When I was younger, I was terrible at managing my emotions. If I wasn’t anxious, then I’d easily lose my temper or sulk.
My family members and close friends didn’t mind and were patient towards me, but romantic partners? Not so much.
It didn’t help that the boys I dated were either emotionally unavailable or have an avoidant attachment. I became more guarded and quickly learned that the only way to get them to pay attention to me was by withdrawing.
So, whenever I was sad or disappointed at something they did, I immediately gave them the silent treatment and retreated into my shell as a way to protect myself as well as punishing them.
They had to guess what the problem was and chased after me, trying to win me back. I felt satisfied and powerful when they frantically sent me multiple text messages or left me several missed calls because they wanted my attention.
It was a constant push-and-pull dynamic that caused my emotions to go up and down and heightened my anxiety. Sometimes, the boys threw in the towel, and it was my turn to chase them. It was toxic and left me with nothing but resentment and traumatising breakups.
Dating a securely attached partner
In my current relationship, the dynamic is completely different.
My partner is securely attached and has excellent communication skills. He also demonstrates his commitment to me and our relationship consistently.
In the beginning, I was still attending therapy and working through my issues, so I would slip back into my old habits: I withdrew when my partner and I faced an issue (i.e. me feeling anxious or upset about something and blaming my partner.)
I did it so instinctively that I didn’t have time to think whether it was actually helping me.
Though, as opposed to my avoidant exes who tried to pull me back in the heat of the moment only to abandon me later, my partner was caring, loving, and understanding. He wanted to understand my thoughts and feelings. He gave me space while making sure I knew that it was safe to talk to him.
I soon learned that withdrawing didn’t give me more power because my partner never tried to claim power over me in the first place; he had always paid attention to me and respected me. I didn’t have to protect myself from him. I was supposed to engage in conflict resolution the same way he did.
That was when I realised that my (unhealthy) responses to conflict didn’t serve any purpose in this relationship; I was hurting my relationship and my partner whom I love very much.
Unhealthy vs healthy responses to conflict
Unhealthy responses to conflict such as withdrawing love don’t foster resolution and bonding but put an obstacle between your partner and you.
While your partner ends up feeling confused, rejected, and shamed, your negative emotions only bottle up and head in one direction: a breakdown in communication and a crack in your relationship.
In my past anxious-avoidant relationships, I shut down at the sign of conflict because my need to protect myself far exceeded my desire to resolve the conflict — I believed that people would leave me anyway, so why not just do it myself first, I thought.
In a way, getting a partner to win me over wasn’t to punish them, but to prove to myself that they wanted me after all.
Besides, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know how to handle conflicts — my avoidant exes failed even worse in many cases, so you could say I didn’t know any better back then.
What I did to change
When I pulled away from my partner and he gave me space, I realised that if I kept acting in this way, he and I only grew further apart and I didn’t want that.
Meanwhile, he showed me that it was safe for me to turn to him. He didn’t take it as an opportunity to claim power over me or punish me. It wasn’t a push and pull dynamic; he actually wanted to comfort me and strengthen our relationship. My vulnerability was embraced by his love.
So, even though my instinctual response might still be unhealthy at times, I’ve learned to be mindful of it and shorten my sulking time to a matter of minutes.
I achieve this by asking myself a simple question, “Do I want this relationship to work?” and as long as my answer is a big yes, I put my defensive feelings aside and focus on resolving the conflict.
The goal of my actions is no longer self-preservation but to nurture our relationship.
Our disharmonious moments pass quickly after our concerns are clearly laid out and we reach an agreement or resolution. I feel soothed, satisfied, and closer to my partner while we understand each other better.
Ask yourself a simple question, “Do I want this relationship to work?” If the answer is yes, then you have to work with your partner as a team.
I was able to change how I responded to conflicts because my partner is emotionally healthy and committed to me.
And what’s more, I’ve already gone through therapy treatment to improve my self-esteem and attachment issues, without which these changes would undoubtedly be difficult.
If both your partner and you are emotionally insecure or immature, and your relationship is unstable, it can be very tricky.
You might need to be the bigger person and change your way first, so your partner could mirror you, or you draw a boundary with your partner and only engage if your partner also engages, or you both might need the help of a therapist or counselor.