The fear of rejection and fear of engulfment cycle
Should you leave a relationship that is stuck in a negative cycle?
It is quite common for me to work with clients who are stuck in a dysfunctional relationship cycle. Sarah describes a common cycle that she wants to resolve:
“I am stuck in a two year uncommitted relationship. When he fears he is losing me that’s when he is on his best behavior and does anything he can to win me back (which doesn’t require much). Once he gets me he pulls back. Then I become needy. Then I pull back and the cycle begins again. I would like to experiment with creating a higher standard to win me back and see what happens. I am eager to get married and have children. Is this a waste of time?”
Sarah, I will answer your last question first: “Is this a waste of time?” Well, yes and no. Here’s why.
It is a waste of time to move on, because you are as much a part of this stuck relationship cycle as your boyfriend. If you move on without learning about and healing your end of this system, you run the risk of creating the same or a similar system in your next relationship. This is because this system is based on two fears that you will take with you: The fear of rejection and the fear of engulfment. Both you and your boyfriend are likely operating from these two fears, although your primary fear seems to be the fear of rejection, and his primary fear is the fear of engulfment. I will show you how I know this from your question.
“When he fears he is losing me that’s when he is on his best behavior and does anything he can to win me back (which doesn’t require much).”
When his fear of engulfment is diminished due to you pulling away, he goes into his best behavior to win you back. Your fear of rejection leads you back into the relationship. Neither of you are operating as a loving inner adult – who knows how to manage rejection without giving yourself up.
“Once he gets me he pulls back. Then I become needy.” He pulls back because of his fear of engulfment, which gets triggered as soon as he is back in the relationship. Then your fear of rejection is triggered and you get needy – which further triggers his fear of engulfment. He doesn’t want responsibility for your worth and safety, and he doesn’t have a loving adult self who knows how to set limits against being controlled by your neediness, so he pulls back even further to protect himself from your pull on him.
Instead of taking care of your own feelings when he withdraws, you abandon yourself, which is what creates your neediness. You are actually rejecting yourself rather than learning to love yourself.
“Then I pull back and the cycle begins again.” Your fear of rejection leads to you pulling back rather than to taking loving care of your own feelings of worth and security.
“I would like to experiment with creating a higher standard to win me back and see what happens.” This will do no good at all. He will certainly try harder because his fear of rejection will be motivating him, but without both of you doing the Inner Bonding work of creating a loving adult so that you can manage your fears, rather than continue to pull and resist, the same system will continue.
When you do your inner work to develop a loving adult self, then you will not become needy in the face of his pulling back. Instead, you will move into compassion for your own feelings. If he also does his inner work, then he will lovingly show up for himself when his fears of rejection or engulfment are triggered, rather than pull away.
So the answer to “Is this a waste of time?” is that continuing this same system is a waste of time, but staying in the relationship and learning to take loving care of yourself in the face of whatever he does is not a waste of time. Even if the relationship ultimately doesn’t work out, you will have learned a lot that may enable you to move on to a more loving relationship.
[Margaret Paul Relationship Toolbox]