One of the most obvious but in practice very hardest things to ask a partner, even one we name in our will and whose life is entirely entwined with ours, is: ‘Do you still love me?’ There would be so many reasons why they might not do so any more: we might have driven them to the limit with our admittedly at points really rather challenging behaviour. We’re not getting any younger. There are a lot of other people – especially at work and in the invisible parts of their life – who would have great things to offer them. It’s hard to trust anyone, given what can happen. Furthermore, the signs aren’t necessarily very good at the moment. They spend a lot of time on their phones. They’re a bit distracted. Their thoughts seem elsewhere.
We powerfully long for reassurance and at the same time what we would need to get this reassurance presents terrors of all its own. It would mean revealing the extent of our vulnerability and of the scale of their power to hurt us. It would mean having to admit how much of our life is in their hands and how deeply we depend on their good opinion of us for our psychological survival.
Sometimes the cost can feel just too high – especially if we grew up in families where we got little reassurance that another person would understand our needs. It seems better not to ask too directly. At the same time, their disengaged manner is unbearable as well. In the circumstances, we may find ourselves carrying out one of the strangest manoeuvres witnessed in relationships. We may seek to get their attention accompanied by their anger as opposed to their attention accompanied by their love. We choose to pay the lower price of seeking signs that they remember we exist as an alternative to the far more arduous, rejection-risky task of securing proof that they still love us.
So we wait until they are tired and fed up and launch a volley of accusations: you never do much around the house, your job doesn’t pay enough, you’ve become very dull. Or, at dinner with friends, we loudly tell a story about something that happened during their parent’s messy divorce.
What we are really trying to say is: I love you so much. I rely on you to give sense to my life. But instead we have managed to work them up into a rage and ensured they will say brutal things to us. Of course, their mind is fully trained on us. But – with a horrible irony – it’s far from the kind of attention we were seeking. We who crave their kindness, their enthusiasm, their warmth, their compassion, their tenderness and their constructive intelligence to engage with our needs are on the receiving end of their (very understandable) frustration, disappointment, wounded pride and self-protective anger.
We should have the courage of our longings. We should build relationships where it is natural, and therefore not too frightening, to seek and receive on a regular basis basic reassurance that we are wanted. We should make friends with our own extreme dependence and not see it as a sign of either shame or evil. Furthermore, when we next find ourselves on the receiving end of some utterly unfair accusations or aggression from our partner, we should bear in mind that they have probably not turned monstrous: they are simply trying to secure a reminder that we care for them in the only way they know how, by driving us mad.