In the wake of the renegotiation of my sacred contract with a friend, I had an epiphany. In my close relationships, I have two opposing desires:
-the desire for intimacy and security
-the desire for freedom and autonomy
Every relationship is a dance of these two desires. So in one of my relationships, I feel a bit insecure, and our communication challenges leave me feeling distant, so I crave more intimacy and security. In another one of my relationships, I feel a little smothered sometimes, like we’re so codependent and enmeshed that I crave more freedom and autonomy.
I am neither a needy person nor a stand-offish person. But finding that perfect balance of closeness and space is a dance that has to be customized to the needs of each relationship. My easiest, most comfortable relationships flow effortlessly because we seem to have similar needs for intimacy/security and freedom/autonomy. When it gets challenging is when someone needs way more space than I do- so I wind up getting all clingy and insecure- or when someone has such an intense need for intimacy and security that I wind up feeling like I can’t breathe. My healthiest relationships sometimes need tinkering, but we don’t wind up with one person always getting hurt feelings or the other always jockeying for space.
When Things Get Out Of Balance
So what can we do when the dance gets awkward?
1. Meet your own needs first.
If you’re giving someone else responsibility for your happiness, you’ll wind up being a bottomless pit of need. I’m not suggesting relationships don’t feed us. They do. In fact, they’re arguably the most important part of our health. But healthy relationship occur between two sovereign individuals who take responsibility for their own happiness and then amplify that joy by sharing intimacy.
2. Ask for what you desire.
I know it’s uncomfortable to express your desires. If you’re feeling the need for closeness, you may be afraid of coming across as needy. If you’re feeling the need for space, you may fear hurting someone’s feelings. But what’s the alternative- letting resentment build up?
3. Be willing to make yourself vulnerable.
Rather than showing up with your armor on because you’re feeling hurt or smothered, be brave enough to be vulnerable. I know it can be the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but if the relationship is worth nurturing, it will bring you closer and help your loved one understand what you need.
4. Learn to enjoy your own company.
To expose our wounds to people we care about - the icky stuff, the ego stuff, the personal growth edges we're working on that we haven't yet mastered - is super vulnerable. Letting others see our "big ugly tails" (hat tip to my dear friend Amy Ahlers, who has seen my big ugly tail and trusted me enough to let me see hers) tends to trigger all our core fears of rejection and abandonment, of withdrawal of love. But to bear witness to someone's wound is a privilege and an opportunity to deepen the relationship beyond the idealistic views we might have of each other into the real truth of both our light and our shadows.
This doesn't mean it's anyone else's job to baby our "owies." But when we've exposed our vulnerable wounds to those we care about - and asked, but not expected them to tread gently around our wounds, we have a choice. We can poke needles into each other's wounds - because now we know them and dang it, it's their dark stuff to work on. Or we can choose to put salve on the wounds of those we love - not codependent salve that enables the wound, but more like a gentle touch with lavender oil to make something stinky smell a bit sweeter and to acknowledge the vulnerability and handle it gently.
Love Is Like A Jar Of Marbles
When we have been vulnerable enough to expose those wounds - and own them - and when we then ask those we love to be gentle with our wounds - and they choose to do so - it starts to feel like love. As Brené Brown writes about in her New York Times bestseller Daring Greatly, intimacy is like a jar of marbles. (I wrote about this analogy in more depth here).
The more we expose our vulnerabilities - and someone handles our sensitive spots gently, the more marbles we gather in the jar. Trust grows as the jar becomes more full of marbles. But when someone betrays that trust or chooses to stick needles in the wounds of our vulnerability, we lose marbles in the jar. If someone uses our vulnerability against us, we may feel like dumping out the whole jar of marbles. Over time, the strength of the relationship is based on how many marbles are in the jar.
(To listen in as Brené Brown and I dish on vulnerability and how it affects our health, sign up here to receive the recording of our FREE telejam.)
In my blog post Vulnerable Vs. Needy - A Fine Line, I explored how vulnerable it is to share our wants and needs, knowing that the person we expose ourselves to might choose not to honor that want and need. (File under “fear of rejection.”)
In this blog post, I want to dive deeper into this issue and discuss something that’s totally up for me - the issue of safety.
What Makes A Relationship Safe?
In many past relationships, I’ve felt unsafe. What do I mean by that? I’ve been in a physically abusive relationship before, so obviously, that’s an extreme feeling of unsafety. But there’s a more subtle, and in many ways more emotionally damaging, kind of unsafety that’s about not feeling safe to be vulnerable. In those relationships, I couldn’t trust someone to hold my vulnerability without lashing out in hostile, unconscious ways or betraying that vulnerability.
In those relationships, when I opened my heart, it got trampled on. And when I asked to have a need met, it went unmet - time and time again until, as Brené Brown teaches, there were no marbles left in the trust jar.
That’s when I decided that safety was tantamount, that trust was key, and that, at least in my close relationships, I’d choose safety over risk or adventure any day.
So how does safety relate to vulnerability and need? I’ve come to realize that I feel safe when I come to trust that someone will make every effort to meet my needs when I’m brave enough and vulnerable enough to express them. When I feel safe in a relationship, I can give someone a whole lot of space without interpreting that space as distancing or threatening to the relationship. But if - over and over - I express needs that don’t get met, I start feeling unsafe and that leads me to feel insecure and then - lo and behold - I start acting needy.
My five year old daughter Siena fell in love recently. It was with another girl - a five year old princess named Vivien, who lives in a castle in Chicago and is the daughter of my best friend Katsy.
Siena and Vivien have known each other since they were three months old, but they haven’t actually seen each other since. They’ve only heard stories. Siena has heard great tales of Princess Vivien, and Vivien has heard the wondrous stories of Siena and her fairy magic.
But a few weeks ago, they got to chase fairies in a zen garden, play on the beach, sleep in the same bed every night, bathe together with Roberto - the toy penguin, eat fish and chips at the English pub, watch fireworks over San Francisco on the 4th of July, listen to a dharma talk about Harold and the Purple Crayon, leave fairy notes, spend hours in a hot tub, and share other magical adventures that made them fall in love.
They were so in love that Siena pretty much ignored her Mommy and Daddy for a week. She didn’t care about morning snuggles in the bed, because she was too busy coloring with Princess Vivien. She didn’t want to be read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, because she had Princess Vivien to build puzzles instead. Mommy and Daddy were just a wee bit sad. We missed Siena, the queen of the fairies. But we didn’t tell her, because we were happy she was so in love.