There are sweet moments – early on in relationships – when one person can’t quite work up the courage to let another know just how much they like and need them. They’d love to touch the other’s hand and find a place in their life; but their fear of rejection is so intense, they hesitate and falter. Our culture has a lot of sympathy for this awkward and intensely vulnerable stage of love.
In particular, we’re taught to be patient about the way people might get a bit odd, or self-sabotaging, when trying to express their needs in the beginning phases of love. They might become somewhat flustered or tongue-tied. Or they might act sarcastically or coldly, not from indifference, but as a way to disguise or flee from their own disturbingly powerful enthusiasm. The assumption, however, is that the terror of rejection will be limited in scope and focused on one particular stage of a relationship: its beginning. Once a partner finally accepts us and the union gets underway, the assumption is that the fear must come to an end. It would be peculiar for anxieties to continue even after two people had made some thoroughly explicit commitments to one another, after they had secured a joint mortgage, bought a house together, made vows, had a few children and named each other in their wills.
But one of the odder features of relationships – which we have to be ready for in ourselves and our partners – is that in truth, the need for reassurance, yet fear of rejection, never ends. The capacity to get close to our partners without engaging patterns of self-defeating behaviour requires a distinctive kind of emotional skill. Our hang-ups in this area continue, even in quite sane people, on a daily basis, with frequently difficult consequences – chiefly because we refuse to pay them sufficient attention and aren’t trained to spot the counter-intuitive symptoms in others. It is difficult to find a stigma-free, winning way to express vulnerability and to move from distance to closeness.
Within our deep psyches, it seems that acceptance is often not a given, reciprocity may not feel assured; there can always be new perceived threats to love’s integrity. The trigger to insecurity can be apparently miniscule. Perhaps the other has been away at work for unusual amounts of time; or they were pretty animated talking to a stranger at a party; or it’s been awhile since sex took place. Perhaps they weren’t very warm to us when we walked into the kitchen. Or they’ve been rather silent for the last half an hour.
Even after years with someone, there can be a hurdle of fear about asking for proof that we are wanted – but with a horrible, added complication: we now assume that any such anxiety couldn’t possibly exist. This makes it very difficult to recognise our insecure feelings, especially if they have been triggered by a so-called ‘small’ matter, let alone communicate them to others in ways that would stand a chance of securing us the understanding and sympathy we crave. Rather than requesting reassurance endearingly and laying out our longing with charm, we might instead mask our needs beneath some brusque and hurtful behaviours guaranteed to frustrate our aims. Within established relationships, when the fear of rejection is denied, two major symptoms tend to show up.
Firstly, we may get distant – or what psychotherapists call ‘avoidant’. We want to get close to our partners but feel so anxious that we may be unwanted, we disguise our need behind a facade of indifference. At the precise moment where we want reassurance, we say we’re busy, we pretend our thoughts are elsewhere, we get sarcastic and dry; we imply that a need for reassurance would be the last thing on our minds. We might even have an affair, the ultimate face-saving attempt to be distant – and often a perverse attempt to assert that we don’t require the partner’s love (that we have been too reserved to ask for). Affairs can turn out to be the oddest of compliments; arduous proofs of indifference that we reserve for, and secretly address to, those we truly care about.
Or else we get procedurally controlling (what therapists call ‘anxious’). We feel our partners are escaping us emotionally, but rather than admitting our sense of loss, we respond by trying to pin them down administratively. We get unduly cross that they are eight minutes late, we chastise them heavily for not having done certain chores, we ask them strictly if they’ve completed a task they had agreed vaguely to undertake. All this rather than admit the truth: ‘I’m worried I don’t matter to you…’ We can’t (we believe) force them to be generous and warm. We can’t force them to want us (even if we haven’t asked them to…). So we try to control their physical movements. The goal isn’t really to be in charge all the time, it’s just that we can’t admit to our terror about how much of ourselves we have surrendered. A tragic cycle then unfolds. We become shrill and unpleasant. To the other person, it feels like we can’t possibly love them anymore. Yet the truth is we do: we just fear rather too much that they don’t love us. As a final recourse, we may ward off our vulnerability by denigrating the person who eludes us. We pick up on their weaknesses and complain about their extensive practical shortcomings. Anything rather than ask the question which so much disturbs us: does this person love me? And yet, if this harsh, graceless behaviour could be truly understood for what it is, it would be revealed not as rejection, but as a strangely distorted – yet very real – plea for tenderness.
We should have sympathy for ourselves. Relationships require us to put ourselves in a very weak position vis-à-vis our partners, which can make us naturally fumble for a show of strength and invulnerability. In order to survive in the world, we have little option but to spend our lives being rather ‘defended’, that is, at one remove from our more vulnerable sides, closed off from certain emotions, focused – in many cases – on not feeling. And yet, in relationships, quite the opposite is required. To be good at love means to have a capacity to reveal one’s hurt, desire and tenderness; to know how to be dependent and ready to surrender one’s autonomy to another. It’s quite a balancing act: great strength for most hours of the day, well-handled tenderness for the few that remain. It should be no wonder if the journey from independence to vulnerability can get rather fraught – and if the desire for closeness can be accompanied by terror and what looks like (but isn’t really) nastiness.
Our lovers access parts of us that normally stay hidden. It gives them so much power over us. If they ever want to use it – and sometimes they do – they know exactly where to put the boot in. It can be deeply frightening.
This aspect of relationships is even more difficult if our earlier experiences and childhoods have made closeness especially scary – if we’ve encountered people who have taken signs of vulnerability as targets. Our failures might – in the past – have been mocked, shy longings ridiculed, fears played on. The prospect of having one’s points of fragility exposed once again to another person can get linked to some very dark memories of humiliation.
On the surface, both the anxious and avoidant patterns of behaviour are horrible. In such states the person seems to be saying: ‘I don’t care about you’ or ‘I’m a controlling monster.’ But the controlling or distant person is trying, via their actions, to say something quite different. The deep message is: ‘I’m terrified you don’t care about me: I’m worried you don’t love me enough to go easy on my sore spots; so I’m putting on some armour or making a preemptive strike.’ What they say out loud sounds like a confident assertion of strength. More accurately understood, it is a deeply garbled, deeply misleading yet genuine plea for tenderness.
Tragically, our instinctive defensive moves are counterproductive. The person being cold or controlling so as to avoid humiliation ends up damaging the relationship they are actually – in a very strange way – trying to get to go well. They seek to avoid one problem – humiliation – and end up creating another one: a very confused disgruntled and annoyed partner.
There’s a terrible poignancy about the way in which someone can be both nasty-seeming, utterly wounded and yet very nice really. They sound like an angry lion but they are a scared child. It seems outrageous that these responses could spring from weakness. But it often is: it’s a terror of being hurt that leads us to our worst outbursts.
If we’re going to deal a bit better with the very common (and difficult) responses to intimacy, we have to start by looking with calm honestly at ourselves. A good question to ask is: What do we characteristically do when we need someone but aren’t able to reach them? Do we withdraw, attack or – this is so rare – explain our requirements in an unfrightened way?
The hopeful move is that we can learn to recognise our own and our partner’s typical defensive manoeuvres in our calmer moods. We can then see that when they retreat, they’re not really going cold on the relationship (though that’s what it looks like on the surface). Or when they get controlling, it’s not in fact that they are simply bossy, they are in a clumsy but maddeningly well disguised way trying to secure our love and tame how dangerous it feels to need it. The move involves a shift in interpretation. We can replace a harsh view of what they are doing with a more charitable (and probably more correct) one. And if we have started from an understanding of our own tendencies in these directions, it’s a little easier to grasp what might be going on behind the scenes with an infuriating partner.
Closeness is inherently threatening. It’s not surprising we panic. But we can gradually (with courage and difficulty) replace defence with explanation. We can say we are frightened and why rather than turn cold or controlling. And we can begin to see what our partners might be trying to communicate through their off-putting behaviour. Explanation won’t solve all problems, but it is better than all the other alternatives.
The central solution to all this trouble is to normalise a new, and more accurate picture of emotional functioning: to make it clear just how healthy and mature it is to be fragile and in repeated need of reassurance – and at the same time, how difficult it is to reveal one’s vulnerable dependence.
We suffer because adult life posits too robust a picture of how we operate. It tries to teach us to be implausibly invulnerable. It suggests it might not be right to want a partner to show us they still really like us after they have been away for only a few hours. Or to want them to reassure us that they haven’t gone off us – just on the basis that they haven’t paid us much attention at a party and didn’t want to leave when we did.
But it is precisely this sort of reassurance that we often stand in need of. We can never be through with the requirement for acceptance. This isn’t a curse limited to the weak and the inadequate. Insecurity is, in this area, a sign of well-being. It means we haven’t allowed ourselves to take other people for granted. It means we remain realistic enough to see that things could genuinely turn out badly – and are invested enough to care.
We should create room for regular moments, perhaps as often as every few hours, when we can feel unembarrassed and legitimate about asking for confirmation. ‘I really need you; do you still want me?’ should be the most normal of enquiries. We should uncouple the admission of need from any associations with the unfortunate and punitively macho term, ‘neediness’. We must get better at seeing the love and longing that lurk behind some of our own and our partner’s most frosty, managerial and brutish moments.
The story of the path to coldness in love is well known. We start off full of affection for one another and then – with time – feelings fade. We start prioritising work; we check our phones while they’re speaking; we don’t especially want to hear how their day went.
There’s a popular surface explanation for this emotional frost: that people naturally get bored of one another, in the same way as they get bored with everything else – the phone that once seemed so amazing, the film they used to love… Going cold is, in this story, simply the unavoidable consequence of familiarity.
But there’s another explanation, darker at first – but in the end, more hopeful. The loss of interest isn’t either natural or inevitable. The boredom is something at once more complicated and more active. It exists because we feel hurt by, angry with, or scared of our partner and because we haven’t found a cathartic way to tell ourselves or them about it. Tuning out isn’t inevitable, it’s a symptom of disavowed emotional distress. It’s a way of coping. We’re internally numbed – not just a touch bored.
This can sound strange. After all, we might have no active sense that our partner has been hurting, angering or frightening us. The idea appears laughable or extreme. They make our partners sound like monsters or ourselves like weaklings, neither of which is true.
But the-self-that-loves within a relationship is not the normal adult we know from other zones of our lives. We may mostly be hugely resourceful and resilient, but the person who loves is an infinitely more vulnerable being. We should imagine it like a smaller, younger, more defenseless version of ourselves that lives in our heads and is no tougher (and not much wiser) than we were as babies – which is when so many of our needs for, and ideas about, love were formed. It is this vulnerable self that continues to direct our hearts – even when we are six foot two with a pointy beard.
The loving self has a gossamer thin ego. It gets hurt, frightened and upset with desperate ease. You could deeply distress it by interrupting it during a story it’s telling you about the sandwich it had for lunch, by not asking it enough about the little spot it got on its arm yesterday, by preferring a book to cuddling or being a bit tricky about what channel it should watch on TV…
Of course, these are – by ordinary adult standards – tiny slights. But we don’t love by adult standards: these small arrows are enough to wound the self-that-loves to its tender emotional core.
Ideally of course, the small self would at once point out what’s happened. It would carefully explain that it had been frustrated. Its voice would be measured, undefensive and charming.
But it just stays silent. That’s understandable. It doesn’t properly understand what’s wrong. It just knows it’s in pain and is driven by an instinct to withdraw and protect itself – which translates into behaviour that looks cold. If the adult self had to give voice to the loving-self’s upset, it could sound and feel absurd – which is partly why it doesn’t. There can be something especially humiliating in having to say: ‘I don’t feel you took enough interest in the details of my lunch break’ or ‘I’m 45 but not capable of sharing a TV remote’. These truly are small issues for an adult to dwell on – but the parts of us that make themselves vulnerable in love don’t obey the ordinary adult rules.
The consequence is that the loving self dries up. It doesn’t want to have sex. It gets sarcastic and irritable. But it doesn’t even know why it’s like this. It isn’t putting on an act, it’s confused.
To learn to cope, we need a prominent mutual awareness and forgiveness of this dynamic of sensitivity and distress – and a commitment to decode it when disengagement and indifference descend. We have to create a forum in which so-called minor love-sapping hurts can safely be aired, without the other dismissing – as they always so easily can – the issues at stake as childish or imagined. The touchiness of the loving self is ridiculous – if judged by the more robust standards of the rest of life. But this is not the rest of life.
When we have gone cold, we may not truly have lost interest in our partners. We might just need an opportunity to imagine that we are quietly really rather hurt and furious with them – and have access to a safe forum in which our tender but critical feelings can be aired, purged and understood without risk of humiliation.