.
"I’ve been single for nearly all of my adult life, am still single, and I finally figured out what the problem is. I used to believe the reason was because I hadn’t met the right person yet. I believed that all I had to do was keep on enjoying life, focus on my passion, identify the qualities I was looking for and soon enough I would attract the perfect partner. I now know this approach to life is total bullsh*t.
Every time I meet someone new, the same thing happens. I feel incredible excitement about the possibility of sparks flying. I spend some time with them. The usual sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach returns. I conclude that she’s “not quite right” and move on to the next person. Week after week, month after month and year after year this same thing happens. I continue to succeed at my external focuses in life, but don’t have any success at building any kind of emotional and loving connection with a romantic partner.
Recently I read about attachment theory and came to the sudden and painful realization that the problem isn’t the women I’ve been dating. The problem is me. I’m the “avoidant type”. And I now know what to do to live a better life."
- I'm 36, still single and finally figured out why
There could be a reason - and a solution.
You may be someone who currently has an avoidant attachment style.
Avoidant attachment is a common way of thinking and behaving that is characterised by the unconscious need to protect oneself and stay away from relationships, while craving to be in a long-term intimate relationship. You may very much want a relationship that feels fulfilling and safe, but when you're around a partner not know how to get it without feeling like you’re compromising some part of yourself that needs boundaries and protection. If someone gets really attached to us and we to them, then we feel at risk of being engulfed and our needs overlooked. We have learnt to believe that love means indebtedness that could come at a cost of our own freedom. This usually operates at a very unconscious level, so the main outlets we experience it as can be irritation, anxiety, feeling trapped and a need for space from someone we care about.
At some point as children, people with an avoidant attachment style did not have all their needs met either physically or emotionally, so we learnt not to rely on people. At an unconscious level we assume we'll be rejected physically or emotionally, so we protect ourselves because otherwise we know we'll get hurt. We have been taught that people are unreliable, so unconsciously we act accordingly. It is a coping mechanism that came out of fear and pain. You may be unhappy because and when your attachment wounds from the past are activated in relationships.
This mechanism gives us an unconscious fear of losing ourselves, even our identity, in the relationship. And the closer we get, the more open they become with their emotions, the more in danger they are of looking inside us, the more we get to know and rely on each other and things are becoming a partnership, the better our partner starts to think of us - then the bigger our fear of engulfment, commitment and not living up to expectations gets (conversely the longer we have distance from someone the easier it is for us). We run straight into our own defensive wall, that part of our personality which is trying to protect us and keep us safe. Of course, this defense is not a rational process; it is housed deep in the emotional centres of our brains and is automatically triggered by signals from the environment. It does not care about our rational thought processes or adult need for love and affection. It would rather us be sad and lonely than injured. Too much closeness was associated early on with bad things happening, so produces the feeling of needing to get away from attachment figures to return to a more regulated state.
Avoidantly attached people will often date a partner they initially think is amazing, then when things become closer will suddenly start feeling that person wrong for them, have unexplained doubts, feel their partner is needy or perhaps focus on a particular bad habit that they suddenly find intolerable. They will then feel the need to step back, often feeling suffocated - when in fact it is the distancing or 'deactivating' strategy kicking in. Rather than examining the uncomfortable feelings, they decide the person must not be the one and pull away. This cycle will repeat with each new partner unless they are able to recognize that this is their own issue and tackle it. If they don't feel this way yet when it's usually the pattern, it can be because things haven't got too close. This makes them feel less exposed, but without developing intimacy it's unfortunately hard for relationships to survive. In service of avoiding getting hurt, avoidants are then deprived of moving forward and the fullness of life's experiences.
The Withdrawal Defence
"Withdrawal tendencies are a coping mechanism cultivated in childhood. If we weren't getting our needs met we soon learn to retract within ourselves. Over time this coping strategy becomes second nature. When we get into a relationship, that feeling of needing to withdraw is initially masked by the oxytocin and different chemicals firing off within our brain. Over time those chemicals start to subside, the mask falls off of those inner emotions and we start feeling very vulnerable and agitated at the same time.
One of these six basic human needs is the need for connection. Each and every single last one of us is wired for connection. When withdrawal coping mechanisms get triggered, we have one of our six basic human needs fighting inside for connection while at the same time this coping mechanism is fighting to keep distance. So on the one hand you have a very strong need for closeness, while at the same time you have a very strong need for distance. Both of these things battle it out inside of you, which makes you feel very uncomfortable pretty much 24 hours a day and it puts you into a fight or flight response, feeling the need to run as well as to stay.
So we feel torn. And because we're not able to see the future, we tell ourselves stories - and a lot of these stories have to do with the worst case scenario instead of the best-case scenario. When you tell yourself the worst case scenario, your idea turns into running instead of staying. This is the body's natural fear response. To counter it we must learn new ways of getting our needs met within the connection, and learn tell ourselves new stories."
Check out this great article for an overview of avoidant attachment from an avoidant-turned-therapist.
WHY WOULD I BE DOING THAT?
There are a number of reasons you might fear losing yourself in a relationship, such as:
You've been taught that you are responsible for the feelings of people close to you. You believe that if your partner is unhappy, it's up to you to fix it, even if it means giving yourself up. You may not understand what to do - that rather than taking action, to work through their feelings it is enough to be with them, to understand and sympathise with the emotion, and so you may feel incompetent and powerless. You were taught early on that safety lies in competence and so this position feels very uncomfortable. We have a core wound of not being enough.
Your brain does not want you to feel strong emotions, so when confronted with a partner being open with their emotions or strong emotions about them in ourselves, it needs to escape. We then project the things we do not allow for in ourselves into annoyance at others. Without other tools for processing them we may have developed a strategy of running from our own feelings of inadequacy, by distracting with new experiences or unavailable people who we need to work harder to impress. When love is available to us we are forced to face these difficult feelings.
You believe that taking loving care of yourself, with no intent to harm another, is selfish - that being a caring person means you are willing to completely sacrifice yourself for others, even if it's not what you want or need to do. You do not feel confident or safe to lovingly ask for your needs to be met.
You have a deep fear of rejection, and you believe you have to give yourself up in order to avoid being rejected. If someone wants a close partnership you think you won't be able to live up to their expectations - if they ask for their needs to be met what you hear is your failure and that you will lose yourself in someone else's requirements. And you believe that no one will love you if you stay true to yourself.
What these fears come down to is a deep false belief that we have to give ourselves up to be loved and to be seen as a caring person. Giving yourself up - giving up your freedom to be yourself and do what brings you joy - is a terrifying prospect. As long as we have these false beliefs - and they might be unconscious - we will likely find ourselves running from love. We stop running when we are willing to let go of trying to control how the other person feels about us by giving ourselves up, and instead risk being fully ourselves. We can do this only when we stop rejecting ourselves and our needs. As we become comfortable recognising our needs as valid, and lovingly collaborating to ask for them to be met, we will also feel more comfortable meeting those of others, confident that we won't lose ourselves.
Fundamentally, as avoidants we are afraid to be needed. We don't want to be relied upon too much. We can have trouble always understanding and asserting our own needs and boundaries, so we are afraid it means they may get buried and we lose ourselves. We are afraid because we suffer disproportionate guilt that we don't know how to healthily process, making us feel too bad being around people who need us. And we are afraid to be known because, with self-esteem problems (even if we come across as outwardly confident), we subconsciously fear we can't live up to meeting our partner's needs so are at risk of abandonment.
Deep at the core, there is a part of us that thinks we are unworthy of love. We believe if we get too close to someone we will treat them badly, because we must be inherently bad. We may hurt people who get close to us because when we were young we got hurt by closeness ourselves. So we resist getting close to someone, and if they do manage to, then unconsciously we may act to them in ways that confirm this self-belief. But attachment styles are not personality disorders - they are simply a set of unconscious beliefs about ways of relating to others that we can reprogram.
From the root comes the cure:
challenging our false beliefs and developing a healthy self-esteem
learning to recognise and assert our feelings, needs and healthy boundaries, and meet those of others
understanding how to deal with guilt in a healthy way
learning how to look for, recognise, appreciate and sustain healthy partnerships
learning how to recognise and eliminate our unhealthy behaviours
developing the resolution skills to have confidence we can take on
and solve relationship challenges
This site provides a roadmap to understanding yourself, solving these difficulties and
taking a deep-dive into how to get the long-standing love you want.
NOT SURE I BUY THIS… THE PROBLEM IS ALWAYS THEM!
IT WORKED WITH MY EX, SO IT CAN’T BE ME.
BESIDES, I HAD A HAPPY CHILDHOOD.
People with this attachment style have built-in defences that make us the least likely to recognise or be able to look into our own attachment style. Exploring it makes us confront uncomfortable emotions, which is not our bag. So I’m impressed you’ve even read this far!
We may see early experience as having no impact on who we are as adults. And we can often come from outwardly happy families. On this site you can explore the origins in more detail and whether it could relate to you.
Did it really work with your ex more than others? If it did, then why aren’t you still together?
Two of the common unconscious tools of avoidants are the myths of the ‘phantom ex’ and ‘perfect partner’ – you can read more about these in the dating section.
Finally, sometimes we unwittingly play a part in creating the very situation we feel compelled to get away from - this is explained in the relationships section.
But find out for yourself - check out the detailed list of avoidant characteristics and see if you think this attachment style applies.
Looking into our attachment patterns can sometimes make for uncomfortable reading, but it's vital to understand them if we'd like to change things. I'm guessing you're here because the current way of doing things hasn't worked out so far...
If things do relate, there's a detailed solution roadmap to help you get what you want. If you're the partner of someone with these patterns there's advice for you too. And head to the videos section for great tips on recognising the style and ways to work with it.
Because with commitment to change, there is a way to find a great partner and feel attached to each other in a stable, loving relationship - and still to feel free.