Our deep-seated yearning for connection
In Western cultures, dependency is a dirty word. In our world, healthy adulthood has been defined by emotional independence and self-sufficiency. In essence our culture encourages us to draw an emotional moat around ourselves. To detach from our parents, is considered a sign of emotional strength. In romantic relationships we look with suspicion at those that declare a longing for too much togetherness. We talk of them as being too involved, too close or too dependent upon one another. In essence our intrinsic need for love comfort, reassurance and support is seen as weakness.
Yet, humans need other humans. We are wired to attach or connect. To negotiate the twists and turns of life, we need each other for companionship and support. Man or woman, irrespective of country of birth or social strata, it is normal and healthy to depend on others. For some this might seem a foreign concept. For others, it may feel threatening to even contemplate depending on another or to have others depend on you. For some of you, it may however, be a relief to have this need for closeness acknowledged.
While earlier generations of mental health practitioners have perpetuated the myth of independence, twenty first century social psychologists and neuroscientists have started to uncover what English child psychiatrist John Bowlby proposed following World War II; “from the cradle to the grave“ the need for relationship bonds, human connection is crucial to feeling secure in the world and to our wellbeing throughout life.
In the West, we may still like to consider ourselves relatively immune to the sway of those around us as we pursue our life ambitions. I feel this is more of a story we like to tell ourselves rather than the reality of what really happens in life.
The benchmark that our independence defines our success in life is pervasive. We need look no further than our televisions to confirm this. Whom do we admire the most: ego-seeking billionaire sportspeople, or hobbits who set forth from caves to single-handedly outwit the dark lord sauron? In every industry, people fight pitched battles to be at the apex of the organisation. Businesses do their worst to recruit their competition’s customers. Dog eats dog and we disparage the losers. Top of Google or trending on Twitter is the pinnacle of life.
The conflict inside of us emerges when we reconnect after putting in extra hours at work, or down at the gym afterwards where we move in separate circles. Coming from different directions increases the possibility of us colliding, instead of cleaving. Misunderstandings can morph into shouting matches that badly end an otherwise successful day.
That society puts so much stress on individual freedom has implications for couple relationships. When couples fight, it is a protest, a bid for connection. We can all feel lonely and insecure in the world when it feels like we don’t have our partner to lean on. When couples fight, one or both are feeling alone, threatened, stressed, tired or hurt. While one of you might complain or demand when distressed, the other may try to defend logically, minimizing the problem, by staying calm and closing off emotionally. When couples fight it is the emotional chain reactions rather than the content of the conversation or argument that matters. When the dynamics of couples’ fights become entrenched couples experience relationship distress and “wonder what happened to us?”
When your partner blows a fuse and bursts out with a ‘you no longer care about me: you are only interested in yourself’ after they try to tell you about their day at work, what they are really saying is ‘I love you so much. It’s been a hard day. I need to know you are there for me. I want you to be proud of what I achieved for us today.’ Their fundamental emotion is fear of losing you. When that happens, do not put on ‘body armour’ and fight back.
Rather say, ‘I am sorry honey: that’s not what I meant to come out. I hear it’s been a hard day for you too. I am truly grateful for what you do for us. How can I make up?’ This way, fault lines close, relationships restore and quarrels are forgotten.
I would like to hope that Western cultures have started to evolve in a different direction. Couples need each other because that is why we bond, why we come together. We don’t drift apart. We just stop affirming our need for each other, because out in the world this does not ‘sound right’.
Dr. Sue Johnson (2013). Love Sense: the revolutionary new science of romantic relationships, Little, Brown and Company, New York.
Veronica Kallos-Lilly and Jennifer Fitzgerald (2015). An Emotionally Focused Workbook for Couples: The two of us.