Let’s start with you.
Do you feel as if you’re always chasing your loved one? Are you always asking for more care, more attention and more connection? Do you wish they would share themselves more with you … just tell you how they’re feeling? Do they go silent and withdraw just when you reach out and ask them to engage?
You probably wish that if they could just do what you ask then you wouldn’t be forever chasing something that remains elusive. Perhaps you feel that all your difficulties would fade away if only your partner cared more and wasn’t so reluctant to share themselves with you.
If this is you then you’re probably more of a pursuer in times of stress, and the one you love an avoider. And the tough part of this sequence for you is that it ends with you feeling rejected. The shame you feel from experiencing this rejection over and over again simply increases your resentment towards your partner.
Do you feel overwhelmed by your loved one’s emotional needs? He or she seems to be pursuing you for ever more closeness and connection. They’re urgently trying to fix your relationship problems with the idea that you need to open up more. That you need to be closer to them and to show that you care more. Do you find yourself running for cover when you feel overwhelmed with demands for physical and emotional closeness?
If this is familiar to you then you are probably more of an avoider.
The guilt you feel about not being able to reach out and meet your partner’s needs and the shame they feel about being rejected both fuel the cycle of resentment between you.
This push-me pull-you dance is extremely common in couples. The more one pursues greater closeness and connection, the more the other is overwhelmed, resists and withdraws.
Researcher, Dr John Gottman notes that this destructive pattern is a very common cause of divorce. If we don’t understand how the pattern works it persists. What’s more, we take these instinctive defenses with us from one relationship to the next. So, it’s worth understanding a bit about what’s actually going on. Especially as you both really do want the same things, even if it doesn’t appear so.
Now that you have identified whether you do the pushing or the pulling, here’s what you need to know. Let’s start with the avoider.
The Avoider You Love.
1) The avoider learnt early in life not to depend on anyone else. They may have had parents who stressed performance, intelligence orappearance. Whatever the key to acceptability in the family, the child learnt to shut themselves down and conform to that particular key. They may have discovered in other relationships that opening up and trusting another runs the risk of being hurt. And so, it became safer to stop reaching out to their loved ones for emotional support and connection. It was safer to rely on themselves and self-soothe instead.
2) Avoiders respond to stress by moving away. They may have had little experience of someone engaging with them to process the hard stuff. Or they may have been rejected when they tried. Processing alone and internally feels like a much safer option. Although, they appear not to want as much connection as you this assumption could be a mistake. An avoider may want to withdraw into another room but probably won’t want to leave the house because they like the fact that you’re near.
3) Your avoider finds it hard to shift from being alone to interacting with you because being alone feels familiar. It feels predictable and safe and controllable. It’s the only template they’ve got for dealing with discomfort, anxiety or stress. If you intrude upon them, they are overwhelmed, fear being trapped and feeling out of control. They fear the intimacy you crave, not because it’s intimacy with you. It’s because they are stuck in the story that says intimacy is too risky.
4) Your avoiding loved one fears feeling blamed because they already feel guilty for pushing you away. They love you, they know they hurt you. They wish they didn’t but they just can’t work out how to move towards you safely. The space between you appears to have been filled by you. It can feel like you’re always right and they’re wrong.
5) Whilst fitting in to his or her environment, your loved one stopped asking for emotional support because they no longer expected to get it. This often means that they stopped noticing themselves, what they needed or wanted. As adults, they often know what they don’t want but may find it hard to identify what they do want. Your requests just add to the list of demands that distract them from connecting to their own desires.
5) Another reason your avoider can’t meet your demands is because they fear being inadequate. To cover this fear they focus on your neediness as the problem and tell themselves that ‘Nothing I do is enough for you. Nobody could meet your needs’. They are already wrong for being the way they are. What if they try to be right and get it wrong again?
6) Your demands have been received as a need and needs must be met. And it appears to be their job. The apparent responsibility for your emotional wellbeing is too much. Remember, they are taking full responsibility for their own emotional wellbeing because they don’t know how to reach out. The risk now is that they will be swallowed up in this one way system.
7) Your loved one will begin to relax when they feel less criticism from you about their behaviour. She or he needs to feel less judgement and more understanding. Judgement means that they are wrong and there is nothing more discouraging. Being accepted with love and care will give them the freedom and courage to move towards you. This is the freedom to discover safely that it’s what they want too.
The Pursuer You Love
1) Your pursuer learnt early in life to get what comfort they could while they could. They may have had parents who were emotionally inconsistent. Sometimes there, and sometimes busy with other things. Your loved one learnt to ‘grab’ the reassurance they needed while they could.
2) The pursuer you love responds to stress by moving towards the object of their love. They want to express what’s going on and to talk about the details. Communication, discussion and togetherness are key to them. Feeling detached will send your loved one into even greater anxiety. The distance you create makes them increasingly alarmed. Being around others, and especially around you, is where your partner is at their happiest.
3) Your loved one is prone to self- doubt. Their own ability to self soothe has been lost in their belief that they need another to comfort them. The fear that they will collapse and be left out in the cold if they fail to connect with you is what energises their pursuit of you. What’s more, they may doubt you. After all, if you love them why don’t you want connection?
4) Your partner fears that their needs are too much for you and that your tolerance may run out. They probably think of themselves as needy and despise themselves for that. They fear they are a ‘burden’. But the label simply increases their frustration and makes their pursuit ever more urgent in a bid to get what they need TODAY, in case it’s not there tomorrow.
5) Your pursuer anticipates abandonment and rejection. And in fact, it’s hard for them not to take your distancing personally. The pattern of being abandoned throughout life when they needed support, has created the story in their heads that it’s inevitable. This may result in them pushing you more, returning over and over again to a particular conversation. They push until you react and push back. This is either an attempt to get you to turn up and connect, or it’s a case of pushing you out before you can reject them or abandon them first.
6) Your loved one lives in a state of scarcity. Because the very things that they long for seem to be withheld, the lack is all they will feel and see. The loving gestures, the connections you make will not seem enough because their attention is on what they’re not getting. And on their own inability to soothe themselves in their need. This is about energising what you focus on and finding evidence for what you suspect.
7) The criticism you feel is because your loved one is frustrated with his or her dependency on your response. It appears that you have all the power. In some way, that’s true because you are the one withdrawing. They can’t get what they want because you are refusing to give it to them. And whilst this cycle is in full swing, you do hold the reins of power. Spare a thought for your partner here.
To you both
It’s important to remember that this is a stress response. Neither you nor your partner is right, neither of you is wrong either. The beauty of understanding the dance is that you can change the steps. Once you know what causes your partner’s stress you can create safety. Knowing how they defend themselves, you can encourage them out of their defensive positions.
Both of you fear being alone. One of you keeps the other distant so it won’t hurt so much when they don’t get what they need. The other clings on so you can’t leave without taking him or her with you.
Finally, connection is what you both want. Everyone wants to love and to feel loved. Armed with what you understand about the whys of your stress dance, you will be able to move onto the same team and work out the hows of your new dance routine.