Approach-Avoidance Behavior Hurtful to a Relationship

Distant Intimacy is Confusing

Dear Neil: I am an attractive professional woman in my early 40’s, and have recently been dating a man who is seven years younger than myself. The start of our relationship was made in heaven: there was a lot of love and infatuation. Suddenly after two months, everything was off, as he needed some “personal space.” We ended our relationship, but reconciled two months later. This on and off pattern has been dragging on now for the past year and a half. When he wants to see me, he is very romantic, caring, loving and open with me. At other times he is rude, abusive, selfish, disrespectful and unappreciative.

I have been very hurt and confused by his behavior. It feels like he enjoys playing games with me. I’ve tried everything I know of, but the pattern doesn’t change. I would appreciate your comments.

Hurt and Confused in Christchurch, New Zealand

Dear Hurt and Confused: You are describing a pattern of behavior known as “Approach-Avoidance.” Here is how is works: when he has you, he doesn’t want you. When he doesn’t have you—and the two of you have a lot of space and separateness—he wants you very much. This “come hither but stay away” scenario repeats itself over and over again, and is hurtful and confusing to anyone who is not wanting so much space and distance. When things are remote, he wants you. When they’re close, he doesn’t. Why? Because then he gets what he really seeks: distant intimacy.

People who want distant intimacy are basically afraid of or intimidated by a lot of closeness. They want closeness, but only in small doses, so they can feel safe. Anything else threatens their comfort zone, and they’ll withdraw or distance. That’s why you get the double message that he wants you—but yet he doesn’t.

It sounds as if your boyfriend doesn’t want—or can’t tolerate—a deeper connection or commitment to you. There is no way to conquer this dilemma, unless you are willing to risk losing the relationship, and even that isn’t foolproof. So try this: see if you can build a fair amount of space and distance into the relationship, so he can feel safe. Be sure to get his input on how to structure the agreement so he is satisfied with it, but make sure it’s not too distant or remote, so you can live with it also. Along with this agreement require a commitment that the two of you will stay together and work things through within the relationship.

If he violates this agreement and breaks up with you one more time, dump him. Few things hurt more in life than wanting someone who doesn’t want—or who can’t tolerate—being with you.

Dear Neil: I would like a woman who is passionate and loving, who doesn’t make many demands on me, who is mature enough to be able to acknowledge when she is wrong, who tries very hard to please me, and who has no bad habits.

Knows What He Wants in Toronto, Ontario

Dear Knows: So would I.

2 comments on “Approach-Avoidance Behavior Hurtful to a Relationship

  1. Dear Neil, I was once in a relationship with a guy and it ended badly. Now I’ve got guys that like me a lot, at first I might not like them and then I do but the moment they start making it serious I pull away and stop having feelings for them.
    I’m in a situation right now, there’s this guy that has always liked me and my likeness for him has not been stable but recently we decided to give us a try and at first I enjoyed spending time with him until he started telling me he loves me every minute and how he wants to be with me and make me happy and all. Now I don’t want to have anything to do with him.
    I think I have a problem. Please help me.

  2. Dear The Confused Me.
    I do not see you have a problem. You have intuition. When you stated, ” he started telling me he loves me every minute and how he wants to be with me and make me happy”, I immediately thought no, no,no,no,no. This person is needy. It sounds like you have a clear idea of the person you want and they are not needy.
    It is very smart not to jump into relationships based on getting along or liking someone, because over time those things can change as you get to know someone. It takes years to truly know if a person is for you. Men and women are usually very kind and easy to get along with in the beginning of a relationship, the less vested you are the easier it is to see the “red” flags as time goes by and bail when necessary..
    Work on building and enjoying relationships with family and friends. Spend quality time with your self expanding your knowledge and hobbies. A well rounded person will be more likely to attract the same but still always remember that many people are manipulative and will pretend to be what they are not.
    Always be open to meeting new people, but when someone says they love you, when they do not really even know you, Run for your life.
    Good luck and great joy to you always, dc.

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