My boyfriend said he wanted to marry me, but then walked out

The question I am a gay man with a relationship problem. I was very much in love with my ex-boyfriend for the first three years of our relationship. Problems started when he asked me to marry him. I felt us disconnecting and asked to go and see a relationship counsellor. It didn’t help. He said some things in session that still smart today. For example, he said our partnership was like a whining child he wants to run away from. I became more distraught about the deterioration of the relationship as he became more distant.

The wedding plans stalled. The final straw was him arranging a big holiday with his friend and I was not consulted or invited. I was desperate and one day after he’d insulted me, I said I was ending it. Once I’d calmed down I tried taking that back, but he wasn’t having any of it. I never saw him again.

Personally and professionally I am now doing well. But I’m still haunted by feelings of grief and I worry I’ll not make it to a place where I no longer feel the pull. I need him to reach out and say he misses my friendship. I’ve had other relationships since that one, but I always have a sense that I’ll never fully recover and will never fully be present in my life. Please don’t tell me I’m immature.

Philippa’s answer I’m guessing your ex had what we call in my profession an “avoidant attachment style”. This means that he wouldn’t like to get too close – he might think he would, but he wouldn’t. People develop this style when they have learned in infancy that they cannot depend on others to soothe them. They solve that problem by unconsciously deciding (even before they can speak) that they will never need anyone. He likened your relationship to a whining child. I might assume he finds the human need for connection frightening and/or repulsive to some extent.

But, for me, the real alarm bell went off when you decided to get married – until that commitment was on the horizon he was able to manage a relationship, but afterwards he saw it as a drain. It is not uncommon for people who have an avoidant attachment style to shy away from a relationship when it becomes more committed – even if they have initiated the commitment. This is not your fault, which I think you know. You, on the other hand, may have what therapists call “insecure attachment style”. People with this style are often attracted to avoidants. It feels right because it feels familiar: one of the main emotions you felt growing up was probably this longing you still feel now. Insecurely attached people are good at longing, and a lover who is likely to trigger it is someone who swerves commitment – someone with an avoidant attachment style.

This man may have been very special, but everyone is very special in their own way
You probably longed for a parent and you experience this longing as love. Someone gorgeous who can never fully be there for you will ignite your fire. And now you think, if only I could have a crumb, just him saying he misses my friendship, I would be all right. This man may have been very special, but everyone is very special in their own way. What makes someone an object of your longing, of your love, is the fit. He gave you what you longed for because your earliest caregivers probably ignited more longing than security in you. Your relationship ended and no one has ever fitted quite as well. Except if they did, the pattern would be repeated.

You can recover. You will come to appreciate people who are there for you. Go over your very first attachments with the people who brought you up – or who didn’t, but should have done – and see how this man pushed ancient buttons.

What is addictive about love with insecure attachment people are the highs, which are only possible because there are lows. What would you give for a hit of him right now, saying he misses you? Then he’d disappear again and the lows and longing return. To move on, what you’ll need to do is recognise that your type is not your type. Your type of partner isn’t the avoidant type who will give you these highs, followed by lows, but someone who is reliable, available and dependable. What we call a “secure attachment” type. And it won’t be love at first sight because he won’t seem familiar in the way an avoidant person would be, but he’s reliable. You won’t get such highs, but you won’t get the lows either and, over time, as you become more familiar to each other, you will slowly climb to a steadier high. It’s important to note that no one chooses their style of attachment – how we form bonds is an unconscious process. Nor is anyone stuck with their style forever – when you become aware of it you can choose not to be at the mercy of it.

You are not immature, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a very young part of yourself within you that needs a cuddle. Give him a cuddle, tell him it’s going to be OK because you have a grownup self now who takes care of stuff and does that well.