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  • Michael Philp

To have close and meaningful relationships, we have to accept the risk of hurt

Push Pull Relationships
Yin and Yang - Push/Pull

No doubt you've seen this yin and yang symbol. It's a powerful symbol, from the religious philosophy of Taoism, and without trying to oversimplify it too much, helps explains duality that exists in life, and it is a useful way of thinking about the way in which opposites interact with each other, rather than remain mutually exclusive to each other. I've been using this symbol to discuss the complex interactions that we have in a 'push-pull' relationships.

Push Pull Relationships

I'll explain what I mean about push-pull relationships first. Push-pull relationships are characterised by a desire to be emotionally close to someone (pulling them in) and then becoming anxious and distressed by this emotional closeness (pushing away). Once the person has been pushed away, however, the fear of being alone is activated and the desire to pull that person back into the relationship comes out again. Push-pull relationships are usually driven by fears of abandonment as the person oscillates between a fear of being alone (pull) and a fear of being hurt (push). This can play out not only in intimate relationships, but also friendships. If you are a person who tends to display this behaviour, then you've probably had a partner or a friend tell you "you never let me in".

Push-Pull behaviours are driven by a fear of abandonment, what psychologists call a core belief or schema. For people who engage in the push-pull behaviours, there is a deep core belief that you are not good enough, or not worthwhile, or not loveable enough, and that in the end people will leave you. As a way of protecting yourself, you tend to keep people at a distance, to not fully let them in. This defense mechanism is aimed at protecting your abandonment schema - it feels worse to have let someone in, to have let someone know the real you, and then get dumped. Because that confirms the belief - you are not good enough, or loveable or worthwhile. As a way of coping, you may come up with a whole bunch of rationalising reasons as to why you push people away, or break-up with them. And they sound reasonable to the unquestioning mind. But the reality is, it's about protecting ourselves.

Yin and Yang

Here's the problem in life - people leave us. Parents get divorced. Partners break-up with us. Friends move away. People die (the ultimate abandonment). Some relationships last a long time, maybe forever. Some relationships serve a function for a period of time. You don't dislike that friend, but neither of you make a massive effort to get together like you did before - the relationship has changed and run its course.

We have in life, choices. Protect ourselves from hurt, being let down, being abandoned by not letting anyone in, not getting too close to others, and being safe. The black side (yin) of the circle. The white dot, however, represents loneliness, disconnection, not experiencing a full and meaningful life. The other choice is opening up, making deep connections, enjoying friendships and relationships, getting to know people on a deep and meaningful level. The white (yang) side of the circle. The black dot represents risk - risk of being hurt, let down, disappointed.

We can't have one without the other. In Taoism, the Yin and Yang represent chaos and order. Even in chaos there is some order. In order, there is some chaos. Birds flying together represent a great example: at times their movements appear chaotic, yet they move together in a sense of order and purpose. If we choose to open ourselves up to deep and meaningful relationships, to fully experience life, then we risk being hurt. So we need to make conscience choices and to accept this part of life, even though it may be scary, even though it may be hard. Because the alternative is worse - the loneliness that comes with shutting people out.

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