“Before you leave him, leave him alone.” That is what the older women in one 12-step group used to say when talking to younger peers who were struggling with their codependency. The premise is simple; sometimes it is better to allow a problem to fix itself. Here is an example:
A spurned spouse with an anxious attachment style feels angry and rejected that their spouse is not as warm or loving as they want them to be. So, the angry/unloved spouse pouts, throws barbed comments, makes accusations and complains about the callous partner’s lack of care. The message here seems to be, “I am going to be angry and punish you until you start behaving more warmly and loving toward me!” Works every time… right?!!!!
Or, let’s look at the opposite end of the spectrum. Let’s say that an avoidant/dismissing spouse is feeling smothered and needing more space and interpersonal distance. This person might perceive that they cannot ask for the needed space without being accused of being unloving. So, instead of asking, they just take the space they need anyway. They might stay out late or go on a trip with friends (without the spouse of course), or just act very detached and do their own thing on the weekend as if the anxious spouse wasn’t really there. So, that will teach the anxious spouse to back off, right?
Wrong! Our avoidant person just sent the anxious person’s emotional system into hyperactivation mode. The anxious person cannot tolerate not knowing what is going to happen or if they are about to be left… so they will come in closer, ask for more reassurance, be more demanding for closeness, and try to prevent you from taking more trips with friends. So, did the attempt to get space work?
Most of you reading this article will be familiar with some of these patterns. And, we all know they don’t work. The anxious person does not get the warmth, love, and reassurance they need (at least not at a level that will satisfy), and the avoidant person will not attain the needed space and emotional distance to think straight.
So, what do you do?
STOP TRYING AND GIVE UP!
And, no; I do not mean give up on your relationship.
What I mean is that you will gain control by giving up control.
It is what psychologists refer to as a dialectic… a seemingly incompatible contradiction of ideas that actually works.
In my clinical experience, I have found that most avoidant, dismissing people do love their partners. This does not mean that they can tolerate a great deal of closeness and intimacy, but they might put your life before their own if it actually came down to it (as long as it was their idea!). Ironically, the best chance that the anxious person has of getting their partner to get closer and be more loving is, after being very clear about the kind of relationship they want, to stop asking for love and closeness.
No, I am not suggesting that anxiously attached people live their lives in a state of chronic pain and deprivation. But I am saying,
Before deciding to leave your partner, first try an extended period of leaving him or her alone.
You might be surprised that you find yourself receiving more warmth and love that way.
Consider the case of Megan who has an anxious/preoccupied attachment style. Megan took a job where she spends the weekdays in another city away from her husband. This was a difficult adjustment for her (relative to her more dismissing husband), and the emotional space created between her and her husband left her feeling a significant void. Because of this, she wanted more affection and togetherness when she saw her husband on the weekends. And she put a lot of pressure on the weekends. She wanted the time together to be perfect and lovey to make up for the deficit she felt during the week apart.
Megan never talked with her husband about how she was feeling, and it helped that she had a new demanding job taking up her time and mental energy. Within a few months she noticed that her husband was much more physically affection and complementary. He even said things to other people like “I love my wife. She’s really great”—He never did this when they lived together full time. And, he even stated calling her during the week without her prompting. If she had confronted him, I highly doubt he would have responded positively, but by her doing nothing and him doing these things on his own accord, she wound up getting more of what she wanted.
If on the other hand you are coming at this from the avoidant side; try giving up control of your space for a while (again, after being clear about the type of relationship you want). I acknowledge that this will be a difficult feat. But, if you can tolerate it for a while, and can actually manage to give your partner the asked for reassurance, you may find that they back off and stop being so demanding. Then, you might feel like you can breathe and bring yourself back into the relationship.
Consider the case of Mike. Mike’s wife was always accusing him of not listening or caring about what she had to say. Mike had been working hard on his listening skills and thought he had been doing a pretty good job. So, every time his wife “laid into him” he felt falsely accused, misunderstood, and that she was judging him as inept and looked down on him. So, he would do what many normal dismissing person would do… he told her she was over-reactive and neurotic and walked away.
Over time, Mike realized that this behavior wasn’t really getting him what he wanted either. He loved his wife and didn’t like feeling that she was angry and mad at him all the time. After talking with a counselor, he learned to put down his phone during conversations. He learned to pay attention and keep his mind still while his wife was talking so he could listen to her words and respond. Learning how to meditate and control his breathing helped him keep his body calm and stay focused. And he learned how to validate his wife’s view of things and that this did not mean he was wrong. It simply meant that he learned to tell her and show her that he could understand her point of view. He was amazed at how quickly his wife seemed to get more relaxed and loving toward him. And, after talking it over with her, he learned to tell his wife, in a warm and non-irritate way, when he was not feeling mentally available to listen or be attentive (while assuring her that it would only be of a short duration).
Allowing change without forcing it is not that hard, but you do need to be conscious and intentional about it.
While you are controlling your body and remaining present, or while you are releasing your partner to their own needs and space, you must practice remembering, and being, your best self.
Remember the last time you felt self-assured, calm and confident? It may have been right before you got into this last romantic relationship. Try to be that person and realize that you can feel that way with or without your spouse.
If, after a period of setting your partner free (with some deal-breaking restrictions of course) you find that the love or understanding you need just will not come; or the space you need will just not be afforded, then you will have a difficult decision to make. You don’t have to be angry, and things do not have to explode into chaos. You can release the other person with love, recognizing that they simply cannot give you what you need.
P.S. These same concepts can be used in your difficult relationships at work too. Now, go practice!