Thanks for reading Can We Talk?, a monthly sex and relationships column that aims to tackle the burning questions you’re too afraid to ask your partner — or maybe even your besties. Every month, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, will help you parse through your most heart-rending, complicated, morally ambiguous, or just plain confusing issues related to sex, dating, relationships, breakups, and everything in between. This week, DeGeare advises someone with an anxious attachment style, who continuously goes for run-away partners.
Help. I’m stuck in a dating pattern and can’t get out. Time and time again, I find myself with people who seem to really like me at first, but then they pull away. As soon as they start to hold back, I begin to get extremely attached (not only to them, but even just the idea of them). I truly spiral out of control, becoming so annoying and asking to hang out constantly because I’m scared it will end.
This same cycle happened again recently. I had a fling with someone who, at first, said they were into me. When I eventually asked what he was looking for, he said he didn’t want a relationship. Since I want to be with someone long-term, I decided to walk away. I was so proud of myself. But then I saw him out in the city and I completely lost my strength — I ended up going to his place to see him, and we hooked up. It was so weird and awkward. I regret it all. I feel so stupid, and I’m having a hard time letting it go. At 25 years old, I just want to get out of this cycle of anxious attachments.
I believe part of my problem stems back to my first and only relationship, which ended five years ago. It was very toxic, with lots of highs and lows. I stayed through all of the good and bad because I loved them, and, frankly, I didn't think being alone would be any better. I got comfortable in my own misery.
I also think part of this could go back to the fact that my dad is not in the picture. My parents divorced when I was four years old. My dad had partial custody of my brother and me, but he’d often cancel ‘his’ weekends with us. Later, he would reel us back in by taking us on an extravagant vacation.
In the end, I worry about the fact that I keep going for people who are hard to love. I am so loving, and believe I would be so easy to love, but I just haven't found it yet. I’m looking for some perspective on this, as it's been tough.
Please Pick Me
Please Pick Me
Hey Please Pick Me,
Upon reading your question, the first thought I had was: Wow, I can relate. I think many of us have felt this sense of need and anxiousness during different chapters of our lives.
It sounds like you’re chasing after the idea of the relationship, and not the joy that comes from feeling, belonging, and connecting. And I imagine whatever kept you in the first toxic relationship is a part of why you are getting reactive now when people pull away.
You see, we all have stories we carry around. Often, these stories are based on rigid ideas of what a happy life is, or even a fixed view of what “belonging” feels like. These stories start to build when we’re young, as we see the relationships around us, and feel how people respond to our needs. In order to begin to break down unhealthy patterns we feel stuck in, we must unpack our stories, the ones we’ve had since childhood, and separate them from our lived reality as adults.
Of course, if this deep inner work were as simple as telling yourself to stop chasing down people who are not interested in you, well, you would already be doing it. It seems that a fear of abandonment is a real and scary worry for you. This fear may be causing that powerful urge to hold on tighter as someone slips through your fingers.
You have an instinct to keep fighting for those who aren’t fighting for you. This tells me that you have experienced a deep rejection, a primal hurt, and that it caused your body so much pain that you will do basically anything to avoid feeling that way again. You got burned once by a hot stove, and you don’t want to touch it again. You want to avoid being left behind, to avoid pain. The problem is, life comes with a lot of rejection.
Putting in the work to change your behavior starts with finding what we in the business would call an “attachment wound” — that moment from childhood or an early relationship when you touched the metaphorical stove — then tending to it. It’s time to put some emotional aloe on and help that thing heal. Attachment wounds are specific events that leave you feeling that people will not be consistently there for you. Attachment wounds can inform our attachment styles, or the way we relate to others in relationships. (There are online quizzes developed by experts in this field that can help you suss out your attachment style, like this one.)
Our primary caretakers are supposed to love, protect, and nurture us. If they are unavailable, we start to figure out for ourselves why that is. We might blame ourselves, and this is when some insecurities will start. We are left to build our own understanding of what it feels like when we are loved, and, depending on what our childhood was like, that definition can be incorrect. A lot of the repetitive patterns we notice in our relationships will come back to our attachment style. The good news is, they can be shifted.
It sounds like you already have an idea of one of your emotional wounds: your early relationship with your dad. When children have caretakers that leave them craving more, as adults, they might interpret someone being distant and unavailable as exciting and worth their energy. Yes, even as their conscious mind is thinking, Okay, I want to find a relationship with a person who is emotionally available and prioritizes our time together. I know this all sounds a little upside-down, but that's the upside-down we need to swim in for a bit.
Other ways to identify emotional wounds include: thinking about the inconsistencies in how you felt loved and cared for early in life, and the ways you felt the people around you didn't attune with your emotional needs. You can also ask yourself what feels scary about being alone. What do you worry about when you think about being in a healthy relationship? As you think about those questions, what insecurities come up for you, specifically related to relationships, romantic and platonic? Sometimes it’s not only the big, “capital T” trauma events we want to focus on. I would think beyond your dad’s absence. It can be the smaller experiences and slight wounds that shape your view of the world — a loss of friendship in middle school, or a time when you struggled to fit in.
Another entry point to doing the work to heal your attachment wounds and adjust your attachment style is to think about your own identity and how it did not match the dominant culture around you growing up — or even still. Say you are a Black person in primarily white spaces and you didn’t get asked out much. Or, you got asked out a lot, but it was more due to fetishization. Maybe your close friends all had two-parent homes, and you didn't. Then, when a middle-school friend suddenly started bullying you, you told yourself that you were not likable because of something you already felt insecure about. For all you know, your friend just didn’t like that you got better grades; the reason they pushed you away may not be the reason you arrived at back then. But we build our stories of who we are and where we belong in the world around all these kinds of interactions.
Ultimately, if we don’t repair these wounds, we walk around with a misinformed story about ourselves: that we’ll never find love for this or that reason. Uncovering these wounds is what I want you to sit with for a bit. This is what doing the work looks like, beyond telling yourself, “Next time, I’ll just block him on everything,” or “I’ll avoid hitting up the bars in his neighborhood next time.”
We can’t change what happened to us, but we can work on healing it. Showing up to a new relationship in the most healed place will support building a healthy, intimate, secure connection. It will also help you more quickly identify a relationship that is not working, so you can end it on your terms.
Another thing to think about: It sounds like you keep getting blindsided by partners who pull back. We so often hyperfocus on if the other person seems happy, and we skip right over if we genuinely are. Honestly, it can be a lot less work if we try to control or analyze someone else when we are scared, compared to sitting in our own anxious bodies. But by noticing how you are feeling, you can feel more empowered. As you start to feel a shift from “This is fun!” to “He seems distant,” you might recognize that it makes you feel rejected, needy, and scared. If you’ve been focused on the other person, you might have responded to those feelings by chasing; by focusing on yourself, you might decide to take care of yourself by being the one to end things. On the other hand, when you listen to yourself, with the right person, you may also start to feel the shift between “This is fun!” to “We’re getting closer” — the feeling of your body relaxing, you becoming more vulnerable, you building trust.
I believe you are a wonderful person. I haven't even met you, and I trust that. I want you to be with people who celebrate you, who chose you, and who show genuine curiosity in getting to know what makes you uniquely wonderful. But the search for that person starts within yourself. The longest and most important relationship you will have in your life is the one you have with yourself, and this is the one you need to prioritize to navigate all this. Be needy with how deeply you learn to love yourself.
DeGeare is a licensed marriage and family therapist, who specializes in intimacy, LGBTQIA+ relationships, mixed-culture couples, and racial identity development. The advice in this column is to point you in a direction that encourages healing and creates safety for you in this world. It is not to replace the relationship with a licensed mental health professional who knows your personal history.