A fellow blogger I know named Amin Lakhani wrote a very vulnerable post describing his most recent breakup. Based on what he wrote, I couldn’t help but reach out to him and offer my thoughts. Feel free to read his post for yourself if you like, but I’ll give you the TL:DR version here:
Amin himself is wheelchair-bound, and he basically says that he started 2018 by breaking up with a woman he was dating and then wondering if he had just made the biggest mistake of his life. He describes her as a very emotionally mature woman but says that he never felt challenged and became bored with her, which ultimately led him to break it off. He compares her to another woman he dated who provided more of a challenge and laments that his most recent ex couldn’t have been more like this other woman.
After I read his post I sympathized with his pain but I also couldn’t agree with a lot of what he was saying. I wrote him a letter expressing my condolences and explaining the things I disagreed with. You can read it for yourself below.
Pay attention to how I talk about:
- The science behind love and the three types of attachment systems
- What it means to have an anxious, avoidant, and a secure attachment system
- Why playing games in a relationship is a sign of insecurity rather than strength
- Why men and women are sometimes attracted to people who play games, even though this leads to drama and conflict
- How the scripts we received during our younger years shape the way we see relationships when we are older
Thanks for your video reply! I’m going to offer my thoughts on the whole situation. Before I get into them, there are three things that need to be said:
First, I offer no judgment on whether you did the right thing by ending it with the woman from Toronto. I’ve told you before that I can’t fault you for following your heart and I stand by that. It’s not my place to decide what you do is correct. Therefore, if you’re reading this hoping for someone to come and verbally beat you up then I’m afraid you’ll find none of that in this letter.
Second, I can quite confidently say that you have NOT made the “biggest mistake of your life”. My friend, we’re still way too young to have made the-biggest-mistake-of-our-lives. You’re giving yourself a little too much credit there, buddy.
Finally, I want to emphasize that I could be wrong in what I’m about to say. The only things I know about the whole situation is what you’ve told us. There’s a lot of personal details that I don’t know about your life or the lives of the women you’ve dated, and I have to fill in those details using conjecture. Whenever guesswork is involved, there’s necessarily a chance that I could be wrong. I’m not perfect.
Got it? Good. Let’s dive right into it.
From what I can tell, you have an avoidant attachment system.
This is a concept originally pioneered in the 1980s by Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver in the Rocky Mountain News and written about at length in the book Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. As they describe it, there are three attachment systems:
Attachment systems refer to how your body naturally reacts to being romantically interested in someone. From what I can tell, you have an avoidant attachment system. If you have an avoidant attachment system, then you still find it very important for you to maintain your independence and self-sufficiency when you’re in a relationship. You might naturally feel uncomfortable if you feel that she’s getting too close and you continue to highly value your own personal space even when you have a girlfriend.
Now, here’s where my speculation begins. I believe that you’ve received these scripts as a product of your upbringing. Because of your physical condition, it was difficult for you to make friends and to go on dates with women as you were growing up. You were raised with the message that you needed to study hard and work hard if you wanted to succeed in life because you would not be able to perform physical labor. And you did just that, graduating at the top of your class and landing your dream job.
You taught yourself to rely on yourself. You didn’t have a lot of friends or go on any dates. You craved that intimacy with women but you taught yourself to go without it. You didn’t depend on friends or social support because for you, it just wasn’t an option. I mean, you told us that after your first kiss she flat out said to you “I don’t know how any woman could be attracted to a guy in a wheelchair.” It doesn’t get much worse than that. You learned to guard your heart and to succeed even while keeping the world at arm’s length.
Even though you had it all figured out “on paper”, you understood that there was something else missing. You still wanted that intimate connection with another human being. Some friends in your life. A girlfriend that you could kiss tenderly and have steaming hot morning sex with. So, you did something about it. You hired a dating coach and learned one of the greatest (not to mention the most expensive) lessons of your life.
You learned that what got you here wasn’t going to get you there. Keeping people at arm’s length had worked for you so far, but it wasn’t going to get you any farther. None of us can go back and change our backstories, but you learned to overcome many of those scripts that you learned in your childhood and build connections with friends and women. Real connections, too…not just pickup-artist stuff.
At your young age, you turned your life around harder than most men do their entire lives.
The women in your life
Okay, enough about your super-cool backstory. Let’s talk about the women in your life. You’ve told us that you’ve had that special connection with two women before. There’s your most recent ex and then there’s another older woman who was more of a challenge…the kind of person who acts as your verbal sparring partner and who forces you to wait in the rain for her even though you’re in a wheelchair.
That older woman you dated comes across to me as someone who has an anxious attachment system. Anxious people love to be very close to their romantic partners. They can be very attuned to their partner’s moods and actions, but sometimes even the smallest things can throw them off or cause them to experience negative emotions. Whereas the avoidant style likes to keep people at arm’s length, the anxious style needs their partners to be very close to them.
“Now, hold on” you might be thinking. How can this older woman be the one who desired more closeness in the relationship if she was the one who always pushed you away and made you chase her??
Well, that’s actually the reason why she would always play those games with you. She needs her romantic partners to be close to her, and she gets that by making them chase her. Her behavior belies the fact that she needs her partners to be close to her at all times.
Now, what happens when an anxious and avoidant type pair up? That presents its own set of problems. One of the biggest pitfalls of an anxious-avoidant relationship is that the partners require two drastically different levels of closeness in the relationship, which creates a type of “roller-coaster” effect. It goes like this.
Usually, the avoidant type prefers to keep their partners at a distance while the anxious type needs to feel close to their partner. Occasionally, the avoidant partner makes themselves available to the anxious partner and the anxious partner becomes satisfied. This leads to closeness in the relationship and a sort of “high”. However, this newfound closeness soon makes the avoidant partner feel compelled to pull away from the anxious partner, which creates newfound dissatisfaction for the anxious partner and leads to more turmoil in the relationship.
Here’s what it looks like, visually represented:
The Roller-Coaster Effect
- Anxious type requires intimacy while avoidant needs their space
- Avoidant makes themselves available to anxious
- Anxious type is satisfied by this closeness, leading to a HIGH
- This newfound closeness makes the avoidant type feels compelled to reclaim their space
- The avoidant type pushes the anxious type at arms-length again to the dissatisfaction of the anxious type, leading to a LOW
- Go back to step 1 and repeat
Do you start to see how this is mirrored in your relationship with the older woman? She’s the anxious type while you’re the avoidant type. She desired closeness in the relationship much more than you did, which is why she went and played those games with you. By making you come to her door in the rain and in a wheelchair, or by rejecting your text messages and telling you to come up with something better, that was her way of pulling you closer to her. This is why you look back more fondly on your relationship with her than with your most recent ex, not because it was a stable relationship but because of all the perceived “highs”.
Let’s talk about your most recent ex. You’ve described her as “very emotionally mature…an incredibly thoughtful listener.” She helped you with physical tasks since you were confined to a wheelchair and acted as your assistant. When the relationship ended, she allowed you to cry on her shoulder. It’s clear to me that your most recent ex has a secure attachment style.
Someone with a secure attachment style takes things in stride when it comes to relationship matters. These people are lucky enough to be naturally gifted when it comes to relationships. They’re strong at reading their partner’s emotional cues and responding to them, as well as effectively communicating their own desires and feelings to their partners.
Perhaps the most telling difference between the women you’ve loved is the way that they’ve carried themselves. Confident people don’t need to tell people that they’re confident. The older woman you dated acted as if she were exceptionally confident in her worth, while your most recent ex never needed to because she had nothing to prove.
The funny thing about love
Amin, when we are young we suffer all these little cuts and bruises that never fully heal. Maybe your parents were just a little too overbearing when pushing you to study. Maybe the other kids in grade school were a little too unwelcoming because of your physical condition. Maybe that woman you were romantically interested in was a little too harsh in turning you down when you went for a first kiss.
Some of them heal, but a lot of them never fully recover on their own. What happens to all of those? We bury them. We cover them up. We learn to cope with them. We act like they don’t exist because that’s what everyone else does. That’s the funny thing about love. It has a way of taking those little cuts and bruises that we buried and bringing them back up to the surface. Maybe this is because deep down, we hope that our romantic partner will finally be able to heal those injuries we suffered when we were young.
I see this happening in your relationships as well, Amin. Those little cuts and bruises that you received during your childhood come back to the surface when you are in love. This is why you feel that your most recent ex wasn’t “capable of taking on the world with [you]” and that you “didn’t see her as a strong addition to [your] team”.
She was able to rely on the help of friends and loved ones while she was growing up, but you never had that luxury because of your wheelchair. You weren’t lucky enough to have such a strong support network as she did and you had to rely on yourself throughout most of your life. Where you come from, relying and accepting help from other people was a sign of weakness. We both know that logically speaking that’s not true, but your gut feels this way because of the scripts that you received during your childhood.
Perhaps, that’s why you’re so attracted to this older woman who provided such a challenge to you. She appears to embody what a younger Amin sees as a sign of strength. She ostensibly seems to be super confident and doesn’t appear to need anyone. This calls out to your childhood and young adult experiences, where you needed to be stronger and more independent than your peers in order to succeed. She’s what you wished you could have been when you were younger.
As we’ve already established though, that’s all just an act. The older woman that you dated is actually less confident and more dependent than you are. Those little cuts and bruises from your youth are making you see it the other way around, however, and you’re going to need to move past the scripts from your childhood if you want to find stability in a relationship.
Your hero’s journey
Have you ever heard of the hero’s journey? It’s said that most good stories follow this structure. Basically, the hero begins by receiving a call to adventure (sometimes reluctantly). He faces many trials and ordeals which test him and he is overwhelmed by one of them, falling into a state of helplessness. Eventually, he learns to escape and returns home bearing his newfound strength and the gifts he received along the way for the benefit of his fellow man.
That’s where I see you right now, Amin. Your call to adventure was your wheelchair, and heaven knows you didn’t accept it willingly. You’ve faced a lot of trials because of your physical condition and you’ve overcome many of them admirably. Right now, you’re at the bottom of that pit in the hero’s journey. You’re in that same place as Luke Skywalker on the original Death Star, as Sheriff Woody in Sid’s house, as Mulan alone on the mountain, and as Marlin & Dory in the whale’s mouth. Just like all those great heroes that we watch on TV and read about in books, you’re going to have to find your way out of that pit. When you do, you’ll emerge a changed person and a better dating coach, ready to pass on your knowledge to everyone else.
I’m prescribing to you the book Attached. Specifically, I want you to pay close attention to chapters 6 and 8 which talk about the avoidant attachment style and what happens when you pair up with an anxious attachment style. Follow the action steps in these chapters. I think you’ll learn a lot more about yourself and find many of the answers you’re looking for.
Best of luck!