Whether working with an individual or couple, (or observing myself!) I frequently work with people stuck in their relationships. We want people to come near to us, to love us, to be close to us. “This should be easy” is an often refrain, paired with the belief that most everyone else obviously gets what they need. We often end up thinking “there must be something wrong with me”.
Here’s the sequence:
Sam longs for connection, but fears that Kate will find out that he is actually a failure, weak, and undesirable. So, when he sees that Kate is asking for space (like going for a walk or going out alone), he takes this as Kate wanting to get away from him. Instead of honoring her need for space, he pushes closer, driven by his fear of the worst. As he pushes closer, he asks for reassurance, communicating his fear and worry. Kate stifles her frustration, because she cares and is affected by Sam’s distress. So, she comes closer, not out of love, but out of obligation and compassion. However, this compassion has a bitter tone, because it feels compelled instead of chosen, forced instead of given. Sam feels reassured and his worries go away…for the moment.
Underneath, a sinister reality unfolds - Sam teaches his brain that the only way to soothe his fears is by compelling Kate with his painful emotion. As a result, when his brain catches the scent of this pattern again, it stirs up fear in preparation, starting the whole process over again. Kate’s need for space remains uncared for, and her frustration builds, eventually leading to angry demands for space, which serve to confirm Sam’s original fears, that she doesn’t really care for him. She discovered he is a failure, weak, and undesirable.
The sad reality - Sam’s inability to give space passively caused the result he so feared.
Striving for Good Enough.
This reminds me of the first time I cared for a plant. In my longing and desire to have a healthy, thriving plant, I let my fear of its death drive me to refuse it proper space. So, instead of watering the plant in a “good enough” fashion, I watered it daily. In several weeks, the leaves began to yellow. “It needs more water” I thought - so I watered it more. To my great sadness, I began to realize that I was killing the plant! I finally came to my senses and left it alone for longer stints. The plant survived, but would never be the same - a gangly, straggly shadow of its former self.
(Caveat - if your relationship is like the gangly plant I just mentioned - don’t expect things to go as smoothly as I’m about to describe! I’ll write in the future about how to recover from these entrenched patters - for now I want to speak of the goal).
Back to the original sequence:
Instead of pushing toward Kate in fear, Sam courageously stays put when Kate asks for space. He reminds himself that things are going to be okay, that Kate has returned before and he can trust her. He does NOT feel better while he waits - he wrestles with his fears of inadequacy and vulnerability. But now, something new can happen. He discovers, after the passage of time, that Kate returns to him OF HER OWN VOLITION - an expression of love free of passive coercion. Sam learns that he is loved by someone who chooses to love him. His fears are challenged by the cold, hard facts that he experiences. This results in subtle, slow brain structure changes. By facing his fears, he learns competence to manage them and that he is genuinely loved.
As with plants, we humans need time and consistent, “good enough” care to grow. This healthy sequence likely needs repeated hundreds of times over. Each time we subtly grow in our courage to face our fears, and we experience the truth about how the other person feels about us. Each time, those around us experience our willingness to allow them the space in ways they need it, inviting them to return to us in love.
I am a licensed psychologist practicing in Denver, CO.