Posted by: counselorcarmella | August 16, 2011

A Soft Place To Land

Be independent and stand on your own too feet.  Don’t be weak.  Don’t  be needy.  Pursue your own way and your own happiness. DIY! This message of  toughness and self-reliance has always been the  message for men, but  now it is  sent loud and clear to  women, as well. Our society values   strength, capability, and personal success.  Self-help books about individual growth and  personal effectiveness fly off the shelves. We’re told that asking for help is a sign of weakness, unless we’re paying a professional (plumber, electrician,  cleaning service, babysitter, etc) for it.


Even in supposedly close relationships, we’re told  we shouldn’t allow ourselves to   get too dependant on any one particular person to help us meet our emotional or sexual needs. After all, there are   all sorts of products we can discretely purchase to help us  achieve sexual release and  therapists we can pay to  listen, validate, and  attend to our emotional needs. Romantic partners and meaningful relationships are nice but not necessary. Special people are invited into our lives because we want them there and kept around for the same reason, not because we rely on them for anything in particular. After all, we’re big boys and girls capable of looking  out for  ourselves, right? If we  choose to  share our lives with  a partner, it should be because we want to, never because  we are depending on that person for anything substantial.  Otherwise, we are being “needy” and “clingy” and  way too vulnerable.  We are giving too much of our  power away and aren’t truly being adults.


According to common wisdom, if we have to  ask for help from family or friends, we shouldn’t do  it often and it should only be  under  extreme circumstances.  When we  absolutely can’t get around it, we should make sure we’re not  going to one particular person too  much.  That’s just too risky.  They might think we’re incapable or not  self-reliant enough. They may decide we’re  too high maintenance, think less of us, or  take advantage of  the vulnerabilities we reveal. They might feel overwhelmed or burdened or pressured and seek out someone   more independent and less demanding.


Of course, there are    some damaged people out there looking for  a “rescuer” or “Savior” because they truly can’t ever seem to  get themselves together. Their needs get more and more complex and  they are always in crisis and in need  of immediate attention. Such relationships are  exhausting and  leave partners feelling depleted and   frustrated. These extremes are the exception, not the rule, though.


In reality, none of us can be strong and  independent all the time. None of us thrive in isolation. We don’t need complete independence.  We need healthy interdependence. When developing her  treatment model for couples, called emotion focussed couples therapy,  Canadian psychologist Susan Johnson studied  previous research conducted on how people form secure attachments as infants and young children. Babies are  absolutely vulnerable and dependent, obviously. They  need food, shelter, and  a warm safe place to sleep.  They need to be bathed and changed and   for their health needs to be addressed.  But they need more than that to thrive.  To  develop normally, babies need to be held and rocked and talked to. They need to be responded to when they cry and to  know who to look to when they’re distressed about an  unmet need.


Later research  revealed that grown ups need solid  attachments  just as much as  children do. Despite our culture’s  emphasis on the ideal of self-reliance, we don’t thrive without close relationships. We need to be part of a group or community. For some people,  their families are close and  provide for this need.  For others, they have to create  a community.  Some people do this through churches, as Rick Warren  talks about in “The Purpose Driven Life.”  Others create “Urban Tribes,”  a phrase that caught on after a book  by that title came out to explain  this phenomenon.  These days, many people create these communities on line and connect around common interests or beliefs.  


Even when we are solidly plugged in to a social group,  we all still want  a particular person  we can turn to when we are at our most vulnerable and exhausted. Dr. Johnson says that our  romantic partner should be that person. Johnson says that, in a  marital  relationship, the partners should  be each other’s “primary attachment.”  This means our partner is the person we’re closest to in the world.

Johnson says that we all need to  know that we can let our guard down and be vulnerable with our partner. That they can see the best and worst in us and not  run away.  We need to feel truly accepted for who we are, without masks or the brave face we show to the rest of the world.

She says that, just like when we’re  children, we need to know that primary  attachment person will be there for us when we need them physically or emotionally.  We need to know we can count on them, that they’ll have our back, that they’ll  come running when we wake up from a nightmare, get sick, or  are facing a personal crisis. When someone  can’t say for sure that their partner would be there for them, or if there has been a time when their partner wasn’t accessible during  a significant life  change or  personal stressor, they  become fearful and feel alone.  They question and doubt the bond they have and  seek to  reclaim  the security they’re missing.


Desperateness for reassurance that they can trust their partner to respond to their needs can lead to  demands, clinginess,  efforts to  control,  or other behaviors that actually   create more distance rather than  greater closeness. That’s how strong our need for attachment and security is. When we’re not sure, we live in a state of  fearful preoccupation.  We feel deprived and malnourished just as much as we would if we hadn’t  eaten for days. We  are so uncomfortable that we become irrational, aggressive,  hysterical, and hypersensitive while trying anything we can think of to  get this emotional need met.


Dr. Johnson says our marriages should be  safe places we can  retreat to when  we’ve had enough of the world and its demands and harshness, when we feel tired and beaten up.  She says we should be able to trust  our spouse to nurture and care for us in ways that  help us  gain  the strength to go back  out into the world   more able to handle  life’s challenges.   This may mean hugs, listening,  taking us out to dinner, giving us space to watch  the game or  work on a  project,  making us laugh,   or any number of other possibilities. They do what  they know helps us feel loved, encouraged, soothed, and  supported. Our  partners know  how great we can be at our best and want to help us  achieve that greatness. Of course,  we want to do the same for them. 


Knowing we have a safe place to  run to and  an equally safe place to  be launched from makes us  stronger and better than we would be on our own. This may be more risky and vulnerable, but to me, this is marriage at its best and most beautiful.


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