A Soft Place To Land

A Soft Place To Land

Be independent and stand on your own too feet. Don't be weak. Don't be needy. Pursue your own way and your own happiness. DIY!

This message of toughness and self-reliance has always been the message for men, but now it is sent loud and clear to women, as well. Our society values strength, capability, and personal success. Self-help books about individual growth and personal effectiveness fly off the shelves. We're told that asking for help is a sign of weakness, unless we're paying a professional (plumber, electrician, cleaning service, babysitter, etc) for it.

Even in supposedly close relationships, we're told we shouldn't allow ourselves to get too dependant on any one particular person to help us meet our emotional or sexual needs. After all, there are all sorts of products we can discretely purchase to help us achieve sexual release and therapists we can pay to listen, validate, and attend to our emotional needs. Romantic partners and meaningful relationships are nice but not necessary. Special people are invited into our lives because we want them there and kept around for the same reason, not because we rely on them for anything in particular. After all, we're big boys and girls capable of looking out for ourselves, right? If we choose to share our lives with a partner, it should be because we want to, never because we are depending on that person for anything substantial. Otherwise, we are being "needy" and "clingy" and way too vulnerable. We are giving too much of our power away and aren't truly being adults.

According to common wisdom, if we have to ask for help from family or friends, we shouldn't do it often and it should only be under extreme circumstances. When we absolutely can't get around it, we should make sure we're not going to one particular person too much. That's just too risky. They might think we're incapable or not self-reliant enough. They may decide we're too high maintenance, think less of us, or take advantage of the vulnerabilities we reveal. They might feel overwhelmed or burdened or pressured and seek out someone more independent and less demanding.

Of course, there are some damaged people out there looking for a "rescuer" or "Savior" because they truly can't ever seem to get themselves together. Their needs get more and more complex and they are always in crisis and in need of immediate attention. Such relationships are exhausting and leave partners feelling depleted and frustrated. These extremes of unhealthy dependance are the exception, not the rule, though.

In reality, none of us can be strong and independent all the time. None of us thrive in isolation. We don't need complete independence or unhealthy dependance. We need healthy interdependence.

When developing her treatment model for couples, called emotion focussed couples therapy, Canadian psychologist Susan Johnson studied previous research conducted on how people form secure attachments as infants and young children. Babies are absolutely vulnerable and dependent, obviously. They need food, shelter, water, and a warm safe place to sleep. They need to be bathed and changed and for their health needs to be addressed. But they need more than that to thrive. To develop normally, babies need to be held and rocked and talked to. They need to be responded to when they cry and to know who to look to when they're distressed about an unmet need. Later research revealed that grown ups need solid attachments just as much as children do.

Despite our culture's emphasis on the ideal of self-reliance, we don't thrive without close relationships. We need to be part of a group or community. For some people, their families are close and provide for this need. For others, they have to create a community. Some people do this through churches, as Rick Warren talks about in "The Purpose Driven Life." Others create "Urban Tribes," a phrase that caught on after a book by that title came out to explain this phenomenon. These days, many people create these communities on line and connect around common interests or beliefs.

Even when we are solidly plugged in to a social group, we all still want a particular person we can turn to when we are at our most vulnerable and exhausted. This is as true for adults as it is for children. One person needs to be the closest, the person we're attached most securely to. Dr. Johnson says that our romantic partner should be that person. Johnson says that, in a marital relationship, the partners should be each other's "primary attachment." This means our partner is the person we're closest to in the world. Johnson says that we all need to know that we can let our guard down and be vulnerable with our partner. That they can see the best and worst in us and not run away. We need to feel truly accepted for who we are, without masks or the brave face we show to the rest of the world.

She says that, just like when we're children, we need to know that primary attachment person will be there for us when we need them physically or emotionally. We need to know we can count on them, that they'll have our back, that they'll come running when we wake up from a nightmare, get sick, or are facing a personal crisis. When someone can't say for sure that their partner would be there for them, or if there has been a time when their partner wasn't accessible during a significant life change or personal stressor, they become fearful and feel alone. They question and doubt the bond they have and seek to reclaim the security they're missing. Desperateness for reassurance that they can trust their partner to respond to their needs can lead to demands, clinginess, efforts to control, or other behaviors that actually create more distance rather than greater closeness.

Like it or not, that's how strong our need for attachment and security is. When we're not sure who we can turn to, or if our primary attachment figure will be responsive to our needs, we live in a state of fearful preoccupation. We feel deprived and malnourished just as much as we would if we hadn't eaten for days. We are so uncomfortable that we become irrational, aggressive, hysterical, and hypersensitive while trying anything we can think of to get this emotional need met.

Dr. Johnson says our marriages should be safe places we can retreat to when we've had enough of the world and its demands and harshness, when we feel tired and beaten up. She says we should be able to trust our spouse aka primary attachment to nurture and care for us in ways that help us gain the strength to go back out into the world more able to handle life's challenges. This may mean hugs, listening, taking us out to dinner, giving us space to watch the game or work on a project, making us laugh, or any number of other possibilities. They do what they know helps us feel loved, encouraged, soothed, and supported. Our partners know how great we can be at our best and want to help us achieve that greatness. Of course, we want to do the same for them.

Intimate partners, more than anyone else, are in a position to protect and comfort each other, stand by each other, and provide each other with a soft place to land at the end of a hard day or week. Knowing we have a safe place to run to and an equally safe place to be launched from makes us stronger and better than we would be on our own. This may be more risky and vulnerable, but to me, this is marriage at its best and most beautiful.