Sometimes, the problem with emotions in a relationship is not that they are missing; it is that they are amiss – they are not what they should be. Instead of love, there is anger; instead of warmth, there is cold. There is a very common pattern, which creates a great deal of discomfort for couples. For many couples, a great deal of animosity is formed from this pattern.
People have an inherent fear of two things: intimacy and abandonment. We both fear people being too close to us and too far from us. But we all have different levels of this fear, and different amounts of closeness and distance that triggers the fear. The balance between the two points of fear ends up being the boundaries of a relationship. These two points are connection and distance.
First, a little explanation of each fear. The Fear of Abandonment part is related to our concern of losing those whom we need for survival. It is rooted in being helpless infants completely dependent upon another for all assistance, care, and nurture. Unfortunately, it is impossible for any caregiver, no matter how great, to meet all the needs of a helpless child all the time. So we all leave childhood with some level of fear that we will lose people whom we desperately need. While this fear makes perfect sense for the infant and child, it is far less helpful for the adult. This fear does not have to be rational fear (in fact, it is not) for it to affect our lives.
The fear of Intimacy is at the other end of the continuum. But think, instead of the infant, to the two year old. As the two year old is actively saying “no” at every turn, he or she is really establishing that he or she is separate and different from his or her parents.
The fear at that age is that a parent will overwhelm the child. As the child is beginning to be aware of his or her separation, he or she is also aware that a parent is far more powerful and capable of inflicting parental decisions against a child. This same awareness that is part of the development of a child – discovering that there is a separation between the child and the rest of the world, creates a fear of being overwhelmed and lost in a relationship with another. Again, a perfectly appropriate response for a child creates a deep-seated fear in the adult of becoming lost in a relationship with their spouse.
Between the fears of intimacy and abandonment lie the points of a relationship: connection and distance. Every relationship struggles to find the appropriate and healthy point between having connection and distance between the two people. Unfortunately, there is no correct point for the balance. And unfortunately, it is unlikely there will be a match between the two in the relationship. In other words, at various times, and about various issues, the two people will feel different needs for connection and distance. With two different people, and two different expectations for distance and connection, the potential for misunderstanding quickly escalates.
The possibilities begin to emerge. When one needs more distance, the other might desire more connection, and vice versa. The two find themselves creating a back-and-forth dance to regulate the amount of connection and distance in the relationship. Now add in the two points of fear. When one needs distance, the other may discover a strong fear of abandonment. When one needs more connection, the other may discover a strong fear of intimacy. Suddenly the dance between a couple to maintain closeness and distance becomes laden with difficulties. There are multiple opportunities for misunderstanding, hurt feelings, unmet needs, and complete bewilderment.
Emotions are often amiss because of this powerful mix of interaction. Over time, the inability to match distance and closeness with each other transforms into hurt. This hurt often builds resentment, especially when one or both feel that needs are not being met. Because of our culture, it is particularly difficult for someone to tell another that he or she “needs” something. We have been raised to reject our own needs. Unfortunately, this has a boomerang effect. We end up trying to get our needs met in manipulative, indirect ways.
Marriages are partly based on a willingness to acknowledge the existence of these needs, and agree to meet these needs together. And by the way, having needs is different than being a “needy person.”
Some people say marriage should be between two needless people, independent of the other. People are not designed to be islands, separate from each other. Instead, we are designed to need and be needed. While this can become pathological, it is not necessarily so. In fact, too much independence can be just as pathological.