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Relationships • Compatibility

The Avoidant Partner With The Power To Drive You Mad

Many relationships will help to keep you sane; a few varieties have the power – and we’re not being hyperbolic – to make you lose your sanity.

So that we might be forewarned or just helped to feel less lonely and given a map with which to escape our labyrinth, the archetypal despair-inducing love story has the following characteristics to it.

Firstly, a lover who seems terrific. They are nice looking, they are clever, they make you laugh – and crucially, they seem to like you. They profess love, they want to be with you for the long term (a thrilling idea to you).

But then a cycle begins. Just after a certain amount of niceness has been established, something occurs. It may be quite an obvious and large thing but – for true madness to be generated – it is more likely to be pretty small, so small you wonder if you are imagining things:

– The partner acts in a rather distracted and grumpy way. You’re in a beautiful spot near a river, but they’re not looking. They might be using their phone a lot. When asked what’s wrong, they repeatedly and unconvincingly say, ‘Nothing.’

– Another time, you come home looking forward to seeing them. But you sense, not for the first time, an odd disengagement. They say they are feeling ‘a bit weird.’ They seem elsewhere. You try to be sensitive around them – and leave them to it – but a peculiar atmosphere descends that you can’t quite make sense of. They keep messaging people.

– You are looking forward to spending a pleasant weekend together after a period apart. But a few hours into Saturday morning, they announce that – very sadly – they have a party to go to with friends on the other side of town. They’ll be off at 5 pm and probably won’t come back till the next morning. They’re so sorry – especially as you’re not invited. They leave the house looking pretty trim.

– They return home from a visit to a museum. You ask them about the art. They are more interested in telling you about someone they spotted with lovely hair whom they felt very attracted to and kept bumping into in different galleries and even in the gift shop. How nice they’d be to go to bed with! You try to be a sport and rein in your jealousy – but it’s not entirely easy – especially as it’s not so long ago that you had to hear the story of how very lovely the taxi driver was.

– It’s been a while since you made love; you hint that it might be a nice idea, but – once again – there seems to be a problem. It’s not the right moment, it’s too hot or too cold, they are tired, they have indigestion or a bad back or stress about the next day. You try to be understanding but turn over on your side with, once more, a little pain in your heart.

Image: We are Family – Siân Davey

Eventually, after an accumulation of these rebuffs, you lose your patience. Despite having been a good boy or girl for a while and tried to believe what you needed to believe, something that the lover does acts as the proverbial straw on the camel’s back. Once again, they are aggressive on the phone, once again, they flirt with someone else, once again, they shut you out of their social life. You’re not sure you want this forever. They’re a lovely person in parts, but there’s something off here.

And so, with tact and gentleness or a build-up of irritation, you declare that you’ve had enough. The partner doesn’t respond very well. You’re imagining things, it’s nothing, you’re too sensitive, you’re throwing away love, you’re being ungrateful and difficult. 

But you leave anyway – and restart an independent life. However, anything from a few hours to a few days to a few weeks after, the tricky partner gets back in touch and says a number of extremely powerful things. They adore you; they’re so sorry; they want to be with you. You’re right; they’ll do far, far better next time.

These are highly seductive messages. After all, you never wanted to leave this person; you wanted to be close to them. It’s just that you sensed that in a variety of ways, they were keeping you at bay by acting in an off, offensive or distant manner. But now they appear to notice what they previously had not, and look willing to make some changes. So of course, why not go back? The couple reunite. You go out for dinner. The old intimacy returns. Affection resumes.

Until, a few hours or days or weeks after, the problems rear their head again. Once more, the partner goes distant, once more, they flirt with a stranger, once more, they are disengaged or aggressive. 

On and on it can go. There might be years of it.

What is at play? We need to recognise an awkward and very peculiar fact of psychology. There are people who very much want love – until the moment it is offered to them. Psychotherapists call these people avoidant; we might call them tricky or maddening. Something in their past means that the realisation of their wishes is more terrifying than delightful, and they will therefore take careful steps – unconsciously – to re-establish distance whenever too much proximity is established. Without understanding what they are doing and therefore without admitting to their behaviour or allowing that you may have a point when you hold up a mirror to it (this is where you can end up losing your mind), they’ll go cold or look elsewhere as soon as they feel that a partner is entirely committed to them. They cannot stand too much niceness or proximity. 

The difficulty is that the moment their lover gets annoyed with them and takes steps to leave, they rediscover their love for them – and reel them back in with energy and skill. They want you most just when you are dangling from the cliff edge. Only to push you away again once you have clambered back up onto the ledge and are standing close. 

What to do if we happen to find ourselves in a situation that sounds like this? To start with, imagine that we are not deluded, whatever our partner tells us with energy. There are whole books and academic papers on the phenomenon. We can get interested in our lover’s past. Is this someone who was reliably cared for in childhood? Or was it not – more likely – someone who tried to put their trust in people who constantly went cold and rejected them? Might they be doing to you a version of what was done to them? Next, examine your own motives; what is satisfying for you in being in such a situation? Is there something you might be trying to repair in your past by throwing yourself again and again at the feet of a distracted and intermittent person? Do you, in your own way (a truly arduous thought) have as much difficulty receiving love as they do?

Finally, visit a graveyard. Observe the brevity of life. Look over at couples who are not as tortured as you are. Ask yourself whether you want this to go on forever or whether you might not be ready to try out something new. Wonder if you are not done with the perils of avoidantly attached people – and might not at last be brave enough to let into your life someone as willing to receive love as to give it.

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