Approach-Avoidance Behavior Hurtful to a Relationship
Distant Intimacy is Confusing
Dear Neil: I am an attractive professional woman in my early 40′s, and have recently been dating a man who is seven years younger than myself. The start of our relationship was made in heaven: there was a lot of love and infatuation. Suddenly after two months, everything was off, as he needed some “personal space.” We ended our relationship, but reconciled two months later. This on and off pattern has been dragging on now for the past year and a half. When he wants to see me, he is very romantic, caring, loving and open with me. At other times he is rude, abusive, selfish, disrespectful and unappreciative.
I have been very hurt and confused by his behavior. It feels like he enjoys playing games with me. I’ve tried everything I know of, but the pattern doesn’t change. I would appreciate your comments.
Hurt and Confused
Christchurch, New Zealand
Dear Hurt and Confused: You are describing a pattern of behavior known as “Approach-Avoidance.” Here is how is works: when he has you, he doesn’t want you. When he doesn’t have you–and the two of you have a lot of space and separateness–he wants you very much. This “come hither but stay away” scenario repeats itself over and over again, and is hurtful and confusing to anyone who is not wanting so much space and distance. When things are remote, he wants you. When they’re close, he doesn’t. Why? Because then he gets what he really seeks: distant intimacy.
People who want distant intimacy are basically afraid of or intimidated by a lot of closeness. They want closeness, but only in small doses, so they can feel safe. Anything else threatens their comfort zone, and they’ll withdraw or distance. That’s why you get the double message that he wants you–but yet he doesn’t.
It sounds as if your boyfriend doesn’t want–or can’t tolerate–a deeper connection or commitment to you. There is no way to conquer this dilemma, unless you are willing to risk losing the relationship, and even that isn’t foolproof. So try this: see if you can build a fair amount of space and distance into the relationship, so he can feel safe. Be sure to get his input on how to structure the agreement so he is satisfied with it, but make sure it’s not too distant or remote, so you can live with it also. Along with this agreement require a commitment that the two of you will stay together and work things through within the relationship.
If he violates this agreement and breaks up with you one more time, dump him. Few things hurt more in life than wanting someone who doesn’t want–or who can’t tolerate–being with you.
Dear Neil: I would like a woman who is passionate and loving, who doesn’t make many demands on me, who is mature enough to be able to acknowledge when she is wrong, who tries very hard to please me, and who has no bad habits.
Dear Sam: So would I.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
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