When you are in need but you think you are in love

Margaret Paul writes on mindbodygreen.com some of the signs we might be in an emotionally dependent state.

Here are some:

  • Do you feel that you can’t live without this person?
  • Are you terrified of losing this person? And get anxious when they are not there?
  • Do you feel empty and alone inside unless your partner is giving you attention and validation?
  • Do you feel jealous and possessive of your partner?
  • Do you project onto your partner how you want them to be rather than how they are?
  • Are you primarily focused on how your partner treats you rather than on who they really are inside?
  • Are you overly impressed by how this person makes you feel special?
  • Have you made your partner responsible for your happiness, worth, and safety?
  • Do you have a set of expectations that your partner has to meet for you to feel loved and safe?
  • Do you tend to idealise people?

If we read them all together, they seem to describe a quite dysfunctional and extreme relationship. Perhaps few of us will respond ‘yes’ to all of these questions. But many of us have probably answered yes to some of them in the past.

Maybe we were in a particularly fusional relationship, or maybe it was a hard time and we insecurely attached to the other due to our fragility, but it’s not uncommon to experience emotional dependence at some point in our lives.

Sometimes the signs are not extreme. 

Think about the question: ‘Are you more focused on how your partner treats you than on who they really are?’. This doesn’t necessarily describe an enmeshed relationship where one can’t live without the other, it’s a much simpler situation of ‘dressing the other person with our clothes’. And it is really common. It describes the need to see the other in a way that complies with our expectations and necessities, and therefore fails to really see the other.

So, we don’t have to look desperate to be dependent.

Dependence can take more subtle forms. 

It’s tightly linked to the word ‘control’, which is incompatible with love. Needing control, over the relationship, ourselves, the other, leads to seeking it in the many forms we saw above.

So, ask yourself a very simple question instead: “Am I willing to let go of control and predictions in this relationship?

Pulling too close, pushing too far

Relationships mean vulnerability.

We have seen that.

There is no possible connection with someone else if we don’t take some risk they might be hurting us. Coming too close inevitably brings more danger.

For some people, this is unbearable. Due to traumas and an insecure attachment, it’s really hard for them to let someone in without the terror of disintegrating or without feeling trapped. So as a consequence they either become preoccupied and anxious about the relationship, or avoidant and dismissive. 

And when closeness becomes a problem, the first issues start to arise.

The relationship cannot be experienced as that free space where each partner can discover whole new ways of being with openness and trust. It becomes a re-enactment of ‘safe’ dynamics from the past. Keeping a distance or ensuring closeness becomes a primal need, and is used as default interaction method.

Co-dependency starts to settle in. 

The avoidant partner needs the other because even if kept at distance, they remind them they are worthy. Without ever being too clear about their intentions, they start by giving vague signals of interest, never confirming it or denying it, and the fact that the other person stays is something they say they don’t need, but it’s the fuel that makes them feel worthy.

The anxious one suffers any detachment from the other, but even the slightest demonstration of affection is a confirmation of their love and becomes vital to their sense of worthiness. The more unavailable their partner is, the more of a reward it will be when they receive attention from them.

Without an understanding of their patterns and repetition, the other becomes a need and not a choice.

This doesn’t happen only for anxious-avoidant relationships, but for any that’s built on the premise that the other person has to reassure us of something.

(Find the full video on avoidant-anxious relationships here.)

Love is vulnerability

The vulnerability in love and relationships is a given.

The cost we pay for opening up is often also the benefit of being known, something every human being strives for. 

U. Galimberti starts his book on love saying that intimate relationships are on the one hand the only place where one can really express their true self, and on the other they have become a place where individualism has radicalised, where people seek “me” through “you”.

What he suggests, instead, is to revert this need to find ourselves in the other, this compulsion to realise ourselves through the relationship. This intention blocks any transcendence, any excess, any otherness that can happen with human relationships. 

What loving does is open a wound in the protected identity, a break of the self so that the other can pass through us.

The relationship becomes the place where becoming other than ourselves, something beyond ourselves.

He says: “love can’t be the search for the self that exploits the other, but has to be the unconditional delivery of the self to the otherness, that cracks our identity, not to evade from our loneliness, nor to melt with the identity of the other, but to open it to something we are not, to the nothingness of us”.

What these complex words are saying is: love is not the safety net, the space where to satisfy our needs to bloom, to be, to manifest ourselves.

Love is the place where we question, even put in danger, ourselves. Because it opens us to transcendence, and this opens us to harm. 

I can feel this, and it’s not your fault

Securely attached people don’t fear relationships and vulnerability, they are not scared of abandonment.

And why is that? Losing someone we love is painful for everybody, so how come securely attached adults don’t live with this anxiety?

The consistency they have experienced in their childhood allows them to unconsciously predict a good outcome, and if failure happens, it’s not interiorised as something caused by them.

If I think I deserve love, and I am genuinely embracing my better and worse parts, I won’t feel abandonment says something about me or that I deserve it.

So, securely attached people are not the ones who don’t need connection, support, love and protection.

They are simply the ones who can understand there exists an intermediate dimension between their emotional experience, which they can live with tranquillity and acceptance, and someone else’s behaviour.

Some things can be very helpful to develop a better and more secure attachment style, and therapy is sometimes necessary if these schemes become too dysfunctional and painful.

  • Developing emotional regulation helps not resorting to someone else for support.
  • Nourishing self-love can strengthen a positive and realistic image of ourselves, stable enough to counteract our perceptions of what others think about us.
  • Taking safe risks to get outside the comfort zone can show us we can handle more than we thought, and build self-reliance.
  • Increasing insight can decrease our tendency to mind-reading and interpretation (often based on past experiences and not on reality) and guide us toward understanding that messages we receive from others might not depend on them not loving us anymore.
  • Understanding the line between “you do this” and “I feel this” can help us to start being true to ourselves and our emotions without making the other responsible for them.
  • Being authentic (“You know, I am feeling jealous”) can create room to talk about issues without them becoming problematic in some other way.

The ‘intermediate dimension’ is like looking ourselves from the outside. It doesn’t prevent us from feeling what we are feeling, but adds a context, a narrative, a reason, some perspective.

Our past doesn’t have to be our future.

Attachment styles

We have seen how, depending on how safe we felt in our first years, we develop some expectations on how future relationships will be.

Let’s now look at the four main types of attachment more in detail.

Children who can separate from their parents safely, knowing they will find support when they come back (a “secure base”) and are happy to reunite with them, have a SECURE attachment. They often turn into adults who are trusting, have good self-esteem and are able to vocalise their feelings and seek social support.

Children with a PREOCCUPIED (or ambivalent) attachment style become very distressed in absence of their parents, but do not appear comforted when they return. This is the result of an unpredictably responsive caregiver, to which they ask availability often through anger. As adults, they tend to be reluctant to closeness, worry that they are not loved and have troubles coping with the end of a relationship.

Children who believe seeking support and communicating needs has no influence on the caregiver, avoid parents and do not seek comfort or contact from them. They have what is called an AVOIDANT style, and as adults they may have problems with intimacy, invest little emotion and have a reduced ability to vocalise what they feel.

Lastly, we have those children who show a lot of anxiety and avoidance, because the parental figure is someone to be loved but also feared, and so they live a confusing internal reality where they seek both connection but also survival. They have a DISORGANISED attachment style, and as adults they may suffer from loneliness, seek connection out of an extreme need for closeness, but due to fear also reject it.

It’s really important to understand that there are no ‘errors’ in interacting with others. However we might be handling intimate relationships, it depends on a process that we enacted when we were very young and that was functional then. Lowering expectations can hurt now that we are trying to trust someone else, but it might have been protective in the past.

Learning how needs change helps us find new ways to respond to them.

Repetition and expectations in relationships

Sometimes we might find our current relationship to be oddly similar to a previous one. The people we are dating are different, but some dynamics keep coming up.

Why is it so common to repeat patterns in our relationships?

Attachment theory gives some important answers to this question. 

Since our birth, we start engaging in interactions with the most important figures of our childhood: our parents/caregivers.

Whoever is closest to us in those years teaches us something important (although not permanent) about two things: what to expect from others, and how lovable we are, in relation to what others express towards us.

These years have a strong weight on our later patterns because it’s where we are the most vulnerable we will ever be: we need protection, we need to acquire all our skills, and also need to learn how to feel autonomous and connected.

So the way our caregiver behaves determines our future expectations, and if they don’t become conscious, also a repetition of the same dynamics within our relationships with others.

If whoever takes care of us is available and supportive, we will learn that the world is generally a place worth exploring, populated by well-intentioned people, and that we are valued.

If this safety and availability is not there, or is unreliable, we will have doubts about others’ intentions, our own safety and value.

The unreliability often leads to a mix of anxiety and anger: vigilant and energetic requests for closeness are sometimes rewarded and therefore assumed as the right way of interaction. “Pay attention to me” seems to scream the child who is unreliably offered closeness and support. As a consequence, there is an exaggerated appraisal of danger, a constant over-activation, a disproportionate demand for attention.

The straightforward unavailability, on the other hand, leads more often to a down-regulation of the system: nothing is really worth seeking support, because frustration is expected as a result and that needs to be avoided. The goal of closeness is never attained, and this fosters a compulsive self-reliance: “I will suppress my needs because no one cares”. These needs are dismissed, and closeness is avoided.

Is this an equation? Of course not. As usual, theories are not there to be used as manuals.

This is an important one that tells us mostly two things: we learn to expect from others what we have experienced in the past (it is simply more functional for our brain to do so) and from this we derive our own sense of worthiness.

Can we do something to stop the cycle? Always. Awareness is there exactly for this reason: use understanding to stop repetition.

How do we relate?

Relationships: the place where some of the biggest issues of life lie.

How to relate to others, how to be independent from others, how to give them the right space in our life, how to avoid making them our coping strategy, how to detach the image we have of ourselves from the one others have of us (assuming that we can ever know what that is), how to distinguish love from need, from symbiosis, from dependency, how to grow with relationships instead than making them an excuse to stay the same, how to feel strong and in control when that is often not attainable in relationships that engage us emotionally, how to find the right amount of vulnerability and closeness, how to stay true to ourselves while accepting not everybody – or worse, the person we love – might like that person, how to see the other person as he or she really is, even when that is harder to accept, how to undress others, as much as possible, of our projections, how to become better at how we relate to them.

We have seen all of these issues, and had a chance to see how common it is to feel this way. Hopefully, confronting ourselves with such questions has made us realise how everybody ends up feeling incredibly vulnerable and scared in relationships, and how tough it is to engage in them, but also to live without them. 

Balance, as usual, is key. We cannot live completely dependent on someone else, but we cannot even live totally isolated from others. 

So how do we find this balance? First of all, by knowing ourselves. Because that tells us what we are sensitive to, what we seek in others, and this can help us recognise triggers. 

Much of this stems from the level of proximity and trust we are able to experience in our first years of life, something described in the attachment theory.

Take a moment to reflect: which patterns came up over and over in relating to significant people in your life?

Is happiness only real when shared?

Happiness is only real when shared” is the conclusive statement of a famous movie.
Christopher McCandless flees conventional society, of which he has increasingly grown disenchanted, and goes to live into the wilds of Alaska, with the only company of books, reflection and himself. Disappointed and cynical about human relationships, he seeks with determination the solitude that allows him to find a deeper meaning, a true connection with something higher, non-material. He seems to have forgotten that “people” does not equal “society”.

Does happiness really need to be shared to be real?
What more profound message is there behind this emotional, powerful scene?
Perhaps not only the need for other people, but also the need to find ourselves, explore our inner world and our limits, before being able to fully share something like happiness with someone else. To fully understand how precious it can be to share and connect with another human being.

We can learn something vital from the message of this movie. When we free ourselves from the desperate need of others and the demand that they would fit our expectations, then we can really share happiness with them, a rediscovered gratitude and sweetness.

This month is all about the delicate relationship with others and how it goes in parallel with the one with ourselves. It’s also about being okey with the vulnerability that stems from sharing anything with someone else.

Learning the language of our body

What have we learned during this month?

Hopefully, we have a new perspective on our body.
When our usual headache kicks in, we can take some time to reflect: “When was the last time I had one? What had happened that is similar to this time? Perhaps I get one when I am stressed and need to keep going even if I would like to rest?”. Sometimes, we might have to take painkillers anyways, because we don’t always have the privilege to stop and listen to our body, or take care of our mind. But some other times, something might change, we could listen to that pain instead than being angry at how it’s stopping us from what we should be doing. By listening to it, and not just hoping it goes away, we could reach a deeper understanding of what we need, and start working in that direction, rather than the one “we are supposed to follow”.

During this past month we have also seen how important it is to take care of the body itself, because a healthy relationship with it helps us with mental distress, and can be vital in a moment like this, where many of us are confined at home: it helps us take a break from the rumination and anxieties of our mind, and reconnect with the physicality of the world, of our surroundings, and ourselves.
Even 5 minutes of exercise per day can make us more aware of how we move in the space around us, and that tells us a lot of how centered we are (too little? too much?).

Our body holds on to our traumas, and taking care of it gives us access to things that still need to be processed. Logging back in the fluidity of movements can heal us from the rigidity of both muscles and thoughts that comes from suffering.

Our body knows. It’s not just a shell or an armor, it listens, it feels, it talks.
When we learn its language, we are learning ours.

Physical exercise and mental health

We have seen how our body is interconnected, if not inseparable, with our mind, and how this led to its increased integration in psychology and psychotherapy.⁣

We have seen how the body speaks at a louder voice than the mind, and informs us about our needs, if we are careful enough to listen.⁣

We have seen how it holds on to trauma and is able to remember it, to keep it stored within itself, with tensions, blockages, freezing. ⁣

We have seen how, sometimes, it’s even wiser than our rational and conscious mind, in leading us through some moments with intuition and spontaneity. ⁣

Today, we look at its incredible power in healing us.⁣
Did you know that physical exercise is one of the biggest factors in preventing dementia?⁣
Did you know that it can decrease symptoms of both depression and anxiety, by raising endorphin levels (which is at the base of mental processes such as happiness and euphoria)?⁣
Did you know that it can even improve our memory, by fostering neurogenesis (the creation of new brain cells)?⁣
Did you know that if we learn a movement well, the brain area involved in learning it becomes actually more active? ⁣
Did you know that the increasing in heart rate that derives from physical exercise can reverse the damaging effect stress has on your brain? ⁣

Isn’t it really amazing how taking care of the body has tangible, beneficial effects on our mind? Addressing our wellbeing with an holistic approach, integrating more parts and allowing them to communicate and help each other effectively, can really have long-lasting effects.⁣

And you? In which ways does your body heal your mind?⁣