What to Do When Your Partner Makes You Flinch

by | Mar 1, 2020 | Uncategorized | 30 comments

When I was a teenager, I wanted nothing more than to have a boyfriend. Like most teenagers, I was raised on a steady diet of romantic love informed by books like Sweet Valley High and movies like Sixteen Candles. Oh, how I longed for a boy who would walk through the school hallways with me with our hands in each other’s back pockets, who would take me to the beach at sunset, who would talk on the phone with me for hours each night! But every time a nice, available boy would take me out on a date and try to kiss me, I was repulsed. In a nano-second, all attraction, longing, and fantasy shattered.

As it turns out, I didn’t want the nice boys.

I was already wired by mainstream culture to seek the chase, the unavailable, the bad boy, which meant my desire was linked to longing. I dreamed and fantasized for weeks or years about a boy only to turn away once he was interested. Pop culture messaging combined with my early history primed me to reject safe love. There was simply nothing in my system that recognized healthy love as love.

Of course, I wasn’t alone; this is a theme I hear about daily in my work with clients, for we were all bred on a steady Hollywood diet of the impossible romantic ideal. Whether it was romance novels, music, billboards, magazines, television, or films, we all ingested the same distorted messages about love, attraction, romance, and sex. I’ve enumerated those messages in several other posts, but the basic gist is: When you meet The One, you’ll know (and that there is a “One” at all); love and sex should be effortless; and if you feel turned off, irritated, not attracted, or repulsed, you’re definitely with the wrong person.

If you tell most people that you flinch when your partner moves toward you either physically or emotionally they will likely say (or think) that you’re with the wrong person. Yet, what those of us who are steeped in real love know is that irritation and repulsion are defenses against intimacy. In fact, it is often only in the presence of real love that irritation, lack of attraction, and recoiling will appear.

These are common, yet not exhaustive, times that the recoil defense shows up:

• When your partner expresses love verbally

• When your partner reaches for physical connection

• When your partner makes a sexual bid

• When your partner cries or is emotionally vulnerable

Why would you pull away from a loving partner?

Why would you recoil from safe and healthy touch? Why would you put someone who is available and loving under a microscope? In addition to being conditioned to equate love with longing and arousal with unavailability, these are some of the reasons why you might recoil when an available partner makes a bid for connection:

• You grew up with an invasive parent who violated your boundaries physically, emotionally, sexually, or psychologically.

• You’ve been hurt in relationships with friends, siblings, and/or ex-partners which caused you to form the belief that love isn’t safe and people are not to be trusted.

• You’re overwhelmed by your life (young kids, work, finances) and haven’t found or taken the time to fill your well of Self.

But there is an antidote to the knee-jerk flinch response. There are Love Laws and Loving actions that, when learned and practiced, help you to rewire the faulty equations so that you can move toward healthy love and recognize true attraction. The laws are essential to learn, and the actions are how we rewire. For love is action, and action is to fear like water is to fire. One of the most powerful actions we can take when we want to retreat is to move in the other direction. This means that when you want to turn away, you turn toward; when you want to give into the flinch, you move through the flinch into affection. When you move toward fear instead of give in to the impulse to recoil, you reduce its power and, over time, you rewire the defensive response that is causing you to flinch.

As I often say, none of this is fast or easy work. Just because I give you a 30-day roadmap for rewiring that doesn’t mean that at the end of thirty days you’ll run into your partners arms every time they approach you for connection. But it’s through these micro-moments that we can slowly and consistently rewire our habitual and protective response from one of recoil to one of neutrality and eventually to one of delicious loving.

By the way, my husband is now the teenage boyfriend I never had.

It took me many years, but finally I was able to receive him when he approached me instead of flinching. That’s not to say I don’t still flinch at times, especially if I’m hormonal or exhausted, but for the most part I’ve been able to rewire the neurons that used to read love as danger into receptors that interpret healthy love as safety and romance. As the now-famous Rumi quote goes: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” Where we are most wounded is where we have the greatest capacity for healing, and the depth of the wound is in direct proportion to the intensity and breadth of the light. Where I used to flinch, I now rejoice.

Are you ready to heal? Are you ready to receive the roadmap that will allow you to give and receive real love, to help you soften the fear-walls and ease the vigilance of the protectors? If so, please join for my sixteenth round of Open Your Heart: A 30-day course to feel more love and attraction for your partner. This is the last week to join and I won’t be offering it live for another year. I look forward to meeting you there.

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30 Comments

  1. Do you have any tips for those whose partners flinch? My partner grew up with an intrusive, overbearing mother who violated his autonomy on the regular (and still tries to) and constantly flooded him. We get stuck because I try to come toward him and share an emotional response, and he gets defensive and protective, and sometimes shuts down, and this activates my own abandonment wounds. A few nights ago I was visibly upset, and he kept asking me what was wrong. So I was laying on his chest and shared my feelings, which originate mostly from my fears – but once I shared, I could feel his body tense up and he began to protect himself.

    He’s not emotionally unavailable – he’s affectionate, committed, says “I love you” often, and is responsive to my needs – but if he senses that my upset has to do with him not being enough in some way, it’s like a wall goes up in his heart and he can no longer hear me. It seems like our sense of safety is different; for me it’s when I can share in my emotional experience often, and for him it’s when there isn’t always something wrong for him to fix. I think he’s triggered by this because it reminds him of his mother.

    How can we be less threatening to flinching partners? Perhaps watering the relationship with lots of positivity and appreciation is a good place to start.

    Reply
    • We’ve been very emotionally vulernable in our relationship, and he’s always been self-aware and conscientious. I think that my emotional intensity is overwhelming to him, now that he’s around it 24/7, since he’s usually more rationally minded. So I think he’s right: I need to find ways to self-soothe and not have him fulfill my needs only. He told me he will be supportive, but he can’t fix me or soothe me every time I’m triggered, and he will talk through problems, but there can’t be constant problems. So his shutting down is a response to this pattern happening often over the course of 1.5 years.

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      • You seem to be on the right path. Keep doing the work and give it more time. Don’t give up, it will get better!

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        • Thank you, Jennifer 🙂

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      • It does sound like you’re on the right track. I would also add that if the two of you are willing to read Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson it would shed additional light on the cycle that you’ve co-created over the last year and a half.

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      • Hello A.
        Recently, in my group therapy we discussed how to recognize interconnectedness and dependence, to learn distinguish healthy leaning on the partner vs. unhealthy smothering. I can feel when I am going the direction of the uhealthy one, when I expect more from my partner and when he does not respond (for whatever reason), I feel irritated, annoyed, wounded. I know that that is the time when despite the fact that it doesn’t feel good, I need to have an internal dialogue with myself. I physically go in my own space (I go for a jog) and think about what it is that I want to feel more from my partner (support, attention…). Then, recognizing my need for more of that feeling I try to find a way to give it to myself. It can be any of the self-care activities like being more kind to myself, do something that feels good to me that I normally wouldn’t do (stay in bed and read a book, find a guided meditation addressing the feelings, talk to a friend …), maybe find a gentle way how to approach my partner and make a request for support without making him feel like he is being criticized him for not giving me enough support. “This is what I feel right now… I am working on processing some of my feelings and figuring things out for myself. During this time it would help me to receive more … from you. Can you do that for me?” This is the strategy I will practice to use. So far I haven’t gotten past the part where I recognize that I have high expectations from my partner and go in my own space to find out what I need more of 🙂 I like how you talk about self-soothing. It mirrors self-reliance for me. I feel that it is a very important skill to practice because if we give a partner the task of fulfilling all our needs and filling us with what we need, if for whatever reason suddenly they can’t be there for us anymore, they will take that ability with them and it might crush us. I believe in healthy leaning on while respecting my partner’s space as well. For me, I just need to put into practice more often.

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    • Hi A,

      I am experiencing very similar dynamics with my husband too, you said it in a very clear way: “It seems like our sense of safety is different; for me it’s when I can share in my emotional experience often, and for him it’s when there isn’t always something wrong for him to fix.”

      My husband’s parents got divorced and he ended up acquiring adult responsibilities at a very young age and between him and his brother have been taking care of their mother financially.

      He is the most supportive and sensitive man but he finds it so debilitating when I go down into a spiral of anxiety or depression – because of my own wounds -.

      I notice he is not as happy as when we were dating because he has unconsciously abandoned himself because his energy gets drained by my constant need for emotional support and trying to keep me happy, even when I am someone who does the inner work and don’t rely on him too much anymore.

      And I get triggered because I feel we are not happy and I question if we made the right decision by getting married. I feel triggered because I want a different life, one where I live on my own terms expressing my creativity and leading retreats instead of a 7-5 job. But to what extent am I really living my days according to that? Am I really putting my development on that area as a priority in my day?

      I am honest I am not. So he has stopped doing things that fill his sense of well and so have I.

      My advice for you would be to get honest with yourself on what brings you down – that you then need emotional support – and what actions are you taking to uplift your-self.

      Once you get clear on that, share this with him and this could help him understand that this is nothing for him to fix and he might find better ways to be there for you without being triggered.

      My best wishes for your journey.

      Reply
      • Hi D, thank you for your reply. My partner is sensitive as well, so he picks up on these energies of mine more than I realize. Truthfully I don’t know what it’s like to be in his position, and I’m sure it’s very draining – all I know is how overwhelming and debilitating my own emotional experience can be. I have a hard time feeling truly safe in the world, and I know it’s because of my attachment wounds (I am anxious-preoccupied). I require a lot of reassurance, and I find threats where there aren’t any. So *that* is what he finds exhausting. And I feel for him – but it’s like I don’t know how to escape my own intensity. I think I need to start to lean on others (have a wider support group), because it’s only healthy to depend on more than one person. And I know I need therapy – I just don’t have insurance, so I haven’t been able to access it. Thank you for the suggestion, and best wishes to you, too.

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        • Hi A. I I happen to read your response so many weeks later. I feel in a very similar position, needing often reassurance and needing a wider circle. Would you like to connect? I can leave my email if you’d like.

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  2. I seem to have a similar issue as “A” in the post above. My husband and I both had enmeshed relationships with parents. I do flinch when he touches me. I don’t particularly desire him sexually. He’s more like my best friend. But I married him bc I trusted him and bc didn’t trust myself anymore – many relationships failed me so I came to the conclusion that i have a broken love compass.
    The problem is (10 years and kids later) when I do overcome the flinching and get intimate with him, it feels cold and lifeless. I realized he is totally blocked emotionally. He also fears intimacy. Bad mix.
    This was ok to live with but recently I started feeling completely attracted to someone else. I keep trying with my husband but now when I sleep with him, I cry uncontrollably!! I don’t know why. It’s like I’m craving that connection with a man. To feel alive in my desire. I’m dying to have an affair…

    Reply
    • An affair won’t solve anything. Your longing for intimate emotional connection is 100% valid and healthy, but having an affair is not the answer. Have you tried EFT couples counseling with your husband?

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    • Anonymous, I was in your shoes two years ago. Your story sounds exactly
      like yours but I am now on the other side, after I had discovered that my husband had two affairs. It is the most excruciating experience to go through in trying to repair the problems my husband and I had along with recovering from the affairs.

      Wherever you go there you are… in the arms of your husband, an affair partner , or alone in your own company. Please do the internal work and find a way to get your husband to therapy to find a way back to each other in intimacy. Check out Childhood Emotional Neglect with Jonice Webb as well to discover if these patterns of relating stem from childhood. We carry so much in our brain wiring from our childhood and how we related to our care givers. An affair will make things exponentially worse for yourself and your family

      Reply
  3. Can this also apply to when you flinch after moving forward in a relationship? Like I’ll try to get close, like the first time I met my LDR partner in real life, or when I first said I love you, the next day I felt myself get overwhelmed with fear and regret, even though I felt fine before. I’m trying to address my fear one step at a time and see what my wounded self is trying to protect me from.

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    • Yes, when we move toward love in any way the defensive and protective flinch response often rises up.

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  4. Sheryl, do you have any thoughts on the comment above? Or do you think I’m on the right track?

    Reply
      • Yes, I do have that book. Is struggling with communication and conflict resolution common?

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          • I thought that might be so ;). Sometimes it’s all so hard and you just need a little encouragement.

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  5. I grew up with a mother who had very little control over her emotions. When a conflict would arise and we disagreed (from the time I was 10 years old we butt heads) she would become out of control, crying, banging on my locked door to let her in, screaming and sobbing, and wouldn’t stop for sometimes hours. I as a child did not know how to handle this. This is how I learned that it’s not ok to disagree, the other person is always right, in short I learned not to trust myself to even give a harmless opinion, let alone make mistakes. I also had boundaries crossed over and over again when she would violate my need for space and time to calm down and separate by banging on my door and yelling until I let her in and forcing me to talk about whatever situation caused this rupture. She would also unlock doors with keys and let herself in when I refused to unlock the door. I think about the symbolism of this now and it amazes me! Of course it’s hard not to flinch and let someone through the “door” of my heart when it was abused so many times. I also became my moms protector, comforter, and confidant during her and my dads messy divorce at 17 years old. This was one of the most damaging experiences in my life but also one of the places I was able to have the most healing. Now at 22 years old, with much healthier boundaries with my parents and an amazing husband holding my hand, I have been given the environment where I can finally look inward and take care of myself in the way I never thought I would be able to. I still have a long ways to go to learn about real love and healthy love because it was not modeled to me in my life. I am so grateful for the chance to heal now <3

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    • Your comment shows remarkable insight and commitment to your inner work. Keep going!

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  6. This was an aha moment for me! And all these decades I believed my repulsion was a “sign” I was created to be single. I walked out yeeeears of inner torture, trapped in the tension of what I dreamed of having and what I was convinced wasn’t mine to have. I’m so grateful I found Sheryl and her work – it changed my life (no exaggeration).
    PS. I’m now 2 years happily, freely, and availably married to one of those “nice boys” – he was my 1st real bf at age 43; dated in person for 8mos; then in a cross-hemispherical LDR for 3 years (yes, it CAN be done!). Every instinct inside me was screaming to push him away (I had monstrous anxiety from day 1, despite his/because of his(?) obvious integrity and authenticity), but I realized on some level that it was time to stop running from my fears. So I did. the. work. Fellow Love Warriors, just know, healing is possible, and so very very worth it.

    Reply
    • Hi KH. I didn’t – the timing of the course & me having available budget never coincided… although I took the Sacred Sexuality course and that was deeply transformational and exactly what I needed at a crucial time in my healing If Break Free is put together anywhere as sensitively, conscientiously, and hope-fully as Sacred Sexuality – which I would bet anything it is – it will be a gold mine. Take it if you are able. I would have loved to.
      In my case, I ravenously absorbed everything available on the blog and followed Sheryl’s suggestions – there’s a wealth(!!) of info and encouragement there – plus I had a therapist + loving friends walking with me.
      I figure, as long as your toes are pointed in the direction of wanting healing, you’ll get there. You’ll learn everything you need to know in the right time, space, and sequence. Still, if you CAN take Break Free, don’t hesitate – if my SS experience is any indication, it would launch you beautifully towards freedom and wholeness. I have no doubt it’s going to happen for you too. You’re so loved.

      Reply
  7. Whenever my partner and I have disagreement, I tend to flinch and feel that it takes time for me to be free with him and loving with him. I have had relationship anxiety in the beginning and now am on the road to recovering. Few days ago, we had a disagreement regarding alcoholism. I thought drinking occasionally (not regularly) is not a big deal, while my boyfriend is staunchly against alcoholism. Even though he said it didn’t matter cause he respects my choice, he said he felt really bad and psychologically triggered when I had a drink with my friends a few days ago. He explained about his hate relationship with alcoholism and I felt that he was overreacting and we argued for a day. Even though he never stepped over my decisions and was being concerned by telling me the bad side of alcoholism, I started to feel like my individuality and my personal choices were questioned and I picked a fight with him as a result. As a result, during the fight, I was so repulsed and felt like running away from him. Now we are great as we realised how we stand on this topic and still respect each other’s choices. I also decided not to go beyond a drink , if I ever feel like drinking(I do not drink, although I occasionally taste). Also, I sometimes feel like running away when he says sweet things to me. Is this normal??

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  8. I struggle with being bored by talking on the phone with my partner and worry that this is somehow evidence that something is wrong with my relationship….is it normal or not is something I ask myself all the time….

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  9. While reading this, as someone who has intrusive thoughts about their sexual orientation (in a same-sex relationship) my anxiety spiked. Part of my coming to terms with my sexuality was acknowledging that I was instantly repulsed by men as soon as they showed interest towards me. How would I know the difference between what this article is referencing and a lack of being attracted/ wanting to be with someone? Just curious if anyone else can relate

    Reply
    • I wonder the exact same thing, but from the other end of it (I’m in a heterosexual relationship)… I’m extremely triggered by this and absolutely can’t tell what’s what… What if I’m just wrong about my orientation???

      Reply
      • I’m also very curious about this – part of me feels relief from reading this, and another part of me is extremely triggered. I’m bisexual/queer women dating a heterosexual man, and I deal with a lot of relationship anxiety thoughts around attraction to my partner and my sexual orientation. One of my biggest fears is what if I recoil/flinch when being intimate with my partner is because I’m actually gay and just haven’t come to terms with it? All the reasons for flinching/recoiling in this article make a lot of sense to me and I’m sure some of it is true for me, but what if I’m also wrong about my orientation and that’s a part of it? I’m not sure how to tell the difference.

        Reply
  10. “I dreamed and fantasized for weeks or years about a boy only to turn away once he was interested”…
    This is so similar to what happened with me and my boyfriend. I had a crush on him when I first met him, was attracted to him and tried to move toward him. Eventually I lost interest because I believed he was one of those guys who wouldn’t date me (like all the other guys I had crushes on and pursued yet that was the “love” I longed for and believed was true love). A year later, after my crush for him faded and I moved on to other crushes, I found out he was interested in me but at this time there was no crush, no attraction and no interest or longing or pursuing or excitement on my part. We started dating cuz I wanted a boyfriend and we have been dating ever since. I’ve been so scared that our beginning is “wrong” because of the lack of interest, attraction and feelings for him, and I believed so strongly in my old story of love that the media had engrained in me my whole life that was meant to fulfill me and make me feel better about my low self-esteemed self. So this blog makes me feel better in the sense that I viewed longing as safe love and that my recoil and lack of attraction and longing and interest with my boyfriend isn’t actually wrong-it just doesn’t feel safe to me from my inaccurate belief in “safe” love. And there doesn’t seem to be any coincidence that when I longed for and was crushing on him when I first met him it didn’t work but when he was interested and pursued me it did turn into something. My fear voice is strong though and says that this really isn’t true and I’m just trying to convince myself to stay with him and I actually am wrong. If anyone can just help me see that what I’m saying is on the path to healing that would be awesome! I feel like it is but sometimes I just feel so alone and someone reaching out to me and saying that they understand and that I’m making sense helps! Thank you!

    Reply

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