Dear Neil: I’m writing in response to your recent column on “approach-avoidance” behavior. I am a victim of this behavior, because I find intimate relationships painful. I feel torn by two feelings. Part of me wants to be close and loved, and the other part of me just wants to be left alone. I’ve been married for twenty-two years, though at this point we are living together separately. Divorce is out of the question.
What bothered me about your response was the phrase “there is no way to conquer this dilemma.” Are people like me doomed to a life without intimacy? I cannot watch a romantic movie without breaking down in tears because I’m watching what I feel I will never have. Is there no answer? No cure? After reading your response, I feel I’m fighting a losing battle.
Dear Torn: If you’re involved with someone who exhibits “approach-avoidance” behavior, and therefore gets standoffish and distant whenever the relationship gets warm and close—there is nothing you can do to make that person stay connected, engaged and intimate with you.
But if you are the person being withdrawn and standoffish, and you want that behavior to change, there is a great deal you can do so you won’t be “doomed” to a life without intimacy.
First, catch yourself withdrawing or disconnecting from your spouse. Then tell your spouse what you’re feeling—and especially what you’re fearing. Stay in dialogue, continuously letting him/her in on your fears.
Staying emotionally engaged is the single most useful thing you can do to break the pattern of withdrawing and distancing. What could you do in order to make things closer with your mate? If you cannot answer that question, ask him or her, and honor the feedback offered to you.
Tell your mate that you want the two of you to have a better relationship. Make sure you communicate that desire, not just through your words, but also with what you do. Affectionate touch, not necessarily sexualized touch, but holding hands/cuddling/hugging touch, is probably the most powerful thing you can do to warm up a distant or icy relationship.
Try keeping a daily log or journal of your feelings. It will help you stay in touch with your emotions, and it will assist you in being conscious of when your fears are strongest.
Also, keep conversations about work, news, weather and sports to a minimum. You don’t usually get close to other people talking about those subjects. Talk instead about your dreams, disappointments, fears, goals, hopes, and what helps you to stay engaged and connected. If you are not talking about what you are feeling and what matters to you, you will have a difficult time trusting and feeling close no matter what else you do.
Are there any substances (food, alcohol, drugs, etc.) you are using that keeps you numb or emotionally unavailable? If so, you’re going to need to lessen their influence in your life.
Tell your spouse what needs of yours he/she is fulfilling—and also talk about those needs that he/she is failing to fulfill. Lastly, explore what you would need to do—and cease doing—in order for you to become more open and vulnerable to your mate.