The anxious/avoidant romantic relationship is the most common. Naturally, anxious styles likes to pursue and avoidant styles likes to avoid. This is often labelled the push-pull love affair. We all know this couple and maybe have been in a relationship, or several, for the excitement generated. This can also be a temporary pattern of relating. However, any relationship based on this dynamic has a built-in end date. One or the other will get tired of the game.
Overt behavior of a push-pull is pretty easy to identify. In the example above, the child learned to reproach (push away) when mom was in a blind rage by shutting down, tuning out and running and hiding.
Similarly, in intimate relationships, the push-pull is obvious during heated arguments; there’s usually one partner trying to avoid the argument (push) while the other is going full-throttle in the argument (pull). Or, add alcohol to the mix, and emotions become that much more heated where one partner may be screaming while the other grabs their keys and takes off in an effort to get away.
However, there are a few push-pull behaviors that are more low-key, or covert where you may not recognize you’re in the throes of a bad situation.
Indifference. In its literal sense, indifference is the opposite of love. In its behavioral sense, it can play out as a shoulder shrug, or an avoidant comment. For example, one partner may ask for advice or want to hear what their partner thinks about a job opportunity they have out of state.
Most of us would want our significant other’s opinion, right? Especially if emotions are riding on it with the hopes that they’ll be supportive and move with us. But, what if you only got a shoulder shrug? Or an unintersred comment like, ….”I’m sure you’ll figure things out.”
Most of us would probably do the knee-jerk reaction of ..”wtf?!” If this is playing out as a push-pull situation, then they’re looking for that kind of reaction from you. In order to figure out where they’re coming from, you have to look at your overall relationship, and how similar situations have played out.
If they’re gunning for your reaction, that may indicate they’re pushing away while looking for you to chase them to pull them near.
Impulsivity. Impulsivity and intimate relationships are a Molotov cocktail because impulsive behavior is always self-serving and well, impulsive.
In overt push-pull behavior, you may see impulsivity play out in an argument where feeling unheard or disappointed by their partner can trigger impulsive behavior where they wind up in the arms of someone else.
If it’s based on a push-pull, it’s often done to make themselves feel better in the moment, while vying for your reaction afterward.
More covert behavior may play out as snarky comments or demands, or it may play out where plans get canceled at the last minute. Impulsivity walks hand-in-hand with passive-aggression, so if you suspect your partner is trying to irk you or get under your skin, an effective way to do this, is through impulsive choices and passive-aggressive behavior.
But, fair warning: any reaction resets the game.
Variations. When we think push-pull, we likely gravitate to the idea that one partner is pulling towards, while the other pushes away. Yet, there are subtle variations on this.
For example, a push-push plays out where both partners are pushing in opposite directions. When you see a push-push, it can be volatile where both partners are trying to establish power and control by bulldozing the other. Or, it can play out more subtlety, such as both partners being indifferent towards each other and neither showing much investment in the relationship, in its direction or if it lasts.
On the flipside, you may have a pull-pull. The pull-pull shows both partners pulling for themselves, trying to one-up and undermine the other while each try to convince themselves that they are the better partner. It may play out where arguments are based on a tit-for-tat score keeping on who did what, when, and for how much.
The push-pull cycle is exactly that: A pattern of drawing someone in, then pushing them away. It can happen in romantic relationships, families (between parent and child is common) and between friends. It can even happen at work if you have a boss or colleague inclined that way. (Note: it’s also called Bullying.)
Being in a push-pull cycle means the relationship is never securely attached — that it constantly swings between happy and smooth to cold and distant. Sometimes this happens over weeks or months, sometimes it can switch back and forth in a single day. Which makes it impossible to relax — and causes endless drama and misery.
In romantic relationships this pattern can be used to manipulate and control a partner. But it doesn’t always have a toxic agenda, it can be a genuine struggle with intimacy or attachment, that comes from a history of loss, rejection or abandonment. So the person’s desire to love is mashed up with twin fears of getting too close and of being alone. And when both partners struggle with one or other of these things, it can become a mass of confusion.
The trouble with a push-pull cycle is that it can be hard to spot until you’re deep in it or you’ve been around the loop a couple of times. So even emotionally secure people can get caught out — finding themselves entering into the same pattern and then struggling to find the exit door.
Here are four signs you’re in this cycle.
* Love feels hot and cold.
Being with someone should feel good. Sure, there may be disagreements and fights, but the overall feeling should be somewhere between hot and warm. You should feel good. But when you’re in a push-pull you’re either close (and loving it) or distant (and worrying about it). You don’t know what to make of it — or your partner. It’s up, down; in, out: There’s no consistency. Which means you can never fully relax. Put the thermometer on your relationship: The temperature should, at minimum, be tepid.
* You don’t trust your plans.
You never know how being together is going to pan out. Maybe you make plans for weekends, holidays and the future but after a while you learn to hold them loosely because you don’t know what might have happened between the two of you by the time the date rolls around. You’re never quite sure if you’ll be showing up together — or alone.
* You live with the low hum of anxiety.
A little insecurity is normal at the start of a relationship when you’re in the phase of figuring out your “status”. But in a push-pull cycle anxiety becomes part of your relationship package. You find yourself worrying about your partner’s mood or what it may mean for the atmosphere when you’re together. You find you can only fully relax when you know they’re “happy”, that the relationship’s in a good space. And you begin to work overtime to keep it there.
* Your fights are never fully settled.
Conflict is normal as two people settle into a relationship. Okay, some people don’t fight at all, but it’s common to experience a little friction as you figure each other out and relax into whatever-it’s-going-be. But in a push-pull cycle it’s common for the fights to simmer, to never fully settle. The periods in between are often about “needing space” or time to “cool off”. The same issues will tend to blow up as you move through the cycle.
In any relationship, not every fight will be 100% resolved and you’ll go crazy trying to make that happen. But it’s important to have a healthy way of getting to a place from where you can move forward. In a push-pull relationship, that won’t ever (quite) happen.