Abandonment or Engulfment
“Let me be,” I cry as my partner encroaches on my autonomy. “Stay with me,” I beg as fear of loneliness encompasses me.
We humans are strange. No wonder relationships struggle; fears of engulfment and abandonment constantly haunt security. Susan fears abandonment while John rebels against engulfed. Her clinging suffocates; while John’s pulling away sparks insecurity. This dance repeatedly plays in the millions of mismatched relationships.
In the perfect world partners would perfectly complement each other’s needs—we don’t live in that world. The push-pull dynamic of relationships is not always immediately evident. During the early formation of relationship bonds, it’s common for both partners to want to see each other. The attraction is strong and pulls two people together. The magic of attraction disguises differing characteristics as attractive; the reality of dependence painfully reveals the emotional upheavals those differences ignite.
When the relationship begins to settle, commitments are established and dependence forms, the different blend of needs are exposed in the new dynamics of interaction. This critical juncture determines whether trust will be established. The couple faces the choice to jointly resolve the differences or to engage in a power struggle over whose needs have priority. Extreme differences coupled with selfish focus topples promising relationships. Blaming and demonizing invades relationships and destroys attraction, leaving both partners bitter. Bitterness blinds accurate personal assessment, leaving both partners susceptible to travelling a similar path in their next relationship.
The selfish focus exclusively on personal emotional needs, ignorant their partner has distinct and different needs—a partner is seen as an appendage rather than an autonomous being. The non-verbalized assumption, vexed with dark shades of narcissism, is fulfilling the narcissist’s personal needs creates happiness for both partners. The imbalanced view blames the discomfort of unfulfilled needs exclusively on the inadequacy of the partner. The unpredictable and often unjustified emotions—content or upheaval—drives judgment. When a subjective view of normalcy is maintained, the partner’s needs, emotions and habits are viewed as abnormal, the result of childhood neglect, neurotic expectations, and badly in need of correction. Personal discomforts, rather than articulately facts, dictate the right and wrongness of the partner’s behaviors—you did something wrong because I’m angry. This is unfair. When both parties subscribe to this erratic form of character evaluation, a volatile relationship is born.
Until we can focus on emotions from both personal and a partner’s perspective, we limit intimacy. Overriding blame and character labeling is paramount to successful relationships. If we combat relationship difficulties from I’m-good-you’re-bad perspectives, the relationship will flounder. Partner fixing doesn’t work. People are different. For relationships to succeed dignity, respect and compassionately empathy is required. Our partner’s unique blend of needs must be recognized and accepted, not as inferior but equal to our own experience. Relationship differences must be transformed into partnership problems not simply a partner’s bad behavior that needs to be fixed. Childhood and adolescence are very self-focused. This is natural. As we develop, we must expand empathy and compassion. Like a car with bad alignment, we must constantly fight natural self-focus tendencies to keep the relationship on track. This requires sacrifice, compromises, as well as, self-protecting boundaries. Opposing emotional motivations must be constantly revisited. Childhood programming doesn’t dissolve once temporarily addressed with a compromise.
Manipulations to force partners to succor cravings for attention or solitude but the successes come at the cost of partner resentment. When a partner feels manipulated to sacrifice leaving their personal needs unfulfilled; overtime the continual deprivation of need fulfillment exacts a heavy toll. The human sense of need drives behavior. When continually neglected, the system is confused, the self becomes blurred, and psychological oddities intrude on normalcy. The sharp blade of emotional neglect punctures the soul, deeply wounding even the most stable; trust in future companion support is destroyed and loneliness prevails. One-sided, emotionally-neglectful relationships zap vitality, leaving an empty shell where a whole person once lived.
Departing from established patterns of manipulation is terrifying. Manipulation creates a mirage of control by extinguishing fear. Healing requires both partners to courageously face the familiar cycles of interaction that give life to horrors of the past—fears of abandonment or engulfment. Only through attending to inner-maladjustments sparking relationship fears can we reclaim the right to healthy attachment.
We may never completely free ourselves from these familiar cycles but with awareness, mindful intervention and counseling, we can soften the more painful emotions. The emotions become reminders of humanity instead of unhealthy drives to manipulate. The discomforting emotions provide the opportunity to self-soothing, and engage in transparent discussions, sharing feelings, and understanding alternate perspectives.
A new partner may sparkle against the bleak backdrop of a painful struggling relationship; but abandoning the old for someone new may only provides temporary relief before the same issues reemerge. When partners address emotional differences early with gentleness, the acceptance of differences establishes trust—empathy replaces fear. This is the foundation of healthy attachment. The differences bind instead of divide, creating security and intimacy.