In a prior post on neediness, I discussed some of the ways intolerance of needs shows up in relationships. Another way to approach the issue is to think about the degree of separation you can tolerate between you and your loved one.
When I was a young man and everyone my age was dating and forming new relationships, it used to bother me when my friends got involved with someone and suddenly became completely unavailable. They’d spend every spare minute with their new flame. You know the type of couple I’m talking about — the ones who seem joined at the hip. A certain amount of preoccupation with a new romance is natural, but when two people can’t bear to be separated and abandon older friendships, they’ve merged identities. On some level, they are no longer two distinct people. Only when you’re really separate do you feel need, longing, desire, jealousy, etc.
Maybe one of them will adopt the interests and opinions of the other person and adapt his or her personality to fit. Some people believe this is the only way they can be loved, that it’s not possible to be authentic. It can also be a way to merge with the loved one, to fuse identities so there will be no experience of separation.
One of my patients, a young gay man, used to change his speech patterns, political viewpoints and style of dress whenever he became involved with someone new. He was a true chameleon, with very little sense of his own identity, and merged with each new partner. At the same time, he made sure never to appear demanding, instead showing himself completely amenable to whatever the other man wanted. At heart, he feared that to expose the needy self he despised would mean rejection. He hated his own needs and felt sure that, if they were revealed, his partner would hate them, too.
This young man stands at the extreme end of a spectrum: each of us can bear differing degrees of separation. At the other extreme are people who can tolerate that experience no better but instead avoid relationships altogether. Fusion at one end, isolation at the other. Where are you on the spectrum?
Finding Your Own Way:
If you’re currently involved in a relationship, make a plan to do something on your own (discuss this with your partner first; don’t simply announce it as a done deal). Try to choose an activity you’d actually like to do but that might be out of character, something that challenges the rules of your relationship.
How do you feel about taking this step? Anxious? Excited? How about your partner? Do you receive encouragement or resentment? Is he or she afraid that you might meet someone new? It would be even more helpful if your partner also stepped out of character and tried something new, so you could confront your own anxieties about separation.
Or maybe you already have your own separate spheres — interests or relationships outside the couple that don’t include the other person. Do these areas stir up conflict? Any underlying jealousy or resentment? If these turn out to be areas of conflict, it could be a result of inconsideration or inequity in your relationship, but it might also touch upon issues of needs and separation.