When Deborah, 38, and Scott, 39, (*not their real names) sat on the couch in my office during a couples counseling session, they described their pursuer-distancer pattern. Deborah seeks more connection and affirmation than Scott is comfortable giving. When Deborah makes demands, Scott retreats because he feels criticized and unworthy.
Deborah put it like this, “I feel so lonely in my marriage like I did growing up. I don’t think my parents cared much about me. They were either fighting or threatening to leave. Eventually, my dad moved out when I was ten and never turned back. My therapist says my fear of abandonment is triggered by Scott’s withdrawal and I know she’s right. But it’s hard to give him space when I need reassurance.”
Scott reflects, “When Deborah gets clingy and points out my faults, like not paying attention to her, it makes me feel trapped and discouraged. So, I just walk away.”
What I explained to Deborah and Scott is that we tend to have a composite picture of the people who influenced us in the past—their looks, personality, tone of voice, behavior, and other traits. People often gravitate toward relationships that resemble their parents or the way their parents treated them.
For instance, you might pick someone who is emotionally detached because one of your parents was that way. Psychoanalysts refer to this as “repetition compulsion.” It’s an unconscious tendency to want to fix the past, to recreate it, to make it better.
Imprecise childhood memories and unrealistic expectations
Everyone has assumptions about how relationships work based on their prior experiences. These assumptions, which include how others treat you, can lead to unrealistic expectations, misunderstandings, and disappointment.
“We humans are unique in how much error we pass along to our offspring. This is problematic since children lack the intellectual or emotional base of experience to know whether their parents’ messages are correct. Thus, a woman who was constantly told that men can’t be trusted complied with this belief by choosing men who couldn’t be trusted or by provoking men to behave in an untrustworthy fashion.”
Joshua Coleman, Ph.D.
Most people enter marriage with unrealistic expectations that their partner will restore wholeness. They have a faint memory of their childhood and attempt to recreate it. Truthfully, even in families where parents did their best to nurture their children and maintain stability, there is a myriad of opportunities for things to go wrong.
In Keeping the Love You Find, Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., writes “We develop defenses against the inadequacies of our childhoods, over which we have no control, and we drag them along with us wherever we go, whomever we’re with. These are coping mechanisms, which, through repetition, harden into character defenses that continue through life to obey the original mandate to ensure our survival. They are the only way we know to protect us in what we perceive as threatening situations.”
For instance, Deborah clings to Scott when he recoils from her. This behavior can be traced back to her childhood when she’d reach for her dad and he’d turn away from her. However, Deborah focuses on the few times her father took her to the beach and bought her ice cream. Since she idealized her father, Scott rarely lives up to her expectations.
Or, Scott withdraws at the first sign that Deborah criticizes him. He reenacts early patterns of experiencing harsh criticism from his demanding father. When Deborah makes critical remarks, he withdraws and pushes her away. He fears being controlled by her, like he was by his dad.
When you get close to someone, it can bring to the surface unresolved issues from the past. In Deborah’s case, she wasn’t aware of her fear of abandonment until after she married to Scott. Due to the inconsistency in her caregivers, she developed an anxious attachment style. It’s difficult to separate from Scott and see him as a person with good qualities and flaws.
Likewise, Scott’s avoidant attachment style developed as a result of having a father who was controlling and insensitive. Scott’s fear of entrapment surfaced after the birth of their son when Deborah started needing more support (she found parenting challenging due to ineffective role models).
Once Deborah and Scott gained awareness about how the differences in their attachment styles contributed to their pursuer-distancer dynamic, they could discuss it and felt less triggered. They learned to empathize and be more understanding.
Most experts believe that the first step in getting out from the shadow of your past is to gain awareness. This means to adopt a more realistic picture of your childhood. Do this by talking to one or both of your parents, siblings, or close friends. Try to maintain an open mind, even if their memories of your childhood differ significantly from your own.
Next, examine the extent that childhood experiences affect the way you experience your partner’s behavior. Pay special attention to the ways your parents dealt with conflict. Did they communicate effectively, argue for extended periods, or sweep things under the rug? If they rarely spent time together discussing issues, this might cause you to overreact to your partner when he or she turns away from you. Then, acknowledge the damage done in your childhood and focus on healing rather than blame. Take ownership of how unhealthy dynamics in your upbringing may color your thinking about your partner. You can develop an accepting perspective by focusing on their strengths rather than flaws. Make a plan to repair any damage done. For instance, attend couples counseling and read books together such Dr. John Gottman’s book Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.