- Not everyone who heartlessly discards someone they claimed to love is a narcissist.
- There are many types of intimacy fears that make serious ongoing relationships difficult or impossible.
- When a partner leaves because of their intimacy fears, they may try to return when distance and time diminishes their fear.
One of the sad truths of romantic life is that the out-of-reach fruit often appears the sweetest. This is especially true for people with intimacy issues that get triggered in real relationships. This includes people with narcissistic personality disorder who are looking for perfection, people with schizoid personality disorder who feel trapped when they are with someone who is fully available, people with borderline personality disorder who fear abandonment, or even immature people who are not yet ready for fully adult relationships.
I deal with a lot of sad, puzzled clients who tell me some version of the following story:
First, we were really happy together. We were planning a future together. Then, for no reason I could figure out, my ex started to pull away emotionally. Then they dumped me. I was devastated. I thought they loved me. I couldn’t believe that they could just leave me like that. I begged them to come back and give it another try, or at least explain what had gone wrong, but they just ignored me. It was like I didn’t exist.
I was a mess and I looked like a mess too. I cried for weeks. Finally, I pulled myself together and got back to where I was before the whole thing happened. Now my ex has reached out to me and wants to come back and try again. I am really confused: Why did they leave me in the first place and why do they want to come back now?
Note: In this post, I am using the terms schizoid, borderline, narcissist, or narcissistic as shorthand for people who qualify for those personality disorders.
Why did your ex leave you in the first place?
The Magnifying Mirror Effect
If you have ever switched from checking yourself out with a regular mirror to using a magnifying mirror, you may have been unpleasantly startled by how many facial flaws you suddenly could see. I know I was, and I thought: When did my pores get so huge? Where did those wrinkles come from?”
This is similar to what happens when a courtship leads to a serious relationship. While your ex was courting you, you were the out-of-reach prize to be won. From that distance, you looked unrealistically perfect and there was nothing threatening about the idea of being in a relationship with you. Then, when the deal was sealed and you both decided to become a committed couple, your lover’s underlying fears about being in a relationship suddenly surfaced.
However, if your lover is a nice, relatively typical person, these relationship fears will not be overwhelming. Most people can accept imperfections and work through their fears about being in a committed relationship. They are comforted by the growing intimacy between the two of you. You see each other’s flaws but neither of you magnifies them. Instead, you both accept the reality that no one is perfect, and the relationship continues to deepen.
But what happens if your lover has intimacy issues?
There are many people who can be quite loving during the courtship phase of the relationship but are either ill-equipped to move to the next stage or are frightened of the growing intimacy between you. Just as your relationship deepens and the two of you begin to make plans about the future, your lover starts to feel trapped, bored, or scared. Suddenly, your once-devoted lover is now searching for reasons to pull back or end the relationship.
This can go in several different directions depending on your lover’s personality. The following list is not exhaustive, but it touches on some of the most frequent reasons once devoted lovers leave their partner when the relationship is actually going well.
If your new partner has a narcissistic personality disorder, as your partner gets closer to you and feels confident of your devotion, your flaws are likely to suddenly loom unrealistically large. It is as if you are being scrutinized by that magnifying mirror. Instead of seeing you as airbrushed perfection, your partner starts homing in on all your little imperfections.
Now instead of happily cuddling with you and telling you how wonderful you are, your lover starts mentioning all the things he or she does not like about you. This can range from the real and important to the absurd. Below are some of the things that my clients have reported hearing:
- You talk too much (or too little).
- You are putting on weight and it turns me off.
- I wish you were less clingy.
- You load the dishwasher wrong.
- You are too close to your family.
- The way you eat grosses me out.
Unfortunately, narcissists are perfectionists and not very good at having real relationships. They only have two categories: Perfect and special or worthless and flawed. Once narcissists start looking for flaws, they will find them. And, because narcissists have little or no emotional empathy, they are likely to comment on each one.
Then, they may use these flaws as their excuse for growing cold, pulling back, and ending the relationship. Narcissists are often much more comfortable blaming you for their desire to break things off, than facing their own difficulties around maintaining a real relationship.
Schizoid Intimacy Fears
Many of my clients who have made schizoid adaptations are afraid of being trapped, losing their independence, or even their sense of identity in close one-on-one relationships. Their childhood experiences left them with weak internal and external personal boundaries, no knowledge of how to negotiate differences of opinion, and very little basic trust. The closer they get to you, the more likely they are to feel overwhelmed and endangered. Some people with schizoid personality disorder become so afraid that they dissociate, shut down emotionally, and find some excuse to retreat to a safe distance.
Here is what one of my schizoid clients said about why he left someone he loved:
I was wildly in love with her. I could be vulnerable with her, and the sex was great. I thought I had finally found someone I felt safe with that I could trust. But she was married. I pursued her for years, begging her to leave him and marry me. But, when she finally did leave him, I freaked out! I was so scared by the idea that there was no longer anything in the way that I just ran out on her. All I could have said as I left was that I still loved her, but I just couldn’t do it!
Borderline Tests of Love
Many of my borderline clients do not really believe that anyone could love them. Deep down inside they are convinced that everyone will abandon them once they get to know them. To protect themselves, they sometimes subject their new partner to various unreasonable tests of their love. In their attempt not to get hurt, they end up sabotaging the relationship. Here is a common version of this situation:
I love him with all my heart, but I am afraid that now that we are together he will abandon me. I am so afraid of rejection that I have stopped being nice to him and instead I am showing him my worst side. This is some kind of a weird test. If he proves that he still loves me despite my bad behavior, then I know I can relax. If he gets mad at me or complains, then I know I must leave now before I really get hurt. He will eventually abandon me anyway.
Or, they say something like the following:
He told me he loved me. I said, “Prove it!” Let’s go pick out an engagement ring tomorrow and set a date for our wedding. When he hesitated. I took that as a sign that he was not really committed to me after all. So, I broke off our relationship and left in tears.
Immature or Not Ready
Some people are immature or late bloomers. They are not yet ready for a real relationship that could lead to a serious commitment. They are mentally and emotionally only capable of the type of brief romance with no strings attached that most of us had in high school or college. Inside, they are still a teenager.
Unfortunately, they do not announce this when you first meet. They may be fine in the early stages of the romance. They may even talk of a future together. But, when the two of you are getting ready for something more serious, they do not want to go forward. They wish that they could stop the relationship clock and just have fun with you.
As they pull away, they may say things like:
- This is getting too serious too quickly.
- I need more time for myself.
- You are a great girl (or guy), but I am not ready to settle down.
- I am going to Tibet with some buddies. We will be gone at least three months.
- It’s OK if you want to date other people.
Or if they are cowardly, they may simply ghost on you and not answer your texts or calls, leaving you forever perplexed about what happened.
Why does your ex want you back?
Now that your ex is no longer with you, all his or her intimacy fears diminish. You no longer expect anything, so there is nothing triggering them. He or she is back to looking at you from a distance. Your minor flaws are now invisible, and your ex remembers everything about you that he or she liked. This leads your ex to reach out to you again.
Relationships are a bit like dancing. Some people are happily waltzing together, holding each other tightly, while going in happy circles perfectly in sync. Others are doing the cha-cha or the tango—when one person moves forward, the other immediately steps back. When someone who abruptly and painfully discarded you now returns and asks for another chance, it usually means that your ex still wants to dance with you, but it is not the same relationship dance that you would enjoy doing.