“I just don’t know what love is supposed to look like.”
This beautiful, almost 40-year old sister was explaining to me why she stayed in an on-again, off-again relationship that lasted just under 10 years. She wanted to be married and have a family and thought that she’d be living the dream by now. However, she found herself stuck in a destructive cycle. She’d breakup with her boyfriend when she got tired of having to be there to fix his latest crisis. Taking care of his problems made her feel more like his mama than his girlfriend, and what’s more, she noticed that when she needed him to support her, he was never there. After holding on to hope that he’d change, she’d realize he was stuck in his ways, get fed up and walk away.
But she always came back.
After dating a few people, she’d get this unnerving feeling that there wasn’t anyone else out there who would “get her.” She knew this relationship with her ex was dysfunctional but it was comfortable to her. She knew what to expect from her partner and had figured out ways to deal with the drama. It was like the old saying, “better to be with the devil you know instead of the devil you don’t know.”
Even though I told her that there are millions of singles in the dating pool today, and at least half a dozen men who would love to be in a real relationship with her, she was willing to keep the doors open to her ex because she couldn’t imagine that a healthy, passionate, secure relationship was even possible.
Does this sound familiar? Then let me tell you the truth about why you are stuck in an on-again, off again relationship:
- You’re lying to yourself
You’ll go back to a bad relationship when you hang on to the good times you shared with your ex-love. The problem is that the bad outweighs the good, otherwise you’d never have broken up in the first place. Selective memory about the ups and downs of your relationship causes you to lie to yourself about what your relationship was really like. As Natalie Lue of Baggage Reclaim says “Half of the problem with unhealthy relationships is created by resisting acceptance.” If you’re going to move on, you’ve got to accept that the relationship is over and stop romanticizing the dysfunction.
2. You don’t understand yourself
Some people are more prone to fall into an on-again, off-again relationship than others. This is due to your particular attachment style, which authors Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S. F. Heller, M.A. say can explain how we connect with another person and how we define love.
For example, the anxious attachment style is characterized by an intense drive to become connected to your partner early on in a relationship. With this relationship style, you feel anxious at the slightest sign that your partner doesn’t want to be close to you and spend a lot of time overthinking every little thing! On the other hand, a person who is avoidant desires intimacy but feels suffocated when someone gets too close to him and will suddenly pull away. These two attachment styles are often drawn to each other but ultimately clash and the collision can cause you to get stuck in a never ending cycle of breakups and makeups. If you’re an anxious person, the drama of winning back your ex brings an excitement and sense of accomplishment that feels like love. If you’re avoidant, the time away from your partner makes you long for all of his good qualities. Your desire for intimacy motivates you take him back, but it’s only a matter of time before you feel the urge to run again.
Each person validates the others’ beliefs about love, but in reality it’s a dangerous game to play because someone always ends up with a broken heart.
Understanding your attachment style can help you realize that the reason you return to your ex has less to do with whether or not you love each other, and more to do with how the wrong person can bring out the worse in you.