Reliable Membership: The Essay

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© 2001 Al Turtle

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This material I developed over several years as I pondered, examined, experienced, and resolved the issue of reliable connection.  It came together in its present form in 2001. 


All humans require reliable, sufficient and not excessive, contact with other humans.

This is an absolute biological, genetic requirement for children under 8 years of age and  it is also serious requirement after that age.  Older humans can live alone, but in what I call a “degraded condition.”   This seems to be an idea that you can “take to the bank.”  It seems that reliable.  I believe this is a function of our middle brains, the limbic system, as it appears in mammals as the desire to not be left alone, the desire to be included, the herd instinct.  I recall in the book, the Horse Whisperer, how young wild horses on the prairie would be given the choice of submission to the lead mare’s wishes or being driven away from the herd.  They would always choose submission or “joining up.”

Sometimes the need to be together can be overridden by the experience of unpleasant connections.  Hermits are built by repeated history unpleasantness when they tried to connect.  They need connection – but not that kind.

The Connection Continuum

Childhood is not all one way or the other.  I find the best way to express my experience of this basic rule is to speak of a continuum.  At one end is absolute unreliability or insufficiency of connection.  At the other is absolute excessive connection.  People can find their place along this line – some higher, some lower.  As we grow, we sometimes move up and down the continuum.


A: Clingers: Some people receive Unreliable or Insufficient Contact in childhood. 

This causes PANIC!!

When an organism experiences too little or intermittent connection, its old reactive, reptilian brain activates.  I call this Panic.  As children, these people survive by developing CLINGING skills.  These are behaviors of hanging on, standing close, resisting being distanced.  And as these children grow, when they can walk, they develop PURSUING skills.  These are just ambulatory, walking clinging skills.  These behaviors involve following, moving toward, and chasing.  A Clinging/Pursuing child doesn’t want to be put down, and runs out of the house and after their parents when left with a baby sitter.

These same skills of clinging and pursuing, driven by PANIC, become habits and follow the child into adulthood.  Attention getting may become a life-style. 

Reactive Behavior

When these adults panic, they move toward others, especially their partner. They ask questions, follow, push toward, talk at, and in general become invasive of their partner’s space.  As an adult, clinging may become very controlling, possessing, captivating, cornering and interrogating acts. This is the source of stalking behavior.


This is your pattern if you often frequently think of, or fear, your partner leaving you behind.


When nervous, you will focus on your partner’s evasiveness, withdrawal, silence.  You may also have day or night dreams of safe togetherness –  of finally living happily forever.

B: Avoiders: Others people received Excessive or Unpleasant Contact in childhood.

This causes PANIC!!

When an organism experiences too much or painful contact, the old reactive, reptilian brain activates.  Again this is Panic.  Children who experience this develop AVOIDING skills.  These are behaviors that do not invite contact.  Even when hungry these children don’t cry.  We often call the “good babies,” but really they are happier when left alone.  As these children grow, when they can walk, they develop ISOLATING skills.  These are just ambulatory or walking skills of avoiding. Isolating involves having hiding places, wandering off, climbing trees and not coming down, running away, sitting at the far end of the room, being very aware of exits, etc.

These same skills of avoiding and isolating, driven by PANIC, become habits and follow the child into adulthood.  Withdrawing may become a life-style.

Reactive Behavior

When these adults panic, they move away from  others, especially their partner.  They are quiet, self-contained, elusive, non-talkative, and in general, often emotionally cold.


This is your pattern if your mind often goes blank when your partner talks, asks, or moves toward you.


When nervous, you will focus on your partner’s invasiveness, attacking, pushing, and you may dream of peace, quiet and space.

Where are you?

Take a moment to find the place on this continuum that fits you.  We are all somewhere along this line at any moment.  Over a lifetime you may change position.  Usually in partnership one will be higher on the line and one lower.  This seems critically and often disastrously true for perhaps 80% of the couples I have seen.  Are you the higher one or the lower one?   How about your parents?  Where did you see them to be?

I make the high Clingers to be 90 or 95 and the low Avoiders 5 or 10  When I started to look at this problem, I saw myself  as 80 and my partner as 35. I was comfortable with what I call about 80 units-of-contact.  If my partner gave me more than 80, I would panic and start to pull away – avoiding.  If my partner gave me much less than 80, I would panic and start to chase her.   Now my partner was content with about  35 units-of-contact.  If I gave her 35, she would be happy.  If I gave her more, she would panic and start to withdraw.  On the odd occasion that I gave her less than 35 units-of-contact, she would start to move toward me.

I also find that over a period of time people may change their position and even reverse sides.  Thus I prefer to speak of Clinging rather than of Clingers, of Avoiding rather than Avoiders.

Note: One fun image is that when people go out in public to find a partner, dating, at that moment they are all clinging – wanting more reliable connection.  After you meet a person and become close, after a while, one will switch to avoiding.

Clingers Fall in Love with Avoiders; Avoiders marry Clingers

The primary reason we select our partner has to do with familiarity.  Our partner “feels” familiar to us.

I, a clinging kind of guy, am attracted to a partner who tends to avoid – of course.  The simple reason is because she is familiar.  She is like the caretakers I had as a kid who were often unreliable and not available enough.   I recognize that behavior.

My partner, an avoiding kind of gal, is attracted to me, of course.  The simple reason is because she has been familiar with my type of excessive person since early in life.  I have many of the traits similar to her overwhelming and intrusive caretakers.  She “recognized” me on the first date.

Falling in love tends to set this situation up.  (Again and again and again.)

The problem

When a Clinging person gets nervous, they tend to move toward their partner in order to reduce their growing panic.  The Avoiding partner sees someone coming and, starting to panic, they move away.  The Clinger sees their partner moving away, and moves faster.  The Avoider now runs faster from the clinging person, who is now “chasing” them.  The two run toward what I call the Leaving Wall, the wall at the edge of the relationship – the Divorce Wall.

Now this could start the other way.  When an Avoider gets nervous, they tend to pull back and head for some quiet space.  The Clinging partner sees their partner move away and, starting to panic, they start to hold on or follow.   The Avoiding partner feels the holding on and, further panicking, withdraws more frantically, firmly.

The two run toward that Leaving Wall, the Divorce Wall.

These scenarios get played out over and over with no conscious effort, but usually a lot of panic.  And they always move toward that Leaving Wall.  In my experience, this situation is a crisis problem in probably 85% of the couples I have seen.  It is almost always one of the two main crises for people who come to my website via the article “What to do when he/she leaves you.”

A Clinger/Pursuer’s View  (the clinging partner)

From my point of view, as a Clinger, the Leaving Wall scares me.  It is a place of fear.  Whenever my partner said, “I’m out of here;  or “I can’t take this any longer;”  or she was just gone a little longer than I expected, or she was quiet, I would start worrying.  My worry always had more or less panic within it. I visualized her divorcing me, leaving me, having an affair, dying, etc. etc.   The Leaving Wall scared me.  I did all sorts of things to protect myself from “her going over that Leaving Wall.”  All of my efforts were temporary fixes.  But sadly, all my efforts seemed to push her away.

An Avoider/Isolator’s View (the withdrawing partner)

From my partner’s point of view, as an avoider, the Leaving Wall was a safe haven.  Sure she would act with panic, but she did not fear the Leaving Wall.   What scared her was the lack of what I call the Space Wall.  Space Wall was that place she could get behind to take a break from me.  Kahil Gibran said, “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.”  It was the lack of Space Wallthat frightened my partner.  Without that Space Wall, the only safety for her was the Leaving Wall, (which, of course, scared me).

Oh, by the way, Avoiders/Isolators often seen contact as a conflict!

Solution:The Wall Within

The Space Wall protects my partner (the avoiding partner), not so much from me, but from her historically valid experiences of too much contact.  It also does protect her from me.  Simultaneously it protects me (the clinging partner) from that dreaded Leaving Wall.  It she has plenty of Space Wall, she does not need to go toward the Leaving Wall.  Hooray!!!  And so The Space Wall is the “Wall that Al built.”  It worked.

The simple solution is that I, the clinging partner, build and maintain a Space Wall that is reliable to me and to my partner.

Advice for the Clinging Partner

Learn to enthusiastically create, and support your partner’s need for the Space Wall. This will reduce their need to move toward the Leaving Wall – Divorce Wall. Give them the “benefits of leaving while they are with you.”

Learn to be happy when on your own and learn to switch to the on-your-own mode quickly.

Good News

You can live with the Space Wall. You can live alone!  Not well, but you are designed for it.

Bad News

Your partner cannot live without the Space Wall!  Without a strong, readily available Space Wall, they have to use the Leaving Wall.  You have to take primary care of your own neediness. You might as well consider yourself “insatiable”.  But you can live with it.

Also, I want you to be clear that this topic is the only one in relationship skills were the solution seems one-sided.  It seems unfair.  And I think it is unfair (check out my paper on this).  But I’d rather have a solution that is somewhat unfair than have no solution at all.

Whoever is the Clinger at any time, that is the one who has to do the primary work. This is because the Isolator’s defensive posture usually contains paralysis, often a drop in blood pressure in their cortex, that  makes them unable to act at all.   They just Freeze.

Sorry about this.


Giving your partner the Space Wall, and you really have to get good at this, (see my paper on The Testicle Principle) does not take care of your need for connection.  You have to take care of that, yourself.    This is what I learned, and what follows is how I solved my need for connection when my partner was not available.

Here’s the Situation

Boy, am I needy. I came to realize that I am very needy.  I came out of my childhood needing lots and lots of attention.  I can look back and hear voices of people complaining about how needy I was.  When I finally began to understand this, I decided that I needed about 1500 love units per day.   This was not my fault.  This excess neediness was my parent’s business, but that’s all past now.  Now it is my problem.  So here I am needing lots and lots of love units each day.

My partner, not so much.  My wife came out of her childhood with a very limited ability to produce love units.  Her maximum on a good day is 50 love units.   Oh, she can work lots and accomplish many many things, but when it comes to love units – not much.  This isn’t her fault.  This limited capacity was her parent’s business.  But now it is her problem — and my problem, too, because I have been trying to get my needed 1500 love units out of a 50 love unit source for years.


Print this chart in PDF.

Now What!

So I looked at this situation and looked for my options.

  1. My wife had the best love units available.  She just didn’t have many of them.  I wanted every one of her capacity.
  2. I can live alone.  True, I am kind of degraded when alone, but I can do it.  In fact when I travel for business I take care of myself pretty well.
  3. There are lots of love units in the world.  I get love from cats, dogs, horses, friends, TV, music, radio talkshows, clients, audiences – wow,  there are many sources!    Still, among all these sources, my wife has by far the best quality love units – just not many.

My Fix: The Solutions in three Steps.

And thus here is what I did, and I did it right in front of my partner.

  1. I improved my ability to live alone.  I looked at my time alone and started to do a better job.  I noticed that when I had lived alone, between my marriages, that I often did pretty well.  I noticed that when I traveled for business I often did pretty well.  I just was not in the habit of doing well when I was near my partner.  So I practiced doing better.  E.g.  When I traveled, I always had a good book available.  So, I learned to have a good book available at home also.
  2. I improved my ability to get love units from other sources in the world. But, and this is a big but, never did I draw on a source that would threaten my partner.  Remember, she had the best LU’s in town.  I didn’t want to ruin my chances of getting them.  So, for me, this meant that I could get love units from any person or any group as long as they weren’t single females.  I built up a network of friends.  I joined volunteer organizations.  I gave presentations.  I kept up with my pets.
  3. I developed a super-fast switch.  This was a skill to be able to shift from my partner as a source, to my living-along-skills, to my friends, and back quickly.  If I was with my friends and my partner had some to share, I would drop my friends and head home.   If I was with my partner and she suddenly seemed to want quiet time, I would grab a book and start reading.

The Benefits of the Fix

I was stunned by the benefits of doing this.  I mentioned that I did it in front of my partner.  My partner seemed relieved that I was doing it.  She actively supported me.  She told me about having so often felt a “failure” that she could not meet my needs.  She began to relax around me and……..her output of love units began to increase.   At this point, quite a few years since I started this plan, she can produce probably 500 love units without difficulty.   Wow!  And they are those highest quality love units!

Now, they are still not as many as I want, but I found out something else.  It was the reliability that made all the difference, not the number of love units.  My panic was much more driven by the fear that my sources would be cut off.  And now I, with my Superfast Switch, was taking care of the reliability.  My supply became just fine.  My strategy met my need for reliable and sufficient contact and met my partner’s need for not-excessive contact.  Cool!

Advice to the Avoiding Partner

Learn to firmly and gently make the Space Wall, yourself.  Learn to anticipate your own needs for quiet, and signal your partner when those needs are coming up.  Learn to take “time outs.”  Tend to your partner’s need for reliability by showing that your Space Wall is not a Leaving Wall.  Always refer to your returning when you start to move away.

Good News

You get the quiet space you need.

Bad News

You have to develop Relationship Responsibility. You can’t blame your partner for your need for space.  You have to come back.


Also Check out my articles on What to do when he/she won’t talk and the Testicle Principle.


Reliable Membership: The Essay — 98 Comments

  1. I’m a Clinger dealing with an Avoider who was, in his previous relationship, a bully in a Master/Slave dynamic (the Slave eventually broke the cycle by calling 911 on him since he was threatening suicide to keep her from leaving). A lot of healing has occurred, and he feels a lot of shame and regret about the way he acted in that relationship.

    However, this makes it difficult for him to feel safe around me, because *I* am sometimes gutted by anger and fear about his previous behavior — as well as occasional fear that he will revert to it, or that his change is not permanent or real. My need to express those feelings sometimes explodes as accusation and shaming — “how could you treat her that way” — and is at direct crosspurposes with his need to feel safety or acceptance.

    In short, I’m holding my Avoider’s previous behavior against him, and because it sparks fear and rage in me, it endangers our ability to feel safe with each others. How can we work together so we are no longer controlled by his past behavior? As the Clinger and more proactive person, how can I help create an environment where we both heal from this?

    • Hi Jen, I wanna start by sharing that Clinger/Avoider stuff seems unconnected to Bully: Master/Slave stuff. In the former the dynamic is pretty simple and almost mechanical. Tis a matter of understanding it and the Clinger “doing the right thing.” For a Clinger the action is to work to keep your partner away from feeling overloaded from any source, or once they are overloaded do what you can to help the process of getting back from being overloaded.

      The Master/Slave dynamic is only solved by developing the habit of durably staying in a Friend/Friend mode no matter what your partner does. Eventually both learn that habit and both help each other while learning. So you are working on building all the skills of Friend/Friend that you both were not taught in your family or in previous relationships.

      My suggestion for you is to put up some signs to remind you (and him) that all people make sense all the time. He and you did make sense in the past. In the past he was doing his best even when acting like a bully – so was his partner when she let him act like a bully. No one can make anyone feel anything. Your stuff is never my fault, but I care about you, is there anything I can do to help. When my partner get’s angry it’s best to take a TimeOut and vice versa. Disagreement is normal. If two are agreeing, probably at least one is lying. If thinking of his past sparks fear in you, then learn the competence of dealing with it not avoiding it. If thinking of his past sparks anger in you, value your passion, get rid of your anger, and learn better to deal with it. Just some thoughts.

      These are all the little skills that untangle a Master/Slave relationship.

      Good luck.

  2. “Why would a person run toward something that is not running away?”
    I recall this sentence from your “Feelings and Emotions” article and I think it suits here as well.

  3. Dear Uncle Al, I feel that the love mismatch you talk about regarding the required love units is akin to any other relationship mismatch that eventually is more trouble than is worth and is better dealt with a finding another partner that suits your needs best. The mismatch will not go away, and I find it unfair that the clinger is the one that is always blamed for the failures of the relationship. The clinger is the one that is supposed to do the hard work and somehow have to deal with seeking the love units that the avoider cannot or will not provide ( and in a way that it does not threaten the avoider ) .Personally, I think one is better served with just finding someone who is able to provide roughly the same love units that you need.

    • Dear Piekko, So many people who arrive at my website seem to be clingers who naturally sympathize with the Clinger in my paper on Reliable Membership. And, of course, that is the space I come from. In the past most people who sought my work had been in a long term relationship that they want to “fix.” I was one of these (See my Map of Relationships for the whole story). And of course the core belief in the website, my core belief, is that we pick people that we are drawn to people who uniquely do not/cannot (without changing) meet our needs in specific ways.

      More and more people are coming from “just dipping their feet in the water of relationship”. A lot of people believe in compatibility and see differences as a problem to be avoided. I am certainly ok with seeking a better partnership, if you have that choice.

      I tend to see the phrase “finding another partner that suits your needs best” as based on an outmoded fantasy. For me the idea that people often chose an “ideal appearing” partner, who later turns out to be your “worst nightmare”, seems more practical and leads to better solutions. This, certainly exaggerated image, I think prepares people for the hard work of making a great relationship.

      Discovering that one is a clinger, with an avoider partner, whose clinging behavior is driving that avoider away, seems normal and common. To look for a solution to that problem is what I imagine most people who come to this article or who read “What to do when he/she leaves” are doing.

      It’s fun to review theories. Thanks for sharing yours.

  4. I absolutely love AND hate this article. I’ve been called clingy and after reading even such a short article, I feel I understand my girlfriend of 5 years and my breakdown. We recently separated and although she still lives with me, was talking to a “friend” for a while now even before the split. She assured me it was nothing until they “kissed” last night and she spent the night there. She states it shouldn’t matter because we “are not together” right now, but my clinginess is holding on because it has been not even 3 weeks yet.
    Anyway, I am developing an understanding because she is an avoider and potentially has less lu’s than your wife. I wish I had found this site sooner as it appears it is too late and since we’ve fought over this clingy issue in the past, she does not see the potential for my change.
    Overall though, i am appreciative of all your information and have been (and will continue to) learn all these techniques and identification methods in order to potentially understand and better myself in the future. Thank you

    • I hear you, Tim. Quite an article. Still stands up. I went over that LU part with my wife after reading your piece. She said, “Back then I didn’t have many Love Units. Now I’ve got a lot, sometimes more than you, Turkey.”

      Good luck, Tim. Keep a learning.

  5. One thing not mentioned, that I think is “unfair”. Avoiders throw themselves into work and social activities in their leaving – why not they have plentiful supply of LU. And often they make demands that clingers “get friends” or “other interests”.

    for the Clinger, getting jobs completed is hard to focus and keep motivated, and there is no interest in outside social interests and work seems pointless…. because I have a huge gaping hole torn in my life.

    • Doesn’t seem fair but not much in life is. People who contact me are usually the Clingers who’ve been left behind. I recall that “the one who can leave, has all the power.” But that one, the avoider, usually has felt powerless for a long time. It is, to my way of thinking, for the Clinger to ensure that their Avoider doesn’t feel powerless or overwhelmed – ever, in your presence.

      This may not seem “fair” as you have your need also. Just can’t use power to get em met. Good luck. Read on.

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