Breaking a Pattern

Dear Elana, 

I’m almost 40, and my relationships never last more than one to two years. I am seeing someone right now, and I was really excited about him when we first met, but now my interest is waning. This seems to be a pattern for me. I’m always the one who leaves – and then I feel regret and loss – but I don't know how to break the pattern because I start to feel stuck, and I wonder what I am missing out on by being in the relationship. I don't know if I'm falling for the wrong men or fleeing before the relationship solidifies. How can I break the pattern? 

– Serial monogamist seeking long-term romance

I’m so afraid of losing something I love that I refuse to love anything, maybe that would have made the impossible possible. Maybe, but I couldn’t do it, I had buried too much too deeply inside me. And here I am, instead of there.
— Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Dear SMSLTR,

It sounds like you want a lasting relationship, but something keeps pulling you away and you can't quite put your finger on it. It is a force that is powerful enough to drive a wedge between lovers. I wonder if the force is fear. 

If you have been hurt in the past, you may have developed defenses to protect yourself, and your behavior of engaging in relationships that have an expiration date could be your own clever security system. The problem is that your defenses create a self-sabotaging cycle. When you push your partner away because you anticipate that he will hold you back, you prevent your budding relationship from developing into a secure and stable partnership. 

The scientific literature on attachment theory can help shine light on this behavior. According to attachment theory, there are three styles of bonding: anxious, avoidant and secure. Based on your letter, you may have an avoidant attachment style because it sounds like you have a tendency to avoid conflict, to prize your independence and freedom, and to plan an escape when the stakes get too high. Your boyfriend may have an anxious attachment style if he craves closeness, intimacy, and connection – and if his attempts to engage with you sometimes make you feel trapped. 

Fortunately, your attachment style is fluid and changes over time in response to your life experiences. The goal is to become more secure over time. Individuals who are secure feel comfortable giving and receiving affection. They don't take problems too personally, they express their feelings directly, and they are responsive to their partners' needs. If their partner feels suffocated, they give them space; if their partner feels needy, they give them reassurance. 

Because relationships are easy for secure types, they tend to leave the dating pool early, and they rarely re-enter it. That leaves a lot of anxious and avoidant people who try to date each other. The anxious people chase the avoidants, and the avoidants run away because they are afraid of being rejected. 

If you want to break your habit of fleeing from commitment, you can start by communicating your needs clearly – no matter how frightening or uncomfortable it might feel. If you crave freedom, independence and the ability to pursue your dreams, then articulate your needs to your boyfriend and ask whether he is on board. If the answer is yes then, congratulations – you may have met your match! Find out what he needs from you to feel secure and accepted in the relationship. If he needs reassurance, attention and support, try to figure out how you can meet his needs without squelching your own. Expect ongoing negotiation in any lasting relationship. Roll up your sleeves and open your heart. 

Communicate with your anxious boyfriend by asking directly for time alone when you need it. Recognize that your desire for space may be about you, not him. Remember that you were crazy about him when you first met, and that you can keep those feelings alive if you nurture the relationship. Be patient with him, and show him that you are planning to stick around for the long haul. Over time, both of you can become more secure. Once he realizes that you love him, he will be willing to let you go away, knowing you will return. When you learn that he will respect your space, you will feel more comfortable being close and affectionate.

If you are interested in learning more about romantic attachment styles, I recommend reading the book, Attached, by Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S.F. Heller, M.A.