My brain rejects any man who treats me well. Help!
May 6, 2015 2:41 PM   Subscribe

I can stay attracted to emotionally or actually unavailable men for YEARS: but as soon as a guy starts treating me decently and wants to get serious, my brain starts picking him apart and I run away before I hurt him. How can I stop myself from thinking this way and ruining potentially great relationships?

Hi Mefi,

I'm one of those horrible, heartbreaking people who stops feeling attached to my partners as soon as they're available and kind to me. Typically my relationship cycle goes like this:

Chase (I'm into it, he's into it)
New relationship phase (I'm crazy into it, he's into it too)
"We're totally together now" (I start to freak out, he's understandably still into it)
"This was a mistake" (My brain starts picking him apart, I run away before it gets worse because I know it's completely insane and totally a me thing)

I don't know if there's a name for this, though I think I've heard this described as "push pull attraction" in some contexts. However, I'm definitely not trying to manipulate, control or "hook" anyone... I genuinely want to sustain happy, trusting, loyal relationships, and have sabotaged so many of them because I can't rein in negative, critical thoughts about my partners (who in every case are genuinely awesome people that I was crazy about before I started dating them) and never want them to see that.

I only seem to be able to keep being attracted to people who are either emotionally or actually unavailable, in which case I can sustain passionate longing for YEARS. But as soon as a great dude lands in my lap and wants to pursue something with me, I start focusing on and obsessing about his flaws and our fundamental incompatibilities. I've recently started dating someone who's completely amazing: kind, sensitive, thoughtful, funny, wildly attractive, who I have a ton in common with and treats me like a queen. But as soon as we started dating my anxious brain flipped into overdrive and started trying to convince me that meaningless things (like the fact that he doesn't read books often or isn't as career driven as I am) mean we can never be right for each other, that he'll never understand me, etc. etc.

Are any of you like me? Is this some kind of attachment disorder? Have you cured yourself? If so, how?

Thanks hivemind!
posted by libertypie to Human Relations (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you intellectually recognize what's going on and want to change, but your emotional brain / anxiety hasn't quite caught up with your thoughts. In my experience, CBT can be really helpful in strengthening the calm/wise voice inside you and learning to let go of or pay less attention to the self-sabotaging anxious thoughts. I've only done CBT with a therapist, but there are some self-help books (and probably websites) out there too.
posted by insectosaurus at 2:55 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just a brief thought: what was your relationship with your parents like? You might find things to explore in terms of why you do repeatedly do this if you start there.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 2:56 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Are you in therapy? Standard AskMe response, I know, but that might help.

No one will ever be right for you. That isn't a thing. Finding a partner is, at the most basic level, about finding someone that you can accept. Someone whose flaws do not rub against your flaws in an unbearable way.

I am kind of like you - I think it's kind of human. I will say that the thing that cured me outright was that I let go of an amazing man who loved me very much to chase a person who was definitely totally a huge mistake - he abused me and ruined my life. I wouldn't suggest this course of action to you at all, but I would consider thinking about how to appreciate and accept your partners more. The book How to be an Adult in Relationships was very helpful for me as I learned this lesson; perhaps it would be helpful for you to check out as well. Ignore some of the "woo" - it gets a bit weird at points but the basic message is great.
posted by sockermom at 2:59 PM on May 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Not reading books and not being career driven are not really minor things. Especially if they are two things you define yourself by. Those are things you overlook if he's really, really, really amazing in other ways- not just, like, adequate and nice in other ways. Like he'd need to have another rare major hobby in common with you and be really smart, or something. I don't know. But those are valid concerns over a lifetime, and not things that bother you as much in the short term.

Here are some solutions:

1. Be pickier. Maybe your concerns are not all irrational and if you were choosier from the start you wouldn't have this problem.

2. Keep things interesting. Simulate new and exciting partner energy by spending time apart and trying scary new exciting things together. Keep "falling in love" all over again every year or whatever.

3. Have an open relationship. Or just more friendships- the idea is to get the stuff your partner isn't giving you from other sources, so you can appreciate them for what they do give you.
posted by quincunx at 3:01 PM on May 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: this was totally me. In my case it was other mental issues (BPD/PTSD) but listening to you, let's just call it attachment problems for now. And maybe some anxiety / relationship OCD (the obsessing about flaws is a great distraction, no?)

You could say I'm "cured" now; I'm with my fiancee and I don't really feel those feelings anymore.

So yes, see a therapist. Pronto.

How did I get over it? in no particular order
- I learned the difference between neediness vs. actually liking someone's character. I stopped looking for my petty needs to be filled. I started looking for a person's character that I admired, not just whatever cute guy I "clicked" with.
- when I found a character I liked (not shared interests, per se. Not how cool they are. Not what they do for me. But their character - how they conducted themselves, the choices they made, the priorities they set, how they felt about themselves and the world), then I decided I would only leave *if* I had a good reason to (and no, they don't read enough isn't a good reason). I just chose it.
- since I chose it, I didn't have to re-evaluate all the time. When I started re-evaluating, I said: why am I thinking this? It's already been decided. Has anything changed since yesterday? Is something else bothering me? Sometimes it was as simple as "I didn't assert myself there, I didn't feel like pizza that night" which went unnoticed and spiraled into "I should leave." So instead of leaving, I did the small action that would make things better. And it worked!
- I realized I was looking for a guy to be identical to me so I could validate and love myself.
- I developed a better sense of myself. Now I didn't need my guy to be identical to me in order to feel ok.
- when those "omg I should leave" feelings came up, I sat in them. It was excruciating. And then a moment of clarity hit - I was only running away from my own fear of being left, my own fear of not being in control. I decided to face the real fear, not the distraction fear. (Real fear: I'm afraid if I open up and love him, I'll get hurt. Distraction fear: I'm afraid he doesn't like books and then we won't get along in 2 years.)
- I repeat: you need to sit in those feelings and tell them I'm in charge here, not you.
- I told myself: any time I want to run away, I'm just running away from myself
- I accepted that there is some stuff I won't like about my guy. And when it comes up, I chalk it up to "ugh that thing I don't like." I don't take it as a reason to re-evaluate my happy life with him. I take it as statistics: you love some, you tolerate some.
- I realized that as much as I said I wanted a happy stable life, my actions showed otherwise: I was the one creating the instability. I vowed to change.
- I realized that when my partner loved me, it made me feel uncomfortable because he saw me with much more love than what I saw myself. His positive attention made me physically uncomfortable. Again, I had to learn to "let the love in." I had to learn that I was lovable. It was hard to let him love me. It made me feel vulnerable. I had to learn to feel vulnerable.

I'm sure there's more but yeah, therapy. Did wonders.

You are not horrible, you're just afraid.
posted by serenity soonish at 3:21 PM on May 6, 2015 [63 favorites]

I wonder if it would be less of an issue if you forced yourself to recognize upfront, during the "chase," that they're not perfect? If you put them on less of an idealized pedestal in the first place, it might not be as traumatic for you when you're confronted with the day to day reality of being with them.
posted by metasarah at 3:23 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @insectosaurus and sevensnowflakes Therapy/delving into childhood attachment issues is something I've been trying... I've been in therapy for a couple of years now, mostly for anxiety and attendant self-medicating with substances. The CBT suggestion sounds very promising, thanks!

My parents cared for me well and weren't abusive in any way, but I never felt connected to/emotionally "safe" with them and often felt like their love was conditional or unattainable, so I left home pretty early. I have a solid relationship with them now, but I'm sure that's impacting things.

@sockermom Thanks for the book suggestion, I'll check that out. Sorry you had to get "scared straight" by what sounds like a horrible experience- I hope things are better for you now!

@quincunx Thanks so much for your thoughtful answer- I hadn't been thinking about it that way at all, and I think it's definitely a perspective I should try to incorporate. It's sometimes hard for me to be picky because I feel so fundamentally flawed that I think I should be endlessly grateful for any decent human being who wants to spend time with me... but that kind of attitude seems to end up causing a lot more pain for all involved in the long run.
posted by libertypie at 3:24 PM on May 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you are the 'avoidant' type in the attachment theory world. This is a good book on the subject, although probably light on actual coping techniques. I'd recommend reading it and seeing if you recognize yourself.

One of my good friends is very much like you, and he explored his attachment style and childhood in therapy for the last two years. He does not think he'll ever be able to have a relationship, but at least now he knows why, and if he ever chooses to, he can learn the techniques of maybe doing it one day.
posted by tatiana131 at 4:04 PM on May 6, 2015

I used to be you, libertypie. After one too many horrible, heartbreaking relationships I decided it was preferable to be completely alone than with someone abusive. I guess you could say that like sockermom, I was "scared straight" and I was also completely burned out on dating. For nearly two years I reveled in being single and celibate, and thought I'd never want another partner. Guys pursued me but I wasn't all that interested. Then, on a whim, I got back on OKCupid. It was really just out of curiosity. Messaged a guy with similar interests to me who stated he was looking for new platonic friends. Rapidly became interested in each other despite both having given up looking. It's going great, and he's kind, thoughtful, and emotionally available. I feel safe with him. This is after a nearly 10-year pattern of picking the unavailable ones. I've changed a lot, and it's not anything I did deliberately. It's just that I got fed up with my pattern, enjoyed being alone, and started being attracted to a different kind of person after a reasonable time. I had therapy, but it would have happened on its own anyway. I was just DONE. The guy I'm currently dating is one I probably would have just been friends with in the past, but now kindness and availability have become a huge turn-on for me. All that being said, sometimes those nagging incompatibilities are real. If I felt like someone didn't understand me I wouldn't want to be with him either, that is perfectly reasonable. When you're understood by someone, you will feel a "click" like a puzzle piece locking into place and you'll know. That happened to me. I now look back realizing why the other people weren't as good of a fit as my current guy. I've not had this before and the contrast is stark. Don't give up looking for that.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 6:15 PM on May 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

I think it could possibly have something to do with feeling insecure in yourself. Once they start to commit and it starts to feel like a relationship, you risk rejection, and by ending things yourself, you can avoid that risk. Or, maybe at some level you don't feel deserving of a relationship, since you say you feel "fundamentally flawed." I think it's more likely that it's about you than apparent incompatibilities in any of the guys. Maybe you could give your current guy a small commitment (just in your head, rather than out loud) to give things a chance for a certain amount of time, stop questioning things temporarily, and try to be vulnerable with him.

I'm a huge bookworm dating a non-reader, and I could imagine spending my life with him. So my vote is that shouldn't be a dealbreaker.
posted by three_red_balloons at 7:06 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

There are people who's more into "falling in love" than love itself.

It also could be that because of your past experiences, you're commitment-phobic.

Unfortunately, the only way out of that is... override yourself and commit yourself, at least short term, like for a month or two, to someone.
posted by kschang at 9:17 PM on May 6, 2015

There’s no cure for any of this. No One Weird Trick. Therapy helps a lot of that if that’s your thing. David Richo’s How To Be An Adult popped into mind when I read your post. It's a short book, an easy read. His expanded version How to be an Adult in Relationships seems an AskMe favorite. Your post reminded me of one of my favorite observations in the shorter book…something like what you do to create distance you do to get distance.

I don't know if there's a name for this, though I think I've heard this described as "push pull attraction" in some contexts.

Eh. I think Intimacy is the concept you're asking about. Intimacy is hard. It's a negotiation between the scary of Come Close! and the scary of Go Away! Like what serenity soonish said. It’s a hokey cliché, but intimacy really is a dance. Push/Pull is arm wrestling.

Push/pull is about controlling the scary space between You and I. The fear is okay. It's normal. It's just hard to be close to someone while trying to control the space.

I only seem to be able to keep being attracted to people who are either emotionally or actually unavailable, in which case I can sustain passionate longing for YEARS.

Maybe their emotionally availability is a reflection of yours? Choosing an already unavailable guy is one way for you to stay unavailable. Nit-picking at their flaws is another way for you to stay…unavailable. People tend to pick and stay partners who are more or less in the same place on this one. Maybe one is a little more to one side than the other… but not by much.

But as soon as a great dude lands in my lap and wants to pursue something with me, I start focusing on and obsessing about his flaws and our fundamental incompatibilities.

So basically only an irredeemably flawed person like him could dig an irredeemably flawed person like you? He can't possibly be great and like you. It has to be one or the other, never both?

Obsessing over his flaws is way, way easier than making friends with your own. But…I suspect that the better friends you can become with your flaws the less preoccupied you’ll be with theirs. You'll get way more mileage out of making friends with your faults than you will looking for his. They'll show up at some point anyway, no need to waste energy fetching guests that will arrive on their own.
posted by space_cookie at 4:42 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I found the book "He's Scared, She's Scared" to be quite insightful.

posted by Butterflye1010 at 9:49 AM on May 8, 2015

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