Running Away From Closeness Keeps You Stuck in Your Childhood Story

Dear Neil: I believe the key to running away from someone you want is interesting. I grew up in an abusive home. My mom called the police, and my dad had to move out. I asked my dad if I could go too, but he said no. It felt normal for me to witness and experience abuse. As I became a teenager, I was always looking for love and to feel safe—because I felt abandoned by my father and didn’t think of myself as good enough for anyone.

I got pregnant at the age of 15. I wanted someone to love me so badly, and I was pushed into marriage because I was told that getting married was the right thing to do. I never knew love until recently, and I ran away from him, because I have been shut down to a close relationship since childhood. When I shared my childhood secrets with this recent man, I loved him a little more, but I felt too vulnerable to stay with him.

Walled Off in Ohio

Dear Neil: When I was 13, my sister and I got caught “experimenting.” My stepfather made me pull down my pants and he belittled me. That was 40 years ago. My low self-worth has ruined every relationship I have had with a woman. How do I heal myself? I want true intimacy.

Tired of Not Feeling Good Enough in Idaho

Dear Walled Off and Tired: Some people won’t permit themselves to get close to others. Because of hurtful early life experiences, falling in love and being close to someone triggers their fears of feeling inadequate, being rejected and losing control over their lives. So they withdraw—or push people away—as a way of protecting themselves.

Unfortunately, running away from a relationship is not an effective way of overcoming your fears, your low self-esteem or your feelings of inadequacy—and it doesn’t repair your past. Running away from a close relationship simply keeps you stuck in your childhood story, and reinforces your sense of powerlessness about finding or keeping love. It also cements the belief that you’re destined to fail in your intimate relationships.

The only way to overcome these feelings is to give yourself an honest chance to succeed in a love relationship, by taking the following steps. First, put your heart out there all over again, because you cannot love if you don’t give yourself and risk feeling vulnerable again. Second, don’t run away when the two of you get into a disagreement or a conflict, or go through some rough spots. Instead, look at how the two of you could blend with each other so you both might feel okay compromising. Also, you don’t win every battle in an intimate relationship, so occasionally you’re going to give in and agree to do things your partner’s way, without you getting angry or withdrawing.

Third, trust is built by revealing some of your sensitivities and vulnerabilities, and also by handling your partner’s confidences with compassion. Do this, and trust is likely to grow between the two of you. Fourth, consider getting into therapy so you might make peace with your childhood story, and help yourself heal. And finally, tell your partner about your earlier life experiences and where your sensitive spots are, and what s/he can do to help you feel safe, protected and cared for in the relationship.

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