It literally felt like we were playing out a Hollywood movie. Carter was the heir to a wealthy family and we had met after a series of wild coincidences. For our first date, he drove for 16 hours to meet me and ended up staying with me for two weeks straight. Yup, you read that right. Our first date lasted for two weeks.
He was gorgeous and passionate. We stayed up all night talking every night. We had amazing sexual chemistry. He poured his heart out to me and told me that he had never been able to share these feelings with anyone else before. As his tears flowed freely, we both knew this was a special connection.
But these incredibly bonding experiences would always be followed by trouble. Sometimes, he became aloof or distant — like he was in a bad mood. Other times, he would become incredibly jealous — even of my elderly, married neighbor. And yet other times, he would say things like, “It feels like you’re not very excited about our relationship” — when nothing in my behavior had changed. He would get extremely angry during our fights but when he cooled down, would always say, “Please don’t leave me.”
It was like riding an emotional rollercoaster all the time. Except unlike a real roller coaster, there were no tracks to help me know when it would go up or down and nothing I did seemed to get us off it. So, why did I stay?
Why you stay in unhealthy relationships
Carter had a troubled childhood. One that he had not shared with anyone other than me. He had a violent alcoholic father and an emotionally abusive mother. His parents had a bitter divorce when he was a child and they used him to dig up dirt on each other during their court battle. He never had a safe space where he felt that someone would always be there for him and love him unconditionally.
I felt special because he had let me in. He was hurt, and it wasn’t his fault. I was convinced that if I was patient enough or loving enough, we could talk through it and we could work it out. I wanted so much to give him that safe space. And of course, the high points of the relationship were very high. When things were good, it felt amazing and continued to give me hope. I also truly believed that he loved me.
So, I would ride the emotional roller coaster, waiting for the next high to help me survive the previous low. It took me a long time to finally realize — it didn’t matter how hard I tried or what I did. His behavior wasn’t about me. It was about something I couldn’t change.
Why it isn’t about you
In an attempt to understand how to make my relationship with Carter work, I did what I do best — research. I read dozens of books on relationships and eventually came across one on attachment styles. It was as if I had been stumbling around in a room in the dark and someone had finally switched on the lights. Everything started to make sense and I started to understand why my actions didn’t correlate with Carter’s responses.
Carter was a classic case of disorganized attachment style (also known as fearful-avoidant) which is a combination of both the anxious and avoidant styles. People with this attachment style desperately want to connect but are also extremely afraid of being hurt or abandoned. This attachment style generally develops because that person has had a history of receiving inconsistent care or love from their primary caretaker. Since they never know what to expect, they are always fearful and mistrustful of other people.
At the beginning of a relationship, they are able to go all-in because they are not attached to you yet, but as soon as they actually start to care about you, this fear is activated. They believe that you will inevitably leave them or hurt them (just like their caretaker) so they find ways to push you away first.
If you’re also in a relationship where you always feel confused about your partner’s response to your actions and the relationship just doesn’t get easier no matter how hard you try, then it’s possible that what’s happening has nothing to do with you at all.
The root of the problem may not be that your partner has a disorganized attachment style. Perhaps they have trauma they have never worked through or were simply never taught to have an awareness of their feelings.
Irrespective of the cause, if they lack the emotional tools to manage or communicate their emotions and are unwilling to work on it — then the outcome is likely the same and there’s actually nothing you can do to save the relationship.
Why you can’t fix the relationship
Here’s the important part — they may not even realize that they are doing this and they certainly are not trying to hurt you. All they know is that they feel anxious about the relationship and the only way to make the anxiety stop is to push you away. Here’s another important point — they are reacting to how they are feeling, not necessarily what you are doing.
Let me give you an example. Let’s assume that your partner’s father always promised them a big vacation and would spend weeks hyping it up but would always cancel when the time came. Vacations are now a trigger to them. You don’t know this so you plan a big vacation for you both. Every time you hype it up, they get angry and you have no idea why. Perhaps, neither do they. They aren’t reacting to your actions (which are innocent enough) but they are reacting to how they feel about it.
This is why you cannot help them unless they are willing to do the work to develop or heal themselves. It’s because there is no way for you to know what will or won’t trigger them and nothing you do matters.
9 Signs your relationship is unsalvageable
People who struggle to regulate their emotions can also be incredibly passionate, which is what sucks us in, to begin with.
When they are constantly telling you how they’ve never felt this way before, it’s easy to miss the fact that the bond that is forming is volatile and unhealthy.
Here are some flags you should look out for:
1. You feel confused a lot.
You never really understand what will upset them. Actions that you do with the best intentions that seem completely innocent are often read the wrong way. You find yourself constantly asking, “What is happening here? Why are they upset?”
2. They are inconsistent.
They might frequently tell you that you are the love of their lives and just as frequently tell you that they are unsure about the relationship. There is always a lot of push and pull energy in their behavior. One minute you feel that everything is going really well, and the very next minute, your partner is upset about something insignificant or pulling away.
3. They make up vague reasons for why the relationship won’t work.
They may say things like, “I don’t feel like you’re excited enough about us” or “If you get that promotion, you’ll leave me.” Often, the timing of when these reasons come up doesn’t seem to be related to any incident at all (like you getting that promotion).
4. You don’t feel emotionally safe or at ease.
Even though you are fully emotionally invested in the relationship, you never feel as though things can just flow easily. You always have a vague feeling of walking on eggshells.
5. Their emotions can go to extremes very quickly.
They can go from perfectly calm to incredibly upset instantly. They may also sometimes say, “I don’t know why I feel this way or why I’m doing this.” Instead of pausing to try and understand their emotions — once they are upset, they often will need to express their anger or frustration immediately and may take a long time to cool down.
6. They don’t consider how you might feel.
If they are feeling bad, they may call you up at work, without considering that it’s not a good time for you. They may accuse you of cheating in the middle of a dinner party with friends instead of waiting until you are at home. Their feelings tend to take center stage over yours.
7. The rest of their life is a mess.
People who struggle to regulate their emotions often feel quite lost and like their life is lacking meaning or purpose. They may jump around from one job to another or one hobby to another. They may throw themselves into something for a short period before changing their minds (that includes you). They also tend to struggle with maintaining friendships and work relationships.
8. Their words and actions don’t match up.
They may frequently tell you that they will do anything to save the relationship or that they will try harder but will rarely follow through even when you give them simple, actionable items.
9. They may be afraid of abandonment.
They may say things like, “Hey, you don’t text me like you used to,” or “I texted an hour ago, why haven’t you texted back?”
It’s hard to walk away from people who can’t regulate their emotions because they can often be very intense. Deep down, they truly crave connection so they pour their attention and soul into you and it’s easy to confuse that intensity with passion and authentic love.
It’s not that they are not deserving of love. They absolutely are.
After all, their trauma or lack of emotional management skills are not always their fault. But it’s also true that they were never taught the tools to communicate their feelings and to learn to trust. They never learned to develop consistency in relationships.
This means that they not only won’t be able to have a healthy relationship with you, but they also won’t be able to do it with anyone. It’s really not about you or what you do and don’t do.
If they come to you and say, “I really want to work through my issues and see a therapist,” and consistently follow through — then you can give them a chance. Otherwise, the next time you find yourself in this kind of relationship, take a deep breath and remind yourself, “Not my circus, not my monkeys,” — and walk away.