The Most Common Relationship Problem
Breaking the deadly pursue/avoid pattern.
Posted Apr 26, 2017
"Jake doesn’t talk to me, and he doesn't let me know what he’s thinking."
"He doesn’t answer my texts."
"I can’t trust him. Sometimes I catch him in lies."
"I feel like he doesn’t care about me."
"Kala is always asking me a thousand questions."
"She doesn’t trust me — she’s always looking at my phone, asking me where I’m going."
"She is always telling me what I should do, giving me advice I don’t want or need."
"I feel like she is always trying to control me."
You’ve undoubtedly heard this kind of talk from friends — maybe you've experienced it yourself. Though there are variations on the theme, in my years of doing couple therapy this is probably the most common problem couples present with.
Kala feels that Jake never steps up. He rarely initiates things — ideas of things to do on the weekend, even sex. She is always playing offense — trying to get him to open up and talk to her, to show more interest in her, to let her know what is going on inside him. She sends him a text, but he takes forever to respond, and she’s seen texts on his phone to other women. She feels like he is always hiding or shutting down, and that she is doing the heavy lifting in the relationship.
From his side, Jake feels that Kala is always coming at him — questions about his day, where’s he’s going, what he’s thinking. He doesn’t answer the texts, because he is busy at work; those texts from women are from work colleagues, and they're about work, although she doesn’t believe him. When he does initiate something — something to do on the weekend, even sex — she more often than not shoots it down or criticizes or over-reacts. He’s learned it’s better to keep his mouth shut. He’s feeling micromanaged and mommied.
Where this conversation now goes in my office is toward a stacking of evidence, each partner working to make his or her case. They argue over the words in the texts and what they mean; who was or was not avoiding sex; who always feels ignored or attacked; who is too sensitive, who is blowing things out of proportion; whose reality is right.
It goes nowhere.
Where the partners differ is in their needs for closeness and space. What they have in common is anxiety.
What’s Going On
This is the well-known approach/distance, pursue/avoid, neglect/intrusion pattern. Kala gets anxious when those close to her go too far away. She may have past experiences with guys who cheated on her, had affairs, or suddenly left, or she maybe (and likely) experienced loss and neglect in her childhood, creating an emotional wound.
Jake, on the other hand, may have had bad experiences with women who were too intrusive, or, like Kala, maybe he developed his own emotional wounds as a child and became sensitive to criticism and control. While anecdotally this seems to be a more common female/male split — women desiring more connection, men sensitive to control — this can obviously flip with the man being the one needing closeness, and seeking sex and time together, and the woman needing space.
But it is the pattern that is the problem: When she begins to get anxious because of their lack of connection, she goes on offense. This triggers his anxiety, which he handles by retreating, ducking and weaving, or shutting down, only increasing her anxiety and offense, creating a downward spiral. When they do try to talk about it, it turns into a power struggle with each digging in, trying to get the other to change. We can easily imagine that this will eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy: he will get fed up and leave or have an affair, confirming in her mind what she suspected and feared all along.
The Way Out
The way out of this deadly dynamic is to break the pattern, and that means stopping the standoff and meeting in the middle.
1. Both need to understand what each is sensitive to. She needs sensitivity to his feeling of control, criticism, need for space, and he to her need for more connection, interaction, and intimacy.
2. Both need to redefine the problem. He needs to stop thinking that he is being controlled or mommied, but rather say to himself that she is anxious. She needs to see that it is not that he doesn’t care, but that he, too, gets anxious when she goes on offense. Each needs to stop feeling like a victim or martyr, stop feeling trapped, and realize that the best thing they can do is to let the other know what they need.
3. He needs to step up. Rather than shutting down, he needs to be proactive. This means initiating ideas, even though he fears she will shoot him down. It means reaching out to her — texting her or giving her a quick call during the day — telling her about his day, what he did, who he talked to, what is going on in his head — before she asks. He has to step outside his comfort zone, approach his anxiety, go against the grain and habits, and do it because he cares about their relationship.
4. She needs to step down. This is the way to give him space to step up and stop turning into a turtle; it also gives him more of the space that he needs. And when he says what he thinks or initiates something, she needs to resist overreacting, arguing, or sounding critical. This will make it safer over time for him to take more such risks. This does not mean she now has to become the doormat and agree with whatever he says, just that she needs to not pounce on it or shoot it down as a first response. She, too, has to go against her grain and resist the urge to go on offense when she begins to feel anxious.
5. They both need to think outside the box and come up with alternate ways of each getting what each needs — and to stop confusing means and ends. Are there things he can do to reassure and stay connected with her besides having sex more often or responding to her text within 30 seconds? She needs to think about this and tell him. Likewise, are there ways he can get some of the space he needs besides her just leaving him alone? He needs to think about it and let her know.
6. They need to have an honest conversation about their individual visions of the relationship, their expectations, and their needs. This is about determining how compatible they really are, as well as what needs to change to tweak the relationship so both are satisfied. This ends the power struggle and resentment. If it's too hard to talk about, they can write it down, share it, then discuss. If that is too hard, they need to seek outside help and support.
7. They need to come up with a plan for concrete behaviors that each is willing to adopt to break the pattern. Then they put their heads down and do it, without keeping score or having high, unrealistic expectations. They have to try it for a few weeks, and then circle back and fine-tune.
It’s about changing the emotional climate, ending the power struggle and resentment, and healing emotional wounds by stepping outside your comfort zones. Are you ready to do it?