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Friday, February 15, 2013

The Heartbreak of the On-Again/Off-Again Relationship: When the Going Got Tough, Her Boyfriend Was Gone

Several years ago, a friend confided in me that, in the past (before I knew her), she had been in an on-again/off-again relationship for two years.  The usual pattern to her relationship was that whenever "the going got tough," her boyfriend was gone.

His Pattern Was to Flee the Relationship When He Felt Overwhelmed
Without saying a word, when he felt overwhelmed by their relationship, he would load up the car and drive off to stay with one of his many family members around the country, leaving my friend to wonder and worry about his whereabouts and the future of their relationship.

After a few days or so, he would call her to let know where he was and to say he needed "his space" for a while.  My friend never knew how long "a while" would be or if having "his space" was a euphemism for the relationship being over.  When she asked him, he refused to define how long or if he felt the relationship was really over.  But one thing was clear:  It was always on his terms.  He needed to be in control.

The Heartbreak of the On-Again/Off-Again Relationship
The first few times this happened, my friend was, understandably, upset.  This type of situation would be difficult for most people, but having lost both of her parents as a child, she was especially sensitive to her boyfriend abandoning her whenever he felt overwhelmed.  And he felt overwhelmed often, including when my friend wanted to talk about where their relationship was headed.

After a while, it became obvious to my friend that her boyfriend regulated the intensity and intimacy of their relationship by all of this coming and going.  He used his departures as an emotional pressure valve.  When enough time had passed so that he felt some of the intensity had subsided, he would return, sometimes contrite, sometimes not.  For a while, whenever he returned, my friend said she felt she had to "walk on eggshells" and tiptoe around him so he wouldn't leave again.  She tried to talk to him about therapy, but he wasn't open to going to individual therapy or couples counseling.  Needless to say, it was a very challenging situation.

To make matters worse, as I mentioned, all of her boyfriend's coming and going triggered earlier abandonment issues for my friend, which soon made the relationship feel emotionally intolerable for her.  Several months after she began therapy, she felt she deserved a lot better than this, and she ended the relationship.

Not surprisingly, once she withdrew from the relationship, her ex pursued her like he never pursued her before, promising her that he would never run off again.  But my friend understood that, even though her ex might have had the best of intentions, it was obvious that he couldn't tolerate the emotional intimacy that is a natural part of being in an intimate relationship. And, despite his promises, she knew he would leave again when he felt emotionally overwhelmed due to his own unresolved emotional issues.

Fortunately, my friend never went back to that relationship or ever entered into another relationship with that dynamic.  She's now in a committed relationship with someone who is comfortable with emotional intimacy and he can handle the inevitable ups and downs that are part of all relationships.  And, she gave me permission to use her story, without using her name or any identifying information, because she thought it might be helpful to others.

As a psychotherapist, I've seen many clients who are involved in these type of on-again/off-again relationships with similar dynamics to the ones I've just described.  When there are children involved, it's especially damaging to their emotional health and well-being. Children need stability and consistency.  Young children are naturally egocentric and believe that if one of their parents leaves, it must be their fault.  Over time, feeling abandoned by a parent can lead to poor grades in school, behavior problems and drug and alcohol problems.

Getting Help
If you feel stuck in this type of relationship, you might not realize how damaging this is to your sense of self.  Even if you don't have a history of early abandonment issues, this type of relationship can create intense anxiety and depression as you ride your partner's unpredictable emotional roller coaster.

Being in an on-again/off-again relationship, where your spouse or partner is in control, can leave you feeling powerless.  But you're not alone.  Many people, both men and women, have developed the emotional wherewithal in therapy to get off the emotional roller coaster so they can live more fulfilling lives

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults an couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006.

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