Or, How to go from avoidance to safe connection
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Are you familiar with the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde? It’s based on the novella of Robert Louis Stevenson and the story is about a man that he is a respectful and kind doctor during the day, when the night falls he turns into a heartless evil, killing innocent people. What Stevenson is trying to describe here is the duality of human nature; in other words how the shifting between “good” and “bad” is part of our inner struggles and how hard it is to incorporate both in order to come in peace and in acceptance of the inevitable existence of both these elements in our lives.
Is our partner a "monster"?
How is this story related with relationships? It's often the case in couples that one thinks of their partner in a positive way (“Dr Jekyll”), but after a fight or a conflict their partner is suddenly being transformed in their eyes into some evil creature that has no good intention for them and one can bet that they are in their life having plotted a wicked plan on how to extinguish them (“Mr Hude”).
How is it possible that one day we think of our partner as a nice person and the other day the very same person with the very same -good- qualities just vanishes and they are being replaced by a stranger that doesn't love, respect or value us, even though they did it so gracefully until yesterday? How is it possible that we shift our minds so easily regarding the person we have been living together for a significant amount of time and we claim to know them really well?
The price we pay
As you may have understood already that kind of abrupt behavior after a fight or conflict with our partner, creates a tsunami of negative consequences in the life of both partners and the relationship itself.
To list a few:
For the “mind-changer”:
-We end up having doubts about our relationships and feeling confused on whether our partner is a “keeper” or not, whether we should continue the relationship or not
-We take distance from our partner and behave in a “cold” way
-We feel lost and desperate and blame ourselves for the choices we made (“How come I didn’t see it earlier?”)
-We feel unloved, alone, hurt, frustrated and rejected.
-We lose control and stability over our decisions
-We lose trust over our partner
-We try to figure out what we need to change in order to “control” our partner’s behavior
-We look back into our life and see a recurring pattern of picking partners who end up being different than what we originally thought they were, and again feel hopeless about the future, if this is what will always happen in our life.
For the partner:
-They can see the distance we take and they see that they lost our trust. And that hurts them.
-They feel treated unfairly, or at least the size of their “punishment” is disproportionate to what happened in a specific moment of the relationship.
-They feel upset, or even angry, especially when we don’t understand, empathise, or make the effort to listen to their side of the story
-They will eventually withdraw, because they will feel that there is no point in trying since we have already made our minds.
For the relationship:
-We don’t commit to long term common goals because we are not sure of whether this relationship will last
-We learn to always keep one eye open since it’s very “logical” and highly expected that our partner(s) will be something different than what we had originally thought.
-We start visualising the end of this relationship, and the beginning of a new one, where the new partner is completely opposite than the current one.
-We just disconnect from our partner but also from our real needs.
Where did we learn to do that?
John Bowlby has referred to this behavior as “avoidance” in his attachment theory. When people feel threatened, hurt, rejected, scared, they have to decide upon which coping mechanism they will use in order to deal with the painful trigger and at the same time protect themselves as much as possible. One of these coping mechanisms is called “avoidance”. It means that we choose to detach from the emotional connection we have with our partner and start seeing them as an unpredictable source of pain, so that we feel less hurt. Or we think so.
To make it more specific, in order to create this emotional distance, we recruit a couple of techniques: we minimize their good qualities, emphasize their bad ones, isolate incidents that prove that they are not good enough for us, and in general start building a case against them so that the imminent possible separation will not hurt us as much as if we had continued seeing them as great partners with great qualities.
This “avoidance” mechanism is something that we have been carrying since our childhood and we came up with the strategy, probably because back then we were too young and too powerless to deal with the unpredictability or pain in our close environment.
But do we need this strategy any more?
What we need is love.
What creates the phenomenon of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” in the relationship is fear: fear that we will be hurt, rejected, left alone, or seen as weak. Thus we create protection. But is it really a protection?
What is the real threat here and what is the real need?
It all started with a fight. We saw another side of our partner, maybe the upset or sad one, and that worked as a trigger for us that we need to back off.
Eventually, that ended up in both of us feeling isolated, unloved and not understood.
The “protection” we thought we created, was just another kind of pain.
The real need for us is actually to connect more with our partner, to ask for love, nurturance and comfort, to ask for their understanding and to understand their point of view, to feel and to communicate what our needs are. Perhaps also to set some boundaries, to say what we like, what we don’t like, to express our feelings, even if they makes us feel uncomfortable. The real need is to connect, to stay together and to incorporate the two sides of the human nature in one, instead of creating this split.
One of the hardest things in relationships is...
...to preserve the good image we have about our partner and about our relationship, even though we just had a fight.
To continue thinking that it’s the same person that you we admired yesterday for their patience, kindness, affection, etc.
All those qualities are still there.
They cannot vanish in just one day.
Be the change.
Do you want to know more?
What can you do to take action if you realise you have been using "avoidance" too much in your relationships?
You are important.
You are not alone.
Written by Vassia Sarantopoulou, M.Sc.
Psychologist at AntiLoneliness - Owner
YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHERS.