For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all of our tasks; the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation. – Rainer Maria Rilke
Why is it that something that is so intrinsic to our basic nature, that is, loving another person, should be so difficult, so challenging? Given the fact that the sustainability and perpetuation of the human species is dependent upon our willingness and ability to love and provide care for one another, it seems reasonable to expect that this process should be effortless and easy. For many, if not most of us, however, relationships are anything but that. One answer to this question, although certainly not the only one, is that intimate relationships require two seemingly mutually exclusive ways of being in order for things to work out right for both partners: Autonomy and connectivity, or putting it another way: togetherness and separateness.
You may have noticed that it’s not unusual for relationships to have one partner who favors the former and another partner who favors the latter. We all need to experience intimacy as well as independence, and it’s not uncommon for us to be attracted to someone who is strong in the side in which we are less developed. The trick is to see that what our partner is bringing to the relationship is something that we need or desire (albeit often unconsciously), rather than seeing their tendency as a problem to be avoided or eliminated. What we refer to as “chemistry” is often no more than the right combination of togetherness and separateness and an appreciation for what our partner is bringing that complements our relationship.
In the early days of our marriage it was very difficult for me to see what I considered to be Linda’s desire for more closeness as something other than neediness which made me feel resentful and resistant to her efforts to get us to spend what I considered to be an excessive amount of time together. At times I would even refer to her as a bottomless pit because it seemed to me that no matter how much time we spent together, it was never enough for her. Actually, it wasn’t, but not because Linda’s need was insatiable, but because the quality of attention that I was giving her was very low. She often felt my choice to spend time with her was motivated by a sense of obligation and that I wasn’t particularly enjoying our time together but just participating in it to fulfill my “duty” and get it over with. Often, she was absolutely right. That is precisely what my motivation was. But Linda didn’t just want to be with me, she wanted me to want to be with her.
Unfortunately the stronger her longing was for us to be together, the more resistant to being with her I became. We were in a cycle that many people can relate to and one that isn’t easily broken as long as our focus is on the other person and what it is that we want from them. This perspective demonizes or pathoplogizes the other person. As trained psychotherapists, we both had well-equipped arsenals of psychiatric labels that we could project onto each other. Needless to say, such pathologizing doesn’t do a lot to make you more attractive to your partner.
The way out of this especially unpleasant situation is to redirect the focus of your attention to yourself and to begin looking within and instead of focusing on what is wrong with them to start looking at what needs you are trying to meet and identifying the unspoken fears that are causing you to judge, coerce, and manipulate your partner into fulfilling them. The next step is to get honest, real, and vulnerable and communicate those feelings and needs to your partner without holding them responsible for meeting them or making them wrong.
There is a saying that you can never get enough of what you really don’t want, and none of us really want someone to give to us because we’ve coerced or manipulated them into doing it. Attention that is given in response to coercion is unsatisfying no matter how much of it we receive. And yet even the most independent of us needs human contact and genuine emotional connection. When the need for these experiences goes unmet, we experience “dis-ease”. Symptoms show up that make us aware that there is something in our lives that requires attention. We may become irritable, impatient,, depressed, agitated, physically ill, anxious, or develop any number of other symptoms.
Similarly, we all have needs to be separate at times. Solitude is a state of being that allows us to experience self-reflection and practice awareness. Linda grew to appreciate solitude more fully after I stopped making her wrong for her needs, and I became more appreciative of our togetherness time when she did the same thing regarding my needs for separateness. If our partner is stronger in one than we are, we can, through our relationship, more fully experience the aspect of ourselves that is less developed and in so doing, create a life that is more balanced, integrated and conscious. It does require the willingness to experience some discomfort until we begin to see what our partner is giving us as gifts rather than problems, but that is temporary and a small price to pay for a great benefit!