Every month the associates at Aspire Too will answer your questions in our “Ask the Counsellors Feature”. Please submit your questions confidentially to [email protected]
Dear Aspire Too,
My husband and I have been married for 12 years. Lately I’m feeling really discouraged about our relationship. It’s like we’re moving further and further apart. It just feels like he doesn’t care anymore. When I try to get close, he pushes me away. Am I being needy? What’s going on with him and how can I change this? I’ve tried figuring this out on my own but I’m starting to lose hope that this can be changed.
Sincerely, Feeling Confused and Discouraged
Dear Feeling Confused and Discouraged,
I want you to know that this is an extremely common kind of dynamic in relationships and also that given time, effort and adequate support, it’s something that many other couples have successfully addressed and overcome. But it’s also a bit complex, so I’ve decided to give you some ideas of what’s going on here using the metaphor of cooking a meal. I’m hoping that this analogy will not only make it more understandable but also be entertaining.
When we cook a great meal, we know it takes a bunch of things: quality ingredients, a little willingness to experiment and take risks, but most of all, it takes care and attention. And the recipe for intimacy is much the same. I’ll see if I can outline two main ingredients and two key elements that can help turn those ingredients into what I think you’re looking for.
You’ve already identified the first ingredient in your letter: mutual connection and closeness.
Current research has shown that connection or ‘attachment’ with a significant other is a fundamental human need that begins at birth and continues throughout our lives. So no, you’re not just a ‘needy’ person. Researchers and couples therapists Sue Johnson and John Gottman talk about how the same bonding cues that happen between a mother and child—such as eye contact, tone of voice, and the experience of feeling understood and responded to—continue to be important between adults within a couple relationship. It’s as if they create an ongoing set point of safety within love. Connection, or attachment, is the number one ingredient needed to create a thriving relationship.
But is that all there is to love? Well, no. There is another ingredient that is necessary for love to flourish, and that’s autonomy—the need to be one’s own self in the world. These two needs of attachment and autonomy relate to one another in a fascinating and paradoxical way. In order to fully be ourselves in a relationship, we need to feel safe. Yet part of feeling safe is knowing that not only is our partner there for us when we want to connect, but they will also support us when we want to explore our autonomous self.
For me, a quote by Rilke describes this relationship beautifully: “Love consists in this, that two solitude’s protect and touch and greet each other.” In order to feel safe enough to open up one’s heart, mind and soul to another, we must feel that our autonomy—our separate sense of self—is safe.” This interplay between closeness and autonomy is at the core of a thriving intimate relationship. The realization that our partner fully supports our need for growth and exploration can create a positive feedback loop that inspires (you guessed it!) even deeper intimacy and closeness.
For many of us, though, these two primal needs of connection and autonomy can simply threaten one another. Distancing behaviours in one partner can create clinging behaviours in the other, which then can increase further distancing. Round and round it goes—which, as the many couples who have experienced this dynamic know, is not fun for either partner. So how to do we transform threat into safety? Well, it’s far from a quick fix, but here are a couple of really important processes that can start to shift the dynamic from negative to positive:
1. Communicate your needs and feelings with empathy and respect: As adults, we must first recognize our own feelings and emotional needs so that we can risk asking for those needs to be met. But the important thing here is to recognize that this process of asking is a negotiation, and that sometimes our need for connection might coincide with our partner’s need for autonomy and exploration. Respecting and understanding our partner’s expressed needs and requests can help both partners feel safe in the relationship and establish a pattern of flexibility and understanding around meeting those needs, even when they conflict.
2. Introduce playfulness: Step 1 is an absolute requirement for success. But playfulness is like the secret sauce. Bringing laughter and play to a relationship reminds us not only of what we love about the other, but also of what in our own feelings of distress or distance, we may have forgotten about ourselves. The renewed aliveness that play brings to a relationship can turn conversations about needs into an entirely different exchange. When we make bids for connection from a more playful place, we feel stronger and more ‘ourselves,’ and that internal shift can create a shift in our partner as well. I hope this is helpful. I know how hard it can be to shift out of patterns as individuals, let alone as a couple! Sometimes you need someone to help you make that happen in a safe environment.
Please give us a call at Aspire Too if you need support in navigating these waters.
Mischa Davison, BA, B.Ed., M.Ed., Registered Psychologist (Provisional)