The Push-Pull cycle in Borderline Personality Disorder is complicated. There’s a million different variables that lead into and cause various episodes of this; love, fear, abandonment, dissociation, object constancy, splitting, etc. I’ve talked about the push-pull cycle, mentioned aspects of it in various places, but I don’t believe I’ve tried to pull it all together in one place. So let’s do that.
Push-Pull - is a chronic pattern of sabotaging and re-establishing closeness in a relationship without apparent cause or reason. It’s that back and forth feeling of wanting to be close to someone, letting them into a more intimate and vulnerable position in our life, being suffocated, or becoming afraid of that vulnerability, needing to escape [potentially] being hurt, fearing the loss, acting on that fear, and then desperately trying to get that person back from fear of that abandonment, often by apologizing profusely and doing everything we can to be perfect for them again. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.
Often for me this breaks down to two key factors; wanting to be intimately close to someone, and fear of being hurt/abandoned by them at the same time. The closer you allow someone to get to you, the more vulnerable you become to the reality that they are now in a position to hurt you more than other people. If you keep people at a distance you have a safety zone, an emotional buffer. But this doesn’t allow for true intimacy.
It’s that whole threat of intimacy. I want to be close, but I want to be safe too. The closer someone gets, the more able they are to hurt me. So someone gets too close, I push away. Half the time I think it’s for their own good! I know my issues. I’ve ruminated on the millions of possibilities that could happen if someone gets close enough to see the “real me”. The illusion of perfection will be shattered in the tarnished portrait of the bad person I really am. For as much as I want love, want to love, I don’t always believe I deserve it because I know how much has happened to me, everything I’ve done, all my baggage is too much to place on another person. What right do I have to unload all of this onto someone? So pushing away really is for their own good after all. Of course I’m rationalizing, but it’s true to me regardless. But then I’m left alone, I get lonely, and I miss the closeness that was there, and I want to pull back.
For the most part I think it’s a fear response. Fear that we will be left, that we aren’t worthy of being loved, that people are lying and trying to use us… an endless list of other things. We need reassurance and it takes a lot of energy to show us that. Unfortunately it’s a part of our nature to need this. It’s also a part of our nature to feel smothered by it, push it away, fear the loss of it, frantically try to retrieve it, and repeat the cycle endlessly, for as long as someone will let us.
From my article on Baiting and Picking Fights:
There’s something else though. An element of, if the other person will allow me to push, stay with me through the hurtful things I do, it ‘proves’ that they won’t abandon me. The more we can push away, the more baits and barbs we can throw, the more fights we can pick, the longer they show that they’ll tolerate it or try to work it out with us, the more we can believe that they mean what they say and aren’t trying to deceive us … If we can make someone we care for SO ANGRY, they’ll either prove us right, or prove us wrong. Either way we’ll know something for sure, and it stops (momentarily) the constant second guessing going on in our heads. Believing someone, trusting someone… I know I’ve been hurt so badly that I can never fully do this. That doesn’t mean I don’t want it. I just have to test the fences to be sure.
I think what triggers unstable behavior in relationships is the magnitude of intimacy. The closer the relationship, the more invested we are, the more frightening the possibility of it ending becomes. Funny, that this is almost always a self-fulfilling prophecy. We become frightened something will happen, we act in ways to push people away, to distance ourselves from them, before they can hurt us, and this very act is what starts the downward spiral into the destruction of the relationship. It sounds clean cut when you look at it like that, but it never is.
The pushing away is gradual. Often we don’t even recognize the things we do that manifest as pushing people away. Our thoughts and actions seem quite rational to our traumatized mind. No one sees it coming, not even us most of the time.
Hypersensitive to feeling trapped! This is one of the biggest triggers that makes me push away in relationships. It’s coupled by the sensation of being smothered. Boring-Ex smothered me. He’d coddle me. I would see him and I would have no room to express myself, be myself, I would lose myself because he would criticize when I did express myself. His personality was so overbearing that I could feel the air being slowly sucked out of my lungs whenever I was near him. I didn’t feel like I could be me, and the only way I knew to reestablish that was to eliminate the problem that created this deficit; the relationship. I did try talking to him about these things, but he wasn’t the kind to compromise.
That’s not to say that everything that goes on is purely in our own minds and created by our fears. Things are often brought about by how the other person treats us. I’ll do so much for people, pull people close, meet their needs and demands, and then eventually I’ll flip. I’ll be completely overwhelmed by what someone else wants when it’s not what I want. This often happens because I’ll take on so much responsibility for “our happiness” that I don’t express what I need in a constructive way. Instead, I’ll feel like I’m losing my sense of Self to their needs, not my own, that what I’ve just been doing is now too much, being taken advantage of, a demand instead of a desire, expected not appreciated and I’ll have to Push away to regain control of my own situation. It’s not quite the same as the traditional Push-Pull explanation, but the sentiments match up. It inspires feelings of resentment and resistance coupled with the borderline flipside desire to not be abandoned and needing approval. Can’t be too aggressive otherwise we’ll push people away irrevocably, can’t be too passive and just let things slide because then we’re just being taken advantage of and the resentment builds to explosion.
A Non may have done nothing wrong, they may have unintentionally triggered us, or they may be someone that we’re afraid to get too close to because we can see the potential for an intimate relationship. Seeing the potential doesn’t mean we’re prepared to deal with it though. For me, and for many with BPD, there is a lot of abuse, a lot of hurt, a lot of pain in our past, and each new relationship is an opportunity to repeat that process. We have to move slow, emotionally. I often move fast physically to stave off the emotional intimacy that I really need. When I sense things getting too close, closer than I prepared to handle, I need to reestablish a safe zone, I push back. Sometimes this just means taking some space, sometimes it manifests as baiting and picking fights, sometimes it means dropping off the radar completely until I’m ready to rejoin humanity. What I want is to be close, but not too close. I can’t figure out how to do this without pushing away and pulling closer. Allowing someone in, and then forcing them back out.
How do you cultivate trust when you’ve been so wounded? How do you cultivate trust when you don’t actually know how to trust?
Finally, this also happens when we plain just don’t want to be with someone anymore. I’m not going to lie. This is exactly what happened with Boring-Ex. I wasn’t attracted to him when we were together. The only time I was attracted to him was when we were breaking up. I absolutely believe this was because I was more afraid of The Loss and not necessarily the loss of him. So I would pull him back to me, despite the fact that I knew deep down that I didn’t really want to be with him. It still FELT like I did. In the moment I absolutely believed I needed to be with him. It was the fear of that loss that triggered my need to pull him back to me though.
The Push-Pull cycle is insidious. It sneaks up on you. Neither person may notice it at first because it begins so small. Only once it escalates do you really realize what is happening.