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The Yo-Yo Relationship: He Loves Me; He Loves Me Not

A readers asks about how to see it clearly, break away, and find closure.

Many of us have experienced the rollercoaster ride of being involved with a seemingly compatible, charming lover who remains elusive. Everything is going so well. You may even start to fall in love. But inexplicably, your lover keeps pulling away. And then coming back. And then pulling away. This cycle can be repeated many times, and is characteristic of a "yo-yo relationship."

I received this query from a reader, who found solace in my posts about surviving a break-up, but she's having trouble moving on from a yo-yo relationship. She wants to understand what's going on, and find closure. Here's her story:

Deborah L. Davis
Source: Deborah L. Davis

I hope you have some insight into my relationship, which I am finding it hard to recover from. He is 50 and I am 30. I don’t usually date men of this age but we share similar tastes in music and humor and we get along quite easily. It began as a sexual thing and shortly after, he began to exhibit signs that he wanted to be more serious. This was a surprise to me, as I didn’t assume anything would come of it. We dated for five months. I met his friends, stayed at his house; it was normal and nice. I don’t want to get married or have children so it seemed to work. Out of the blue he started to detach and when I asked him why he said that I’m young but look way younger and that he didn’t know how he would “explain me to his kids” who are only slightly younger than I. He also said he didn’t want me to be "a responsibility." I was deeply hurt by this. That was four months ago.

Since then, we have been casually in contact. He went on some dates with another person as did I, but we found no chemistry elsewhere. We sleep together on occasion, he calls me, worries about me, even asked “why didn’t you call me for support” when a family member was hospitalized. I thought he didn’t want the responsibility.

When I ask him to give me space so that I can get over him, he returns. There seem to be emotions there. But when I ask him what exactly he feels for me he responds “Affection. Affliction.” But he doesn’t seem to want me out of his life.

Recently I moved three hours away. Before I left we spent two weeks talking and hanging out and being like boyfriend/girlfriend — he even introduced me to some more of his friends but when I asked him what it meant, he used the “you’re too young” excuse once again. He knows I love him. I told him I’m in it for the long haul, whatever that brings. Nothing I say changes the situation. So before I moved, I begged him to stop communicating with me. Although my heart felt differently, I knew I needed space to get past this.

Last night (a week later) he messaged me and asked if I am okay. He said, “This hasn’t been easy,” and that he missed me and his thoughts are with me. I am now sad again, sulking, and I just want to be past this all. However, I still have hope in my heart for us because of the fact that he says one thing, but his actions make me feel like there is more to it. Could you help me better understand this all? I need to understand to feel some closure. Thank you.

Dearest Seeking Closure,

The picture you paint is easy to understand in three words: Ambivalence. Control. Yo-Yo.

On Ambivalence:

Deborah L. Davis
Source: Deborah L. Davis

Something is holding him back from really being in a relationship with you.

It doesn't matter what it is. It doesn't matter why. What matters is that this is how he is wired, most likely permanently and forever. Indeed, as you've noticed, "Nothing I say changes the situation."

Unfortunately, what this wiring means for his romantic partners—including you—is that he will string you along with occasional rewards (like phone calls, sex, brief expressions of concern, empty offers of support) along with consistently and repeatedly rejecting you.

On Control:

Have you noticed how he remains in control? He decides when you two connect, how much, when, and where. When you want something more, he doesn’t want the responsibility. When you seek less, he intrudes with worries, jealousy, and hurt. And when you want to disconnect, he ramps up the contact. Everything happens on his terms, never yours. And why do you have to "beg him" to stop contacting you? Because he remains in charge.

Also note, his jealousy and pettiness are particularly toxic methods of control. Jealousy does not indicate love or caring for your well-being. It only proves that he is controlling. And there is nothing “cute” about that.

Deborah L. Davis
Source: Deborah L. Davis

On Yo-Yo Relationships:

Why do you stay? Because intermittent reinforcement is a powerful hook. Remember those experiments with rats? When rewards are sporadic and unpredictable, a rat will relentlessly push the lever because persistence gets the reward.

The yo-yo relationship has the same effect, rewarding your persistence and your ability to hang in there. It keeps you just hopeful enough to get sucked into the next round of courtship that follows a period of withdrawal. Whenever you're rejected, you remember the good times, and before you lose hope, here comes another reconciliation. And even when you think you've had enough, it's hard to get away from the allure of another "up" after enduring another "down."

So, how can you get the closure you seek? How can you get rid of "the hope in my heart for us?" How can you escape the yo-yo? Here are five keys.

Deborah L. Davis
Source: Deborah L. Davis

1. Remember, actions always speak louder than words. Talk is cheap. It's not what he says (“I miss you”), but what he does (pushes you away) that indicates his true status and agenda. Don’t believe a single word that is contrary to his actions. Don’t try to read between the lines. There is nothing more to it. He is what he does. And essentially, a yo-yo relationship indicates that he’s “just not that into you.” He is into controlling you and the relationship.

2. Understand that you've been knocked off-center. In addition to his words not matching his actions, his words aren't even consistent. He says something one day and contradicts himself another day. He pairs “affection” with “affliction.” It’s on-again, off-again. Caring, then rejecting. Nothing lines up or makes sense. And the yo-yo effect is crazy-making, yes?

3. Ask yourself: "Is this how I want to live?" It's awful, being jerked around and strung along. Reaffirm your desire to restore your balance. Honor your impulse to run like the wind.

4. Recognize that you can take charge of this situation. You can say “no more.” No more falling under his spell when he says he’s thinking of you. No more reconciliation. No more yo-yo. You can permanently break up with him. You can block his calls and texts. You can stop begging, and start standing tall and acting on your own behalf. Shift your hopes from “I want this relationship to work” to “I want a real relationship that really works.”

Deborah L. Davis
Source: Deborah L. Davis

5. Remember your worth. Just because you're not looking for marriage, you don't have to settle for ambivalent guys, controlling guys, zero commitment, or a rollercoaster ride of "he loves me; he loves me not." You deserve better. Truly.

As you begin to see this relationship more clearly, you may look back and wonder why the heck you stayed in it for so long. But you stayed as long as you needed, in order to learn the lessons it offered you. Wiser, you'll never look at yo-yo relationships the same, and you won't get sucked in again.

Note: For more on Ambivalence, check out this blog post. It tells you how to get in touch with your body, which never lies about what's good and what's bad for you.