‘I need help. I can’t seem to stick at relationships, they rarely last beyond a few months and I don’t know why. I don’t want to be like this anymore, I keep hurting women I care about and I’m afraid I’ll end up alone.’
This 40-year-old man (who I shall refer to as Mark) was confused by his emotional and physical pain and had come to therapy for help. He described an intense discomfort and pressure in the centre of his chest whenever he started to get close to a woman, and perhaps more importantly, when he sensed she was getting close to him.
Mark interpreted this discomfort as an indication that she wasn’t ‘the one’ and the only way he could soothe it was to physically distance himself from his partner, often breaking off the relationship. Having felt the relief, his search for the woman who would fulfil all his desires without any emotional discomfort would begin again.
Mark feels utterly trapped and bound by responsibility for any girlfriend should they stay around more than a few months, which they invariably do because when he does give them his time, he’s fun, lively and attentive. Any woman on the receiving end of this cut-and-run behaviour would have their heart broken. After the tears have subsided, she would be calling him all kinds of expletives over coffee with friends. The friends would console her, ‘Move on. He’s an idiot. You deserve better’.
The reality is, Mark is not an idiot, not in the slightest. He’s an intelligent and genuinely troubled man who, like most of us, wants to be in a loving relationship. The sense of restriction he feels when a woman starts to develop feelings for him is so unbearable that the relief, he experiences from severing the tie outweighs any guilt and sadness he has for ending it (and he does feel that guilt).
So, where does this come from? What makes someone find it so hard to fully commit to a relationship? The answer to that often lies in their attachment history, specifically the early attachments to their parents or carers and, very often low self-esteem.
Mark had grown up in a very stable family, in fact his parents were still together after 30 years of marriage. On the surface you’d say he’d had the perfect upbringing, but if we were to take a magnifying glass to the dynamics, we would see that the Mark’s experiences in relationships make perfect sense.
Though his parents were together they had never shown affection for each other. Dad was cold, distant and the only emotion he would express was anger. Mum provided love in a practical way but was busy with his three siblings and had no time for dealing with Mark’s ‘tantrums’.
When little Mark was rejected by his school pals and came home in floods of tears, his mum was too busy with his baby brother to give her attention to Mark, so she’d tell him to ‘ignore the nasty bullies’.
Emotions were simply not acknowledged or spoken about in the household. During his early childhood Mark learned that having and expressing feelings resulted in emotional rejection, so he built up an unconscious barrier to them and, unsurprisingly became super independent.
Mark had developed what is often referred to as an ‘avoidant attachment style’ which means that if vulnerability and emotions were involved, he would turn away from his partner and revert to the safety of being alone. In their book Attached, Levine and Heller summarise the research and explain how individuals with this attachment style still crave connection at a primal level; the pseudo independence is an unconscious way of keeping them safe from being rejected.
Mark’s blueprint for relationships became this: get a decent job, find your life partner, please your partner, marry them and stay together. He had never factored emotions into this narrative until, during his search for ‘the one’ – Yes, he’d seen the Hollywood films too! He was repeatedly faced with the love interest of the moment paired with the intense restriction he’d feel when she wanted more closeness than he could manage.
You may be surprised to hear but Mark had managed to sustain a two-year long relationship. How did he manage that, you might wonder? Well, he’d built up a repertoire of unconscious behaviours which kept his partner at a safe distance:
- He’d chosen a partner who lived 50 miles away.
- He was very focussed on his work and would often use this as a reason for not being able to spend time with her.
- He rarely expressed his feelings towards her, though he knew deep down that he cared for her more than he’d cared for anyone, maybe even loved her.
- He would snap at her for the slightest thing.
- Inwardly he’d come up with lots of reasons to break-up with her, zooming in on her flaws rather than her strengths.
- When they were together, especially if he sensed a negative vibe, he’d spend time on his phone playing games.
- Often, he would use alcohol and cannabis to suppress his own emotions.
- He didn’t include her in family events and would make excuses so that he didn’t have to attend hers.
- He wouldn’t spend time with her if he was feeling below par. Preferring to keep that side of him to himself. After all, he’d learned early on that this part of him would not be soothed by another.
You may also be surprised to hear that his ex girlfriend put up with this for two years. Eventually after numerous attempts to bring him closer (a behaviour that fuelled his need for space) she realised she was never going to get the closeness she desired and so she ended the relationship.
Initially Mark seemed uncaring, but what his ex-girlfriend doesn’t know is that he still thinks of her and wonders whether he made the biggest mistake of his life in letting her go.
If this story sounds familiar to you, it’s important to know that it is possible to change. You will likely need the professional guidance of a therapist with knowledge and experience in working with attachment. With this support and an understanding partner you can begin to change your ways and build a healthier way of being in a relationship, effectively re-writing your script on emotional connection.
Confidentiality note: The people and situations depicted in this work are fictitious. However, the patterns and responses have been frequently observed.
Image credit: Freepik
Alison Bickers is an experienced psychotherapist with a private practice on the south coast. She has worked for many years with individuals going through relationship difficulties.