The idea that partners shouldn’t be needy and should be independent creates a lack of security in the relationship. Often, there’s a war of independence going on in relationships that is fought for no good reason.
Meet Kim and Kevin.
Kim and Kevin were on the verge of breaking up. Neither of them wanted to end things, but they were exhausted from fighting and blaming each other.
Kevin values his quality time with Kim and regularly organizes date nights for them. While Kim does find him sweet, she wants to spend more time with her friends. Kevin says this makes him feel lonely. This makes Kim feel suffocated and exhausted by his “neediness.”
Even at parties, Kim talks with her friends in such a way that Kevin feels left out.
As they were getting into the car after their latest party, this is what happened:
“Why did you even invite me to Jake’s party?” Kevin asks. “Once we walk in the door, you leave me standing there as if I don’t exist. You do this at every party we go to.”
Kim is immediately defensive. “I’m tired of having this conversation with you. You’re acting like a child. I didn’t do anything wrong!”
To reinforce his point, Kevin brings up Kim’s friend who makes him feel uncomfortable. “When Terra gets drunk, she starts trying to put her hand up my shirt and tell me how sexy I am. It creeps me out and you just let it happen.”
“She’s just playing around. You do have nice abs.”
Conversations like these end with Kevin walking off to sulk and Kim feeling punished.
Ironically, Kim feels the same way when she visits Kevin’s family. He disappears with his mother and sister, forcing her to spend time with her dad who is incredibly rude. When Kim complains, Kevin dismisses her. Kim always says, “You’re just like your dad. You’re always putting me down.”
The Importance of Feeling Important
All of us want to matter. We want to feel visible and valued. We want to feel like a priority in our partner’s life rather than feeling downgraded.
Like Kim and Kevin, we may not know how to help our partner feel important or how our partner can make us feel important.
After all, love is full of expectations. We expect to fall in love with our soulmate and feel completed in our relationships. (Check out this post for more on the soulmate problem.)
That’s why so many relationships start in a blissful connection, one we expect to sustain. However, this ideal fails us if our partners are unable to provide us with a satisfying feeling of security and emotional investment.
What makes love last is the feeling that our partners are there for us no matter what.
Now Meet Alison and Brett.
Each year, Brett attends his company holiday party for his high-profile investment firm. Alison feels shy at these events and sometimes mumbles her words with people she doesn’t really know. Brett, on the other hand, flourishes at the party. Even among the strangers he hasn’t met.
Despite her discomfort, Alison gets ready for the event.
As they are getting dressed, this is their conversation:
“You know it’s not you. I just don’t like being around all these strangers.” Alison’s voice sounds concerned as she puts lipstick on.
“I know, love,” replies Brett as he straightens his tie. “I’m grateful you are willing to come anyway. The instant you want to leave, we’ll take off. Okay?”
“Okay,” replies Alison. “How do I look?” She puckers her lips and looks at him.
“Beautiful,” Brett says as he gazes into her eyes.
A moment passes as a mutual gaze connects them.
“Let’s make a success strategy,” he says kindly. “You’ll stay on my arm when we walk in. I’ll say hi to some people I know. But don’t leave me, okay? I want to introduce you.”
“All right,” replies Alison with an anxious smile. “What if I need to use the restroom?”
“You can go without me,” Bret quickly responds with a smile, “but I expect you to get that gorgeous butt of yours back to your sexy husband once you’re done.”
They smile and kiss.
“This job is important. I’m on the verge of getting a promotion,” Brett says as he gets into the car. “But it’s not as important as you are to me.”
Independence in Relationships vs. Interdependence
It’s obvious that Kim and Kevin and Alison and Brett handle situations in very different ways. It doesn’t take a couple’s therapist to recognize which relationship works and feels better.
But why do those relationships function as they do, and how did they become so different?
Is it clear to you that Kim and Kevin believe that each partner should stand independently of the other? Kim and Kevin see themselves as individuals first, and a couple second.
When things go wrong in the relationship each partner prioritizes their personal needs over their needs as a couple. If you questioned them on this, they’d tell you that they value independence and are “their own person.”
But this is a lie they tell themselves. While each expects the other to behave independently, this is only the case when it benefits his or her own purpose. When either partner find it suits the other partner’s purpose and not theirs, they feel dismissed, lonely, and unimportant.
The couple’s “sense of independence” is toxic in situations in which they need to depend on one another to feel protected and important. When that happens each partner feels like a victim of neglect.
Independence in their relationship is not really independent of each other. Rather, their relationship is built on the creed, “If it’s good for me, you should be good with it too.” As a result, they fail to remember the other person when it matters most.
The underlying feeling of “you do your thing and I’ll do mine,” sounds mutual, right?
Yet it isn’t mutual at all. It requires the other partner to be okay with one partner’s choices. And If that partner isn’t, too bad.
Independence in these relationships does not reflect true independence, but rather a fear of dependency.
Instead of independence being a sign a strength, it’s actually a sign of weakness and insecurity.
In Alison and Brett’s relationship, they treat their relationship with mutual respect. Neither partner expects the other to be different from who he or she is. Both use the insight about each other’s vulnerabilities and insecurities as a way to protect each other in private and public places.
It’s clear that Brett anticipates Alison’s discomfort and brings it up in a way that respects her. He behaves in such a way that makes her feel as if he needs her, even though he knows she is the needier one in these types of situations. Their conversation reinforces that the relationship comes first.
Brett and Alison soothe each other’s insecurities, while Kim and Kevin intensify theirs. Brett and Alison create a sense of security and support in their relationship. Kim and Kevin do not.
Where Did It All Begin?
Many couples enter into a relationship with the vision of working as a team like Brett and Alison. But when their prior experiences of love don’t match up, their personal history dominates. If your parents’ relationship didn’t have mutual care, sensitivity, and repair, then it’s more likely than not that your relationship won’t either.
One of the reasons we pair up is to have a safe zone that protects us and gives us the peace to relax. Partners in a committed relationship often fail to see each other as allies against the attackers that life throws at us; work, stress, or intruders trying to seduce our partners.
They are unable to see how they can create an emotional bubble: a safe place to relax and feel accepted, protected, and wanted.
The Couple Bubble
The difference between Brett and Alison and Kim and Kevin is the sense of security and safety in the relationship. It’s the Couple Bubble, a protective layer around the relationship according to Stan Tatkin, that the couple has formed with each other.
The Couple Bubble is an agreement, spoken or unspoken, that puts the relationship first. Each partner puts the other’s well-being, self-esteem and vulnerabilities first.
This is a big commitment. It’s an overwhelming commitment if you pride yourself on your independence. But it is this fear of commitment that holds us back.
So many of us want to pick our partners like we order burgers at a restaurant. “Please hold the tomatoes and onions.” But that’s not a relationship. That’s food.
Holding off committing to your partner in order to protect yourself only blocks yourself. Brene Brown once said, “Vulnerability is the first thing I see in you, and the last thing I’ll show you.” So be courageous, open your heart, and let your partner within your walls.
Use conflict to your advantage.
And when problems arise, like they always do, use those problems to bring you closer. Use them to understand your partner so you can grow together.
If you do, you’ll quickly realize that what may make you feel safe and secure may not be what your partner needs. Your job in the Couple Bubble is to learn what matters to your partner and how you can make them feel safe and secure in the relationship.
This also means showing up fully. Acting in an anxious manner without being vulnerable about what you need, or only putting one foot in while you keep one foot out, undermines the security of the relationship.
It’s time to end the war of independence in relationships.
It’s time to call a truce in the war of independence in relationships.
A healthy relationship is not about independence. It is not codependency, either. Codependent partners ignore their own needs and wants, thus filling the bubble with resentment and emotional distress.
It’s about interdependence. It’s about having the capacity to be your own person while also having the capacity for supporting your partner’s well-being and putting it first. One without the other is just a covered up insecurity.
Your Couple Bubble allows you to rely on one another and share your vulnerabilities. The Bubble is your foundation of support and protection. Sometimes this means taking steps ahead of time like Alison and Brett, so both of you can hold hands through the stressful events of life.
Love is about working together, not making your partner work to only meet your needs.
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