“The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain.” And the source of pain is always and invariably to be found in a person’s lived experience, beginning with childhood.” — Gabor Maté
Some call it walking on eggshells. Some might say it’s toxic. And others, will call it the push-pull dance. Whatever label we choose to slap on it, two things always ring true:
- Our earliest experiences shaped our current habits.
- Several motivations always underlie our behavior, even if we’re not consciously aware of them.
Recognizing what motivates us to keep cycling back to what’s comfortable and familiar isn’t always as All Black or All White as we may think.
Behavior can operate on an instinctual level — survival mode — where our earliest experiences influence and shape how we see ourselves and how we view our world. By the time we’re recognizing a habit, or noticing how our patterns have unfolded, the behavior has been longstanding.
This also represents how we engage in relationships and what we welcome into our lives.
.. Yup, I said what we welcome.
Here’s where instincts, early conditioning and learned habits often start. And, become reinforced. The fact is, if we’re basing our relationships on what we were handed in childhood, this can either work for us, or against us.
The irony, or perhaps not, is that we tend to easily fall into bad habits learned earlier in life, but struggle in unlearning them. Once again, this goes back to how engrained early experiences are and the influence they have on us.
If we continue welcoming what’s familiar and comfortable into our lives — but are often toxic to our self-awareness and growth— then these choices are also based on what was being served in childhood.
This identifies the cycle, in all its dysfunctional glory.
…Even when we’re not consciously aware of it.
Early Life Events
Our defense mechanisms, our mindset and any behaviors that may evolve into habit all originate in childhood, where we’re shown about how the world works. This includes any traumatic childhood experiences.
In her book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, Miller (1986) discusses how infants are intuitively and instinctively in sync with their caregiver’s (i.e., mom) feelings and emotions. Thus, what mom is feeling, her child can start taking on as their own feelings. If mom is depressed or stressed or self-loathing, her child may begin crying because of being intuitively aligned with mom’s feelings and beliefs.
Or, using a behavioral approach, a child raised in a toxic environment learns — often by trial and error — of when to approach (pull) or reproach (push) their caregiver, based on what the caregiver is doing, and the story their behavior is telling. For example, if mom is in a blind rage, the message a kid is receiving is fear (survival mode kicks in) and the child ducks and runs to avoid her wrath.
After a few cycles if this replaying, the child typically learns two things:
- When mom is in a blind rage, run.
- Blind rages are how problems or stress is resolved.
In time, that kiddo is primed to enter adulthood carrying the baggage of childhood trauma, and learned toxic habits that often wind up repeating in their adult relationships.
And, it was never their baggage to carry.
In an interview with Tim Ferriss, Gabor Maté discusses the origins of suffering— why some people cause others’ suffering, and how they perpetuate their own suffering. These cycles replay to help numb, and to help momentarily cope, bringing more pain in their aftermath.
Not to get too Freudian, but everything goes back to our earliest lived experiences, keeping us stuck in a loop reliving our past, at the expense of numbing the present. While some of Freud’s theories are seen as outdated by today’s standards, many still hold credence.
More recent psychoanalysts such as John Bowlby, expanded on earlier theories of infant and mother dynamics to include how we learn our attachment style, which replays in our relationships. How a parent responds to and receives the infant’s needs, are how the infant learns about attachment.
4 Subtle Push-Pull Signs
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.
Lack of Accountability. I look at this one as finger-pointing and blame-shifting. It’s easier to point fingers at our partner for doing ‘XYZ’, than it is to examine ourselves, our own motivations and our own behavior.
If one, or both partners are caught up in blaming the other, without taking a few moments to self-assess, this type of push-pull will inevitably destroy a relationship. Not to mention, both partners are none the wiser for shifting blame instead of learning awareness into why they’re choosing to dodge their part in the relationship.
Sometimes, it amazes me how three little letters (E-G-O) can destroy a damn good thing.
It’s Not Just Them
Behavior doesn’t happen in a void. We know this. We aren’t living under water or under a rock. We know if our relationship somehow feels off, even if we can’t quite pinpoint why.
Yet, when we first start coming into awareness, we tend to lean positively on our behavior while leaning negatively on the behavior of others.
To keep any cycle in play, everyone needs to keep playing their roles. The best actors aren’t necessarily the best at acting, they’ve often just been in their role the longest.
So, it becomes tougher to learn new lines or to start a (healthier) different role. Cliche aside, unlearning anything that was learned earlier in life requires an investment.
In your Self…
Bowlby, J., 1982. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. (1978). Attachment theory and its therapeutic implications. Adolescent Psychiatry, 6, 5–33.
Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.
Miller, A. (1986). The drama of the gifted child. New York: Basic Books.
This post was previously published on Medium.
You Might Also Like These From The Good Men Project
|Compliments Men Want to Hear More Often||Relationships Aren’t Easy, But They’re Worth It||The One Thing Men Want More Than Sex||..A Man’s Kiss Tells You Everything|
Join The Good Men Project as a Premium Member today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.
A $50 annual membership gives you an all access pass. You can be a part of every call, group, class and community.
A $25 annual membership gives you access to one class, one Social Interest group and our online communities.
A $12 annual membership gives you access to our Friday calls with the publisher, our online community.
Register New Account
Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: Shutterstock