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Unloved Daughters: Are You on the Run from Relationship?

How childhood experiences influence how we deal with emotional connection

Key points

  • Always being the one to end a relationship may reflect a need for control or a fear and lack of trust.
  • There are healthy ways of ending a relationship, as opposed to unhealthy ones like ghosting.
  • What matters is whether or not a pattern of behavior is working for or against you.
Photograph by Karsten Winegart. Copyright free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by Karsten Winegart. Copyright free. Unsplash

This was what Jenny, age 38, wrote me:

“I am always the one to leave at the first sign of any stress or disagreement. It’s happened in every romantic connection and, as a result, I’m never with one partner for more than six months; my longest relationship lasted a year but that was because my therapist was coaching me. My close friendships last a bit longer but it takes real effort to resist the instinct to flee. The problem is that my reasons for leaving aren’t always the same; sometimes, I feel too vulnerable and other times, I just don’t feel it’s worth the trouble. The problem is that I don’t like being alone, either. It’s emotionally very confusing.”

Jenny isn’t alone; I hear from adult daughters all the time who are struggling with the impulse to grab their running shoes and head for the hills. Whether we had love and support in childhood or not, all of us will find it necessary to exit a relationship at various times in our lives, whether it’s a romance, a friendship, or an acquaintanceship. People grow apart or reveal themselves to be different than we thought they were, or we simply discover that each of us wants different things. But if you always have your running shoes at the ready and it’s well-nigh impossible for you to maintain any relationship, that’s a very different matter.

What Makes Us Habitual Runaways or Ghosters?

There are many reasons you might be behaving in this way, some of them contradictory on the surface. Leaving first and doing the bait-cutting keeps you fully in control, and it may be that you act first because the idea of being left is just too painful for you to bear. The preemptive strike may be preferable to dealing with being rejected, although you may not admit that to yourself. Then again, being in control may simply be paramount to you because you don’t like feeling dependent on anyone.

But you may also leave because confrontations of any kind scare the daylights out of you because that’s what you learned in your family of origin. Adult children of parents who are high in control, narcissistic traits, or who are combative by nature—and who use verbal abuse to keep their offspring in line—often have real problems distinguishing a dialogue or disagreement from a fight. As relationship expert John Gottman points out, it’s not whether you disagree—all couples do—but how you act and treat your partner in the course of that disagreement.

How to Stop the Pattern

Keep in mind that not every unloved daughter actually wants to be in a committed or long-term relationship and if that person is you and you are happy with your life, you be you. But if you’re unhappy with how connection is working in your life, it would serve you to trace your behavior back to its childhood roots.

Generally speaking, this behavior reflects the avoidant style of insecure attachment; you will have to plumb your own feelings and thoughts to discover whether it’s the dismissive or fearful type, which have distinct characteristics.

People with a dismissive-avoidant style of attachment have a high opinion of themselves and a low opinion of others. They pride themselves on being more independent than others and are more comfortable with superficial relationships than ones that involve real intimacy. This isn’t to say that they don’t like being in relationships; they do, but only on their terms and if they can call the shots. They don’t worry about their relationships too much, and they are quick to rebound and find another partner when a relationship ends. (This is the attachment style associated with those high in narcissistic traits.)

The fearful-avoidant adult is quite different. While this daughter may have been deprived of love and attention and support in childhood, that did nothing to abate her need, unlike the dismissive-avoidant. If the dismissive-avoidant seems cool as a cucumber on the surface, while hiding shame and other feelings below, the fearful-avoidant is in a very different place. She has a low opinion of self but a high opinion of others, and this adult daughter is always waiting for someone to finally pay attention and give her the validation she needs. In some ways, this is the worst of all possible worlds because she really wants connection but is always fearful of rejection, sensitive to slights and disagreements, and holds back in situations that could yield real results. Her trust issues have her reaching for her running shoes at the very first sign of trouble.

Questions to Ask Yourself

If this pattern is worrying or upsetting to you, begin by asking yourself the following questions and see where you end up. Writing your answers down will improve clarity if you use cool processing, as always.

  • What did I learn in my family of origin about resolving differences or working out problems? How skilled or unskilled am I at talking things through with someone else?
  • Do I leave because I have a list of thought-through reasons — I’m bored or disappointed; this person is not who I thought he or she was; I feel frustrated and angry, etc. — or is it just a generalized, unarticulated feeling that I need to get out? (If you’re writing your answers down, try to expand and be as precise as you can.)
  • Do I exit relationships in consistent ways? How do I handle it? Do I talk to the person or do I tend to ghost him or her? Is this ever a discussion (as in “Should we continue?”) or do I always have my position set and there’s no leeway?
  • How do I feel after I’ve left? Validated in the main and sure that I’ve made the right choice? Or do I feel as though, somehow, the relationship might have been salvaged but I didn’t feel like putting in the effort? Or do I smart at failing once again?
  • Does this pattern reflect what I really want from relationships?

Remember that your attachment style isn’t set in stone; if this pattern no longer serves you, you can learn to respond differently. Again, working with a gifted therapist is the best route, but you can certainly also help yourself.

Adapted from The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood. Copyright © 2019, 2021 Peg Streep