There is a common dynamic between couples in conflict. One person feels disconnected or forgotten and the other feels like they need a break or want to escape. What is not obvious when we are in this dynamic with our partner, is that our actions and emotions (or lack of emotions) affect our partner and cause them to react in the negative way that drives us crazy. For example, if we are the person feeling alone or abandoned in a relationship, we may text or contact our partner repeatedly throughout the day to “check in”. The peppering of messages tactic is transparent to our lover. They feel it as a constant request asking, “Do you love me?” Such “neediness” often causes our partners to flee. They want to escape the demand for overt love, not because it is annoying but because often, they do not know how to offer us what we ask for. They feel inadequate or like they are failing us when they can’t fix us and make us happy.
Attack and protest
Another reason one partner often wants to get away is because often with the requests for love and reassurance comes a barrage of criticism. When someone feels forgotten or alone, they protest. Baby monkeys whose mothers do not care for them or who can’t care for them, protest by attacking their mothers. The attacks are meant to get attention and care. If the mother does not respond the baby eventually stops protesting and moves into isolation, despair and ultimately death. Needing someone to care for and about us is a primal need.
Humans protest by contacting someone repeatedly. They also protest by attacking the other person, just like the baby monkey. When humans attack, we pull out every infraction the other person has ever committed. We cry and swear. We give our partners a laundry list of their faults and how they let us down. No wonder they want to get away.
The kicker is that the partner doing the withdrawal or disappearing act only aggravates and exacerbates the situation more. The pulling away makes their partner feel even more alone, confirming their worst fear — they are not lovable and their important person is going to leave them.
It is a vicious cycle.
Attachment styles and the alone and inadequate dynamic
We’ve talked about these feelings with regards to attachment styles. The anxious or ambivalently attached person seeks reassurance because their primary caregivers were unreliable or inconsistent with their attention. The avoidantly attached person seeks autonomy and independence because their primary caregiver were negatively attentive or not there at all. A person with an avoidant attachment style learned how to soothe themselves because no one else was there for them.
Stopping the cycle
One way to minimize the cycle is to see the pattern and make it the enemy. Every time the familiar scenario of demand and withdrawal or alone and inadequate arises, one or both parties needs to call it out for what it is and slow down its momentum. As a team, both people need to work on stopping the pattern behavior. Each person needs to consider how they contribute to the situation. What actions do they employ? Then, each person needs to see how their behavior affects their partner. The last two steps to diffusing the pattern are to own our feelings and deep hurts associated with the dynamic. Is there an attachment need going unmet? And lastly, to share that need with our partner and stand together to work through each other’s unmet needs.
Parenting: the chance to disappoint everyone
I’ve had the misfortune of being on both sides of the dynamic. I’ve felt alone or abandoned because my partner was not emotionally present and I’ve felt inadequate and defensive because I could not keep my children feeling secure. Yes, our relationships with our children can even go through the alone and inadequate dynamic. These feelings do not take turns. We can feel alone and inadequate at the same time. It’s doubly stressful. Often, parents feel overwhelmed because it seems like they are disappointing everyone — spouse and children. That’s why parenting is a two person job. I’m not saying that to offend or insult anyone. I’m a single parent and I’ve learned I need emotional support to be a supportive parent.
Do you often feel alone or forgotten? Do you often feel like pulling away and withdrawing from your relationship? How do your relationships with your children affect your romantic relationship?
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