Approach-Avoidance Behavior Seeks Safety and Protection

Dear Neil:  I have been involved with a man for two years.  After four months of intense dating and heavy pursuit on his part, he asked me to marry him.  I said “yes,” believing this to be a whirlwind courtship and somewhat of a Cinderella fairytale.  I was 34 years old and had never been married.  Within weeks of the engagement, he was pursuing “friendships” with other women.  One of these relationships became a sexual one.

Here is the pattern that has evolved in our relationship:  he wants to commit and/or move in, and then backs out.  When pressed for a reason, he is never sure.  Literally one day he wants to get married, the next he isn’t sure if he wants to stay in this relationship at all.

Our relationship seems to have a wall in place.  I am truly at the end of my rope and I’m considering ending this relationship.  Any help you could offer would be greatly appreciated.

Puzzled in Lincoln, Nebraska


Dear Puzzled:  It sounds as if you’re in an “approach-avoidance” relationship.  In approach-avoidance relationships, when you want closeness with the other person, s/he is not available and does not want you.   When you get fed up and you distance, the other person wants you very much.

Some people will only fall in love with you if you don’t fall in love back.  They want you only when they can’t have you.  When they can have you, they get scared and threatened—and then act remote, judgmental, critical, superior, too busy and not interested.  Frequently they give double messages, such as “come closer but keep your distance” simultaneously.

The approach-avoidant person wants closeness, but only a little bit, and only in safe doses.  S/he unwittingly modulates closeness and distance:  when you want closeness, fears of intimacy get triggered and s/he backs off.  When you get fed up with that behavior and back off yourself, s/he acts closer and more intimate.

The unspoken stance taken in such relationships is “I can’t afford to let you matter too much, because if I do, I’m afraid of you hurting me.  So we’re going to have to be more distant, because then it will be safer.”

So what can you do when you’re involved with an approach-avoidant person?  For one thing, you’re going to have to figure out where your limits and boundaries are.  If you don’t set limits with this behavior, you’ll feel if as you’re riding a roller coaster over which no one has control.

You can also challenge emotionally withdrawn or distancing behavior when it occurs.  Ask such questions as “What is threatening you right now?  What is happening right now that feels unsafe to you?  What can I do to help you feel safer and more protected?”

Affectionate touch—holding hands, cuddling, backrubs—is probably the most powerful thing you can do to help an approach-avoidant person stay close and connected.

One comment on “Approach-Avoidance Behavior Seeks Safety and Protection

  1. What if you are dating a fearful-avoidant and they retreat? They will not respond to texts and will not answer calls. It’s been 14 days this time around and I’m wondering if going to their house is a good idea or not. Do they want space but secretly want you to reach out that way?

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