Astrid, divorced and in her late 40s, was having her first Skype session with me. She was obviously very anxious as she told me the story of her three-year relationship.
"Douglas lives in Los Angeles and I live in New York. We met through mutual friends and fell in love. Even though we live on opposites coasts, we've managed to spend a lot of time together, since we both travel for work. Recently, my company agreed that I can work from L.A., and I've been planning on moving in with Douglas. But since I told him, our relationship has been in turmoil. I don't understand what's happening. Why is he pulling back? I thought he'd be so happy to have me there."
I had a feeling about why Douglas was pulling back, but I needed to experience Astrid and Douglas together to be sure. I asked Astrid to see if Douglas would join us in a Skype session. He agreed.
Douglas, in his early 50s, had never been married. He was obviously a very kind and caring man, and had been there for Astrid through some rough times. However, it soon became very clear to me why he was pulling back.
A common relationship system is where one partner has a fear of rejection and the other has a fear of engulfment. Astrid clearly had a fear of rejection, which was now showing up as intense anxiety and neediness. As long as Douglas had been there for her, she had been happy and relaxed, but now she was anything but relaxed. She felt like her world was falling apart.
Douglas was a typical caretaker, being there for Astrid but not being there for himself. Douglas had learned as a child that he had to give himself up to his mother's control to be "loved" by her, so he had a big fear of losing himself in a relationship.
He had felt safe as long as he and Astrid were not living together, or even living near each other, but his fear surfaced when she announced that she was moving to be with him. He was so terrified of losing himself in the relationship that he was now pulling back.
These two major relationship fears — the fear of rejection and the fear of engulfment — come from a common source: self-abandonment.
Astrid was abandoning herself by making Douglas responsible for her happiness and sense of worth. She tended to "pull" on Douglas for his love. Douglas was abandoning himself by ignoring his own feelings and needs and caretaking Astrid instead.
Of course, Astrid loved how Douglas took care of her when they were together, not realizing that he was putting himself aside to do it. Douglas could keep this up as long as there were long weeks between seeing each other, but the thought of living with Astrid made him feel completely trapped.
It was obvious to me that these two people really loved each other, but for their relationship to work, each needed to learn to love themselves rather than keep abandoning themselves.
If Astrid were loving herself, she would not be needy of so much of Douglas's attention. She could share her love rather than always trying to get his love.
If Douglas were loving himself, he would be able to say no to Astrid rather than give himself up and care-take her. He would be willing to lose her rather than lose himself, which would take away his fear of being trapped and controlled.
Both Astrid and Douglas did the inner work necessary to learn to love themselves. Astrid moved to L.A., but didn't move in with Douglas. Instead, she took her own apartment to give Douglas some space.
As they both learned to fill themselves with love, rather than always trying to get love from the other, their love grew and they eventually got married. Learning to love themselves rather than abandon themselves led them to be able to share their love, which is what healthy and mature relationships are all about.