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Are Your ‘Walls Up,’ or Are You Just Romantically Incompatible?

Here's what relationship experts think of the classic reality TV cliché.

by Hannah Smothers
Mar 5 2020, 12:00pm

ABC/John Fleenor

Seven weeks into this season of The Bachelor, frontrunner Hannah Ann confessed something to the camera. “Peter told me I needed to let my walls down; I’ve had my walls up throughout this whole experience.”

Considering that seven weeks of Bachelor time probably amounts to no more than four cumulative hours spent together, it’s not wild to hear that Hannah Ann’s been a bit guarded around this relative stranger. It is, of course, normal and fine to be protective over one’s feelings, and it happens in the real, non-producer controlled world all the time. But at a certain point, we must ask ourselves the same thing I scream at my TV every time a Bachelor contestant confesses to keeping their “walls up” all the way until Hometowns: Are you really keeping your walls up, or do you just not like this person???

When it comes to dating, the predominant narrative is that when you find the “right person,” the relationship is supposed to feel easy and effortless. Bumping and skidding along, continually running into someone’s “walls,” feels like the opposite of that. But according to Judith Siegel, a professor at NYU’s Silver School of Social Work and author of What Children Learn from Their Parents’ Marriage, all people, whether they realize it or not, have certain buttons that, when pressed, trigger a need to be suddenly protective. If a new partner does something that reminds you of an old, bad partner (or, that old classic: your parents), for instance, that would merit a reason to “put your walls up.” Someone running into those walls isn’t a sign that you hate them and they suck (even though it may feel that way), but more a sign that you, like all other people, have some things to work through.

Megan Fleming, a relationship therapist in New York City, echoed the point that having walls up is a natural protective mechanism, often left over from how someone had to cope with any sort of trauma as a kid, when they had basically no agency and no choice but to shut down. It’s normal and common for adults to continue doing this, despite having many more options available for dealing with conflict. Siegel said self-awareness, combined with good communication, is the most effective way to negotiate emotional boundaries; helping couples navigate this exact problem is something she devotes a large portion of her practice to, and isn’t necessarily a red flag that two people shouldn’t be together. One of the many joys of being in a relationship, after all, is being confronted with your own bullshit.

Siegel said a willingness to communicate when boundaries are being tested, along with a little flexibility, can help people put their “walls down,” and grow in a relationship. Some amount of pushing is healthy; it’s how we grow. Siegel said that a person in a relationship with someone who doesn’t share their attachment styles might feel pushed more than most.. For example, someone with an independent attachment style might feel a bit stifled by someone with a more anxious attachment style, and who requires more reassurance. That’s not necessarily an incompatibility; people can—and do!—grow and change. But if one person feels like they’re constantly asking the other to open up, that could point to a larger incompatibility. It can become exhausting to have the same fight about one person’s being closed off, and Siegel added that it’s up to two people to decide for themselves whether a difference in boundaries is a sign the relationship isn’t working.

Opening up to someone requires a certain amount of trust. If, months into a relationship, every deep, emotional conversation feels manipulative or forced, that could also be a sign that things aren’t quite working. Maybe you like the person, and they’re just too reminiscent of someone from your romantic past, or maybe… you simply don’t like the deeper parts of their personality that you’re getting to know. As Siegel said, the walls-up metaphor is a good one, because both physical and metaphorical walls serve an important purpose: To protect. Sometimes walls go up for good reasons, and there’s no need to take them down. Like if you’re not compatible with someone, or you’re being forced to fall in love on a TV production schedule, perhaps.

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Love
Dating
reality tv
attachment
compatibility
The Bachelor