“Why are you pulling away, just when things were getting good?”

When we become increasingly intimate with another person, particularly in a sexual relationship, all kinds of fears and vulnerabilities can arise, often at an unconscious level.

This is quite natural and common, and often happens to either or both partners just when things have been the best. We each require a unique balance of togetherness and autonomy to feel comfortable and safe, and when the balance gets tipped, there can be trouble in paradise.

Couple - relationship tug of war

Even if we want more intimacy, the most common fears that arise in the face of it are fears of engulfment or abandonment.

A typical response to fear of engulfment is to push your partner away or to pull away yourself. Sometimes with fear of abandonment, you may try to pull your partner closer, triggering his or her fear of engulfment so that he or she pulls away (exactly what you were trying to avoid).

This can be dramatic, perhaps taking the form of outbursts or “arguments.” Or it can take place on a subtle level leaving both people feeling vaguely unloved, more fearful and estranged to some degree.

The trick is to recognize what’s happening and talk about your feelings.

It always affects both people, so try looking inside to identify the fears that led you into this dynamic, and share them with your partner. This will be much more effective than pointing the finger at the other person’s fears or behavior. Don’t blame yourself either; it’s more helpful to accept it as part of your psychological makeup and work with it.

Remember that each person requires a different combination of intimacy and autonomy, overall and at any given time. And the ideal combination changes from time to time, either in response to unrelated events in the individual’s life or the dynamic within the couple.

Recognizing and exploring the push-pull dynamic can expand your safety envelope with your partner and lead you to a deeper emotional connection. It can also make choppy relationship waters easier to navigate in the future.

Whether or not you’re in a relationship right now:

You might find it enlightening to reflect on any push-pull dynamics in your past relationships.

Many relationships end for appropriate reasons. However, sometimes worthwhile relationships end because one or both people bump up against fears of abandonment and/or engulfment and proceed to pull or push their way out because they can’t see the big picture (and often blame the other person).

Could this be you? Would recognizing this be helpful next time around?

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  1. Ambrose johnson says:

    A excellent article which identifies what is probably the main cause of far too many marital break-ups.

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