Our culture is steeped in the idea that to be successful in love we must be independent and strong. Neediness can be seen as a dirty word, and relying on our partner is often considered weak or co-dependent. But what if reliance on our mate is exactly what evolution has primed us for? What if self-reliance when it comes to love relationships is really a recipe for isolation, loneliness and despair?
In between the two extremes of co-dependency and independence lies another way of being called interdependence. This is the idea that we can rely on each other in a mutuality of dependence and connection. We can be attached to our partner and both give and receive the support and comfort we need. If this can be achieved, it is from such a secure base we can then function most effectively in the rest of our lives. From the love and security of our partner’s arms we can face the greatest challenges of life including illness and loss, aging and perhaps even death.
Sue Johnson, author of the book Hold Me Tight and a ground breaking researcher in couple’s therapy, has discovered that we all bring the attachment style we learned as young children into our love relationships. So, if we had good-enough parents who came when we cried, fed us when we were hungry, comforted us when we were sad or scared, and were warm and generous with their attention, we grew up finding it easy to connect with a lover and to rely on them. We trusted them and let them into our world with ease. If, on the other hand we were born into a chaotic or alcoholic family, if we were abused or neglected, then were learned that important people would not be there for us when we needed them, we learned to be afraid of abandonment and to protest at the smallest hint of it, or to avoid connection all together to try to protect ourselves.
The good news is that even if we learned an insecure or avoidant attachment style as children our spouse or partner can help us heal and we can learn to be securely bonded to them. It is possible to repair the damage and create healthy interdependence.
One of Johnson’s key revelations is that fear of abandonment is part of being human. If we think about it from an evolutionary point of view it makes a lot of sense since being excluded from our family or tribe would have meant near certain death when we were a hunting and gathering people. Our brains still retain a direct route to the primal terror ignited when we believe the one we love is rejecting us, retreating from us or throwing us over for another. The first step to securely bonding with our love is to recognize this as normal.
However, just because its normal doesn’t mean it is effective to act on this fear. Instead, if we can recognize it for what it is, an automatic warning signal that may or may not be based on fact, we can make wise choices about how to proceed. For example, the look on my husband’s face may mean he is annoyed with me, but it could also mean he is tired or in pain or annoyed with someone else. If I assume he is angry with me I may move away from him emotionally or pick a fight, in both cases making the situation worse and our connection weaker. On the other hand if I can realize my own fear and ask for clarification about what is really going on with him, discuss any real concerns or upsets he has, and ask for comfort and reassurance from him and give him the same, then we can move closer together and avoid disconnection.
Join me next time when I will discuss more of Sue Johnson’s work including the ways we disconnect, how to recognize when that is happening and what to do about it.