Why a Hot Relationship Runs Cold

Chemistry can be deceptive.

Posted Jul 16, 2019

“What attracts people, initially, is sometimes what breaks them apart in the end.” This was what my mom said during my aunt and uncle’s divorce. I never really understood the wisdom of her statement until I studied childhood trauma and attachment

A human being’s need to remaster attachment-trauma is profound, yet, because it is an unconscious tendency, people are not always aware that the attraction they feel for another person may be fueled by a desire to heal painful childhood wounds

For example, if a person’s father was emotionally unavailable—meaning he constantly fluctuated between dismissive and rejecting to idealizing and controlling—the person may be drawn to a partner who operates similarly. The unconscious promise of remastering a painful childhood dynamic is exhilarating and intoxicating. Winning the love of a partner who unconsciously reminds a person of a rejecting parent offers a chance to eradicate the original pain. 

The hook is that many emotionally unavailable people launch a relationship by wooing their partner. By idealizing and showering a partner with the affirmation and validation the partner is hungry for, the emotionally unavailable person easily reels a partner in. Yet once the emotionally unavailable party has the partner invested in the relationship, he or she changes the game. Suddenly he or she becomes dismissive and critical.

This throws the partner into a panic because the love he or she longs for is yanked away, which reawakens the trauma that an emotionally abusive parent inflicted. Instead of recognizing the reality of the emotionally abusive relationship, the partner experiences searing emotional pain. The dynamic unconsciously reinforces the actions of an emotionally abusive parent and in order to escape the pain, the partner scrambles to return to “good graces,” which grants the dysfunctional person additional control. 

Usually, the emotionally unavailable person reverts to an idealizing mode in order to manipulate the partner into staying and investing. Because the partner regains the “love” he or she desperately longs for, he or she absorbs the blame for the rupture in the relationship and unintentionally grants the emotionally unavailable person additional power.   

This cycle usually continues and slowly erodes a partner’s self-esteem. The partner inevitably feels the injustice and unfairness of the emotionally unavailable person’s attacks and reacts with hurt and anger. The emotionally unavailable person typically responds in two ways: He or she either abandons the partner because the risk of being found out and losing control is too much or accuses the partner of being “too emotional” or “too sensitive.” Either way, the “hot” relationship immediately cools or comes to a screeching halt. 

Frequently people assume that an emotionally abusive person is consistently mean. Yet, if that were true, his or her manipulations would be readily and easily uncovered. It is the emotionally abusive person’s pattern of oscillating from devaluing to idealizing that deceives a partner and keeps him or her second-guessing. 

Several hallmarks of emotionally unavailable people include:

  1. They swing from loving you to treating you with disdain.
  2. They believe they are right and have difficulties entertaining a partner’s perspective if it differs from their own.
  3. It is their way or the highway.
  4. It is almost impossible to resolve conflict, and simple disagreements explode into nightmarish fights.
  5. They play the victim in order to garner sympathy and avoid taking responsibility for their actions. 
  6. They display sympathy but lack empathy
  7. They induce shame in a partner. 

If a person had or has a tenuous relationship with a parent, talking to a psychotherapist may help. Gaining insight into childhood wounds helps illuminate the manipulations of an emotionally unavailable partner. Secure and authentic love is possible with the right person.