[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
Since beginning therapy over 5 years ago, I have traveled up and down the halls of attachment styles, read books, talked at length with therapists #3 and #4, and tried very hard to convert myself from an anxious-avoidant person to a secure one. This is easier said that done though, and my attraction to avoidant people is strong. It is rooted in a desire to be close, but not too close. To win a love that is unobtainable, and I know that, yet I keep running into it headfirst. Because I am both anxious and avoidant, I grow anxious around avoidant folks but avoidant around anxious folks. Neediness is a turn-off, “I’m not here to solve your problems,” I think, before turning to an avoidant man, wanting him to solve my problems. Our brains can really fuck us up, can’t they?
Therapist #4 asked me one day if I love myself. I answered, “Yes. What kind of question is that?”
“Good,” he said. He seemed to believe me. “Then all you need to do is prioritize yourself over any random dude who decides he wants to try to date you. And if you can,” he peered at me over the rim of his round glasses, “take things very, very slow.”
So, I did. I started baby stepping my way into getting to know new people. I started looking for signs of avoidance and avoiding them. I lowered my expectations to the ground, stepped over them, and fully embraced the possibility that I might be alone, forever. At least I can’t hurt myself, too much, I thought.
But then I met a man, not on purpose, who exhibited all the right signs, or so I thought. He was thoughtful and attentive. He asked the right questions, tried to get to know me better. He planned dates, picked me up, opened doors, held my hand. Our chemistry was palpable. He made me feel special. But still, I resisted because I knew that this dynamic normally doesn’t last. Avoidant men want what they cannot have, and the longer I resist, the harder they pursue until eventually I catch feelings. It's the catching of feelings that normally pushes the avoidant men away. They sense a shift in our dynamic and that is the beginning of the end. I thought this man was different. He seemed different. We communicated openly. I felt safe and loved in his company. We made each other laugh. Everything seemed great. But. There is always a “but.”
But, he was much older than me. That wasn’t a problem, though. The problem was that I assumed age equaled maturity equaled intention. He had trouble being intimate, which didn’t seem like a deal breaker necessarily. I was ready to work through it, stupidly willing to patch up the holes in our blossoming relationship. I loved him and wanted to be close. He may have loved me, but for reasons I'll never know, could not let me get close, the walls of his heart too thick to penetrate, his past bleeding into his present like ink seeping across a wet page. His narrative was muddied. He was not sure what he wanted. Was not sure how to let someone in, especially someone like me, who wears her heart on her sleeve, who could sense his trepidation and questioned it openly.
I read that an eagle can spot a rabbit from hundreds of yards away. The closer I flew to his fear, the faster he ran. The more he tried to hide, the more I pried. But what he didn’t understand is that once a truth is known it is impossible to unlearn. I could not take away his fear. I could not quench his thirst for love at an arms distance. I felt the dissolution long before it happened, anxiety washing over me in long, heavy waves. One night, he asked if we could just be friends. I sat in the passenger seat of his car and cried until my eyes became slabs of raw meat. He sat silently, uncomfortably, waiting for my tears to ebb. I wondered why he didn’t also feel hurt. I do not know if he did hurt, but I did know that I could not bear to revert a once intimate relationship back into the realm of friendship. Not now. Not yet.
I didn’t understand why he retreated, yet I did. I understood exactly why someone runs from the thing they want most, because I had done run for years, toeing the line between life and death as if it were a game. Thinking I had finally conquered my eating disorder just to wind up with my head in another toilet, my recovery back to square one. I understood not wanting to talk about the things that hurt the most because I’d done that in therapy for years until the watershed couldn’t hold any longer. It took years for me to address my historic traumas, the avoidant attachments and not-good-enoughness that punctuated my childhood. The family arguments that made my child-self feel unsafe; the way we brushed uncomfortable topics beneath the table, hoping they would disappear into the floorboards when really, they just got stuck and rotted the foundation we stood upon. These dynamics would take me years to untangle and would manifest in relationships almost automatically.
Relationships end all the time. Most relationships will probably fail. But this one stung uniquely hard because I had been careful. I knew what I wanted. I waited, and watched, and guarded my heart until I felt safe only to find that I’d stepped into a thicket of brambles. I walked away doubting my own intuition, doubting the inner compass I’d come to rely upon to guide me to the next best thing. I felt as if I’d deceived myself, and that is a difficult feeling to accept.
Relationships end all the time, for hundreds of reasons. Maybe someone cheats, or abuses, or harms another person. Those break ups are easy to justify but hard to forget. Sometimes two people grow apart, their wants and needs misaligned. And sometimes, one person is griped by fear, so breaks a good thing to avoid potential pain. Those are the breakups that are hard to justify, and I hope, easier to let go.
I will never know what kind of anxieties or thoughts dance in another human’s brain. But I do know myself, have dived deep into my ugly and broken parts, trying to make sense of my habits, trying to make sense of needs. And I do know that most hurts subside with enough time. I know that usually, people do not intentionally hurt the people they love. And here is a new and beautiful truth: I love myself enough not to break my own heart trying to patch another person together. I love myself enough to let someone go, to tear off the bandage quickly and let them figure out their own pains, if they wish.