How do we first begin to experience love? Perhaps as babies, as early psychoanalysts Fairbairn and Guntrip believed, the only way we could feel loved was by having our needs met. The language of bodily transformation was the language of love. Mommy feeds us, changes our diaper or picks us up and we feel satisfied. This feeling of satisfaction and security may be the early equivalent to feeling loved. Love becomes represented by how satisfied and safe our caretakers make us feel; how easily and well they transform our bad feelings into good ones. As a result, I believe that we continue throughout life believing on a primal level that our loved ones show us that they love us by meeting our needs, and as a result, how well they meet our needs indicates how lovable we are. This is the way we reason, early in life.
This is not an unreasonable perspective– we do want our loved ones to be attuned to us and to care enough about us to do what they can to add to our lives. Of course, we would like to do that for them as well….sounds great, doesn’t it! There is a pervasive flaw in this system. If I am meeting your needs, there is a chance that I will ignore my own needs. In order to maintain my own sense of self, I need to be able to take care of myself as well and therefore can not always meet your needs. It is not possible for me to meet your needs all the time or for you to meet mine. We grow up believing that we are entitled to have our needs met by others, but there is no possibility that we can possibly meet all of another’s needs, nor they ours… and when our needs are not met, we often feel those early feelings of unworthiness, because our childlike reasoning told us that if we were lovable or valuable, others would want to meet our needs. We believed and believe now that if someone doesn’t meet our needs, that they don’t love us, or that we are “too much”, too “needy”, and become filled with a sense of deprivation, defectiveness, shame or rage. We begin to believe that depending on others is dangerous and only leads to disappointment, hurt, rage and/or shame. It is easy to see, when we think about it this way, why intimacy is associated with such vulnerability and combustibility, and why many of us fear love and dependence. We don’t want to subject ourselves to the possibility of feeling unloveable or valueless when someone doesn’t care for us and we also don’t want to be subject to feelings of guilt and badness when we disappoint others and are not able to fill their needs. In addition to the ecstatic feelings of worthiness and belongingness we feel when we feel loved, we also feel much insecurity and fear at times. Loving someone can be so fraught with fear and anxiety that we may erect strong defenses against feeling close to someone in order to save us from these overwhelming feelings. Rather than being present with another person, rather than feeling our feelings, we push our loved ones away by being distracted by work, emotionally unavailable or disconnected. In addition many of us feel wounded when our partner choses not to attend to our needs. We get into conflicts about whose needs are more important and who is more deserving of having their needs met. These disagreements sometimes take the form of highly emotional battles since they don’t just represent what they are about. They become unconscious signifiers of who is more valuable in the relationship and who is insignificant and small, and therefore the dispute becomes, on some level, a fight to the death to assure that one does not feel the pain of insignificance and worthlessness.
How can we negotiate this impossibly thorny paradox of love if we both believe deep down that we can only feel loved if someone loves us enough to be who we need them to be? Can love be something beyond just meeting needs and having our needs met? Can lovers be anything other than “objects” that help create feelings of safety and security for us? Are there feelings other than satisfaction and security that can contribute to feeling connected and intimate? It is easy to conceptualize another way, such as encouraging another’s growth…. but when the rubber meets the road, it is so difficult to let go of our attachment to our sense that we are only loved and therefore lovable as far as someone meets our needs.
D.W. Winnicott speaks of a developmental need for our parents and other’s to “survive” in the face of our attempts to control them. He speaks about how only a real other (and not someone who only plays a role in our own drama or fulfills our needs) is necessary for us to feel safe, related and loved. Jessica Benjamin takes this further and discusses a continuous cycle between emotional domination and submission in our relationships with a need for us to feel connected to an other who is him or herself, rather than only a product of our needs and fantasies. So, I believe that it is healthy, as difficult as it is, to be in a relationship where each partner feels (as much as possible) that there is room for them both to be themselves. It is important to begin to understand that someone’s “otherness” is not a statement of your unworthiness, nor a behavior that indicates that they don’t love you. You are two individuals, hopefully quite different in a multiplicity of ways, who have come together to explore life and love and to grow and develop together. When someone choses to follow the beat of their own drum, it is not a statement of our unimportance or unworthiness. In the best of all worlds, relationships then become a continual negotiation and give and take between supporting each other’s separate goals and selves, and giving as fully as possible to our partners.
Robin S. Cohen, Ph.D. is a training and supervising analyst, teaching faculty, and President at ICP. Her website/blog is at Robin S. Cohen, Ph.D. She works with adults, couples, and adolescents. She approaches her work by synthesizing contemporary relational psychoanalytic perspectives, neuroscience research, mindfulness practices and ideas about the creative process.