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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Vail

Toxic Chasing in Relationships

I've always enjoyed sending old-fashioned snail mail, making birthday celebrations for others, and remembering upcoming important life events for people I care about. I've had too-busy seasons of neglecting these things, like during grad school, but I always find my way back to them because it brings me intense joy to celebrate the people I care about and see them feeling "special." I make the effort to be a responsive communicator. I write important dates about loved ones in my calendar, such as birthdays or approaching events they feel emotional about, like exams or surgeries, so I can offer my timely support. I try to notice things that matter to the ones I love - this helps me love them how THEY prefer to be loved. I do these things for loved ones without expecting the same in return; but that doesn't mean I tolerate relationships that are not reciprocal - where I am expected to give the majority of effort to keep the relationship going.

As a recovering people-pleaser, I have learned to notice unequal effort in relationships. I now teach clients to "listen" to someone's behavior to detect red flags of lack-of-effort or neglect earlier, such as someone who doesn't initiate contact, doesn't pay attention to important facts about a person, doesn't remember birthdays, and so on - especially if they demonstrate doing these things for others in their life. Some folks (like dissmissive-avoidants) even "flaunt" the attention they pay to other "more important" people or things in their life - the subtle (and sometimes subconscious) act of devaluing you can feel good or safer to them.

I have learned, with a doctoral degree from the School of Hard Knocks, that people-pleasers tend to "attract" people who devalue and dismiss them. Often times, people-pleasing stems from early attachment trauma and is known in psychology as "fawning." Its a story I've experienced, and heard repeated on my therapy couch from clients, a thousand times: a relationship has some nice start or moments of joy, but over time, the other person engages in an increasing pattern of devaluing behavior that typically inspires the people-pleaser to obsess about how to fix the relationship (classic fawning), protest for more attention (usually unsuccessfully), or suffer deeply as they find their deepest insecurities confirmed. Dismissive/avoidant-attachment types can feel emotionally safest around a groveling, boundary-lacking, unworthy, people-pleaser. They might hyper-value you initially, then find themselves gradually devaluing you, as their tendency to pick out flaws in others enables them to keep everyone at an emotionally safe distance. They view their pattern of "disappointment" as being someone else's fault - they just haven't found the "right one" or the worthy enough person "yet"; and they get locked in a lonely pattern of eventually rejecting everyone, and never addressing their need to keep intimacy at bay. (By the way, dismissive-avoidant types may thrive on the unending supply of people-pleasers they can easily find in online dating sites, and the myriad ways they can be "dismissive" online (ghosting, blocking, orbiting, benching, breadcrumbing, etc.) - so if you too are a recovering people-pleaser, beware the online dating pool is a place where, statistically, you are much more likely to "connect" with these types than other dating scenes.)

This pattern is most commonly observed in romantic relationships when someone obsessively chases a less-than-interested person, but this behavior can be observed in many other relationships. You know that family member that doesn't really participate or communicate in holiday celebrations or birthdays? You know that friend that calls when they need a favor, but otherwise you never hear from them? You know that social media pal who so clearly has an abundant social life, but doesn't include you in it, despite saying they intend to? You know the jet-setting family member who travels frequently, but just never has time or money to visit you?

Sure, there are reasonable barriers to connection and participation in relationships sometimes - at least a few times or for a brief season. However, when the frequent pattern in the relationship is for someone to ignore, forget, apologize for being too busy, make very inconsistent effort, not respond in a reasonable amount of time, and generally be unavailable despite promises to the contrary - this is giving you valuable information. This behavior may not be mean-spirited (for example, unmanaged ADHD behaviors may impact relationships this way), although sometimes it is definitely irresponsible (they have the tools but choose not to use them), and in some circumstances, it is intended to hurt or promote "distance" the person doesn't have the skills to ask for.

Noticing a lack of reciprocation in a relationship is a painful reality that can tempt anyone to hyper-focus on the painful and rejecting behavior of the inconsistent participant, and neglect the work of healing the wounded parts of themselves that gravitate toward inconsistent people or tolerate painful inequity in relationships. Self-help books abound that describe this "bad" behavior or offer explanations for it, but I wonder about the value in that beyond validating one's experience of it. Once you know this behavior hurts and isn't unique, the real healing work can begin. How do you stop the self-betrayal patterns that allow fawning behavior to persist? Healing this may look like:

  • valuing yourself better (love yourself in all the ways you wish they did!)

  • cultivating standards of acceptable behavior for future relationships (no more crumbs!)

  • healing past trauma that may have made "fawning" a normal relationship pattern for you

  • turning your effort toward relationships with a healthier, more balanced sense of co-participation

  • cultivating compassion for them (such as someone who just lacks communication skills or is unavailable due to their own life circumstances)

  • sometimes people are showing you the level of intimacy they are comfortable with and matching their effort is as much as this relationship can ever handle

  • accepting the relationship incompatibility might mean accepting they are not a bad person - some people are just more comfortable with less closeness. This doesn't mean I want too much, nor does it mean they want too little - we just want different.

  • some people, however, are 100% predatory for opportunities to be dismissive of others, and taking appropriate care of yourself may mean establishing boundaries to reduce or cut-off their access to you.

The more adept you become at noticing inconsistent behavior, dismissive traits, and a lack of sincere effort, the more you can do to protect yourself from your own toxic trait of "chasing" unavailable people. It can be frightening and lonesome (at first) to unlearn "chasing" behavior, but it clears the way for you to finally make the relationships that you have wished for all along. You deserve healthy, reciprocal, consistent, and warm attachments; and there are many people out there looking for the same and willing to give it to you. Don't settle for bread crumbs from others, or the toxic chasing it can inspire in you. You are SO worth the effort, from yourself and others.

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