The pain of being eternally tested.
I have heard many sorrowful stories about how painful it is to feel unloved. Human beings have a core need to matter deeply to others, and they have difficulty fully thriving without that experience.
However, the hunger to be loved may eclipse another profound need. Though the partners in intimate relationships experience deep sadness when they cannot get the love they want, they can feel even more anguished when the love they offer is rejected.
Most people, when sharing their past relationships with me, readily talk about the times they have felt unloved. They tell me how hard they tried to change themselves to be more desirable, how their self-doubt grew over time, and how hard it was to rebuild their confidence before they could try again.
But when I ask them about how they’ve felt when their love was continually pushed away, they recognize how much more painful that was.
If you have had similar experiences, you may not have realized the unanswered questions they leave behind. Why did those partners not trust you when your love was so authentic? Were they deliberately pushing you away? Did you do something that caused them to shut you out, or did you just inherit a problem you did not create? Did you finally give up trying?
Had you a better understanding of why your partners did not allow you into their inner world, do you think you might have been able to make a difference?
Most people who turn love away do not do it deliberately. They do not want to frustrate their partners nor do they see them as unworthy, undesirable, or untrustworthy. They are not purposefully pushing love away.
And though they may continue to stay out of emotional reach, most don’t want their partners to stop trying to knock down their walls.
I have worked with relationship partners who have played both roles, those who have experienced being shut out and also those who could not let their partners in. They are often both heartsick when their relationships end.
If you have played either of these roles in past relationships, it will help you to have a better chance of understanding why these “aching for closeness but unable to open up” people are that way and what either of you might have done differently to change the dynamic.
If both partners in a relationship can understand the underlying issues that drive these painful and frustrating interactions, they will have a better chance of helping each other through them and preserving their love.
These are the seven most common issues:
1. The “Charlie Brown” Syndrome
Many closed-off people began their lives as overly trusting children. They were born wanting to please, to help, to care. They ached so much to be accepted and valued for their generosity that they overlooked any time that they were taken advantage of or discarded when they were no longer needed.
Over time, they became aware that others were not like them and often even used them without regret or conflict. Slowly, they stopped looking for reciprocity and began fending for themselves, without trying to negotiate for an unlikely fair outcome. Because it was their natures, they would continue giving but expect nothing in return.
2. The Allure of Mystery
Some people are naturally private and don’t want to share their internal worlds with another. They are used to being available to others without having to disclose much about themselves. If they are good enough listeners, accurate teammates, or have valuable gifts to offer, they are not usually pressed to share more.
As they go through life, they find that presentation works well in the outside world and may even be attractive to potential partners. But, over time, those partners want to know them better.
Sadly, when mysterious people do open up, they find that they were more liked for their performance than they are for who they are inside and double down on keeping their inner thoughts and feeling to themselves.
3. Maintaining Control
There is no better way to be in control of self than to keep everyone else out of one's central control towers. These people have typically not fared well in the past when they’ve let others run the show, so they have become more determined to stay in charge.
Over time, they may no longer let anyone know their inside desires because, if they let that happen, they might have to relinquish power over their own decisions and actions.
People who need to stay in control often believe that partnerships only have two roles, to control or be controlled. If so, they cannot trust in collaborative teamwork and, too often, live that self-fulfilling prophecy.
There are many people who, for many reasons, have never felt powerful in their personal relationships. Their experiences have taught them that they will never get what they need no matter how hard they try and have no choice but to let their partners treat them as they will.
Often feeling weak and impotent, they seek a way to have control that is not direct or obvious. They most often do that by pre-emptively taking any blame on themselves and not asking for anything. It somehow gives them a pseudo-power to guilt the other partner into doing all of the contacting.
Sadly, they often attract ego-centric people who take advantage of them by assuming they are in total control because of the lack of outward pushback, but they are never allowed inside. Their standard reasoning is that they “don’t want to be a burden.”
5. Fear of Dependency
Dependency is the bedmate of obligation and hostility. The more a person is dependent, the more he or she is at the whim of the person depended upon. The greater extent that dependency, the more that entrapment occurs.
Intimate partners who feel the others can take away something they need, or stop them from gaining something they want, are often wary of being emotionally blackmailable by those attachments. If that is what a fear-of-dependency partner has experienced in prior intimate relationships, they will do almost anything they can to keep the other from knowing what those attachments are.
Needs hidden, they appear perfectly okay to take care of their own issues, not able to be exploited were they known. They come across as totally self-reliant, even if they desperately want the comfort that healthy dependency could provide, were they able to trust it.
6. Preserving Dignity
Children who have to fend for themselves, overcome trauma, or live without nurturing can become very vulnerable adults if they seek safety over independence.
If they encounter recurring painful experiences in their intimate relationships, they either have to give in to them to ensure they will continue or walk away from a safety that has robbed them of their self-respect.
When they repeatedly choose the latter, they become people who feel they will lose that sense of resilient independence if they allow anyone to help them. They rigidly believe that the price will be too hard to pay in time. It is easier to stay powerful by keeping their walls intact.
7. Expectation of Care-Taking Reversal
Many not-let-anyone-in people didn’t start out that way. They were natural nurturers, more comfortable caring than needing care. As a result, they have naturally ended up giving more than they get back, and, for the most part, not resenting that imbalance.
But, eventually, there comes a time when they do actually need their partners to help them through a time when their own resources are not enough. Sadly, the partners they’ve chosen are at a loss as to how to reverse the caretaking imbalance and cannot respond accurately or soon enough.
That disappointment reinforces their belief that anyone will ever be able to take care of them and they double-down on no longer asking.
* * *
The most significant way into the hearts and minds of walled-off people is to name the relationship dynamic in a compassionate way and ask that partner to help to break down those walls. The partners wanting in must not take the walls personally, nor ever attempt to knock them down alone. The partners who live behind those embankments must do their part from inside of them.
Without it being a team effort, the partners wanting on the outside will eventually give up, not wanting to spend their lives being continually tested, thinking they are making gains and then finding them washed away the next time they try. Those that do not open up and trust again are too often left more unable to do that in future relationships.
It is crucially important to change this dynamic for both partners while they still love each other and want the relationship to work. If they commit to that process early in the relationship, they have a good chance of turning it around.