Chapter 1.Relationships: Breaking Up & Heartbreak


People Who Want to Own Us – but Not Nourish Us

Amidst the many challenging characters we may encounter in the course of relationships, psychological life throws up an especially tricky type: the person who wants to ‘own’ us (by which is meant, be with us, see us frequently and have regular access to key bits of our lives) but not for that matter, in vital ways, nourish us.

Let’s imagine a lover who displays huge enthusiasm for us in the early days. After only a short time, they speak of making the relationship monogamous, of joining up our lives to theirs and perhaps of getting married. But if we were to go along with their suggestions and settle beside them, something extremely strange – and for a long time very hard to understand – might start to happen. They would resist adding to the practical steps they had initiated a whole range of emotional moves that one would logically expect to have to accompany them. They would resist closeness, they would recoil a little whenever we sought to hug them, they would show little enthusiasm for sex, they would block the kind of playful, joyful, vulnerable, intimate union we had dreamt of and that they had appeared to be seeking from the first. They would be like a young child who seems ardently to want a toy – and then displays a peculiar reluctance to open the box once it is theirs.

Unfortunately, we will not get very far if we raise the paradox with them directly. They are likely to get offended by our complaint (as a convenient way not to have to explore what is paining us). They will probably reply that we are imagining their disinterest – and because a lack of commitment in love is notoriously hard to prove and most relationships aren’t filmed, and because one can always explain things away at a common-sense level (one can claim one ‘forgot’ to initiate or has been feeling a bit stressed of late because of ‘work’ or ‘the children’), we are likely to be left believing that we are either mad or mean (or both) to question a lack of commitment that we innately feel and are powerfully tortured by.

We end up in a knot: we very much love our partner. Our dearest wish is to be nurtured by them and to have them give more of themselves to us. At the same time, we are going out of our minds from neglect and loneliness. Eventually, after butting against their intransigence one too many times, we may declare that we are off. We reject them, not because we don’t want them – but because the terms they are offering us are so out of line with what any emotionally-alive person could accept. It looks like we are leaving them – and they may tug at our heartstrings to exact maximal feelings of guilt for our ‘disloyalty’ – but the reality is that they have left us, or more accurately, that they have never really arrived.

When they reply that they do want us, the answer we should give (if we are feeling sane) is: ‘you may say so, but not on terms that make sense. You want to own me, but not nourish me. Measured in relation to what love really is, it is you who has rejected me.’

Probably a few attempts to leave will be aborted. At the last minute, they will make a display of emotional aliveness that will be impossible to resist (because it is exactly what we have always craved). But every time, no sooner have we recommitted than they will revert back to their more customary inertness. Slowly, against every emotional impulse, with enormous fear and agony, we will realise that we truly do have to leave someone who we have no innate wish to be without and who is telling us with great passion and apparent conviction that they want us to stay.

Our troubling lover is – sadly for us – not being honest with us or themselves, not from malice but as a legacy of long-buried emotional damage. They are not able to acknowledge their inability to nourish us nor confront their fear of closeness. They don’t wish to set us free, but nor are they able to look squarely at their inability to make use of our offer of emotional servitude. 

It would help us so much to know that it wasn’t our fault, that we are not mean and that we have not been impatient – but such assurances may be more than we will ever be able to take away from the ruins of our intensely confusing relationship.

It isn’t greedy or a priori controlling to want to possess someone; the real crime is different. It is to want to possess and then, without admitting to one’s insufficiency, not make use of the person who has offered to give up their life to us. This is a conundrum that we all have a right, and indeed sometimes a strong duty, to walk away from.

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