When I asked readers of my book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life to submit questions they’d like answered, not surprisingly many had queries about patterns in their adult relationships. One that kept floating to top was this one: “I always leave relationships first and am quick to cut bait on people. Is this connected to my childhood?”
If this is a consistent pattern in your life, the chances are good that, yes, it has childhood roots. Of course, each of us will find it necessary to exit a relationship at various times in our lives, whether it’s a romantic love interest, a friendship, or an acquaintanceship; people grow apart, reveal themselves to be different than we thought they were, or we simply discover that each of us wants different things. But if you always have your running shoes at the ready and it’s well-neigh impossible for you to maintain any relationship, that’s a very different matter.
There are many reasons you might be behaving in this way, some of them contradictory on the surface. Leaving first and doing the bait cutting keeps you fully in control, and it may be that you act first because the idea of being left is just too painful for you to bear; the preemptive strike may be preferable to dealing with being rejected, although you may not admit that to yourself. Then again, being in control may simply be paramount to you because you don’t like feeling dependent on anyone or anything.
As it happens, very different styles of adult attachment—each a function of emotional lessons learned in childhood—may be responsible for the cut-and-run response, and whether you feel acting in this way is a plus or a minus. Generally speaking, this behavior reflects the dismissive-avoidant style of attachment; if this is you, you’re someone who doesn’t like depending on other people, are proud of your stand-alone status, and you prefer your connections to others to remain on the superficial side. With friends, you’re more likely to share activities than confessions and, with lovers, you like keeping it flexible and lite. You’re not in search of intimacy or deep involvement so that when things get tiresome or unsatisfying, you’re okay with calling it quits. In truth, you don’t mind having your running shoes at the ready; it suits you just fine and, if you’re asking the question posed, it’s more a matter of curiosity than not.
The fearful-avoidant is also quick to break up but for very different reasons; she runs because she’s afraid of needing someone too much, of being left, of being rejected. She cuts to the chase so as to avoid having pain pushed upon her. Of course, initiating the break-up doesn’t get her closer to what she wants—real connection—but it makes her feel safer and more in control.
The last insecure attachment style—that of the anxious-preoccupied—isn’t on the surface the Queen of the Break-Up because she doesn’t usually initiate it but, paradoxically, it’s often her behavior that pushes her partner or friend into a corner and basically forces his or her hand to severe the relationship. The anxious-preoccupied daughter is always scanning the horizon for signs that someone is being untrue to her, and she initiates drama and retaliates in kind. She obsesses over details and is the one who’ll frantically text and call if she feels threatened. High-maintenance by definition, she’s usually got lots of break-ups under her belt which she’s unwittingly engineered.
Is this pattern getting in your way?
If this pattern is worrying or upsetting to you, begin by asking yourself the following questions and see where you end up. Writing your questions down will improve clarity if you use cool processing, as always.
- What did I learn in my family of origin about resolving differences or working out problems? How skilled or unskilled am I at talking things through with someone else?
- Do I leave because I have a list of thought-through reasons (I’m bored or disappointed, this person is not who I thought he or she was, I feel frustrated and angry etc.) or is it just a generalized, unarticulated feeling that I need to get out? If you’re writing your answers down, try to expand and be as precise as you can.
- Do I exit a relationship in consistent ways? How do I handle it? Do I talk to the person or do I tend to ghost them? Is this ever a discussion as in “Should we continue?” or do I always have my position set and there’s no leeway?
- How do I feel after I’ve left? Validated in the main and sure that I’ve made the right choice? Or, alternatively, do I feel as though, somehow, the relationship might have been salvaged but I didn’t feel like putting in the effort?
- Does this pattern make me happy or sad?
- Does this pattern reflect what I really want from relationship?
Remember that behavior isn’t set in stone; if this pattern no longer serves you, you can learn to respond differently. Again, working with a gifted therapist is the best route but you can certainly also help yourself.
This post is adapted from my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood. All rights reserved. Copyright© Peg Streep 2019
Photograph by Hannah Busing. Copyright free. Unsplash.com.