This toxic relationship pattern is driven by the fears of abandonment and intimacy, which lead to communication breakdown. People with insecure attachments styles (anxious, avoidant or fearful-avoidant) mostly end up in hot and cold relationship patterns. Due to the inability to establish prolonged intimate connection relationships are often casual, however, some will endure this pattern in a long term relationship or marriage.
The partner who overtly displays the hot and cold behavior, is referred to in this article as the ambivalent partner. The ambivalent partner has a direct fear of intimacy which they are often aware of. They may directly tell you that they are not good at relationships, do not see the benefit of relationships or just want to have fun. They believe that intimacy means to be engulfed which is to be dominated, controlled and taken over by a relationship. This will cause them to push or turn cold when they are starting to feel engulfed. This fear is mostly caused by overbearing, overly fussy or controlling parents of which they suffered enmeshment trauma. Underneath this lies a secondary subconscious fear of abandonment; which is feeling unlovable or unworthy so that they will eventually find themselves completely alone. This secondary fear of being alone will cause them to yo-yo back to a partner after their fears of engulfment have subsided. The responding partner has a direct fear of abandonment and will tolerate an ambivalent partner rather than deal with the feelings of abandonment that come from loss or rejection. However, underneath this the responding partner also has a secondary subconscious fear of intimacy. The ambivalent partner is never close enough to them to feel uncomfortable and allows them to avoid the possibility of pain in a close intimate relationship with someone else.
The initial pursuit stage
The initial infatuation stage happens at an accelerated pace. An ambivalent partner has low self-esteem and seeks external validation in the form of romantic attachments to feed a sense of worth that they are unable to provide for themselves. This means that the ambivalent partner will be eager to make someone like them even if they are aware that they do not want a serious relationship with that person.
This need may even cause them to love bomb the other person. Love bombing is where the ambivalent partner will hyper-pursue the prospective partner. Showering them with attention, gifts, requesting to spend a lot of time together and regular digital contact. They will mold themselves into what they believe the prospective partner's ideal is. Telling them what they want to hear and appearing to be overly attached very quickly. The responding partner most often will have a mirroring low self-esteem and emotional hunger which causes them to attach too quickly. Love addicts will often become involved in hot cold relationships.
There is not much real conversation of values, wants, needs or what each partner is looking for. If there is such discussions then conflicting wants are ignored or concealed with one partner believing that they can get the other to change. This initial stage will often only last as long as it takes for the ambivalent partner to feel certain of the responding partner's affection. With the use of technology, love bombing is much easier to do. You can appear to be giving someone lots of attention with constant messages etc, without actually offering much of your time face to face. It is worth noting that an ambivalent partner who is acting more through their fears than an ego, will pursue someone as the attraction to that person is enough to take over their fear of intimacy for a while. However, it can be very difficult to tell which type of ambivalent partner you are dealing with.
This stage can be triggered by a number of different factors. The ambivalent partners fear of intimacy will engage when they are certain of the responding partner's affection. They will then start to fear being engulfed, that they will loose control and be trapped in a relationship. Alternatively the ambivalent partner may start to feel triggered by a period of more intense closeness as they start to feel more vulnerable. It could be a conversation or situation that sets off an emotional trigger from their past that makes them feel insecure. This can be demonstrated when the ambivalent partner seems to change mood quickly, pick fights, cancel dates last minute or after they disappear with no contact for days or even weeks. Deep down they fear that anyone who sees who they really are will eventually figure out that they are unlovable, so they prefer to not open themselves up. Robert Burney describes this further in the Joy2MeU blog:
'As long as I do not love myself then there must be something wrong with someone who love me- and if someone doesn't love me than I have to prove I am worthy by winning that person back. On some level we are trying to earn the love of our unavailable parent(s) to prove to ourselves that we are worthy and lovable'.
The ambivalent partner is now directly trying to counter their fear of intimacy. They will push back, withdraw and create distance to regain a sense of control over the situation. They may at this point seek out new relationships or if in a committed relationship start looking for affairs. They are essentially abandoning before they ever get a chance to be abandoned. The effects of abandonment on the responding partner will depend largely on how much fear of abandonment they developed during childhood. However, no one finds abandonment or rejection easy. Jovanna Casey on Jovanna's New Jump Spot blog article The Push-Me, Pull-You Dance explains:
'As an adult, when this abandonment fear gets activated, it means you’ve regressed to a child state. And you will do whatever you can to stop it. Perhaps you become desperate, subservient or clingy. You repeatedly ask, “Do you love me?” You do whatever you can to get someone to stay. If you are feeling alone, you might reach out to find anyone to temporarily fill that void, even if it is clearly a bad choice.'
The responding partner may try to cling, convince or manipulate the ambivalent partner to stop them leaving. The ambivalent partner will gain back a sense of power and control over the situation, along with a ego boost. This pulling by the responding partner whilst feeding the ego of the ambivalent partner will also intensify their feelings of engulfment, meaning they will feel the need to get even further away. Now depending on when the ambivalent partner has created enough distance for their fear of engulfment to subdue their sense of abandonment will replace it. They will be back seeking out the responding partner as a means to stop this new feeling of abandonment. The responding partner will be so revealed to have their own abandonment triggers calmed that they will likely bend over backwards to accommodate the returning ambivalent partner. However, nothing has been done to resolve the issues and the ambivalent partner will again distance when they feel the relationship deepening or when they are triggered. Each cycle repeated will often happen faster as both partners fears have been brought to the surface.
Why this pattern effects you like a drug
This toxic relationship pattern is addictive as it provides a form of intermittent reinforcement. The effects of intermittent reinforcement were discovered by psychologist Alfred Skinner, whilst testing the behavior of mice. Mice where placed in a box with a lever, which would dispense food as a reward when pressed by the mice. If the food stopped coming out of the lever the mice would learn fairly quickly to stop pressing it, it was no longer giving them a reward. However, if the food was dispensed at random presses of the lever so that not every press dispensed food; the mice would find it extremely difficult to stop pressing the lever. They would press it compulsively even when the food had long stopped coming. The intermittent reinforcement had caused the mice to engage in behavior which was extremely difficult for them to stop.
Unfortunately it has been discovered that more dopamine (pleasure hormones) are released with uncertain pleasure than constant pleasure. In early evolution this dopamine system helped keep humans alive as they were driven to constantly search for answers and try and understand the environment. Another factor is the stress of the unpredictability of the pattern. Rising stress-hormones cause us to become hyper-aware of the source of our stress. Therefore you are likely to focus more on an ambivalent partner. Never knowing how they will react next will cause you to experience fear which also releases more dopamine. However, when your brain is activated in this way it shows similar activity to cocaine addicts in MRI scans. Dr Helen Fisher has done much on this research and you will find her famous TED talk on this subject in the Videos section. This highlights how even a securely attached person can be negatively effect by the ambivalent partner. It also helps explain why its so difficult to walk away from this toxic situation and why you often feel like you are going crazy!
How to break the cycle
If you stay in this pattern you will not be able to experience a satisfying intimate relationship. Though it may feel like the ambivalent partner holds all of the power, this person will be unlikely to ever experience real love unless they change. Psychologist Lorri Craig sums this up perfectly in her article On Off Relationships at Lorricraig.com:
'this behavior is a desperate attempt to gain control over the uncontrollable; love. It’s a way to feel love without getting hurt. But the partner, who’s committed to playing safe, will never allow himself or herself to experience love. They’ll toy at it, dipping their toes in and out of the water without ever getting wet'
Do not believe that you are needy, wrong or not worthy of a stable relationship. Real strength is the ability to maintain contact and intimacy.
When first meeting someone get to know them slowly. Be on alert to people that try and rush things. You need to establish their romantic history and willingness to work with insecurities before choosing to invest in them. Find out if they have ever gone back to an ex partner or are still friends with many of their ex partners. Find out what they learnt about themselves from previous relationships and the experience they had with their parents in childhood.
If you start noticing the pattern directly communicate to them about this and how its making you feel. Ask them if they have noticed the pattern and if they know what might be causing it. If they say they do not want a relationship then do not think you can hang around for them to change their mind. If they say they are unsure what they want, then start dating other people and take your focus off them.
When you talk to them about it if they are continuously getting hostile, defensive and blaming external factors for their behavior than you have someone that is unable or unwilling to change. They are mostly using the relationship as an ego boost and may display strong traits of narcissism. I would recommend that you cut your loses and move on.
If they reveal an inner conflict, guilt or concern then they may have the capacity to change. You must be both willing to put in the work to understand what each of your fears are and work on ways to help each other overcome them. Make sure that actions are backing up words, if you are both trying to change then you will start to feel some growth in the relationship though it may be slow. When they ambivalent partner pulls back and withdraws, do not chase them or react angrily. An angry or chasing reaction is part of what keeps the circle going and the ambivalent partner distant. However, the ambivalent partner must also learn that when they want to run away as fast as they can, this is the time that they need to turn and towards partner. The first step may be that they let the responding partner know that they need some space to think and will be back at some point. When they are able to do this they can next work on trying not to run and instead communicating to the responding partner that they are scared and the feelings they are experiencing. The occurrence of vulnerable, honest communication should start to improve the relationship. This really does require both partners to work together to stop the dysfunctional behavior.
Robert Burney, Joy2MeU blog - http://joy2meu.com/codependent4.htm
Jovanna Casey, Jovanna's New Jump Spot blog - http://newjumpspot.com/book-chapter-push-pull-dance/
Lorri Craig, Lorricraig.com - http://lorricraig.com/psychologist/realtionships/on-off-relationships/