Abandonment or Engulfment
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 2015 (edited August 2018)
Partners inevitably face mismatched attachment styles. The difference doesn't matter as much as how the couple approaches and works through the difference.
“Let me be,” I cry as he encroaches. “Stay with me,” I beg as my she closes the door.
We humans are strange. Hounded by conflicting inner-drives, no wonder relationships struggle; the anxiety of engulfment takes arms against the fears of abandonment. Susan fears abandonment while John struggles for space. Her clinging suffocates; while his aloofness sparks fear. This dance—pushing away and pulling close—repeatedly threatens the security of countless mismatched relationships.
Ideally, partners complement each other’s weakness, filling the holes and smoothing the bumps—we don’t live in that world. The vexing push-pull dynamic of maturing relationships often lies dormant at first—failing to forecast troubles to come. During the dawning moments, the giddiness of attraction conceals the mismatch of physiological needs; both partners desire closeness.
The newness enthralls both partners, pulling them together. The magnetic beginning disguises the eventual different needs that will invade the partnership—needs springing from childhood; the cruelty of time painfully reveals mismatched hopes and provokes unplanned emotional upheavals.
When the relationship begins to settle, and commitments are established, the relationship encroaches on a new phase, the dynamics of interaction change with the deepening connection. We see through the clouds of excitement and the feelings of unmet needs leap back into consciousness. Fears of abandonment or the suffocation of commitment are felt. This is a critical juncture, determining the fate of intimacy. When Jack pulls and Jill pushes, lines are drawn, defenses readied, and the battle ensues.
Engulfment: A feeling of being swallowed up by the relationship. A sense that the self is lost through intimate connection.
The couple faces a choice: amicably resolve the differences or struggle for power. Either to engage in a zero-sum games demanding a winner and loser or using a better approach that doesn't rely on the failing win/lose dynamic. If selfish stances are set, utilizing lies, withholding, or guilt to manipulate, the relationship will topple—losing the blessings of closeness.
Zero-sum games utilize force, several common, but damaging, strategies are employed to achieve the single goal of self-satisfaction. The personal underlying affect directs the interactions. Personal fears and sensitivities become the fault of the partner, expecting them to soothe what we feel without examinations of our own involvement in experience. “I feel bad; fix it.” The practice degrades the others worth, demonizing their role. This common malady to developing relationships invades, eroding previous attraction, and leaving bitterness in the wake.
"If selfish stances are set, utilizing lies, withholding, or guilt to manipulate, the relationship will topple—losing the blessings of closeness."
The selfish fixate on personal needs, blinded to the vast differences each person feels, creates a struggle. Each partner has distinct needs—as autonomous individuals with feeling. The feeling affects of pleasant or unpleasant is neither right or wrong. The partner isn’t an appendage bond by commitment to make us feel good—no matter what.
The non-verbalized assumption of unhindered fulfillment is colored with shades of narcissism. “Make me feel good and I praise; challenge, complain or desire something different and I erupt.” The pleasure explodes into anger at the slightest change. This imbalanced view blames any discomfort of unfulfilled needs on the inadequacy of the partner.
The unpredictable and often unjustified emotions drive critical judgments; no cognitions involved. When guided by our subjective view of normalcy (how I feel determines right or wrong), the partner’s needs, emotions and habits that conflict are immediately labeled as wrong.
Fear of Abandonment: Fears of abandonment are a form of insecure attachment. Relationship bonds are contaminated by fear of being left.
Personal discomforts, rather than articulated facts, dictate the right and wrongness of the partner’s behaviors—you did something wrong because I’m angry. This is an unfair judgment that can’t be defended. When both parties subscribe to this erratic process of character evaluation, a volatile relationship is born.
Until we can compassionately receive a partner’s experience, we limit intimacy. We can’t resolve conflict from an eternal ‘I’m-good-you’re-bad’ perspective. Partner fixing doesn’t work. For a relationship to succeed, both individuals must maintain dignity, feeling respected and understood
(See Contemplating Compromise). We accept our partner’s unique blend of needs, resources, and weaknesses, not as an inferior composite but as a equal and different. Relationship differences must be transformed into partnership problems instead of the bad behavior of an individual that needs fixing.
Children are self-focused—a stage of maturing that continues through adolescences into adulthood. As we develop, the healthy person begins to expand beyond the self-focused immaturity of youth (see Widening View). Like driving a car that pulls to the right, until the alignment is fixed, we must fight inclinations to keep the relationship on track. This requires sacrifice, compromises, as well as self-protecting boundaries.
Unpleasant feelings may demand counterproductive responses, if heeded, leading to unnecessary attacks on a partner. We must keep our hand on the wheel, steering the relationship back to center, and not give in to emotional pulls that destroy intimacy.
Angry and upset, with a pounding heart and flush face, we mismanage communications, refocus on to protect ourselves and instinctively return to manipulations, devising coercive plans to force our partner to succor our cravings for attention or solitude; these forced successes come at a high cost. Partners may reward our rotten behavior but harbor resentment, accumulating reasons that eventually create an emotional disconnection and relieving escape.
When a person feels manipulated to sacrifice personal desires, constantly giving and rarely receiving, the deprived needs exact a heavy toll, both on the person and the connection.
When needs are continually neglected, the biological motivational system is confused, the self becomes blurred, and psychological oddities intrude on normalcy. The sharp blade of emotional neglect punctures the soul, deeply wounding the lonely, even the most stable suffer in one-sided relationships; the expected security from attachment is missed and loneliness prevails. Neglectful relationships zap vitality, leaving an empty shell where a whole person once lived.
Departing from established patterns is terrifying. Manipulation creates a mirage of control with ill attempts to extinguishing fear. Healing requires both partners to courageously challenge the patterned interactions that—fears of abandonment or engulfment. Only through attending to the protective feelings, pushing behaviors that limit closeness by sparking fears, can we reclaim our right and joy to a healthy attachment.
We may never completely free ourselves from the feelings relationships extract—learned reactions run deep. But with awareness, mindful intervention and counseling, we soften the painful emotions by widening our conceptual understanding. The emotions become reminders of humanity rather than unhealthy drives to control. The discomfort bubbling inside provides opportunities to practice constructive responses by employing self-soothing exercises, engaging in transparent discussions that share feelings and perspectives. We maturely widen our view beyond the paltry and piddly reactions of the brain, reaching beyond our felt experience and opening heart to our lover, knowing and being known.
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